A Blog by Jonathan Low


Apr 18, 2023

How Ukraine Is Evaluating Its Counteroffensive Opportunities Vs Russian Defenses

Ukraine is assessing which offensive options may give it the best chance of inflicting a significant defeat on Russian forces in the country. 

Among the issues are how its forces stack up versus Russian defenses. There may be advantage to attacking more than one locale simultaneously to spread the defenders - or focusing on one weaker point in the line. JL 

Kos reports in Daily Kos:

The front line is @1,000 kilometers. Russia may have 350,000 troops in Ukraine. Russian lines extend beyond the front, and some Russians will man layers of defenses south toward Melitopol and the port of Berdyansk. Some areas will have a higher density of defenders. Units in reserve means fewer defenders in a first line. Ukraine can move its troops around internal lines, while Russia has to move around the perimeter. If 100,000 Ukrainian troops, with artillery, armor, air defense, electronic warfare, engineering, and drones work in combined fashion, facing several hundred low-morale Russian defenders per kilometer, you get a sense of what’s possible. Ukraine will have to decide whether to attack more thinly defended northeast Ukraine, or to sever the land bridge to Russia.

Trying to pin down the size of the Ukrainian armed forces is a difficult task. The Ukrainian government hasn’t released any official figures, for all the obvious reasons. Why give Russia any information to inform their own plans? So that leaves a cacophony of often contradictory information that likely suits Ukraine just fine. But it makes our jobs as analysts harder to consider.

The current number floating around pro-Ukraine media is that Ukraine has 175 combat brigades (based, as far as I can tell, on this chef’s thread about feeding the Ukrainian army). At 3,000 to 5,000 soldiers per brigade, that’s somewhere between 500,000 and 875,000 soldiers. I’ve also found references to a podcast in which a Ukrainian government official supposedly claimed that Ukraine has 1.2 million men and women under arms. That is plausible, given the various elements of the Ukrainian military: Territorial Defense Forces, Border Guards, National Guard, and even paramilitary police units we’ve seen on the front lines.

Now let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that this number is inflated for misinformation purposes, or to freak out the Russians. Let’s also assume that tens of thousands would remain stationed on the Belarus and Russian borders to protect against invasion or sabotage. A great many more would continue to man defenses in places like Bakhmut, no matter where the counteroffensive took place. Also, remember that only about 15-20% of all troops pull a trigger or press a button that fires something; everyone else is playing supporting roles.

So let’s say Ukraine has only 100,000 combat arms troops available for the counteroffensive.

If that’s the case, and if those troops have effectively learned combined arms warfare … well then, Russia is kinda f’d.

The active front line is around 1,000 kilometers. Russia may have up to 350,000 troops in Ukraine. That estimate is likely high, but let’s use that number for argument’s sake.

Assuming equal distribution, that would amount to 350 Russians per kilometer of active front. Except that those trench lines extend beyond the active front, and we can assume some Russians will be manning them (lest Ukraine catch them sleeping again, like they did in the Kharkiv offensive). Furthermore, Russia is most concerned about losing its precious “land bridge” to Crimea. The map above reflects that priority, with layers of defenses heading south toward Melitopol and the port city of Berdyansk.

That means that certain areas of the front will have a higher density of Russian defenders than others. Ukraine will have to decide whether the more thinly defended path toward Svatove and Starobilsk in northeastern Ukraine is worth the effort, or if they’ll punch hard to sever the land bridge and slice Russia’s army in half.

Furthermore, Russia will presumably hold units in reserve in the rear, ready to rush toward Ukraine’s main thrust, ready to plug any holes that Ukraine may open and attempt to exploit. That means those trenches will have even fewer defenders as a first line. And complicating things for Russia, Ukraine can freely move its troops around its internal lines of communication, while Russia has to move theirs the long way, around the perimeter:

Let’s say that down in Zaporizhzhia oblast, en route toward Melitopol, that Russian defensive density is around 500 soldiers per kilometer—most of them poorly equipped untrained mobiks.

This is where combined-arms warfare comes into play. Ukraine can’t mimic the Russian tactic of randomly sending armor toward defensive positions. It also can’t send human waves. Ukraine has made mincemeat of both Russian approaches. It certainly can’t do American-style combined-arms breaching maneuvers, as Ukraine lacks the air power, but it has to approximate it as best it can.

Recent arms shipments from its allies have been heavy on engineering equipment (systems to clear mines, mobile bridges, etc), and American trainers have been working with Ukrainian units on combined arms maneuvers in Germany. Those units are now continuing their training in Ukraine, presumably sharing their new expertise with other Ukrainian units.

Over 1,000 new pieces of Western armor are currently flowing into Ukraine, supplementing Ukraine’s already large inventory of Soviet-era equipment—both their own and that captured from the Russians. Everyone is so focused on tanks and infantry fighting vehicles, yet the most important tool in this battlefield, given the absence of air power, remains artillery. And Italy has stepped up in a big way.

Italian media is reporting that 60 of these self-propelled artillery guns are headed toward Ukraine, part of over 100 that were sitting in storage, all committed to Ukraine. Back in 2019, they were sold to Pakistan, but the Trump Administration blocked the transfer because Pakistan had also ordered hundreds of Chinese-made howitzers and MLRS rocket artillery. Donald Trump finally made a decision that worked out!

Of course, Ukraine is having serious issues procuring enough ammunition, currently the most alarming bottleneck. But given the extensive wear and tear on Ukraine’s existing stock, having additional guns available should help in this offensive. And the last two American arms announcements to Ukraine were uncharacteristically heavy on ammunition.

If we have 100,000 Ukrainian troops, with artillery, armor, air defense, electronic warfare, engineering, and drones (for the air component) all working in combined fashion, facing Russian trenches with several hundred low-morale defenders per kilometer … well, you start getting a sense of what’s possible.

Ukraine caught Russia sleeping in Kharkiv oblast, and it liberated much of Kherson oblast and its capital by cutting off the two bridges supplying Russian forces in the area. Russia is no longer sleeping, and it’s not so easy to cut logistics to occupied Ukrainian territory. This will require Ukraine to do what it hasn’t done before, and what Russia never managed: massing forces to punch through defensive lines.


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