A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jul 24, 2023

How the Ukrainians Are Fighting Smart - And It's Working

Despite all the hand-wringing and nay-saying about the Ukrainian counteroffensive - from, among others, the chronically negative New York Times, influential experts Michael Kofman and RA Lee, et al - there is abundant evidence from multiple sources that the Ukrainians are making headway both in their attacks on the ground and in their campaign to degrade Russian logistics, command and control. 

The definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result. The Ukrainians learned quickly from the early armored attacks on Russian lines, have adapted and are pushing forward on several key fronts - recapturing far more territory than the Russians did over the winter. NATO militaries understand this, which is why they are increasing support. JL

Phillips O'Brien reports in his substack:

Reporting of this war follows the same pattern: despair, optimism, despair, optimism, despair…..ad infinitum. A failure in this war would be to continue undertaking operations that damage your forces more than your enemy. The Ukrainian counteroffensive will go as follows: Phase 1: operational maneuver (early June, lasts 10 days). Once they realized this was unlikely to be successful, the Ukrainians moved to: Phase 2: degrade Russian artillery/MLRS by attacking Russian systems, ammunition, radars. In this phase now. Once the Ukrainians have achieved success, they will move to: Phase 3: degrade forces in the Russian lines including soldiers, vehicles, logistics and command.

Once again this week showed the way . reporting of this war goes, endlessly it seems, rounds and round following the same pattern. When it comes to Ukraine its despair, optimism, despair, optimism, despair…..ad infinitum. Even when the war is in a distinct and continuing phase (as it is now). We have actually been in the same phase of the Ukrainian counteroffensive for more than a month…and yet people seem only to be discovering that. Its a little maddening.


Please Give this Time

In the last few days there have been reports about the Ukrainian military having failed in parts of the counteroffensive. As I tried to tweet about yesterday, this has a very weird definition of failure. A failure in this war would be to continue undertaking operations that damage your forces and your own ability to regenerate forces more than your enemy. In other words, if Ukraine started the counteroffensive, discovered that in assaulting Russian lines that they took heavy losses—and still continued, that would be a failure (and a catastrophic one). Ukraine doesn’t want to suffer losses anywhere near equal to Russian—the Ukrainians care about the lives of their soldiers, and Ukrainian soldiers are better trained and motivated than their Russian counterparts. An equal loss rate between the two is not in Ukraine’s favor.


And guess what—Ukraine didn;t make that failure. After realizing in a very short period (maybe 10 days) that the loss rates in assaulting Russian lines would be too high, the Ukrainians stopped. They entered a new phase a month ago—AND THEY ARE STILL IN THAT PHASE. I wrote a mid week substack in early July on the phases that we are (and probably will) see over the course of the summer. I will put them here so that you can see them—see italics below.

So the Ukrainian counteroffensive seems to have gone (and will go) as follows:

  1. Phase 1: attempt at operational maneuver (starts in early June, lasts 10 days). Once they realized this was unlikely to be successful, the Ukrainians moved to:

  2. Phase 2: attempt to seriously degrade Russian artillery/MLRS capabilities by attacking Russian systems, ammunition, radars, EW, etc. We are in this phase now. Once the Ukrainians feel they have achieved success in this phase, they will move to:

  3. Phase 3: attempt to degrade the forces in the Russian lines facing them. This would involve devoting more Ukrainian systems to attacking Russian lines, soldiers, vehicles, etc (as well as constant attacks on logistics and command and control). This phase will last until they feel Russian forces have been so weakened that they will move to:

  4. Phase 4: Another attempt at operational maneuver. They will hopefully have weakened Russian lines enough that they can now find weak points to exploit.

One thing—the Ukrainians will not rush this process.

The last point above that I wrote in July is the key one, that the phase of the destruction of Russian artillery (including logistics and command/control) will take time. Certainly, Ukraine is still making this a high (maybe increasing) priority. Just yesterday they used some of their newer, longer-ranged systems to strike some massive Russian ammunition depots in Crimea. The explosion in one of these, which stood right in the center of Crimea, seems to have been long-lasting and catastrophic. Here is the Institute for the Study of War map and report on the attack.

Ukraine only recently gained access to such longer range systems such as storm shadow—and as such this campaign still has a ways to run. How long—well that is up to the Ukrainians and they will take as long as they need. They obviously need to think about the weather if they are going to try a major advance again—but looking at last year, that means that this phase could last even another month and a half. The Ukrainians could start another maneuver campaign in late summer early fall (think the Kharkiv offensive).

Such patience doesn’t sit well both for war reporting, and it gives an opportunity for those who want to profit from what looks like a stalemate (but really isn’t) to try and say Ukraine is doing poorly, Putin must be given a deal, etc, etc. Please dont be fooled.

The reality is that this is best way Ukraine can fight with the support it has been given. It cant do otherwise unless is wants to suffer too great losses. Its also a sign of great strategic success. The Ukrainians adapted quickly to the reality of the modern battlefield, and are giving themselves the best chance of success. Let them get on with the task.

Why what we are seeing shows Ukraine was right to fight for Bakhmut

One thing that should be clear now is that all the similar hand-wringing and prognostications of March-April by reporters and analysts about the Battle of Bakhmut shows how bad the reporting and analysis of this war can be. If you remember, there was a loud chorus back then that the Battle of Bakhmut was turning against Ukraine, that Ukrainian losses were too high, and that Ukraine needed to withdraw from Bakhmut, stop the fighting and abandon the city to the Russians.

At the time this argument struck me as detached from reality considering the way we were seeing—even though it was made almost everywhere. Mykola Bielieskov and I were so perplexed by these arguments that we wrote an article in the Atlantic to show how wrongheaded they were.


As Mykola argued, it was vital for Ukraine to continue tying up and destroying Russian resources if Ukraine was to have the best chance this summer. Imagine, now, if the doom-prognosticators have been listened to in March/April and Ukraine had stopped fighting in Bakhmut. The Russians would have declared victory, saved many tens of thousands of troops that could now be staffing Russian lines. Moreover, they would have had many more months to build and strengthen their defensive lines. These are the defensive lines that now all the reporters and analysts are saying are so strong that they are thwarting the Ukrainians now.

Indeed, what we have seen is that Ukraine has made the most of their advances in the Bakhmut area, which the Russians had the least time to fortify. Indeed, its now the Russian forces in the Bakhmut area that are in danger of having their supply lines cut because of Ukrainian fire control.


So, everything we have seen in the Bakhmut area vindicates the Ukrainian decision to fight for the city and destroys the reporters/analytical narrative that Ukraine was failing there. It should also give caution to those who believe the reporting/analysis that Ukraine is failing in its counteroffensive now (its not).

btw—Mykola and I are so amazed that the same failures are now being repeated about the counteroffensive that we are preparing a new article on how to understand it, in the format of our piece on Bakhmut. Hope to have that done soon.

A Past and Present CIA Chief talks about the War and Putin's Rule

This week, two senior CIA members have given their takes on what might be happening in Russia—and these are to be taken seriously. First, former acting head of the CIA John McLaughlin, released his take in the Cipher.


This is an excellent and measured piece on what the Prigozhin mutiny might mean about the situation in Russia. John McLaughlin is one of those level-headed and very careful analysts who makes only evidence-based conclusions. I would take what he says very seriously.

The other example is present director William Burns, who gave an interview to the Aspen Security Forum this week, and said a number of interesting things. You can watch the whole interview here.


Burns said many interesting things, but let me quote two of them. First, for all the nuclear sabre rattling, there is no sign that Putin is preparing to use nuclear weapons.

BURNS: Well, I mean, I'd say several things. First, you know, the nuclear saber-rattling that Putin and some of those around him have engaged in is reckless and deeply irresponsible. It is, however, not something we can take lightly. We do not see today any concrete preparations for the potential use of nuclear weapons. We have made absolutely clear in that conversation with Sergey Naryshkin, one of my Russian counterparts, and through other channels the depth of our concern. So it's something that we obviously monitor very, very carefully. But as I said, we don't see any immediate signs of preparations for nuclear use.

The second was on Prigozhin. Burns was rather pessimistic about the long-term survival, but also judges that the mutiny reveals real problems with the stability of the Putin regime.

Burns: Well, I mean I've seen over the last three decades since the end of the Cold War, you know, a lot of fascinating episodes in Russia but none more fascinating than Prigozhin's mutiny, which was the most direct assault on the Russian state in Vladimir Putin's 23 years in power. I think, in many ways, it exposed some of the significant weaknesses in the system that Putin has built. Weaknesses that had already been laid bare by the disastrous and deeply destructive war that Putin launched 18 months ago in Ukraine. What was remarkable to me though was now, almost exactly a month ago today, after Prigozhin launched that munity, was the way in which Putin felt compelled to do a deal with his former caterer. What was equally remarkable, if you look back at the 36 hours that preceded that deal, it began a month ago today in the morning of Russian time with a 30-minute video that Yevgeny Prigozhin put on Telegram, which is a channel that probably more than a third of the Russian population is active on. And that video was the most scathing indictment of Putin's rationale for war, of the conduct of the war, of the corruption at the core of Putin's regime, that I've heard from a Russian or a non-Russian.

As I said, both McLaughlin and Burns are excellent and should be listened to.


Anonymous said...

The US started out in WW2 in pretty sad shape also. Pear Harbor was an obvious disaster. Japan was considered the dominant sea power. Next came the battle of the Coral Sea which Japan could claim was a victory of sorts because they sank a US aircraft carrier, damaged another and next came the US invasion of Guadalcanal which was so badly supplied that the Marines on the island sarcastically renamed the invasion Operation Shoestring.
At night the Japanese battleships would steam into the harbor and shell the unfortunate Marines unopposed.
I wonder what those dooms day journalist of today would have been reporting about the battle of Guadalcanal if they were there back then. But we know that the US prevailed and won the Island.

Anonymous said...

Agreed and good point!

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