A Blog by Jonathan Low


Aug 25, 2023

The Reason Ukraine's Offensive Is Poised To Give Russia More Nasty Surprises

The Ukrainians are fighting a strategic battle - on the ground, in the air, at sea. They are employing innovative tactics with modern weapons and motivated troops. Their leaders are focused on eliminating the existential risk posed by their enemy - not sucking up to a despotic, egotistical leader or battling among themselves for influence and spoils. 

The success of the ongoing offensive has been hard won. It required adaptation borne of realistic lessons learned. But accelerating gains are the result of an intelligent plan, effectively executed, with more to come. JL 

David Petraeus and Frederick Kagan report in the Washington Post:

In Robotyne on the road to Tokmak and Melitopol, and south of Velyka Novosylka toward Berdyansk, the Ukrainians have penetrated the forward-most belt of Russian defenses, and their advance is accelerating. War does not proceed in a linear fashion. Defenders can hold  and then suddenly break, allowing an attacker rapid gains. The Ukrainians aim to generate this effect - and there is reason to think they can. Ukraine’s offensive push is still in the early stages - just 10 weeks into what is likely to last four more months. Any Ukrainian breach of existing lines will be difficult to plug.

David Petraeus, a retired U.S. Army general, was commander of the troop surge in Iraq, U.S. Central Command and NATO/U.S. Forces in Afghanistan. Frederick W. Kagan is senior fellow and director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.

The rapid Ukrainian breakthrough and advance that many hoped for has not occurred. Media coverage has grown gloomier in recent weeks on the back of fragmentary journalistic accounts from the front and reported intelligence assessments from Western analysts. The news has not been great. The fight against Russia has proved to be bloody and slow — a very hard slog.

But observers would be wise to temper their pessimism. War does not proceed in a linear fashion. Defenders can hold for a long time and then suddenly break, allowing an attacker to make rapid gains before the defense solidifies further to the rear. The Ukrainians aim to generate exactly this effect — and there is reason to think they can. Ukraine’s offensive push is far from over. In fact, it is still in the early stages — just 10 weeks into what is likely to last at least four more months.

Penetrating a modern defense in depth such as the Russians established in southern Ukraine is a tall order for any military. The U.S. military has done it twice in modern memory, both times against Iraq. In 1991, after pummeling the Iraqi forces for 39 days from the air, a U.S.-led coalition of 650,000 troops penetrated and outflanked Iraqi defenses, crushing the Iraqi military in 100 hours. In 2003, a smaller U.S.-led force destroyed a badly degraded Iraqi military within a few weeks.

Ukraine has none of the advantages the United States had in those operations. In both Iraq-related cases, coalition forces benefited from air supremacy, while Ukrainian aircraft cannot operate over Russian lines and cannot prevent Russian aircraft and helicopters from hitting their own advancing troops. And Ukraine has been given too few armored breaching systems.

The Russians have also fought much better than the Iraqis did — and better than many analysts expected given Russia’s unimpressive performance until then in the war. Russian forces have prepared extensive defenses in depth, consisting of wide, deep belts of skillfully laid mines, antitank ditches and other obstacles. Soldiers equipped with drones are directing substantial artillery fire against any Ukrainian units that try to get through. More broadly, the Russian army has adopted an elastic defense, in which its troops initially fall back and then counterattack once the Ukrainian forces take losses and begin to tire.

All of these factors make the Ukrainian counteroffensive exceedingly hard. But as one of us had occasion to observe during the tough early months of the 2007 surge in Iraq, hard is not hopeless.

Ukrainian forces are advancing in two key areas — in central Zaporizhzhia Oblast near Robotyne on the road to Tokmak and Melitopol, and in eastern Zaporizhzhia Oblast south of Velyka Novosylka on a line toward Berdyansk. The Ukrainians appear to have penetrated at least the forward-most belt of Russian mines and defenses in both areas, and their advance in the Robotyne area appears to be accelerating. They have also taken back some significant ground around Bakhmut, which is the only town Russia was able to capture during its own costly offensive last winter.


Ukraine’s incremental gains are part of a larger effort that British Chief of Defense Staff Adm. Tony Radakin termed “starve, stretch and strike.” Ukrainian forces are stretching Russian defenses by attacking at multiple points along the 600-mile front. They are also attriting assets in Russian-occupied territory, taking out artillery units, headquarters and reserve force staging areas, as well as targeting key supply depots and routes to make it more difficult for Russia to sustain its defense. To put it simply, Ukraine is applying pressure on their opponent until something breaks, at which point they will commit their reserves and strike.


Russian front-line forces are likely tired, if not exhausted. Some have been defending since at least the start of the counteroffensive on June 4, and many of them have been in place for much longer than that. Fresh units have not been rotated in. It is also unclear how heavily mined or manned Russia’s secondary defensive lines are, but there is good reason to doubt that the Russians have large numbers of high-quality soldiers holding them. Most important, Russia lacks large operational reserves. This means that any Ukrainian breach of existing lines will be difficult to quickly plug.


This is what Ukraine is banking on. A small breach could yield relatively sudden and rapid gains. If those materialize, panic among Russian forces could multiply Ukraine’s opportunities for maintaining its momentum.

An aspirational theory of victory is no guarantee of success. The Russians have clearly adapted to the realities of this phase of the war, and while they face serious challenges, it would be foolish to write them off.

But it would be similarly foolish to write off this “summer” counteroffensive — a fight that is likely to continue through the fall and into the winter. Ukrainians know they are fighting for their very survival, and the country’s total mobilization across all sectors of society is a testament to their will and determination.

For Western observers, it is important to keep this big picture in mind when following Ukraine’s grueling fight. And policymakers should not wring their hands about the counteroffensive not yielding quick gains. This will be a long war, and we need Ukraine to prevail.

Ukraine needs long-range precision-strike capabilities such as the U.S. Army’s Tactical Missile System (ATACMS). It needs cluster munitions for its rockets, not just its artillery rounds. It needs more ammunition to sustain the offensive. And it needs the accelerated delivery of F-16s. In truth, Ukraine needed these capabilities months ago.

The United States’ provision of more than $44 billion in arms, ammunition and assistance has been hugely impressive. But we must do more, and we must do it with a greater sense of urgency. The time to act is now.


Anonymous said...

Will do, thank you

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