A Blog by Jonathan Low


May 31, 2023

How Ukraine Smartly Traded Force and Space For Time At Bakhmut

In a classic application of historic military doctrine, Ukraine traded force and space for time at Bakhmut. 

It preserved its best units for training with new western weapons in the belief that a few regular troops supported by territorial forces could hold off the Russian winter offensive, thereby giving Ukraine the edge for its counteroffensive. And the strategy worked. JL 

Daily Kos reports:

Bakhmut stands as an example of Ukraine's trading force and space for time. Ukraine (coud) continue to keep its best units at the front, incorporating new weaponry into new units staffed by inexperienced trainees.  Or, pull Ukraine’s most experienced units off the front lines for training to incorporate the new Western weapons into veteran units. Ukraine chose the latter, a major gamble that Russia’s Winter Offensive would be ineffective.  Ukraine believed (it) could be held off by a few regular army brigades and lightly trained Territorial Defense Force conscripts. Ukraine traded 15-20km of space for the asset Ukraine most needed to complete its counteroffensive army: time.

Once a person has a basic understanding of military tactics and history, one of the first things they internalize--incorrectly—is the idea that a frontal assault is always bad.

The platonic ideal of military tactical success might be the double envelopment, a sweeping encirclement of an enemy force from both flanks to crush the enemy formation from both sides and destroy them.  A close second might be the massive flanking maneuver, like General Lee at Chancellorsville, or General Schwarzkopf during the Gulf War.


Front assaults on fortified positions get a bad rap, and not without good reason.  The number of times foolish generals attempted massive frontal assaults on well-fortified positions and lost battles or even wars is beyond counting.  Bunker Hill, Pickett’s Charge, The Somme,  and Vuhledar are all examples of battles where generals lined up their troops and ran them straight into the teeth of enemy defenses.

Even where the troops were victorious in theory, pushing the enemy back, such as Bunker Hill or The Somme, the cost of victory was so high that the victory was not worth the cost.

So, a tendency for many amateur tacticians is to conclude that “frontal assault tactics are always bad, flanking is always good.”  This is not correct.

There are numerous examples in modern and near-modern history of what were, tactically, frontal assaults on fortified positions that were highly successful.  For example, Omaha Beach was a frontal assault by waves of infantry on a heavily fortified German entrenched position.  It wasn’t planned that way, as most of the armored component capsized and there was inaccurate military intelligence on the anti-tank weaponry available to the Germans.

But sometimes such attacks are necessary and worthwhile.

So our theme today is when and why would a frontal assault be the correct tactical option for a commander.

Why flanking is a high-risk tactic

So to understand why flanking is not a panacea tactical solution, it’s helpful to understand when and why it doesn’t work.

For example, let's say Army A is defending against Army B, sitting on a supply road from its capital.  Army B decides, let's avoid a frontal assault and tries to march on Army A’s flank.  Army A… moves.


Army B has to march in a circuitous longer route, while Army A has a shorter distance to march.  Thus, by the time Army B tries to move on Army A’s flank, Army A can be in a position to force Army B into a frontal assault, or worse a trap.

A historical example of exactly such an action would be the Battle of Rossbach (1757) during the Seven Years’ War.  A French and Holy Roman Imperial Allied Army of over 40,000 faced off against Frederick the Great’s Prussian Army of 20,000.  Despite their numerical advantage, the Allies got cute and avoided a frontal assault on the Prussian position, trying to outflank Frederick the Great.

Frederick the Great anticipated this flanking move and set a trap for the Allies, hiding his forces behind some hills and forests.  When the trap was sprung, the Allied columns were caught in a marching formation (as opposed to a battle line) and struck from 3 sides by the Prussians.  For less than 600 killed and wounded Prussians, Frederick the Great inflicted over 10,000 casualties on the Allied Army, annihilating it as a fighting force.


Circuitous maneuvers, particularly when they are predictable, give opportunities for the defender to turn the tables and prepare ambushes.

Had the Allied Army simply relied on their superior numbers to slowly attrit and grind down the Prussian force with firepower and persistence, they would have faired far better.

A person might protest and say, well the Allied Army at Rossbach was stupid.  Why did they try to march around the Prussian Army with their whole force?  They should have left some troops in front of the Prussians and marched around their flank with a second flanking force.


This is also known in military parlance as “dividing your army,” which invites what is known as a “defeat in detail.”

While force B2 is on the march, Army A could gather its forces and concentrate all 10,000 against the 6000 troops in Army B, crushing it before B2 arrives in flanking position.  Alternatively, Army A could leave a token force to face Army B and send a major force to crush B2 while it’s on the march.

Separating the Blue Army into two forces allows Red Army to bring superior localized forces against a given position and defeat Blue Army sequentially.

Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign (1862) in the American Civil War is frequently noted as a masterclass of a “defeat in detail.”  Jackson’s 17,000 Confederates faced off against 52,000 Union soldiers.  However, the Union Army chose to divide their forces into 3 forces, approaching Jackson from the West, North, and East, aiming to encircle and destroy Jackson.

Jackson held off 2 of the armies with small screening forces, while concentrating the bulk of his troops against each army, and defeated the Union Armies in turn.

Had the Union Army kept its far larger force concentrated, and focused on grinding down Jackson’s army in a series of frontal engagements, it is highly unlikely that Jackson could have held his position in the Shenandoah Valley.  The smaller Confederate army would have been ground down.

This is not to say flanking attacks don't work.  They can and do.  But it is necessary to consider tradeoffs in time and risk.

Time, Space, and Austerlitz

The other consideration that commanders must take into account is time.  That is, how long does a commander have to achieve victory, to leverage an advantage they hold?

One of Clausewitz’s key insights was the idea that force, time, and space are interchangeable in military actions.  A high degree of force can be used to more quickly capture an area.  A defensive army can trade space (territory) for a time by making repeated slow fighting withdrawals.  And a defensive army can continue feeding reinforcements to an area to trade force for time.

This relationship between the triad of military resources explains why sometimes commanders choose to make frontal assaults on fortified positions—it is a decision to trade time for force.

Take Napoleon’s tactical choice in the Battle of Austerlitz (1805).  When the French and Allied Armies deployed, Napoleon intentionally weakened his right flank.


The Allied Army looked at Napoleon’s force disposition and believed that Napoleon could not allow his right flank to collapse.  Losing the right flank would cut off Napoleon’s access to the main road that was his line of communications and supply back to France.  Thus, the Allied Army believed that Napoleon would have no choice but to weaken his center and send reinforcements to Napoleon’s right flank—thus an attack by Napoleon’s center was impossible.

The terrain on Napoleon’s right was deceptively inviting, as a wide flat plain perfect for massed infantry charges and cavalry maneuvers was in front.  However, as Napoleon’s forces retreated, they would be able to fall back into areas restricted by marshes and streams.  Furthermore, Napoleon had reinforcements a half-day away that he planned to use to reinforce his weak right flank.

This mean that Napoleon could first trade space and some of his right flank forces for a time while tying up the bulk of the Allied Army.  Once the main Allied Army was decisively and inextricably engaged to his right, Napoleon planned a decisive strike directly at the fortified heights at the Allied center—a frontal assault to break the enemy army in half.


Napoleon was running his infantry uphill, straight at the Russian artillery and infantry standing atop a tall hill.  However, the Allied Army had overcommitted to its attack on the French right flank and lacked sufficient reserves.  After some fierce close-range combat, Napoleon’s forces broke through the Allied center, tearing the Allied Army in half.

Then, Napoleon’s forces encircled the Allied left wing to their south, striking them with artillery fire from French batteries deployed on the Pratzen Heights.  Napoleon destroyed the Allied Army.  Austerlitz is widely considered to be Napoleon’s tactical masterpiece, and the key action was a massive frontal assault on a fortified hill.

It’s useful to ask why Napoleon chose a frontal assault, instead of trying to encircle or flank the Pratzen Heights.

The answer is time.

The French Army needed to capture the Pratzen Heights before the Allied Army on the French Right could extricate itself from the trap Napoleon had set.  Had the French attack on the Pratzen Heights taken a long time to develop, the Allies might rush reinforcements onto the Heights, or the Allied Left Wing could disengage and pulled back into the Allied Center.  This would ruin the entire trap.

Only by overcoming the Allied defenses in as short a time as possible would the trap catch the Allied Army—a  straightforward frontal assault by force of numbers and troop quality/morale was the fastest and most direct way to capture the heights.  Napoleon, in effect, chose to trade force for time and space.

Force Multipliers

Lastly, Force Multipliers are anything that can take the given combat force of a unit and multiply its effectiveness as if it were a larger unit.  Classically, terrain and fortifications are common examples, but advanced weaponry that outranges the enemy, air support, electronic warfare, information warfare, and psychological warfare, all can play a role in multiplying the combat force in a unit.

However, for our purposes, terrain and fortifications will be the primary focus.  If a unit of 1000 soldiers attacks a unit of 500 soldiers, all other things being equal, you would likely expect the attacker to win.

However, if the 500 soldiers sat upon a hill, surrounded by minefields and barbed wire, with muddy ground that slows movement and a stream that the attackers must cross, the 500 soldiers might be able to defeat an attack by 1,000 soldiers.  It might take 2,000 or 3,000 soldiers to overcome such a position.

The terrain and fortifications are called “force multipliers” as it permits the unit of 500 to operate with the power of a much larger force.  A force multiplier of +50% or +100% or more might exist for particularly favorable terrain.

In the Battle of Austerlitz, the marshes and rivers on Napoleon’s right flank were force multipliers that work to his advantage.  The Pratzen Heights were initially an Allied force multiplier, but once Napoleon captured them and move his artillery onto it, it became a French force multiplier.

Russo-Ukrainian War

As applied to the Russo-Ukrainian War, Bakhmut stands out as an example of Ukraine's trading force and space for time.

From December 2022, as Ukrainian Allies sharply increased their commitments for Western arms, beginning with large commitments of armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles (such as the Bradley, and the Marder), the commitments accelerated to include Western tanks, long-range cruise missiles and more.  Oryx records well over a thousand armored vehicles delivered to Ukraine from December 2022 — May 2023.

Ukraine had two choices.  Continue to keep its best units at the front and incorporate the new weaponry into new units staffed by inexperienced trainees.  Or, to pull Ukraine’s best and most experienced units off the front lines for training to incorporate the new Western weapon systems into its veteran units.

Ukraine chose the latter.  Numerous highly decorated Ukrainian units like the 1st and 4th Tank Brigades, the 25th Air Assault Brigade, and the 80th Air Assault Brigade were pulled off the front lines for training on Western equipment.  Powerful units that played a major role in previous Ukrainian counterattacks like the 92nd Mechanized and the 93rd Mechanized Infantry Brigades were moved off the front lines and have not seen much major action since Nov. 2022.

Pulling so many powerful brigades out of combat for combined arms training and use of new equipment represented a major gamble on Ukraine’s part that Russia’s Winter Offensive would be ineffective.  Ukraine believed the offensive could be held off by a few elite Ukrainian regular army brigades and a collection of lightly trained Territorial Defense Force conscripts.

Vuhledar and Avdiivka were defended by the elite 72nd Mechanized, which proceeded to wipe the floor with the Russian attackers limiting Russian gains sharply.  The 58th Motorized Infantry and 95th Air Assault Brigades helped hold the line on the Svatove — Kreminna front.

But the relationship between time/space/force is clearest at Bakhmut, where Ukraine slowly trades space and force for time.  From Russia’s increasing attacks on the Bakhmut sector from Nov. 2022 — May 2023, Ukraine slowly traded around 15-20km of space for the asset Ukraine most needed to complete its counteroffensive army: time.

With its high hills on 3 sides and the heavily fortified nature of the city, Bakhmut represented a major force multiplier for Ukraine, permitting Ukraine to sit back in defensive positions, while Ukrainian artillery fired down from the surrounding hills at advancing Russian positions to attrit their advances.

By the time the Russian forces captured most of Bakhmut, the Russians were too exhausted in men and material to make a serious push to control the key hills west of Bakhmut.

Now that the Ukrainian counterattack is imminent, the Ukrainians will have to make force/time/space calculations of a different sort.

Russia has prepared numerous fortifications and entrenched positions south of Zaporizhzhia, particularly in defense of Tokmak and Melitopol.  These fortification lines are clear force multipliers for the Russians.

However, time is a valuable asset for Ukraine as well.  There are only so many weeks of good tank weather in Ukraine, and to make the kind of impact to preserve optimism for Ukrainian victory (crucial to keep the flow of Western Aid flowing), Ukraine will have to make good use of that time.

The decisions are not simple or easy.  Tactical surprise can play a major role, and there is something to be said for preserving one’s forces as much as possible.

But my personal belief is that Ukraine now has the forces and equipment it needs to take on the main Russian defenses around Tokmak and Melitopol—the route of advance that would give Ukraine the ability to march on Crimea.  The time and space this commitment of forces will buy, in my opinion, is likely to be worth the price.


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