A Blog by Jonathan Low


Mar 22, 2023

Ukraine's Spring Offensive: The Case For the Obvious Southern Thrust

The southern offensive option is the one most experts expect because strategically it makes the most sense: if the Ukrainians prevail there, it isolates and even threatens Crimea while putting an end to the Russian claims of a unified and Russified southern Ukraine. By contrast, the Donbas is now a wasteland of rubble of little economic use to either side - and even if recaptured, leaves the more socio-economically important south in Russian hands. 

The Russians have had six months to fortify the southern terrain, but the weapons provided to Ukraine by NATO are designed to prevail in that environment. Winning generals from Alexander the Great to the present day recognize that defeating an enemy where he believes he is strongest may produce the fastest ultimate victory. JL

RO 37 reports in Daily Kos:

The combat power Ukraine has in reserve for the summer offensive (is) substantial. The question is where is this new force headed?  There are two options: a Northern offensive towards Svatove and Starobilsk (Luhansk), or a Southern offensive towards Melitopol and Crimea (Zaporizhzhia). Southern Ukraine consists of flat farmland with visibility that extends to the horizon. Zaporizhzhia Oblast represents ideal tank terrain for Western tanks.  The main advantage the Leopard 2s and Challenger 2s have over a T72B is the ability to outrange. If the AFU were to pick ONE place where Ukraine’ new western tank brigades (can) destroy numerically superior Russian armored units, it’s hard to pick a better place.

Anyone who has been following the Russo-Ukrainian War in even a cursory manner is almost certainly aware that there is a near unanimous opinion that Ukraine will be conducting a major offensive in early Summer. 

Ukraine has received, or is scheduled to receive a massive amount of aid in preparation for this offensive.  By my count, between Dec. — May, Ukraine either has received, or has been promised enough equipment to field 8-9 new combined arms or mechanized infantry brigades.  Conservatively 30,000-40,000 troops.

  • Tanks x402
  • IFV x475
  • APC x1114

Ukraine has been training troops to field these new weapons, which suggests that around that corresponding number of Ukrainian soldiers must be being held back for training.

Which makes sense.  1st Armored Brigade hasn’t seen combat since Kherson. Neither has the 17th Mechanized Infantry Brigade, or a number of other Ukrainian elite brigades—presumably, they’re being trained on using Leopards and Bradleys.

My count of promised or equipment delivered between Dec 2022 — May 2023.  

Tanks (Western MBTs x82、Other x320、Total 402)

  • Challenger2MBT x 14(UK)
  • Leopard2MBT x68
    • Leopard 2A6 x 18 (Germany)
    • Leopard 2A4 x 8 (Canada)
    • Leopard2A4 x8 (Norway)
    • Leopard2A4 x14 (Poland)
    • Leopard2A4 x10 (Spain)
    • Strv122 x10 (Sweden)
  • Leopard 1A5 x20
  • T-72 x260
    • T-72M x65 (Czech Republic)
    • T-72EA Avenger x 90 (Netherlands)
    • PT91 x60 (Poland)
    • T-72B x45 (USA)
  • AMX10 - RC (Light Tank)x 40(France)

Infantry Fighting Vehicles:x475

  • BVP-1 x170(Czech Republic)
  • PvB-501 x56(Czech Republic)
  • CV90 x50 (Sweden)
  • M2A2 ODS Bradley x109(USA)
  • M1126 x90 Stryker (USA)

Armored Personnel Carriersx1114

  • LAV6 x39 (Canada)
  • Roshel Senator x200 (Canada)
  • Iveco LMV Lynx x80 (Belgium)
  • XA-180  (number not announced — Finland)
  • VAB x40(France)
  • ACMAT Bastion x 20(France)
  • M113 x54 (Denmark)
  • MARDER x40 (Germany)
  • M113 x20 (Lithuania)
  • M577 x 10 (Lithuania)
  • FV430 Bulldog x180 (UK)
  • M113 x250 (USA)
  • Cougar MRAP x181(USA)

In addition to the say, 30,000 western equipped soldiers on Leopards and Bradleys, the veteran units that the soldiers formerly used to staff (like the 1st Armored Brigade and its equipment) will probably be staffed by newly trained Ukrainian troops, so the amount of combat power that Ukraine currently has in reserve for the summer offensive should be substantial.

So the million dollar question is—where is this new force headed?  There are basically two options: a Northern Offensive towards Svatove and Starobilsk (Luhansk Offensive), or a Southern Offensive towards Melitopol and Crimea (Zaporizhzhia Offensive).

Image credit: Institute for the Study of War

Now, some of you may be saying “why choose just one”—afterall, Ukraine just pulled off a two-front offensive last fall, attacking Izium/Lyman and Kherson basically at the same time.  But this ignores a foundational military principle: concentration of military force.  If you chase multiple objectives and attack in multiple directions, your primary thrust loses its potency.

Military geniuses are so called because they understand when unique conditions are right that you can ignore basic principles.  General Zaluzhny’s strategy in Sept 2022 was, in my opinion, an act of genius.  He recognized that the Russians had placed themselves in a compromised position at Kherson with their backs to the river, and a highly unique opportunity to interdict Russian forces at Kherson while sending his best armored brigades against the North for the Kharkiv Offenisve was possible.

But it’s necessary to recognize that that situation was just that: unique.  Currently, no major strategic objective is in a weak and compromised position like Kherson, so the basics apply—the best strategy is for AFU to concentrate its forces for a decisive strike.

So we need to pick one: North or South?

The Case for the North

  • The Russians are expecting an offensive in the South, so they have only prepared a single line of defenses,running North/South through Svatove and Kreminna.  By contrast, the Russians have prepared a multi-layered defensive in Zaporizhzhia and Kherson.
  • Because the Russians anticipate an offensive in the South, the Russians will likely position their best units there.
  • Cutting the main Russian supply base in Belgorod to Eastern Ukraine would be strategically significant.

However, I would argue that a Southern Offensive is the right call.

The Case for the South

  • Zaporizhzhia Oblast represents ideal tank terrain for Western Tank combat.  The main advantage that the Leopard 2s and Challenger 2s have over a T72B (for example) is the ability to outrange.  That is, a Western Tank can hit and kill an older Soviet tank from further than it can BE killed. 
  • The terrain in the Eastern/Northern Ukraine consists of rolling forested hills and ridge lines that restrict visibility and LOS (Line of Sight). Tank rounds are fired at high velocity and require LOS, where as howitzers fire low velocity parabolic rounds that can hit targets without LOS.  So LOS still matters.
Image credit: borgenproject.org/...
  • Southern Ukraine around Melitopol consists of flat farmland with visibility that extends to the horizon.  This represents ideal terrain that maximizes the advantages that Western tanks confer.
  • The Russians have had a little more than half a year to prepare defenses in the South.  If the AFU launches a Northern Offensive, the earliest the AFU could launch an offensive here would be the Fall ‘23, possibly not till Summer ‘24.  If the defenses here are formidable after 7-8 months of preparation, how much more so will it be a year from now?
  • The Russian defensive works presently consist largely of mines, antitank obstacles and trenches.  With MRAP (mineresistant APCs), breaching equipment and weapons like the HIMARS-based M30A1 GMLRS (which fires 180k tungsten balls) designed to clear trenches, if the Leopards can clear out enemy armor, a coordinated assault by Bradleys and Marders should have no problem breaching these defensive lines.

So the basic case for the South is terrain based.  It is ideal tank country, so if the AFU were to pick ONE place where it’s ideal for Ukraine’ new western tank brigades to fight and destroy numerically superior Russian armored units, it’s hard to pick a better place than Southern Zaporizhzhia Oblast.

While General Zaluzhny has made his reputation attacking the Russians where they least expect to win victories, I think the time for those tactics are done. 

Summer ‘23 will be when it’s time for the AFU to force the Russian forces into a decisive battle, where AFU’s most powerful western armed armored formations will go head to head with the cream of what remains of Russia’s armored formations.  There will never be a better time and location to conduct this battle than the South—flat ideal country for long range tank engagements with nowhere to hide.

If the Russians lose here, that would mean the AFU’s basically destroyed the core of what remains of their armored force, and that AFU has broken the Russian army’s back, then advance right to the doorstep of Crimea.


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