A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jun 10, 2024

The Strategic Implications of Russia's Tactical Kharkiv/Donbas Failure

Just as France began providing military aid to the nascent United Colonies of America after their ragtag army defeated the British at Saratoga in 1777 - and as the US started significantly increasing its aid to the embattled UK after the RAF defeated the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain in 1940, so Ukraine's ability to minimize Russian gains in Donbas while at its lowest ebb and then defeat the Russian offensive in Kharkiv has led to increased offers of aid and, now, troops to train Ukrainian forces and possibly main air defenses in western Ukraine. 

In effect, Russia's inability to capitalize on its advantages, coupled with Ukraine's ability to continue demonstrating its fortitude and competence, are paying dividends for the Ukrainians. JL

Phillips O'Brien reports in his substack:

The Russians made not a single advance in Kharkiv in the past week as the lack of advance is now more than 2 weeks old. (And) in Donbas, Ukraine has lost no strategic territory. Russian troops tied down and being destroyed north of Kharkiv, might have achieved more in the Donbas. Moreover, they remain stuck in the north, while, as always, Ukraine retains internal lines to move troops more efficiently between North and South. Putin's strategy, such as it is, continues to result in Ukraine’s partners coming more and more to Ukraine’s aid as not only France, but a number of European countries, could soon be sending their troops into Ukraine itself to train Ukrainian soldiers.

Ive been writing alot about the fighting on the front lines over the last few weeks—and this week I feel I can start with another story. The line barely moved this week, and around Kharkiv and Chasiv Yar the front seems basically stable. Indeed its so stable that the newspapers seem to have stopped reporting on it (in a rather pointed contrast to the way they reported the start of the Kharkiv counteroffensive).

Because of that, I think I can move to a potentially very important decision—the open stationing of European troops in Ukraine. This is a very important strategic threshold that is being crossed—and should be followed in the future with more and more European support for Ukraine. Yes its late—but its important.

Zelensky and Macron on Friday in France. More and More, France is willing to cross Putin’s Red Lines to help Ukraine

Europeans Crossing the Strategic Rubicon

French President Macron has had quite a week. He has promised to hand over and train Ukrainian pilots to fly French Mirage jets and come out strongly for a fast accession announcement for Ukraine to join the EU. However, arguably both of these are less important that his statement on Friday that not only France, but a number of European countries, would soon be sending their troops into Ukraine itself to train Ukrainian soldiers.

Here is an exact quote from one of the stories on the subject.

Macron on Friday called Ukraine’s request for in-country training “legitimate” and said several partners have “already given their agreement.”

“We are going to use the coming days to finalize a coalition, as broad as possible,” he said.

Assuming he’s telling the truth and the plans are being “finalized”, this will represent a different kind of commitment by European states for Ukraine (and it will be fascinating to see which European states take part). There have been, reportedly, a number of European military personnel in Ukraine basically since the start of the full-scale invasion, but they have been there without public acknowledgement. Sending European troops openly to Ukraine, while the war is raging, is something different entirely.

Because even if those troops are simply training—they will be in a war zone which Russia is attacking, working with Ukrainian troops, and that will make those European forces targets of war. As such, its a sign by Macron and those European states that join the effort, that they want it on record that they are defying the Russian military in their desire to help Ukraine.

The speed of the change over the last few months is worth commenting on. On Feb 2, I first wrote about the possibility of European troops going into Ukraine—though I thought at the time that Poland was most likely to lead the effort.

By the end of February, it was clear that Macron was taking the lead in this endeavor, and I tried to explain in a weekend update entitled: European Troops in Ukraine--Dont Rule it Out, why this was becoming more and more likely. By early April Foreign Affairs had published a piece co-written by Jahara Matisek, Alex Crowther, and myself, in which we made a strong and public case for European forces to be deployed into Ukraine, with training Ukrainians being the one of their first tasks.

It was fascinating to see how quickly the argument was changing, from people snorting in derision or quivering in fear at even the prospect of European troops going into Ukraine, to now widespread acceptance that it was a possibility. It was always going to head that way—and the US refusing to support aid for Ukraine during the first 4 months of 2024 only sped up the process. Indeed the possible election of Donald Trump is probably forcing the pace as well.

Europe is left facing two very different choices—and it can either help Ukraine now, or face a much worse future. As I wrote in the February piece,

In essence you would choose between two futures. One would be one of long-term instability and crisis which gives Russia a great chance to rearm. The other being the defeat of Russia and long-term security. Any state not thinking very hard about such a choice is living in a dreamland.

The fact then that we have reached this state is therefore natural. European states for their own future must help Ukraine, and with the US becoming unreliable, more and more they will have no alternative.

And training will be only the beginning. Once you have European forces in Ukraine, it opens up the door for future mission expansion. The next step, as we outlined in the Foreign Affairs piece could be to take over air-defense responsibilities in western Ukraine. This would be very helpful for Ukraine which needs as much air-defense as possible (see below).

It also puts Russia in a bind. If the Russians don’t attack European forces, they will establish that they are too afraid to do anything once outside help like this has arrived. If they do attack such forces, the make a more resolute European response possible. They threaten to turn the war into an actual Europe versus Russia conflict.

This was not all. We have the two other announcements that Macron made this week—showing a growing commitment to Ukraine’s future. After meeting with President Zelensky on Friday, Macron said he wanted Ukraine’s accession talks with the EU to start by the end of June. Again, this is no small matter. The EU has a security component to its structure, and signalling that Ukraine will be a member, is signalling that Europe will be committing to Ukrainian security.

And then there was the pledge to provide Mirage 2000-5 fighter jets to Ukraine, and to provide training for Ukrainian pilots. These are some of the most advanced aircraft France possesses.

All in all—the European commitment to Ukraine is strengthening. In particular if France and others send serving military forces openly into Ukraine, it is a step-change up in commitment. For that reason its the big story of the week.


The Kharkiv Offensive, 4 Weeks In.

I’m wondering if you can help me. Its been 4 weeks since the Russian attack started, surely this would be the time for the press to try and assess what has happened with this military operation? I mean, when it started, there was practically universal doom and gloom about what it meant. There was talk of a Ukrainian collapse, and discussion of a Russian strategic coup that would draw Ukrainian forces away from the Donbas.

Well, in the last week the Russians made not a single advance in Kharkiv (actually the lack of advance is now more than 2 weeks old). Here is the most recent Deep State map on the subject.

And here is the map of May 22. No change.

So the Russian Kharkiv offensive has basically been stuck for a while now—and is probably struggling even more as the Ukrainians have now been given the ability to attack its logistics and preparatory arrangements in Russia itself. Russian losses meanwhile in Kharkiv have stayed extremely high. As a military operation in and of itself, it remains, as I argued last week a tactical nullity that has turned into a strategic failure.

But wait you say—lets turn back to the Donbas, where now those who were yelling about the Kharkiv Offensive were turning their attention. Well, here is the map of the Ocheretyne “Bulge” today.

And here it was last Saturday (1 June).

In a week there have been some tiny advances of a few kilometres (no more than 3) in the south and north of the bulge. Nothing significant has occurred, Ukraine has lost no strategic territory. I wont bother to put up a map of the Chasiv Yar front (which was supposed to be Russia’s key objective during this phase) because the changes there have been even smaller. Maybe a kilometer advance.

Interestingly, at the start of the week there were a few attempts (see below) by reporters who had reported about the Kharkiv Offensive, to try and imply that it was working by allowing for Russian advances in the Donbas.

Also, interestingly, no distance scale is included to show how small the advance was.

All I can say is that is if this is what the Kharkiv Offensive is achieving in the Donbas, it too is evolving into a tactical failure. Those Russian troops tied down and being destroyed north of Kharkiv, might have achieved more in the Donbas. Moreover, they remain stuck in the north, while, as always, Ukraine retains internal lines to move troops more efficiently between North and South.

So what is happening? The idea seems to be that Putin is willing to suffer such massive losses (now over half a million killed and wounded, with 10,000+ different armored vehicles lost) for continual tiny gains. The Institute for the Study of War this last night sent out a report saying that Putin believed that this gradual approach was his now articulated strategy.

This is a strategy of a sorts, but hard to see it as a long-term winning one—if it continues to result in Ukraine’s partners coming more and more to Ukraine’s aid as we are seeing above. Russia does not have limitless supplies or soldiers, and another year of losses at this rate will leave it in terrible condition (basically a vassal of China). Its more of a strategy to bet everything on a Donald Trump victory in November.

Moreover, the longer the war grinds on in the Donbas, the more Ukraine will be able to hit Russia in Crimea and the Black Sea. It was heartening this week to see the Economist story on the latter, which is something Mykola and I have been talking about for months. Ukraine is actually winning the war in these areas—and should do better the more advanced equipment it gets (ATACMS, F-16s, etc).

A key thing to make this strategy work for Ukraine will be to keep its own casualties down. So let Russia waste itself with these constant attacks in the Donbas, etc, hit Russia hard in Crimea (and other strategic targets) and keep Ukrainian losses to as low a level as possible. Its not pretty, but its a way forward for Ukraine.

The Most Successful Russian Campaign

On January 6 I wrote about what I called The Return of Strategic Airpower. Its always perplexed me how in the last few decades strategic airpower has fallen out of fashion, particularly for the US Air Force (one of the forces that could really undertake it). Instead, air power was seen more and more as a tool to work with land forces to achieve tactical victories.

It always seemed a strange way of looking at air power, as its foundational advantage is that it allows for the extreme stretching of the targeting set away from the traditional battlefield, into a vast area I called the Air-Sea SuperBattlefield in How the War was Won.

Well, as the Russian and Ukrainians struggle to change much in the land war, its more than arguable that for both strategic air power has proven far more effective in this war. The Ukrainians have had some success in their campaign against Russian oil refineries (another of which was attacked by UAVs this week).

The Russians, unfortunately, have had arguably even greater success in their campaign over the last 5 months against Ukrainian power generation. Its reached a very serious state. Ukrainian power generation has been reduced through the destruction of many/most of the large conventional power plants in the country. This is now leading to large power cuts throughout the country, many hours at a time in Kyiv and other cities—a situation that looks set to continue for months. People are often having to get by with portable generators.

A Kyiv Street Scene These Days—in the midst of a blackout, a building with a generator stands out. https://kyivindependent.com/kyiv-struggles-with-rolling-blackouts-officials-warn-of-bleak-months-ahead/

This is a serious matter. The loss of power will impact war production, domestic production, and morale. It will also get worse, particularly if the situation does not improve before next winter.

All of this is a direct result of the US cutting aid to Ukraine this winter. Basically Ukraine ran desperately short of anti-air ammunition, and the result was much greater Russian success with their strategic missile-UAV attacks.

All I can say is that Ukraine’s partners are going to have to help with this power crisis as much as they need to help on the battlefield. Ukraine will need to protect what they have preserved, repair everything they can, get as many smaller generators brought into the country as possible, and even be hooked up to the European power grid if it can be. It will require a major effort.

So if you can put pressure on your political leaders, please do mention the need to protect, repair and replace Ukrainian power supplies—its a situation that needs the utmost attention.


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