A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jun 16, 2023

The Strategy Driving Ukraine's Current Counteroffensive Tactics

Ukrainian forces are continuing to probe with light infantry backed by armor as they seek to open approaches to Russia's main lines of defense. While many are critical of this incremental strategy, it is purposeful.

Their goal is both to cause the Russians to overcommit before its primary defenses are breached and to identify weak points in the Russian lines. Ukraine has only committed 2 or 3 of its new assault brigades - and none of those are considered heavy armor units. Those are being saved to exploit breakthroughs. JL

Kos reports in Daily Kos:

Ukraine’s spring counteroffensive is in its nascent steps, with three of its 12 new “storm” brigades in action and none of its heavy-armored brigades. What we are seeing in Zaporizhzhia is tactical. Ukraine has only committed (a few) of its new storm brigades, light infantry units designed to clear open space. The heavy armor won’t arrive until they have to punch through that main line of defense. Russia seems to be overcommitting its reserves to plug an approach that hasn’t breached its lines. With multiple brigades ready, Ukraine has the ability to extend these lines in a way Russia doesn’t. It also forces Russia to move troops, which they don’t do well. Russia prefers set positions which are easier to organize. The more Ukraine can force Russia to move, the better.

We often talk about the difference between “strategic” and “tactical” when discussing military matters. The former speaks toward broad goals: the thing that must be done to win the war. The latter refers to the individual steps taken to move toward that strategic goal.

Ukraine has always understood this. Russia: clearly not.

Ukraine’s big spring counteroffensive is in its nascent steps, with just three of its 12 new “storm” brigades in action (and none of its heavy-armored brigades). What we are currently seeing down in Zaporizhzhia oblast in southern Ukraine could be the main thrust, or it could be a diversion. We have to wait and see. But either way, Ukrainian advances in the area are, thus far, tactical.

It is militarily irrelevant whether Ukraine holds Makarivka or not. What matters is that it is an important stop toward Ukraine’s broader strategic goal: driving south to the Azov Sea and cutting Vladimir Putin’s precious “land bridge” connecting mainland Russia to the Crimean Peninsula.

Or, maybe holding Makarivka forces Russia to overcommit its reserves to that advance, freeing up another part of the front, working toward what might be Ukraine’s real strategic objective. The point is, Makarivka (and we’ll talk more about that town later in this update) is not in itself important. It won’t end the war. It’s just a waypoint toward that grander strategic goal.

Here’s another way to look at the distinction: After 10 months of bloody effort, with tens of thousands of lives lost and multitudes more maimed, Russia conquered the city of Bakhmut.

The entire time, people like me wondered at the cost Russia was paying for a city with zero strategic value. Some accused people like me of being high on copium, trying to minimize Russia’s big accomplishment.

Yet look at Russia’s situation now. Has Bakhmut gotten Russia any closer to ending the war? Of course not. In fact, it depleted their forces to such an extent that it has likely made it easier for Ukraine to accomplish its goals. And with Ukraine now making gains in Bakhmut’s northern and southern flanks, it won’t be long before the city is either abandoned by Russia, or it becomes a graveyard for many more invaders.

It wasn’t always that way with Bakhmut. Once upon a time, Bakhmut was the southern half of a pincer maneuver that would cut off Ukrainian defenses on the entire Donbas contact line.

Map is from summer 2022.

Yet here’s the thing: That southern pincer only made sense, strategically, as long as Russia held Izyum. And that all ended on Sept. 10, 2022, when Russia retreated from the city during Ukraine’s liberation of Kharkiv oblast.

That northern pincer had long been dead in the water, as Russia’s mighty army crashed into a Ukrainian wall at tiny Dovhen’ke. But while tactically Russia was having a rough go trying to meet its strategic objectives, at least they had strategic objectives. A pincer would’ve isolated Ukraine’s formidable defenses in the Donbas, as well as the twin fortress cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, and would’ve ultimately fulfilled most of Russia’s initial war aims:

  • All of Donbas (Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts) would be under Russia control.

  • An estimated 30-50% of Ukraine’s army would be surrounded, in danger of destruction or surrender.

  • Russia’s land bridge to Crimea would be secure.

  • Russia could hold around a quarter-million civilians in Sloviansk and Kramatorsk hostage, threatening mass death.

  • Ukraine’s allies would apply pressure to end the war.

At that point, Russia would be in the driver’s seat, happy to swallow its ill-gotten gains, freezing the conflict until the next time it was ready to fight again.

That pipe dream all ended with Izyum’s liberation, but a funny thing happened: Russia never developed new strategic goals. The pincer was gone, but the generals in Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia never got the memo and they continued their mindless advances toward nothing. Indeed, taking Bakhmut and Vuhledar became the goals, without regard to any broader picture.

Russia never took Vuhledar, and never will. Occupying Bakhmut took monumental effort by Wagner mercenary forces, and then … nothing. It’s just sitting there, and Russian forces inside Bakhmut are sitting ducks to Ukrainian defenders raining death from the heights surrounding the town. If the “strategy” was a one-week propaganda boost, then …congrats? They didn’t even get that, with their victory parade interrupted by marauding pro-Ukrainian Russian rebels romping through Russia’s Belgorod and Kursk border regions.

Ever since the Kharkiv counteroffensive last fall, Ukraine’s strategic goal had been obvious: slow any Russian advances, bleeding the Russian war effort dry, while the West trained and equipped its 12 new storm brigades.

Now, with the tables turned and Russia on the defensive, it has the opportunity to do exactly the same thing: use its meticulously laid and extensive network of defensive emplacements to bleed Ukraine dry and strip it of its precious Western gear. With its fierce defenses of Bakhmut, Vuhledar, and other critical spots along the front line since the start of this year, Ukraine just showed Russia exactly how a strong defense can change the course of the war!

If Ukraine’s counteroffensive falters, it is more likely the West might tire of the effort and start looking for a negotiated settlement. Meanwhile, Russia could use the time to rebuild its tattered and shattered military, train new forces on modern battlefield combined-arms tactics, lean on its allies (and particularly China) to help equip those new forces, and then be ready to resume its offensive six to 12 months down the road.

But unbelievably, that’s not what Russia is doing.

Red lines are Russia’s main defensive lines.

Ukraine is pushing down from Velyka Novosilka, and has reportedly gotten as far south as Makarivka, just above that black pointer on the map above. Russia has decided that Staromaiors'ke, on the black pointer, is important. It is the only road up to Rivnopil, to its northwest, which sits on higher ground. If Staromaiors'ke falls, that Russian garrison up there is cut off and would have to either surrender or be eliminated.

There’s tactical sense in that, if the goal is to hold Rivnopil. But …

This is me screaming: Why would you defend open territory when you have perfectly good prepared defenses just a few kilometers south?

Why on god’s green earth are they fighting up there? Ukraine’s push south has been stopped the last several days because—get this—Russia has sent multiple waves trying to retake Makarivka!

So imagine if you’re Ukraine: Do you push south and deal with Russian defenders in their well-prepared trenches, or do you sit there nice and cozy and pick off charging Russians out in the open?

Ukraine has only committed one or two of its new storm brigades in this axis, and both are light infantry units designed to clear open space. The heavy-armored brigades won’t arrive until they have to punch through that main line of defense. Yet Russia seems to be overcommitting its reserves, out in the open, to plug an approach that hasn’t even breached its lines.

Ukraine’s best-case scenario never looked as good as this!

Elsewhere on that front line, Ukraine announced that its forces advanced “up to one kilometer” south of Vuhledar, likely ending Russia’s efforts against the town once and for all.

Again, notice that these are light and mechanized (mounted) infantry. These brigades will have some tanks for fire support, but the heavy tank brigades are still being held back, and we won’t likely see them until Ukraine reaches Russia’s main defensive lines.

And while one kilometer doesn’t sound overly exciting, note that these approaches toward the main lines are heavily mined, riddled with ambush points with infantry manning anti-tank missiles. They have to be methodically cleared, and light infantry is the best for this task.

We won’t see any rapid movement until a main defensive line is breached, and Ukraine can romp in the backfield.

With at least 3 of the western equipped brigades identified near Velyka Novosilka on the southern front we know this area is of interest to Ukraine.  That isn’t to say that they can’t respond elsewhere as they still have @6 more western equipped brigades and 8 more “Offensive Guard” brigades yet to be committed.  But Velyka Novosilka is getting enough attention to be worthy of some speculation as to what Ukraine may attempt here.

On the map above, red lines drawn in roughly represent the Russian fortifications.  The white lines represent Deep State’s railroad locations, those these are incomplete as there is a rail line going north from Polohy into Ukrainian controlled territory.  This makes Polohy more important in my estimation than Tokmak.  Below is the google map of Russian fortifications for reference.  Notice the difference in density in areas. 

Ukraine is attacking through the least dense area of fortifications.  Once they get past that line near where they started, they can fan out behind the line collapsing Russian forces as they go.  One thrust can continue down to Mariupol where there is a southern coastal highway which should be cut.  Then there are advantages to going both east and west.

Taking a right turn and heading west towards Polohy would allow Ukraine to establish rail service for their own supply into this area.  Plus they can approach Melitopol from the east bypassing most of those fortification lines.  They will continue to put pressure on those lines to force the Russians to keep troops there (known as a blocking or fixing action).  But then as Ukraine comes in from the south east many of those lines will collapse as many are not designed to be approached from the SE.  

Similarly if Ukraine turns left and heads east they can start to clear out the lines near Donetsk.  Again, doing so from the Russian rear area means these lines will be more easily taken with the Russians trapped between two forces.  If Ukraine can get south of Donetsk they can start to threaten the supply lines into Donetsk city and possibly force the surrender of the city.

As the Ukrainians push south from Velyka Novosilka the salient should work in their favor extending the length of the lines Russia needs to defend.  This will force Russians to thin themselves out somewhere else or let Ukraine run loose in this area.  With multiple brigades ready to go Ukraine has the ability to extend the length of these lines in a way Russia currently doesn’t.  It also forces Russia to move troops, something they don’t do well, particularly moving them straight into combat.  Russia prefers set positions which are easier to organize.  The more Ukraine can force Russia to move, the better off they are.


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