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Leaked United States intelligence assessments of the land campaign were report by the Washington Post last week. The article’s assessment of the Ukrainian offensive makes grim reading, bluntly stating that “The U.S. intelligence community assesses that Ukraine’s counteroffensive will fail to reach the key southeastern city of Melitopol” and providing good insight into what may be going on behind the scenes in the Ukrainian military.   The article’s key conclusion being that Ukraine will fail to reach the coast and sever the Crimean Land Bridge, on objective that most commentators pick is Ukraine’s goal this summer.  

The Washington Post article is a sober analysis of the situation and the information provided is likely to be accurate. In my opinion the article’s information is interesting because it may provide insight into difficulties within Ukraine’s military command. A key focus of the leaked information is that Ukraine is not following advice provided by its United States and NATO advisors.  Reporting that supports comments made by Professor Michael Clarke, ex-director of the Royal United Services Institute two weeks ago while being interviewed on Times Radio.  Professor Clarke commented that he had heard that within the Ukrainian military there is growing concern about using modern NATO tactics instead of the older Soviet style tactics that many senior officers are more familiar with.  

The Washington Post article says that Ukraine was advised by its American and British advisors to concentrate its full resources on one axis of advance in order to achieve an ‘over match’ at that point on the frontline so Russian defences could be overwhelmed and broken through allowing Ukrainian attacking forces to pour into the weakly defended areas behind the frontline and make large territorial gains. However, according to the Washington Post’s sources the Ukrainians are not operating in this ‘Manoeuverist’ manner and instead after taking heavy casualties early in the offensive decided to try and reduce their losses by using an ‘attritional’ approach; or blasting Russian positions to pieces with artillery then advancing in small bounds.  The Washington Post quotes anonymous sources as saying “Joint war games conducted by the U.S., British and Ukrainian militaries anticipated such losses but envisioned Kyiv accepting the casualties as the cost of piercing through Russia’s main defensive line, said U.S. and Western officials.”  Later in the week General Mark Miley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff acknowledged this analysis and was clear that since Ukraine is bearing the cost of the casualties can choose how to fight.  The Washington Post reporting that “U.S. officials said the Pentagon recommended multiple times that Ukraine concentrate a large mass of forces on a single breakthrough point. Though Ukraine opted for a different strategy, officials said it was Kyiv’s call to make given the profound sacrifice Ukrainian troops were making on the battlefield.” 

It is an interesting article and explains why the Ukrainian offensive is moving slowly, the attackers using tactics that they know and understand well rather than those recommended by their American and British advisors.  And; it is not necessarily a bad way to fight because the Ukrainians are still making progress whilst husbanding lives and equipment. This week, for instance we are seeing progress on both southern axes of advance:

  • Ukraine’s advance from near Orikhiv towards Tokmak; and perhaps further toward Melitopol. 
  • The Velyka Novosilka salient.

On the first axis, driving south from near Orikhiv towards Melitopol, Ukrainian forces pushed forwards about two and a half kilometres on a frontage of about 14km this week.  A not insignificant advance, considering that it is into the teeth of fierce Russian resistance. Ukraine is likely to take the village of Robtyne soon. This village is tactically important because it sits on a ridgeline, astride the T0408 motorway that is the main route to Tokmak.  The motorway providing a route for supplies and logistic support to reinforce Ukraine’s next movement. Russia’s next heavily fortified line is about seven kilometres south of Robotyne and is likely to be the next objective. 

On this axis there are also reports of Ukraine’s elite 82nd Air Assault Brigade coming into action. This unit is well-trained and equipped with NATO weapons including British Challenger tanks and is part of Ukraine’s reserve. The 82nd Air Assault Brigade’s deployment into the area around Robotyne is a significant commitment that indicates either Ukraine is confident and getting this formation into position for an exploitation operation when the village falls; or more likely that opposition is heavy and the formation with its powerful Challenger tanks is being deployed to try and maintain the initiative.  

Ukraine has also made progress further east, near the Velyka Novosilka salient, as predicted after capturing Staromaiorske Ukrainian forces veered left and captured the village of Urozhaine about two kilometres to the east.  Since then, Ukrainian forces have kept up constant pressure on the Russians advancing about four kilometres on a frontage of about nine kilometres this week.  Ukraine’s next steps in this area are likely to be either:

  • Crossing the Makri Yaly River and taking the small village of Zavitne Bazhannia, two kilometres directly south of Urozhaine and Staromaiorske; or
  • Bypassing Zavitne Bazhannia, flanking it to the east or west and then attacking Staromlynivka; or 
  • Ukraine may go east to capture Kermenchyk, roughly eight kilometres east of Urozhaine and sitting on high ground from which and attack could bypass Staromlynivka entirely.  Possibly re-engaging with Russia’s defence lines at Heorhiivka, opening the possibility of a push to towards Mariupol. Although, dynamic manoeuvre of this nature seems inconsistent with the tactics reported in the Washington Post. 

Across the remainder of the campaign there is little to report, Russian attacks continue to be repelled in the north-east along the Svatove-Kremina Line.  Near Bakhmut, the frontlines remained static even after heavy fighting and Ukraine’s crossing on the Dnipro River near Kozacki Laheri has been destroyed by Russia. The key areas in the land campaign at this stage are the two southern axes and if Ukraine is fighting the way the Washington Post reports then it is unlikely that we will see rapid advances in the next few days.

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But does that mean that the offensive is a failure?

Not at all, at least tactically. The Ukrainians are fighting in a smart way that saves lives and preserves equipment. It also provides an opportunity to learn new tactics and integrate new equipment in relatively low-cost engagements while they attrit Russian forces.  Recent public source analysis showed that in the artillery battle Ukraine is knocking out more than five Russian guns for every one they lose.  Reporting from both Russian and Ukrainian sources indicates that in the south, Ukraine enjoys a significant counter battery radar (radars for locating enemy artillery) advantage, information that tallies with the reported ratio of artillery losses.  Ukraine is slowly but surely, stretching and starving Russian forces.  A point confirmed by General Milley in his comments this week when he said that “The Russians are in pretty rough shape” and “They’ve suffered a huge amount of casualties. Their morale is not great.”  

The third part of the strategy, ‘striking’ Russian forces is the element in question. Based on the information the Washington Post reported, instead of seeing one large and powerful strike, we should expect to see many small strikes slowly; but surely reducing Russia’s combat power.   This strategy will not gain ground quickly or bring massive success but it will produce results.  The Washington Post’s article stating that even though Ukraine may not reach Melitopol, United States officials estimated that “Ukraine’s forces, which are pushing toward Melitopol from the town of Robotyne more than 50 miles away, will remain several miles outside of the city, U.S. officials said. U.S., Western and Ukrainian government officials interviewed for this report spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military operations.”  An interesting assessment, Ukraine may not reach Melitopol but if it gets within artillery range of the city, the offensive will still achieve a massive impact because it can shell the city cutting the major rail lines that carry supplies from Melitopol across occupied Zaporizhia.  It also confirms Russian forces are faltering, they are not invincible and Ukraine’s operations are having an effect. 

However, as we discussed last week timing is everything in war, and Ukraine’s timetable is set by external conditions. Specifically, how long the United States and NATO are politically willing to finance the war.  In my opinion, Ukraine desperately needs to turn tactical initiative into strategic advantage and its current tactics are not delivering this objective.  

Strategically Russia is in trouble, the economy is collapsing and a new mobilisation has been signalled that will further demonstrate to ordinary Russians that their country is in trouble.  However, Putin will be aiming to hold on. That his ‘will’ and the Russian people’s ability to persevere will outlast the United States and NATO’s willingness to fund Ukraine forcing negotiations and if he can hold Luhansk, Donetsk and the Crimean Land Bridge, he can claim victory.  Russia will also be well positioned to bide their time and wait for the next opportunity to attack, an unacceptable situation for Ukraine. 

Putin’s greatest fear is probably Ukrainian armoured battlegroups tearing around behind the lines of trenches, mines and Dragon’s Teeth creating mayhem and uncertainty.   If this happens, he cannot wait, instead he will need to get his army out of their trenches very quickly and into moving combat; a daunting prospect for the Russian army.  So, if Ukraine ‘penny packets’ its resources and limits its attacks he is winning, his army able to soak the attacks up and take time to readjust and strengthen its positions. 

In summary we return to the link between tactics on the battlefield and strategy, and at this time the tactics that the Washington Post says Ukraine is using are reducing casualties but are not producing the results required to convince Russia to reassess its plan; or to maintain the support of electors in the United States and NATO countries.  Hopefully, Ukrainian politicians and commanders are reaching the same conclusion and still have enough of a reserve available to concentrate a large force and achieve a breakthrough.  If not, we are looking at a longer and more drawn-out war. 

 

Ben Morgan is a bored Gen Xer and TDBs military blogger


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