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What realists get wrong about Ukraine’s counteroffensive

Critics such as John Mearsheimer are wrong to present the war as a simple artillery duel in which the advantage lies with Russia.

By Lawrence Freedman

“Strategy is the art of making war upon the map.”
Antoine-Henri Jomini

The Russo-Ukrainian War is all about territory. Russia wants to complete its occupation of the oblasts of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson; Ukraine seeks to liberate all occupied territories, including Crimea. This is what the game theorists call a “zero-sum game” – what one wins the others must lose. This feature of the war explains why a negotiated outcome is so difficult to achieve, why the current battles matter so much, and why those commenting on the war spend so much time staring at maps.

Another feature of the war is that the territory being vigorously defended is hard to take. The land that Russian forces are currently defending was mostly taken in the first month of the war. Since then, they have ceded much more than they have taken. The Russians have put enormous effort and resources into their offensives since April 2022, yet what has been gained, despite the enormously high cost, has been limited – especially since they have reduced the occupied cities to rubble in the process. This was the case with their most recent offensive, lasting from January to June, during which they wrecked the eastern towns of Soledar and Bakhmut. But largely failed elsewhere.

Ukrainian offensives have been more successful when facing Russian forces thinly spread and struggling with logistical and command difficulties; they have found it tougher advancing against well-prepared Russian defences. This is why there is so much anxiety surrounding the Ukrainian offensive, which has been under way for just over a month.

Ukrainians insist it is not yet in its highest gear because they have yet to commit the bulk of their fresher, better-equipped and more mobile forces. That is because before they reach a breakthrough phase – when they start retrieving territory at speed – they must first go through an attritional phase to degrade the Russian defenders’ capacity for resistance.

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Though Ukrainian commanders may have hoped the influx of Western infantry vehicles and tanks would have made an early push through Russian lines possible, as Franz-Stefan Gady and Michael Kofman noted in March it was always unlikely that combat power alone would be sufficient to avoid this attritional phase.

A comparable operation planned by the Americans would use their air superiority to create a “permissive environment”. The enemy would be left so battered by days of air strikes that they would be unable to cope once the army moved against them. The retired Australian general and strategist Mick Ryan has reminded us that the 1991 Gulf War began with a 42-day air campaign, involving more than 100,000 sorties, before ground operations commenced. And in the 2003 invasion of Iraq 1,800 combat and support aircraft were used. 

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Ukraine does not enjoy any air advantage. Before this war is over it may get American F-16 fighter jets, but not in time for the current offensive. It therefore needs a different strategy to the one that would come most naturally to the Pentagon.

A difficult start

The extent of the challenge became apparent on 8 June when Ukrainian forces made an early assault close to Mala Tokmachka on the Zaporizhzhia front, in the south-east of the country. It got caught by the density of the minefield it was trying to breach, leading to the loss of a number of vehicles. Images of the destruction, including Bradley fighting vehicles, were soon being widely circulated by pro-Russian bloggers, celebrating the failure of the Ukrainian offensive almost as soon as it started. On 13 June, Vladimir Putin, not normally one to comment in detail on operations, felt confident enough to assert that Ukraine had launched a “massive counteroffensive, using strategic reserves that were prepared for this task”. He acknowledged Russian losses of 54 tanks (higher than Western assessments) but claimed Ukraine had lost “over 160” tanks. Ukrainian casualties he put at ten times those suffered by Russia, and were “approaching a level that could be described as catastrophic”. This was a bold claim to make at such an early stage, and presumably reflects the optimistic gloss that Russia’s Ministry of Defence puts on all the news he gets from the front.

But even observers more sympathetic to Ukraine were nervous the campaign had started poorly. It was a sobering reminder that the Russian armed forces, for all their dysfunction, could also adapt to the demands of war and would not be pushovers. Press reporting noted, for example, improved Russian helicopter capabilities, particularly the Ka-52 “Alligator” attack helicopters, and upgraded Lancet drones.

On 15 June General Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs, observed that “this is a very difficult fight. It’s a very violent fight, and it will likely take a considerable amount of time at a high cost.” A week later an American official told CNN that the offensive was “not meeting expectations on any front”. President Volodymyr Zelensky acknowledged progress had been “slower than desired”, noting that: “Some people believe this is a Hollywood movie and expect results now. It’s not. What’s at stake is people’s lives.” His military chief, General Valery Zaluzhny said something similar: “It’s not a show the whole world is watching and betting on or anything. Every day, every metre is given by blood.”

Despite patient explanations that there was no fixed timetable, never an expectation that the offensive would be short and sharp, and how military history is full of examples of successful offensives that still took weeks and months, there was disappointment. The sense that all was not well was soon picked up by commentators, often of a “realist” persuasion, who have long argued that Ukraine cannot win this war on their preferred terms, and so must accept a negotiated settlement.

[See also: The broker of Belarus]

Doomed to failure?

The Harvard professor Graham Allison expects few territorial gains. He notes the difficulty both sides face in overcoming resolute defences and in mobilising “the three-to-one advantage offensive forces usually need to force a breakthrough”. As Russia currently occupies 17 per cent of Ukraine’s territory, and noting Ukraine’s current rate of advance, Allison concluded that it would take another 16 years for it all to be recaptured. Texas A&M University’s Christopher Layne, writing with Benjamin Schwarz, went through all the standard explanations about why the war is really the fault of the US, and concluded that negotiations are the answer because Ukraine cannot recapture all of its territory – although they added that Russia is also unlikely to make much more headway.

University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer, who has been prominent in blaming the West for goading Putin into war, went further. Russia will “ultimately win the war”, he asserted, not by conquering all of Ukraine but by annexing a “large swathe of Ukrainian territory, while turning Ukraine into a dysfunctional rump state”. It will be able to achieve this “ugly victory” because even if the Ukrainians do manage to break through well-prepared defensive lines, Russia has sufficient troops to stabilise the front and continue with attritional battles. “The Ukrainians are at a disadvantage in these encounters because the Russians have a significant firepower advantage.” Mearsheimer even dismissed claims that Russia has suffered more casualties than Ukraine simply because “Russia has much more artillery than Ukraine” – thus, Ukraine must have lost more men. It is much easier to opine on such matters when you insist that your theories are right and the evidence is wrong.

The three-to-one advantage referred to by Allison goes back to 19th-century German thinking about the necessary conditions for successful breakthrough battles between mass armies. In 1989 Mearsheimer actually wrote one of the few scholarly articles on the topic, which confirmed the validity of the rule. One of the cases he looked at was the battle for Ukraine during the early stages of the German invasion of the Soviet Union when nine Wehrmacht German divisions, about 155,000 men, faced two weak Soviet divisions, about 24,000 men. The Germans enjoyed superiority in airpower and in tanks (about 330 on the German side and very few on the Soviet). Unsurprisingly the Germans had little trouble breaking through.

There is however no fixed rule here. Obviously it is preferable to have an overwhelming superiority in numbers when mounting an assault. But that does not mean that an attacking army must always be at least three times the size of a defending one. Numerous factors can make a difference: the morale and training of the troops; the amount and quality of equipment; and the judgement of commanders. It is advisable to secure superiority in the location where an attack is being mounted, but that can be achieved even when the overall balance of forces is unfavourable. A great clash of armies in a Napoleonic battle is one thing; the numerous small-scale engagements that mark this war is another.

It is true that concentrating a large force to pack the maximum punch is very difficult in current conditions in eastern Ukraine. Such a force is likely soon to be spotted and subjected to enemy fire. In this respect Mearsheimer is right to say that, at least for now, this is an attritional war. Where he goes wrong is to present this as a simple artillery duel in which the advantage lies with Russia. The issue is whether Ukrainian forces have the strategy and tactics to come out of this attritional phase in a better position than the Russians.

Starve, stretch and strike

The UK’s chief of defence staff, Admiral Tony Radakin, described Ukraine’s approach to the House of Commons Defence Committee as “starve, stretch and strike”. “Starve” refers to the regular attacks on Russian logistics and command structures, and “stretch” to the “multiple axes being probed and feints by Ukraine”. Their aim is to take advantage of the length of the front line, more than 1,000 kilometres. As each attack requires a response, this can lead to the progressive commitment of Russian reserves. “Strike” is what we are still waiting for. That will be when the bulk of the 12 fresh and modernised Ukrainian brigades, two thirds of which are still being held back, can be pushed forward. That is why Radakin and others say that the full counteroffensive has yet to start.

This is therefore a staged approach. As the American think tank Institute for the Study of War puts it, the priority is “to attrit Russian manpower and assets over attempting to conduct massive sweeping mechanised manoeuvres to regain large swathes of territory rapidly”.

The success of Ukraine’s strategy depends on Russia’s strategy. Russian commanders have opted against a passive defence, of waiting for the Ukrainians to find a way through the minefields and then overcoming their extensive fortifications. Instead they have sought to deny Ukrainian forces any gains at all. So when, for example, Ukraine liberates a village, a Russian counter-attack is soon mounted. Even though most of these counter-attacks are not successful, the Russian objective may simply be to keep up pressure on Ukraine so it cannot consolidate any gains. This makes for some fierce clashes, but it also probably suits Ukraine because it means that Russian forces become more vulnerable as they move out from their concealed and protected positions.  

Early on in the offensive, Jack Watling of the Royal United Services Institute explained why Ukraine might want the Russians to commit their reserves forward from their “third defence line” to any sectors facing pressure: “Once these troops are pulled forwards, it will become easier to identify the weak points in the Russian lines, where a breakthrough will not be met by a new screen of repositioned forces.”

This is also why the stretch is so important, as the combination of a long front and uncertainty about where the main Ukrainian effort will be launched, limits the Russian “ability to stack units in depth”.

The Ukrainians have been working for some time on Russia’s logistics, including the railway network on which it depends. Last summer Ukraine made use of the Himars multiple rocket launcher to attack Russian ammunition dumps left carelessly close to the front, and destroyed many. Since then the Russians have kept stores out of range. With the increased tempo of battle, this creates a dilemma for Russian commanders. Either ammunition and other supplies must be ferried to the front over long distances, which takes time and carries its own risks of interdiction, or else they have to be stored closer to the front, where they are vulnerable to direct strikes. 

That the latter may be happening could be seen with the spectacular strike on an ammunition dump, containing shells and Grad multiple-launch missile systems, at Makiivka, in occupied Donetsk, on 4 July. While strikes such as these deny Russian forces ammunition, the demands of battle result in the intensive use of artillery pieces so that barrels get worn and shells are expended. In addition artillery locations are revealed so that units are struck before they can hide away. Ukraine currently claims to be knocking out about 30 Russian artillery pieces daily.

Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council, tweeted on 4 July that “the number one task” for Ukrainian forces is “the maximum destruction of manpower, equipment, fuel depots, military vehicles, command posts, artillery and air defence forces of the Russian army. The last days have been particularly fruitful. Now the war of destruction is equal to the war of kilometres. More destroyed means more released. The more effective the former, the more the latter. We are acting calmly, wisely, step by step.”

The more Russian forces commit to these battles the less they have for later. It appears that virtually all the forces of Russia’s eastern military district are locked into the effort to prevent any Ukrainian breakthroughs.

While this is going on, of course, Russia is working to take out Ukrainian systems. Ukraine has its own, well-publicised shortages of ammunition to contend with. The position on artillery shells was eased when South Korea changed its stance and agreed to pass on large quantities of 155-millimetre shells. Japan looks like following its example. Most importantly the US has agreed to supply cluster bombs (DPICM – dual-purpose improved conventional munitions). These can be fired from howitzers or Himars and release large numbers of small bomblets to cover a wide area. They will not only help the Ukrainians stay in the “artillery race” for some months, but also add to their tactical options as they can be used to suppress Russian trenches while mine-clearing is under way. They are controversial because many countries, including the UK, have agreed not to use them or export them. As with mines (and a lot of effort went into their prohibition), whatever their value in battle they risk a tragic legacy. Unexploded munitions will cause harm to civilians for many years after these territories serve as battlefields. But old Soviet versions have already been used by both sides. Russia has used them against civilians in Ukraine, which the latter would obviously not do.

[See also: Russia plan to blow up Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant has been “drafted and approved”]

Once again Bakhmut

The toughest fighting has been in the area leading up to the southern defensive line, but there has also been a substantial fight around Bakhmut. This was the site of intense fighting earlier in the year, where the Wagner Group led the fight to take the city form Ukraine. By the time it was taken, the latter’s forces were already looking to retake the flanks of the city.

One important consequence of that battle was the falling out between Wagner’s boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and the Russian minister of defence, Sergei Shoigu, over the degree of support given to former’s troops – and the conduct of the war more generally. Somewhat bizarrely for a man denounced as a traitor and blamed for bringing the country to the brink of civil war, Prigozhin is apparently moving freely in St Petersburg, sorting out his complex business affairs. The expected relocation of his troops to Belarus has yet to take place. It is impossible to say whether his men could become part of the war effort again. Some senior military figures close to Wagner, notably General Sergei Surovikin, responsible for the construction of the southern defensive line, seem to have been sidelined. None of this will be good for relations at the higher levels of Russian command.

The intensity of the earlier fighting and the role of Wagner has left Bakhmut endowed with a political importance that exceeds its military value. Strategically it is the south that offers Ukrainian forces a route to the sea and to split Moscow’s armies. Yet it was important to Russia’s core objective: the full occupation of the Donbas region. So if it is lost, after all that effort, and with regular forces having taken over the city from Wagner, this would be embarrassing for Putin. Nor are Russian defences as well developed here as in the south. Ukrainian soldiers have been moving up the areas flanking the city, so far more successfully on the south than the north, creating the possibility of a later envelopment (Ukrainian officials claim Russian forces are trapped in the city) and leading the Russians to send support to the area. The village of Klishchiivka south-west of Bakhmut, is being heavily fought over. If Ukraine can take and hold the high ground overlooking the city, the position of the occupiers would become increasingly uncomfortable.

Russian sustainability?

The whole Wagner episode also challenged the assumption that Putin can ride out any setbacks at the front. Whatever the protestations of loyalty and expressions of optimism coming out of Moscow, the Russian president’s position appears less secure than before. The rationale for the war and the way that it has been fought was challenged by Prigozhin. In addition, if the aim is to blunt the Ukrainian offensive until it runs out of steam, encouraging Kyiv’s Western supporters to look for a way out, then the Russian strategy is curious. It is not fighting as if conserving its strength for the long haul. Instead, it is throwing as much as possible into current battles. Mykola Volokhov, commander of the Ukrainian Terra intelligence unit, has noted that while most clashes have been infantry engagements, tanks are now being used more. He considered this a “good sign for us, as it indicates they cannot cope and need to pull out their reserves”.

In the same testimony to parliament quoted earlier this month, the UK’s Admiral Radakin reported that the Russian army has lost half of its combat effectiveness in Ukraine, including as many as 2,000 tanks. He added that Russia’s defence industry is unable to produce more than 200 tanks a year. Although such counts are an inexact science, Ukraine may now have more tanks than Russia in the fight. Germany’s Kiel Institute for the World Economy has noted that Ukraine has received 471 tanks since the start of the war. A further 286 are still to arrive. Meanwhile Putin’s generals are moving units from other parts of Russia, demonstrating that Ukraine has become the Kremlin’s overriding priority even though this leaves it less able to cope with emergencies elsewhere. While one can never be wholly sure about the representativeness of items posted on social media, there are certainly plenty involving mobilised Russian troops grumbling about how little support they have been given and the casualties in their units.

This is a critical stage of the war and a lot depends on what happens over the coming weeks. So far Ukrainian advances have been modest – a little over 160 square kilometres. Some units are now close to Russia’s main defence line, though most are not. We can note evidence of poor coordination between Russian units and how they often, but not always, lose out in small-scale engagements, but also that Russian defences have not yet buckled. This remains a tough and costly fight for Ukraine. During this attritional phase we can see the potential for progress but it has yet to be realised. Only when and if the strike phase is reached will we be able to measure Ukrainian progress on the map.

[See also: The fake tsar]

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