A Blog by Jonathan Low


May 15, 2023

Why Ukraine's Brilliant Autumn Offensive May Presage Its Next One

Ukraine's military leadership has demonstrated brilliant strategic and tactical competence from the defense of Kyiv to the autumn Kharkiv and Kherson and then to the defense of Bakhmut. 

Look for more of the same. JL 

Daily Kos reports:

Zaluzhnyi made a fateful decision: He agreed to make a serious attack Kharkiv with a major force, but he would not abandon taking Kherson. The brilliance of the two-part offensive that Zaluzhnyi adopted is in the way that, despite being geographically far removed, the attacks by Ukraine on Kherson served to support the offensive in Kharkiv. With Russian commanders' attention fully fixed on the Kherson front, warning signs of an impending Ukrainian counteroffensive in the Kharkiv front went unheeded. (And) Russian military leadership was too inflexible to change plans in response to developments. “We broke through the front line, and the enemy started panicking.”

“The silence bothered me the most. It seemed off. How could this be?” Oleh, a Company Commander, 25th Airborne Assault Brigade in a spearhead unit of the Kharkiv Counteroffensive, told the The Washington Post in December.

At the time of the silence, Oleh was about to take part in what may end up as the two most famous Ukrainian offensives in the Russo-Ukrainian War. Given orders to break through Russian defensive lines and advance nearly 60 km behind Russian lines, Oleh was initially incredulous, thinking it was “some kind of dubious operation.”


Like most Ukrainian commanders, Oleh had taken part in grueling combat that battled over a few hundred meters, or a few kilometers. No Ukrainian unit had torn through Russian defenses in 50-to 60 km advances. But Oleh’s experience in the war had been one of constant Russian artillery barrages against Ukrainian lines.

Yet when Oleh arrived south of Kharkiv for the rendezvous point to prepare for the beginning of the counteroffensive in early September 2022, the Russian lines were quiet—so quiet that Oleh found it eerie.

Oleh’s unit would be in Izium in six days. In Lyman in a month. And Kherson would be liberated about a month later, after a glorious two-month dual offensive that entirely changed the dynamic of the war.

Western governments would believe that Ukraine could win with the proper equipment, and a flood of armored equipment, artillery, anti-aircraft systems and fighter jets would begin flowing to Ukraine starting a month after Kherson’s liberation.

It’s a story that anyone who has followed the Russo-Ukrainian War in even a cursory manner would know and know well.

However, the strategic brilliance of this two-front offensive remains underappreciated.

A bad general irrationally ignores military principles.

A good general follows military principles.

A brilliant general knows when to ignore military principles.

Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi’s two-front offensive flew in the face of conventional military strategy, yet was precisely the right decision to maximize Ukrainian gains in fall 2022.


One of the oldest military principles is still applicable today: Never divide your forces.  Separating your troops into multiple prongs divides your army into weaker pieces. Each attack becomes weaker, and courts a “defeat in detail.”

For example, in its most simple form, an overall smaller force of 10,000 might defeat a larger force of 16,000 that in turn divided their army into two pieces.


Though Blue Army is overall outnumbered, it can fight two battles with a numerical advantage due to the Red Army’s mistake of dividing their forces.

You might ask why Red Army would do such a thing, but this kind of mistake occurs not infrequently in military history.

One of the oldest recorded examples would be the Persians at the Battle of Marathon (490 B.C.). The huge invading Persian Army disembarked with 25,000 to 30,000 troops on the Plains of Marathon; 11,000 Greek heavy infantry blocked the exit to the Plains in a strong defensive position atop a hill, with its flanks protected by a grove of trees, and the other by marshes.

A standoff ensued.

Then, according to Herodotus, the elite Persian cavalry reembarked and left. Herodotus also comments later and separately that the Persians sent a force to attack Athens directly. Historian Peter Krentz suggests that taken together, the Persians—unable and unwilling to break the standoff with a direct assault on a strong position—separated their forces. In this interpretation, the Persians send a portion of their infantry and their elite cavalry troops by sea to attack Athens, while the Athenian Army remained in the standoff as part of the Greek Allied Army at Marathon.

However, once the Persian cavalry departed, the Greeks took to the offensive and managed to crush the Persian army in a double envelopment. Notably, the battle makes no mention of the famed Persian cavalry taking the field. After a Greek victory, the famous runner of Marathon, Pheidippides, was dispatched to Athens to notify the citizens of victory, warning them not to surrender to the Persian forces should they arrive.

Numerous other examples of the folly of dividing armies can be found. Stonewall Jackson’s famed Valley Campaign during the American Civil War is a prime example. Jackson’s force numbered no more than 17,000 and yet defeated Union Armies totaling over 52,000.

The Union Armies failed to concentrate, and attempted to encircle Jackson’s army from three sides with three separate forces. Jackson proceeded to concentrate, in turn, against the divided forces in a textbook “defeat in detail” operation. Jackson struck each force with superior concentrated forces. Despite having a 3 to 1 numeric advantage, the defeated Union generals fled, thinking they were outnumbered in the campaign.

And of course, the February 2022 Russian plan to invade Ukraine was a textbook example of how not to plan a military operation: separating Russian forces into as many as seven separate axes of advance. Only 35 to 40% of Russian forces were committed to the critical Battle of Kyiv, allowing Ukraine to concentrate enough forces to win the critical battle for the capital.

Washington Post

When Ukraine began preparing for a counteroffensive against Russia’s exhausted armies in late summer 2022, conventional military thinking would have called for Ukrainian Supreme Commander General Zaluzhnyi to concentrate Ukrainian strength against a single objective.

Zaluzhnyi's decision to ignore this precept would have far-reaching consequences, and lead to not one, but two major victories.


Russia’s forces had spent the first half of 2022 first battering itself against the defense of Kyiv, then in the unsuccessful Donbas Offensive in early summer. The Russian army suffered massive casualties in the two battles, but Russian attempts to encircle the Ukrainian army in Eastern Ukraine failed.

Russia contented itself with hurling frontal assaults at Ukrainian positions in Severodonetsk backed by massive artillery bombardments, capturing the city at huge costs in men and materiel.

These offensives left Russia depleted in manpower, but President Putin ignored calls from his generals to order a mobilization, fearing the political pushback it would cause. Having told the Russian people that no war was ongoing and that Ukraine was a weak third-rate power, Putin feared asking the Russian population for major sacrifices to win his war of choice.

Zaluzhnyi’s attention was fixed on what he saw as a major weakness in the Russian position: its position north of the Dnipro River at Kherson.


The Russians controlled a narrow strip of territory north of the Dnipro River that could be supplied only by two road bridges and a lightly used rail bridge.

Zaluzhnyi knew that with his new HIMARS-guided rocket systems, he could strike those bridges and interdict—restrict the flow of supplies and render the enemy unable to resist—the Russian forces. Once Ukraine knew it was getting the HIMARS system, Zaluzhnyi’s eyes were on Kherson.

This was because at Kherson, the Russians were ignoring another basic military axiom: Never defend with a river to your rear. Rivers to your rear mean uncertain supply and logistics. Units cannot fall back easily past the river, and moving reserves are constrained. A retreat can be perilous.

An army with a river before it is in a very strong position. An army with a river behind it has already compromised itself.

With Zaluzhnyi’s eyes firmly on Kherson, he called upon the generals on his staff to come to him with plans for diversionary attacks that would draw soldiers away from Kherson.

Commanders of their respective theaters created scale models of their areas, designing assaults and painstakingly gaming out different plans of attack.

However, in August 2022, Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky came with a different suggestion. Gen. Syrsky was Zaluzhnyi’s second in command for the Ukrainian Army, and his area of responsibility was in Northeastern Ukraine. Sysrsky suggested that the Russian army was ripe for a surprise assault around Kharkiv.

Sysrky had been mulling the idea of a counteroffensive in the direction of Balakliya and Izium since spring 2022. In particular, he eyed the three railroad hubs southeast of Kharkiv used by the Russians as key logistic nodes.


Russian forces in the area had been launching fruitless attacks southward from Izium aimed at capturing Sloviansk, and their forces were oriented southward. Syrski sensed an opportunity.

Satellite surveillance data, observation drones, and Ukrainian scouting missions confirmed Syrski’s instincts to be correct. Most of the Russian units deployed north of Izium had been allowed to degrade to the point of being hollowed out, and defenses were light.

Russia suffered enormous battlefield losses from February to August 2022. But despite these manpower losses, Vladimir Putin steadfastly refused to consider a mobilization to replenish Russian military units. As a result, units in the Kharkiv direction were severely degraded.

Furthermore, Russia anticipated an attack on Kherson and began shifting units there from around Kharkiv. Almost half of the units in Izium were relocated to Kherson, including some of Russia’s best units.

Two problems were anticipated:

  • This area of the battlefield is extremely close to Russia’s base of supply in Belogorad, northeast of Kupiansk. Reinforcements and materiel can be rushed into this area once the attack starts. Indeed, Russia would throw in their newly formed 3rd Army Corps to try to stop the Ukrainian attack.
  • Although the number of Russian defenders in the area was relatively light, the cities themselves were heavily fortified and would require a large amount of artillery and shells to clear out.

Taking in this information, Zaluzhnyi made a fateful decision: He agreed to make a serious attack with a major force under Sysrki’s command, but he would not abandon the idea of taking Kherson.

The magnitude of this gamble is difficult to overstate.


Conventional military theory holds that one should concentrate one’s forces upon the target. The scope of the operation, in terms of what other secondary objectives are chosen, is generally built all around the idea of striking at the primary objective.

For example, attacks in areas adjacent to the main objective might be carried out so as to threaten to outflank the primary objective area, or cut off the primary objective from lines of supply. Third-level secondary objectives might do the same to secondary objective areas, drawing the enemy army thinner and broader, to make the primary objective area easier to capture.

Take, for example, an operation aimed at City A (the objective).


A supportive operation that attacks across a broad front might be considered in this way. If the frontal attack on City A is unlikely to succeed, but adding more troops would be excessively concentrated or not ideal, one might launch attacks on cities B1 and B2. If either city can be taken, Blue Army might sweep around and cut off City A’s line of supply.

Thus, to defend City A, Red Army must defend City B1 and B2, which prevents them from concentrating their defenses on City A.

Then, Blue Army might attack City C1 and C2. Both cities might be necessary to defend Cities B1 and B2, thus requiring the enemy to spread out further … and so on.

Thus, “concentration of force” doesn’t mean that you don’t attack multiple secondary objectives, but it does mean that your secondary objectives are built around mutually supporting attacks with the same end goal.

As fronts on the opposite ends of the battlefield, Kharkiv and Kherson are not conventionally mutually supportive theaters, so launching serious offensives on both is a classic example of dividing one’s forces—which is considered to be a highly risky and usually foolhardy move.


A far more conventional plan of attack would have been to launch a diversion at the Kharkiv, Dontesk, or Zaporizhzhia fronts, and then launch the main attack in a single theater.

Making matters worse, the Ukrainian army was desperately short of both artillery and ammunition. Ukraine had started receiving the M777 and other NATO 155mm artillery by summer 2022, which gave Ukraine far more potent artillery units and guided munition shells. But the number of Western artillery units was small, and Ukraine was still reliant on Soviet artillery to a large extent.

To launch two major counteroffensive operations, Zaluzhnyi would have to strip bare other areas to obtain the guns and ammunition he needed.

The area Zaluzhnyi chose to strip of artillery was the eastern front, around Bakhmut and Donetsk. Zaluzhnyi gambled that the Russian forces in the area were exhausted from fighting throughout the summer, and Russia would be rushing its reinforcements to Kherson.

Without Western artillery, with little Soviet-era artillery, and precious little ammunition, Zaluzhnyi would in essence ask his defenders of that front to give their lives to provide artillery ammunition in other sectors. Furthermore, Zaluzhnyi would send his lowest-priority soldiers, undertrained conscript territorial defense forces, to die in the trenches of the eastern front, knowing they were undersupported.

The consequences of losing the gamble were obvious: The worst-case scenario might see the Kharkiv counteroffensive get bogged down in fighting over the fortified cities as Russian reinforcements rushed down to stop the assault, leading to Ukraine running short on ammunition in the area. The ammunition needs in the northeast would hamstring the Kherson counteroffensive, and the attacks could end in a stalemate.

And the under-gunned and undersupplied eastern front could simply collapse, with Russian forces surging forward to engulf Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, and begin advancing on central Ukraine.

Zaluzhnyi would go down in history as the man who gambled the fate of his nation on a foolish plan that divided his outnumbered forces and doomed his countrymen to genocide and exploitation by Russia. Those were the consequences Zaluzhnyi faced in the event of catastrophic failure. The easiest, safest thing to do would have been to focus on winning the Battle of Kherson.

Yet Zaluzhnyi changed his plans: He accepted Syrski’s proposal and dramatically reworked Ukraine’s operational plans to include two major counteroffensives: Kharkiv and Kherson.


The brilliance of the two-part offensive that Zaluzhnyi adopted is in the way that the two operations, quite unconventionally, work in tandem to support each other. Despite being geographically far removed, the attacks by Ukraine on Kherson served to support the offensive in Kharkiv.

Ukraine gradually began stepping up bombardment of Russian logistical, command, and control targets throughout the Kherson area. HIMARS rockets struck the Antonivka Road Bridge—the main bridge connecting Kherson to the east bank of the Dnipro River— repeatedly from July 17 to late August, until the bridge became completely unusable.

The slowly increasing crescendo of artillery and rocket strikes reached a roar as President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced the beginning of the Kherson counteroffensive on Aug. 29, and Ukrainian units began launching probing attacks all over the front lines.

Russian supplies and reserve units were rushed to the Kherson front.

Meanwhile, with little fanfare, several HIMARS units were shifted to the Kharkiv front; starting in early August, they began bombarding key command and control headquarters outposts and ammunition depots in the Kharkiv front.

However, with the Russian commanders' attention seemingly fully fixed on the Kherson front, warning signs of an impending Ukrainian counteroffensive in the Kharkiv front—raised even by some Russian bloggers—went seemingly entirely unheeded.

Alternatively, U.S. intelligence suggests that Russian military leadership was too inflexible to change plans rapidly in response to developments, or that Russian commanders were being lied to by their subordinates and did not understand the weakness of their position in Kharkiv.

Syrski quietly began forming a spearhead concentration of units to rapidly overrun Russian defenses. The 25th Air Assault Brigade—including Oleh, whose perspective opened this story—was placed into position for the offensive around this time, as was the 4th Tank Brigade.

On Sept. 6, hellfire rained down on key Russian positions as Ukraine’s finest artillery units, equipped with Western M777s, HIMARS, and M270 MLRS, began firing everything they had at Russian targets, which were identified by U.S. intelligence beforehand.

The U.S. was notified of the impending attack only days before it began and had virtually no role in planning the offensive, but had provided targeting data to Ukraine based on priorities laid out by Ukrainian general staff. Command centers, communication nodes, ammunition depots, fuel depots—all of them!—began to be consumed by fire as Western rockets and GPS-guided 155mm artillery shells began striking everything in sight.

Then, Ukrainian T-72 and T-64 tanks of the 4th Tank Brigade and the 25th Air Assault Brigade began moving forward, supported by thousands of mechanized infantry.

Russian communications and command were paralyzed as units at the front could not communicate with their command centers, some of which were now craters in the ground.

“We broke through the front line, and the enemy started panicking,” as Oleh described it.

The Kharkiv counterattack proved to be a greater success than Syrski had ever hoped. In the first 24 hours, Ukrainian forces penetrated 20 km deep into Russian lines. In just six days, the 25th Air Assault Brigade would capture Izium. the 4th Tank Brigade would catch the Russian 1st Tank Army—Russia’s finest tank formation—disorganized and confused north of Izium, and destroy nearly 100 Russian tanks in just 100 hours.

The highly trumpeted, newly formed Russian 3rd Corps would be fed into the whirlwind of fire that was the Ukrainian advance. The 3rd Corps quickly melted away in the panic, and was nearly destroyed.

Syrski rode the momentum of the Russian collapse, capturing Lyman by Oct. 1.

What is remarkable about Zaluzhnyi’s plan is that the massive bombardments and attacks on the Kherson front were not diversionary, in the classic sense. Ordinarily, a diversion is a type of attack that serves no purpose other than to draw enemy units away from the main objective.

Here, the attack on Kherson was the real thing. Zaluzhnyi had every intention of actually capturing Kherson after the Kharkiv counteroffensive, thus the artillery bombardments were more than just a diversion: They were advancing him toward that objective.

Before long, both bridges over the Dnipro River went down.

ANTONIVKA, UKRAINE - NOVEMBER 14: The Antonivskyi Bridge, destroyed by the Russian army, is seen on November 14, 2022 in Antonivka, Ukraine. As the first wave of joy from the liberation by the Ukrainian army subsides, residents are beginning to think about life in the future. The city remains without light, water, heat and communication. Locals charge their phones at a few available generators. A group of volunteers cooked food on a street for eight months and is distributing it to residents. There are not many military personnel in the city, but the Ukrainian police are already working. The main problems are lack of communication and medicine. The authorities promise to restore their operation and supply soon. It will take longer to restore heat and electricity, so people are preparing for a hard and cold winter. (Photo by Andrii Dubchak/Donbas Frontliner via Zaborona/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)
The Antonivka Road Bridge was destroyed.

Russia was forced to resupply by ferry and the Russian army found itself in a logistical trap, where the very size of the army it deployed was being used against itself.

Ukraine began pressing attacks across the Kherson front to try to get Russia to expend too many artillery shells to sustain its position.

With progress slow, Zaluzhnyi made a major change in late September that was not announced publicly at the time: Major Gen. Andriy Kovalchuk was replaced by Brigadier Gen. Oleksandr Tarnavsky, after Kovalchuk was deemed not imaginative or aggressive enough. Tarnavsky immediately began drawing plans to accelerate the offensive and place greater pressure on the Russian defenders.

A major surprise armored assault was launched on the northeastern portion of the line in early October that saw the 1st Tank Brigade break through the Russian defensive line and advance nearly 30 km.

With Russian attention fixed on the northeast, Tarnavsky began planning a major assault, straight down the fortified lines between Mykolaiv and Kherson, and spearheaded by the 59th Motorized Rifle Brigade. Tarnavsky’s logic, as he commented“The calculation was the enemy wouldn’t think we would do it there.”


The 59th Brigade overcame ferocious defense from elite Russian VDV units to capture Zelenyi Hai on Nov. 9. This brought the Kherson ferry river landings within range of RAP (rocket-assisted projective) shells for M777s, allowing Ukraine to further interdict the Russian position.

The same day, Russia announced it was withdrawing from Kherson.

On Nov. 11, Ukrainian troops entered Kherson to cheering crowds chanting “Slava Ukraini” (“Glory to Ukraine!”) and “ZSU!” which stands for Zbroini syly Ukrainy (Armed Forces of Ukraine).

KHERSON, UKRAINE - NOVEMBER 16: Ukranian military pose with children at Liberty Square as the city continues to celebrate their liberation from Russia on November 16, 2022 in Kherson, Ukraine. On November 15th, four days after Russia's humiliating withdrawal in southern Ukraine, missiles hit Kyiv, along with several other cities. Ukrainian President Zelensky visited Kherson after the city was recaptured, and as the only regional capital that Moscow's troops had been able to take control of, dealt a major blow to Russia's offensive. Kyiv claims in particular that Russian forces destroyed a power plant before withdrawing.(Photo by Paula Bronstein /Getty Images)
Ukranian military pose with children at Liberty Square as the city continues to celebrate their liberation from Russia.


Zaluzhnyi’s plan can be explained as a series of fairly simple steps:

  1. The campaign to liberate Kherson is announced publicly, and a widespread bombardment to degrade Russian logistics begins in mid-July.
  2. The bombardments gradually intensify throughout August. Russia begins transferring troops to Kherson. Ukraine begins planning the Kharkiv offensive.
  3. One week before launching the Kharkiv counteroffensive, Ukraine announces the Kherson counteroffensive has begun, and begins a massive artillery and rocket barrage, drawing more Russian troops to Kherson.
  4. By drawing soldiers to Kherson, Russia makes Ukraine’s interdiction campaign even more effective, as the larger army requires a greater tonnage of supplies.
  5. But as the Ukrainian pressure against Kherson mounts, Russia needs more men to prevent Ukraine from advancing within artillery range of the Kherson river crossings, as that would cut off Russia from supplies entirely.
  6. This also reduces the number of Russian soldiers available to defend Kharkiv.
  7. The Kharkiv offensive succeeds, as Ukraine concentrated a powerful armored force against a heavily degraded and weakened sector of the Russian line. The collapse of the line breeds panic and even full-strength Russian units are caught up and defeated in detail.
  8. The Kherson offensive is pushed to its logical conclusion, and the Russians are forced to retreat.

The genius, in my opinion, is a recognition that more troops in Kherson won’t hurt the offensive there as much as it would help a Ukrainian opportunity in Kharkiv.

This recognition of a highly atypical circumstance allowed Zaluzhnyi to work the terrain to his advantage, and ignore one of the military axioms: Never divide your forces.


A bad general irrationally ignores military principles.

A good general follows military principles.

A brilliant general knows when to ignore military principles.

Zaluzhnyi is a brilliant general.


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