A Blog by Jonathan Low


Aug 26, 2023

Ukraine's Latest Gains Reflect Both NATO Strategy, Ukrainian Tactical Experience

Ukrainian forces' advances at Robotyne towards Tokmak and Melitopol are starting to accelerate, with multiple reports suggesting Russian defenses are starting to 'crumble.'

This success is the result of an often feisty dialogue between Ukrainian and NATO commanders, who share different levels of experience and strategic oversight. The recent gains appear to be the result of the best of both perspectives, reflecting NATO strategic understanding of the power of modern weaponry combined with Ukraine's tactical understanding of how the Russians fight. JL 

Michael Gordon reports in the Wall Street Journal:

The U.S. urged the Ukrainians to mass their forces and concentrate on Tokmak to push through Russian defenses. The Ukrainians adjusted their strategy. That enabled the Ukrainians to conserve forces for the main attack (towards Melitopol) and limit their expenditure of artillery. Kyiv's offensive is still playing out on the ground but without advantages America has long enjoyed, like air power.  “You don’t understand this conflict. This is not counterinsurgency. This is Kursk,” said Ukraine's commander, Gen.Valery Zaluzhny, referring to the World War II battle between Germany and the Soviet Union.

U.S. and Ukrainian officials have been engaged in an intense behind-the-scenes debate for weeks over the strategy and tactics for reviving Kyiv’s slow-moving counteroffensive.

American military officials have been urging the Ukrainians to return to the combined arms training they received at allied bases in Europe by concentrating their forces to try to bust through Russia defenses and push to the Sea of Azov.  

Kyiv has made some adjustments in recent weeks, but the two sides are still at odds about how to turn the tables on the Russians in the limited time they have before winter sets in. 

“You don’t understand the nature of this conflict,” Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, the commander of the Ukrainian armed forces, responded in one interaction with the Americans, a U.S. official recounted. “This is not counterinsurgency. This is Kursk,” the commander added, referring to the major World War II battle between Germany and the Soviet Union. 

A spokesman for the Ukrainian commander didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The American advice is based on the calculation that the surge of equipment the U.S. has funneled to Ukraine—more than $43 billion in weaponry has been committed over the years—is enough for this offensive and is unlikely to be repeated at anywhere near the same level in 2024. 

“We built up this mountain of steel for the counteroffensive. We can’t do that again,” one former U.S. official said. “It doesn’t exist.” 

It isn’t too late for Ukraine to make gains, according to U.S. officials.

Ukrainian commanders also say that time hasn’t yet run out on their counteroffensive, and Zaluzhny has told U.S. officials his forces are on the cusp of a breakthrough. 

Yet deep divisions over the strategy linger. The U.S. for the past several weeks has urged the Ukrainians to mass their forces and concentrate in an area north of Tokmak in the south to push through the first line of Russian defenses, generally acknowledged as the toughest line to break. 

While there are differing views within the U.S. government, one official said that Washington has conveyed “serious frustration” with Ukraine’s strategy, particularly President Volodymyr Zelensky’s focus on Bakhmut, which some Ukrainian officers see as useful to build morale and create a buffer zone in the east. 

After U.S. officials cautioned against dissipating their efforts, the Ukrainians adjusted their strategy and went on the defensive in the eastern part of Zaporizhzhia. That change has enabled the Ukrainians to conserve their forces for the main attack elsewhere and limit their expenditure of artillery. 

But U.S. officials say the Ukrainians are still spread too thin for a concentrated push south with numerous brigades deployed in the east and are still not combining the use of artillery, mechanized units and mine-clearing efforts.

Holding casualties to a minimum is needed to preserve their longer-term fighting potential, the Ukrainians say. But U.S. officials say the Ukrainians’ small-unit attacks on narrow fronts slow the offensive and give the Russians more opportunity to respond, including with mines that are dispensed through artillery strikes and units armed with rocket-propelled grenades.

The current state of play has sparked worries that Ukraine’s fight against Russia might be entering a stalemate, a contention President Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, has denied.

“No, we do not assess that the conflict is a stalemate,” Sullivan told reporters Tuesday. The battlefield, he said, is changing every day. 

At the heart of the debate between Washington and Kyiv is the U.S.-provided combined arms training the Ukrainians have received in recent months that was intended to prepare them for their offensive in the south.

The U.S. and its partners have trained more than 70,000 Ukrainian soldiers at more than 40 training areas. But the crux of the U.S. combined arms training in Germany was on 14 motorized-infantry, mechanized and national-guard battalions—some 8,000 troops—who were to push through Russia’s lines or secure terrain. 

The 12-week training program for those battalions included instruction on using their artillery, mechanized units and infantry together. It culminated in a weeklong battalion-level exercise with Ukrainian forces squared off against a mock adversary played by U.S. forces. 

Two additional battalions, one national guard and one armored, are also undergoing training. The latter is equipped with 31 Abrams tanks and will be deployed in the fall along with armored vehicles to breach minefields and combat engineering equipment, said Col. Martin O’Donnell, a U.S. Army spokesman in Europe. 

The training is intended to enable Ukrainian forces to break through their foe’s defenses and maneuver in the Russians’ rear area, but without the advantages the U.S. military has long enjoyed, especially air power.

Ukraine has only a small air force, and the delivery of American-made F-16s isn’t expected until mid to late 2024. While U.S. officials say that simulations indicated that the Ukrainians could succeed anyway, some in the Pentagon acknowledge the challenge.

Christine Wormuth, the U.S. Army secretary, said recently that the U.S. military would find this sort of fighting challenging, particularly if it didn’t have air superiority and the adversary had time to prepare its defenses. “Our soldiers have years to practice this, and the Ukrainians had several weeks to work on this,” she said.

Some former officials say that the Pentagon’s frustration with the pace of the Ukrainian attack is misplaced.

“When America fights with combined arms, it fights with battlefield air superiority,” said Philip Breedlove, a retired U.S. Air Force general who served as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s top military commander from 2013 to 2016. 

“Ukraine doesn’t have that. Nor have we given Ukraine long-range precise artillery,” he added. “So when there is all this talk that they are failing with combined arms, we need to look in the mirror.”

Some Ukrainian soldiers who have been fighting from the beginning of the war expressed frustration that the tanks and armored vehicles had been given to newly formed units that include soldiers with little or no combat experience. The share of Ukrainian soldiers in the U.S.-trained battalions who have previous combat experience varies from about 50% to 70%, U.S. officials say.

Others say the reality of fighting on first contact with the enemy shocked them. One soldier from the 47th Brigade recounted an assault on a Russian trench, the company’s first infantry engagement in real war, which was against one of the best-fortified lines that Russia has in all of Ukraine. 

“However tough exercises were, it’s much harder” in reality, the soldier said.

Defending its approach, Kyiv argues that its slow offensive is still playing out on the ground. On Tuesday, Ukrainian forces retook Robotyne, a village on the road south that lies just north of Russia’s main defensive line. 

The assault on the village was led by a unit that has honed its tactics since the start of the war, first targeting enemy fortifications using artillery directed by drones, then sending in assault teams on foot.

“It’s a small victory,” Maj. Yuriy Harkaviy, the unit’s commander, wrote in a message. “Larger ones are ahead. My goal is the Azov.”


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