A Blog by Jonathan Low


Apr 25, 2023

Ukraine's Multiple Counterattack Options

The options are a wide open as the Ukrainian steppe, each with its own benefits and challenges. JL

Kos reports in Daily Kos:

Starobilsk, where all the roads and rail lines in Donbas meet. It’s the logistical hub of Russia’s war effort. Liberate Starobilsk, and Russia will be forced to abandon Luhansk. Liberating Donetsk, (also Donbas) would effectively split the Russian army into northern and southern halves. (In the south) with Tokmak liberated, Russia’s ability to respond to Ukrainian moves toward Melitopol, Berdyansk, Mariupol, or anywhere else along this front will be severely compromised. Polohy (also in the south) is the first step toward Berdyansk, the strategic port city. Rozivka, also a rail hub (in the south), intersecting with a major highway. That makes it a strategically important logistical hub.

Can you feel the buzz in the air? Ukraine’s big counteroffensive is coming! And just like mock drafts before NFL draft day, war analysts (and Russian generals, maybe) are poring over maps, trying to divine Ukraine’s gambit.

Let’s start with the map of all Russian fortifications, painstakingly tallied from satellite imagery by the American Enterprise Institute’s Brady Africk. (Yeah, yeah, it’s a right-wing think tank, but this map is solid.)

We’ve discussed this before. There are two obvious moves.


The first would liberate most of the empty steppe in northeastern Ukraine, all of it in Luhansk oblast.


The circled city is Starobilsk, where literally all the roads and rail lines in this vast region meet. It’s the logistical hub of Russia’s war effort in the region. Remember how liberating Kupiansk forced Russia to retreat from all of Kharkiv oblast? Liberate Starobilsk, and Russia will be forced to abandon most of Luhansk Oblast. Meanwhile, key supply lines from Belgorod and other Russian cities to Ukraine’s north would need to be rerouted.

Ukraine would need to punch through Svatove, to Starobilsk’s west, while putting pressure on Kreminna to keep Russia from overcommitting to the north. Now here’s the interesting part. Take a look at the map of Russian fortifications:

Red denotes Russian defensive lines

As you’ll see down below, Russia has built layer upon layer of defenses in the south. Yet here … just one line. Given the terrain and lack of roads, Ukraine would have to fight through the city of Svatove, and then punch through the line on its eastern side. But after that? Nothing but clear sailing, all 62 kilometers to Starobilsk.

Two possibilities are at play here: Either Russia doesn’t think Ukraine will push to Starobilsk, or it doesn’t care if Ukraine does. Maybe logistics have already been shifted elsewhere. Or maybe Russia has limited capacity for manning defenses, and it is merely prioritizing its biggest prize—the land bridge connecting mainland Russia to Crimea.


The most obviously strategic direction is also the most heavily defended one. The goal here would be to push south to sever Russia’s land bridge to Crimea. Check out Russia’s defenses in this area:

Red denotes Russian defensive lines

That’s layer upon layer upon layer. The strategic cities of Tokmak and Polohy are literally surrounded by defensive works. Russia doesn’t want them outflanked. The entire E105 highway down to Melitopol is one long trench. In a war in which failed Russian generals have yet to be lined up against a wall and shot, no one wants to be the guy who tells Putin they lost Melitopol—and with it, the land bridge.

Starobilsk may be lower-risk, but much lower-reward. This? This could be the ballgame.  So what are Ukraine’s options?


I’ve offered three possible approaches in this direction. Ukraine might pick one, or two, or all three, depending on the level of actual resistance and troops available.

The Tokmak approach would be the most decisive. Check out this great community story by RO37 on the importance of Tokmak:

Tokmak is essentially the lynchpin that holds the Western and Eastern wings of the Russian army together. Capture Tokmak, and the two wings fall apart into 2 independent armies no longer capable of supporting each other directly

Seriously, go read it. With Tokmak liberated, Russia’s ability to respond to Ukrainian moves toward Melitopol, Berdyansk, Mariupol, or anywhere else along this front will be severely compromised. Ukraine knows this, and Russia knows this, which is why it has created multiple layers of defenses around the town.


Polohy is another possible direction, and the reason is apparent with this close-up:


Those dark black lines are rail lines. If Ukraine liberates Polohy, it would have a critical rail hub to simplify its logistics as it pushed further south. Now, you may ask yourself, “Wouldn’t Russia just shell that rail line and keep it out of commission?” You’d think that! But Russia would rather aim its artillery and rockets at civilian apartment buildings and power plants than at critical military infrastructure.

Polohy is also the first step toward Berdyansk. There is one defensive line south of Polohy, but then … nothing for the next 100 kilometers toward the strategic port city. And why is Berdyansk critical? For one, it severs the M14 highway that runs along the Azov Sea coast. Remember, we’re cutting the land bridge. But there’s a second critically important reason: Control of the M14 highway puts the Kerch Bridge connecting Crimea to Russia in range.


The GLSDB rockets Ukraine will be getting later this year have a published range of 150 kilometers. Usually, actual range is beyond any publicly published specs, so the Kerch Bridge might be in range from Berdyansk itself (164 kilometers away). But drive along the coast a bit, toward Prymorsk, and the bridge is inside the GLSDB rockets’ public specs.  

At that point, Ukraine can do to Crimea what they did to Kherson—cut all supply routes—from the land bridge and from the Kerch Bridge. Ukraine’s stash of Harpoon anti-sea missiles can threaten attempts to resupply Crimea’s from the sea. Air supply is possible, but unsustainable to support large-scale combat operations.

Another possible approach is toward the small town of Rozivka. Look at the maps above, and you’ll see that it’s also a rail hub, intersecting with a major highway, the T0803. That makes it a strategically important logistical hub. It does much of what Tokmak does: split the Russian army in two, without having to punch through the kind of defensive works protecting Tokmak.


This wouldn’t be a cakewalk, with extensive defenses to the north around Novopetrykivka, but that’s one line of defense versus at least three around Tokmak. And then look at that nice clean approach toward Mariupol.

So everyone assumes Ukraine will push south, with some speculation that Starobilsk would be an enticing target up in the northeast. But what if it’s neither?


This is purely unfounded speculation based on nothing except looking at a map, and some published drone footage, but what if Ukraine shocked everyone by going toward Donetsk City?


Donetsk city is the capital of Donetsk oblast, one of the two oblasts in the Donbas, which Russia pretends to have annexed. Losing one of their capitals would be a propaganda catastrophe. And not only is the city lacking the kind of defenses Russia has scattered elsewhere, but Ukraine is already just a few kilometers from its outskirts.


Indeed, this front looks barely changed after 14 months of war, as Russia has been utterly incapable of pushing deeper into Donetsk’s suburbs to give themselves a cushion.

Now, Donetsk is a city of 1 million. We’re not talking a walk in the park. But with Russian forces arrayed everywhere but here, there’s a chance for the kind of lightning strike that could catch the city’s defenders unaware. And the local Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) militia that featured heavily in the first six months of the war is mostly gone. You know how Russian Wagner mercenaries treat their prisoner recruits as cannon fodder, sending them unprepared head-on against Ukrainian defenses? That’s the role that Russia’s two Donbas militias played during the first half of the war. Just about every single member of Donetsk’s militia was either killed or wounded.

The separatist DPR began Russia’s wider war on Ukraine in February with around 20,000 men in six light infantry brigades. By November, the army had lost 3,746 killed in action and 15,794 wounded in action, according to the DPR’s ombudsman.

While the DPR obviously expanded their militia with forced mobilization, we don’t see them anywhere in the fight anymore. Their units are so gutted that Russian mobiks (mobilized conscripts) are being used to replace losses in these DPR units. In a bit of gruesome revenge, those DPR commanders are now using those Russians as cannon fodder.

Donetsk city’s strategic value couldn’t be greater.


In addition to the incalculable propaganda value of liberating a city of 1 million under Russian control since 2014, it would effectively split the Russian army into northern and southern halves. It would deprive Russia of a key source of cannon fodder. A key logistics distribution center, it would cut the only rail line from Russia to Mariupol and the rest of the occupied land bridge (at least until the Kerch Bridge rail line is operational again, which still isn’t the case).

Furthermore, as you can see in the maps with the Russian defensive lines, that entire rear is empty. If Ukraine pushes into Donetsk, that entire rear is open for havoc. They can cut off Russian units all along the Donbas front, including Bakhmut, Severodonetsk, Lysychansk, and everything in between from the rear. Manage to liberate Starobilsk, and suddenly it’s Ukraine doing a pincer maneuver on Russian defensive lines along the entire Donbas front.

It would look like this, and it would be glorious:


If Ukraine liberated the Donbas in this fashion, it would leave Russia clinging to only southeastern Ukraine and Crimea, and a completely reshaped strategic picture.

Fantasy? Most likely. But it’s okay to dream.


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