Last week, we discussed a different perspective on how Ukraine is prosecuting the war; that instead of Ukraine’s focus being to cut Russia’s supply lines to Crimea by reaching the Sea of Azov, the aim is to attrit Russia’s army.  That Ukraine has assessed that Putin’s regime does not have the political capital to order a further mass mobilisation so the number of soldiers Russia has is limited. That, if Russia’s forces in Ukraine are locked into a series of bloody battles they can be destroyed. And; that If the Russian army in Ukraine is destroyed and cannot be replaced, Ukraine wins.  This interpretation is derived from analysis by a Game Theory expert, writer and blogger on the Ukraine War, William Spaniel.   

If Spaniel is correct, and Ukraine is gambling on attrition rather than conventional military doctrine it raises an inconvenient truth, one that Vladimir Putin has gambled on from the start.  That boredom is Ukraine’s worst enemy because if the war ceases to excite interest amongst voters in America, the United Kingdom, Europe or in the many small nations supporting Ukraine their politicians will stop supporting spending money in Ukraine.  And; while Ukraine is now prepared for war and can probably secure its current territory, it is unlikely to be able to drive Russia out of the areas it has captured without aid from the liberal democracies that currently support it. So, perhaps the biggest risk of Ukraine’s slow rate of advance is not that its offensive is defeated by Russia, but slower defeat by isolation and starvation as supporting nations lose interest and drift away.  The American and English senior officers that advised Ukraine to concentrate its forces and to attack on one axis are probably aware of the inconstancy of their nations, knowing that Ukraine needs ‘wins’ to maintain support from NATO, the United States and the other liberal democracies that support them.  Further, that a conventional war-fighting approach although likely to be costly in Ukrainian lives is more likely to deliver fast results, delivering victories that maintain the interest of voters in the countries supporting Ukraine.

So, this week let us look at the conventional military analysis. How is Ukraine doing judged by these metrics?

The first Principle of War is generally stated as ‘Selection and Maintenance of the Aim,’ a statement that means any military operation should start by defining the goal of the activity, so that planning, resources and supporting effort can be focussed on a single clearly defined objective.  Ukraine has not published its objectives, so any statements made by commentators are based on their subjective analysis of the situation. Generally, commentators many of whom are ex-military, assess that Ukraine’s strategic goal is to capture Crimea because this peninsular dominates southern Ukraine and the Black Sea.  If it is held by Russia, Ukraine is vulnerable.  The best way to drive the Russians out of Crimea is to starve them out by severing the network of road and rail lines that run along the Sea of Azov’s northern shore.  See the yellow line on the map below.  If the Kerch Bridge is destroyed and the Crimean Land Bridge cut, the peninsular is isolated and cannot easily be resupplied making it untenable. 

This reasoning is why conventional analysis, including mine, focusses on the southern front especially breaking through from Zaporizhia, and advancing south to the sea.  At this point Ukraine’s key thrust to the south started from near Orikhiv, pushing towards transport centres located at Tokmak and Melitopol. The offensive is progressing slowly, progressing roughly 11km to date.  Putting this advance into perspective the distance to Melitopl is approximately 70km; and to get close enough that artillery can interdict the Russian supply routes (or within about 20km of the road and rail routes) Ukraine needs to advance to roughly where the red line is on the map below. Approximately, another 60km.  

Until recently, Ukraine had forces committed on three axes of advance.  However, in recent weeks this situation has changed and now Ukraine is focussed on two key areas:

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  1. The Orikhiv axis pushing south towards Tokmak and Melitopol.
  2. Advancing on Bakhmut.

Ukraine’s current dispositions splits their resources and maintains large offensive operations on two axes, separated by approximately 200km.  Conventional military thinking would err towards concentration at one point, probably the Orikhiv axis. The battle for Bakhmut, could be part of a conventional approach, this operation ‘fixing’ elite Russian airborne soldiers in the city well away from the fighting in the south. Attacking these elite soldiers in Bakhmut makes it impossible for them to withdraw and deploy elsewhere. However, Bakhmut does not look like a fixing battle, it looks like a large attack trying to retake the city. An expensive and difficult task requiring significant resources.  Even though Bakhmut is relatively small, any urban area is difficult and dangerous to fight through. The three-dimensional nature of urban areas makes them ‘complex terrain,’ difficult to attack as the defenders use underground pipes and sewers to move, multi-storied buildings to shoot and observe from and the strong concrete walls of buildings as defensive positions. Committing to taking this city will require large numbers of soldiers, that once committed to battle are stuck in Bakhmut.

Meanwhile, on the Orikhiv axis Ukraine continues to advance slowly and steadily towards Novopropivka and Verbove. Slow advances against tough defences, if the Ukrainians were not fighting so hard in Bakhmut and released soldiers from that operation to reinforce this axis – Would the advance be moving quicker? 

This is the question that a conventionally trained military thinker immediately asks.  Military leaders are taught that in war concentration of effort is vitally important. Army officers are trained to select an objective, then commit every resource that they can against that point in order to overwhelm the enemy.  Push the enemy back and take advantage of the confusion created by this movement to encircle and destroy small parts of their force.  Essentially, to ‘break through’ a defensive line by concentrating effort at one point, penetrate the defensive line then run amok in an enemy’s less well-defended rear areas. A situation that most analysts have been expecting on the Orikhiv axis, but that has not transpired. Although Ukraine’s recent ‘break into’ Russia’s defences near Verbove potentially brings this situation tantalisingly close. 

In general progress is slow, and Ukraine is racing against the rasputitsa or autumn rain that will make the ground boggy and prevent large scale movement. The weather is expected to turn soon, probably in October. After this tanks and other fighting vehicles will find it hard to manoeuvre and even off-road trucks will be confined to roads until the ground freezes again early next year. Essentially, offensive manoeuvre ceases, both sides stuck in location until the weather turns again and cold weather freezes the ground, normally in February. 

If Spaniel’s theory is correct, stasis will make little difference to Ukraine’s chances of success, the weather locking Russia’s frontline forces in position and making resupply difficult.  This makes the Russian forces on the frontline a static target able to be systematically destroyed by Ukraine’s increasingly more preponderant artillery.  Ukraine will continue its slow demolition of Russia’s army that is now stuck in its muddy fighting positions, probably lacking food and other supplies.  The wet cold weather will damage morale and bodies increasing the rate of attrition.

However, conventional wisdom is that without manoeuvre both sides can rotate forces, repair and prepare new fighting positions and get ready for the next battle.  More mines can be scattered by artillery, rain and mud do not stop infantry creeping out and sowing new minefields or building more barbed wire.  Further, conventional military wisdom is that stasis benefits the defender more because within their positions they are already prepared for inactivity. The defenders have shelter and can hunker down in their trenches protected from the weather and from the enemy.  The attacker on the other hand must struggle to create their own defensive lines to provide shelter and protection for their soldiers.  In conventional analysis, if the road and rail line’s linking Crimea to Russia are out of Ukrainian artillery range when the rasputitsa arrives, Ukraine loses. 

However, the term ‘losing’ has many definitions, Ukraine will still have regained territory, broken through the Surovikin Line and caused considerable Russian casualties. The Russians have not been able to drive them back and although Ukrainian gains have been small, they have consistently moved forwards. Ukraine has demonstrated that it can beat the Russians.  Just not enough.  People watching around the world are not excited by its advances, the billions of dollars spent supporting Ukraine are not keeping the public’s attention.  How often is Ukraine on the news this week? When was the last time it was the top of your news feed?  It is not because the Ukrainians are unsuccessful, instead it is that news editors need exciting stories maintain their audience’s interest in an ever-quicker news cycle. 

In summary, the Ukrainian offensive’s greatest risk is boredom.  Whether, Spaniel is correct and the Ukrainians are committed to attrition; or if other commentators are correct and Ukraine’s commanders do not want to use modern NATO tactics and prefer a more attritional approach does not matter strategically because this battle is now about maintaining the support of Ukraine’s donors.  In fact, the point of decision is an ongoing battle for the hearts and minds of people in America, the United Kingdom, Europe and in the many small around the world supporting Ukraine. Likewise, Putin’s aim is to hold on. He wins if Ukraine’s support fails.

Therefore, a key question in the next few weeks while we wait for the rain to fall is if Ukraine can do enough to guarantee ongoing support. Will President Zelenskyy’s international diplomacy be enough? Will Ukraine be able to create a breakthrough and demonstrate a return on investment to its donors?  So, let’s hope that Spaniel is wrong, that Bakhmut is a ‘fixing’ battle and that Ukraine does have enough force to break through Russia’s lines and drive south.  Or, that if Spaniel is correct the strategy of attrition creates a collapse before boredom dooms Ukraine to accept the loss of its coast and of Crimea.  And; that we all have a role to play, making sure that others understand that Ukraine’s freedom requires people in all the nations supporting the fight against Putin’s aggression to stay interested and to make sure our politicians continue to support Ukraine’s fight for freedom. 



Ben Morgan is a bored Gen Xer and TDBs military blogger

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