Last week, a different perspective on Ukraine’s strategy emerged from the military blogger community. William Spaniel, expert in Game Theory, writer and blogger on the Ukraine War proposed an analysis of Ukraine’s strategy that is very different from most conventional military analysis. An assessment that may explain Ukraine’s decisions in the land campaign and why it continues to concentrate force in Bakhumut as well as on trying to break the Crimean Land Bridge. Rather than concentrating on cutting the road and rail networks that run along the Sea of Azov’s coast linking Crimea with Russia. Spaniel’s analysis may or may not be correct but it is compelling and worth investigating. In a You Tube post titled, Ukraine’s Alternate Win Condition: Inside the Gamble on the War of Attrition (See this link ) Spaniel outlines his analysis and seeks to answer this question – Why is Ukraine dispersing its ground forces across the frontline, rather than concentrating on applying maximum force to achieve its objective; a thrust to the Sea of Azov cutting the Crimean Land Bridge?
Currently, Ukraine has its land forces deployed on three keys axes of advance and is making slow progress on all three. Ukraine continues operations on the three axes shown as blue arrows, on the map below:
- An axis that started at Orikhiv and that is pushing south towards Tokmak and Melitopol.
- An operation flattening the Velyka Novosilka salient, that in recent weeks has been less active, Ukraine’s effort switching to Axes A and C.
- Advancing on Bakhmut.
Progress is slow and conventional military wisdom is that by not concentrating on a single axis Ukraine is dissipating its potential. We know that General Mark Milley, Chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Tony Radakin, Britain’s Chief of Defence Force and General Chris Cavoli NATO Supreme Allied Commander all counselled Ukraine to commit their reserve forces to one axis of attack, to maximise concentration of force and punch through Russia’s lines of defence. We also know that Ukraine is currently fighting the opposite way, using small forces on a wide frontage to engage the Russians heavily supported by artillery; and that although they are not taking ground, they are certainly attriting the Russians.
So, the next question is – Why? Generally, commentators and analysts propose two theories:
- That Ukraine’s Soviet trained senior officers are uncomfortable with fighting using NATO doctrine. That instead they are familiar with and understand attritional tactics and are more comfortable fighting this way; or
- That Ukrainians are simply not as competent as they are perceived to be and their commanders are struggling to use modern weapons and tactics effectively.
Spaniel recently proposed a third option, one based on a mathematical analysis of the situation. His thesis is that Ukraine may have assessed Putin is politically unable to launch a new mass mobilisation. If this is correct, then a key factor in strategic planning is; that the troops Putin currently has in Ukraine are all the soldiers he is going to get. That although theoretically Russia has an enormous pool of manpower, Putin does not have the political capital to be able to mobilise it. So, attrition is a very sensible strategy because if the pool of Russian manpower is limited it is much safer not to commit to risky offensive manoeuvres and instead to concentrate on causing attrition. Allowing artillery and bombs to do the work saving Ukrainian soldiers’ lives and husbanding equipment.
If Spaniel is correct then the battle for Bakhmut can be interpreted differently, some commentators see the battle as a triumph of politics over military sense, some as an operation to fix Russia’s best soldiers in place and keep them away from the southern front. However, in both these scenarios the opportunity cost of keeping formidable Ukrainian units like 80th Air Assault Brigade, 5th Assault Brigade, the Lyut Brigade, 95th Air Assault Brigade and the recently re-formed Azov Battalion is significant.
However, if Ukraine’s strategy is attrition, then this battle makes good sense and is achieving its results. This week Klischivka and Adrivka fell to Ukrainian forces who now dominate the north-south ridgeline overlooking Bakhmut. This position allows Ukrainian soldiers to direct artillery fire into the city and onto the roads highlighted in yellow on the map below, the T0513 and T0504. These roads are the main supply routes into the city are within range of Ukrainian artillery located near Chasiv Yar, represented by the shaded semi-circle. The Ukrainians on the high-ground and are well-supported logistically and with artillery fire from nearby Chasiv Yar, this village providing a well-fortified firm base for their operations.
Essentially, Ukraine is in a good position to attrit the Russian defenders showering them with artillery and cutting their supply lines. And; the defenders of Bakhmut are not any ordinary Russian soldiers, they are elite paratroopers. The loss of these troops has significant impacts on Russian plans the Institute for the Study of War assessing on 17 September that “Ukraine’s continued counteroffensive actions in Bakhmut since June 2023 have fixed elements of two of Russia’s four VDV divisions and three of the VDV’s four separate brigades, dramatically reducing the VDV’s ability to redeploy more forces laterally to reinforce the southern front.” Ukraine’s plan is depriving Russia of what it needs most; effective infantry.
And; high-quality infantry is a resource Russia appears to be lacking in the south as fighting on the Orikhiv Axis intensifies. The map below shows last week’s activity, Ukraine pushing into Novoproivka and Verbove. The Russian concentration of elite airborne forces north of Verbove launched counter attacks against the Ukrainian salient’s east flank but these attacks are currently being held. In turn, this force is at risk if Ukraine take Verbove; and may be forced to withdraw as their southern flank is compromised. It has been reported the Ukraine is bringing tanks and armoured vehicles through the now compromised Russian obstacle belts and trench lines near Verbove, preparing for the next phase of their operation.
Although the Orikhiv salient has not suddenly turned into a penetration that can be exploited we can see evidence that Ukraine’s attritional approach is reducing Russian capability. Most commentators have noted an approximately 30% decrease in the number of daily Russian attacks along the frontline. Russian artillery fire is reducing in volume and Ukrainian progress into the defences on the Orikihiv salient is speeding up. In the face of this information Putin is still not calling for a general mobilisation, either he is confident or as Spaniel proposes; he can’t.
Further, Spaniel’s analysis potentially provides insight into Ukraine’s strategic battle, including its deep strikes into Crimea. Last week, we discussed Ukraine’s evolving control of the Black Sea, predicting that this week there would be more attacks on Crimea. A prediction that was proven correct on 22 September, when the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet was destroyed and a cyber-attack crippled Russian computer systems.
This attack is significant for several reasons, the first is that a fleet headquarters should be safe and very well-protected. Sevastopol is a key harbour, the control centre of Russia’s naval and air forces in the Black Sea and is the capital of Crimea so hitting it demonstrates the hole that Ukraine has created in Russia’s air defence network. The second point relates to the severity of the strike, close analysis of the footage reveals that a large missile, most likely a Storm Shadow detonated deep inside the building. Often technically sophisticated missiles like Storm Shadow are designed to penetrate deep underground before detonation to destroy bunkers; and this appears to be the case with this attack. So, rather than doing superficial damage this attack is likely to have done considerable damage and killed key personnel.
Attacks like this may be an adjunct to the attrition strategy described by Spaniel, Ukraine using depth strikes like this not just to achieve military objectives; like degrading command and control or interdicting supply lines but also undermining the argument that the war is easily won. Perhaps, these strikes are not directed at the military but instead at influencing the Russian public, designed to undermine any argument that a larger mobilisation will easily win the war. The strike will impact on Russian operations because key personnel will have been injured or killed, computer servers damaged, files lost and confidence reduced all contributing to less effective naval and air operations in the theatre.
Then, on 19 September Azerbaijan attacked Armenia. The Nagorno-Karabakh War, is a conflict between two former Soviet Republics, Azerbaijan and Armenia that started in the late 1980s and involves a series of flare ups; most recently in 2020. Although, these countries are far from Ukraine (See the map below) this war will have impacts on the war because of the location of these countries within Central Asia. Azerbaijan and Armenia border key regional powers like Turkey and Iran so any conflict between them requires a response from Russia; or Russia risks losing influence or that other powers like Turkey or the United States will develop more influence in a region that is very important to Russia’s security.
Historically, Russia has positioned itself as a mediator in this conflict, although it has been criticised for being more supportive of Armenia than Azerbaijan. However, Russia’s most pressing concern is the potential for instability in Central Asia that this war could create. Russia inherited relationships with a range of Central Asia nations that were once Soviet Republics, including Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan; not all of which have excellent relationships with Russia.
A war in this area and the associated political instability may provide an opportunity for American or Turkish influence to grow in the region. America has a large and well-connected Armenian community and while publicly stating it supports Azerbaijan’s claims historically sat on the fence. Now, with the war in Ukraine the United States and its allies have more incentive to invest in this conflict. If the war escalates, it will provide options for Turkey and the United States to put more pressure on Russia as both sides seek support in the conflict. Additionally, if the United States increases its diplomatic and military presence in the region other Central Asian nations may start to develop closer relationships with it. Creating a strategic problem for Russia, with almost all their military power committed in Ukraine, especially their elite airborne forces, Russia will struggle to intervene in this conflict.
In summary, last week produced a fresh interpretation of Ukrainian strategy. One that is worth considering, why would Ukraine risk large numbers of lives and lots of equipment in offensive manoeuvre if there is a good chance that a new mobilisation is politically impossible for Putin. It could make more sense to slowly but surely attrit Russia’s forces aiming for their complete collapse. Hence, Ukraine’s deep strikes starving the frontline; and that demonstrate to the Russian public that regardless of what Putin tells them the war is not going to end easily. Regular drone strikes in Moscow and Crimea and the destruction of the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet may be relatively unimportant to the land campaign but they send a message to Russia’s citizens. A message that says: This war is not going well and even another mobilisation will not change the situation, even if you commit another million men to it!
Meanwhile, in Central Asia a long-running territorial dispute between two small and relatively unknown countries creates a new and dangerous dynamic for Russia. Diplomatic or military intervention in the Azerbaijan and Armenia conflict is required; or Russia risks greater Turkish or United States intervention in the region. But, with 80-90% of Russian combat power now deployed against Ukraine and rapidly being depleted how can Russia respond? It was another tough week for Russia and next week looks like it may get worse!
Ben Morgan is a bored Gen Xer and TDBs military blogger