This week saw the failure of Russia’s President Putin to openly elicit military assistance from China for his special military operation. It could well be a strategic turning point of the war, particularly as Ukraine launches its offensives in the short term. Ukraine, which has long telegraphed its 2023 offensives, is likely to launch these attacks soon.
I would emphasize there will not be just be one big push, but probably several different offensives. This is because both the south and the east present opportunities for offensive action. But it is also because the Ukrainians will want to deceive Russia about their main effort.
Additionally, while the east and south are important parts of Ukrainian territory and contain Ukrainian citizens suffering under Russian occupation, they are also valuable to Ukraine for different reasons. The south in particular has significant economic importance to Ukraine. It has agriculture, mines, fertilizer and energy production that is vital to Ukraine’s economy. It also has the ports that, pre-war, exported about half of Ukraine’s foreign revenue. The south is much more than just a land bridge to Crimea and will be central to Ukraine’s post-war prosperity.
The Timing of the Offensives will be Crucial
Timing will be everything. The weather is one determinant in the timing of Ukraine’s offensives. Cross-country mobility is an important consideration, and the ‘mud season’ has an impact on wheeled and tracked vehicles, and well as dismounted mobility.
But, timing will also be determined by other factors.
First, the preparation of Ukrainian units that will take part. Ukraine is forming three new Army Corps, and is also reinforcing other combat and support formations to take part. Their training, strength, rehearsals and posture will influence the timing of the offensive.
Second, the arrival of new equipment and munitions is also important. The donation of new tanks, IFVs, artillery, drones and especially important - combat engineer and breaching equipment - is important, as is the Ukrainian army’s capacity to quickly absorb this new materiel.
Third, political considerations will have an impact. President Zelensky will have a say in not just the location but also the timing of these Ukrainian offensives. This is because all military operations must achieve political outcomes. Zelensky will be watching western support polls, comments from key supporter nations, talking with his Ministers and other Ukrainian politicians as well as taking advice from his Command in Chief in the deliberations about when to launch the initial phases of their forthcoming offensives. At this level of war, there is no such thing as military autonomy - and nor should there be. Major military operations, especially those as important as the upcoming Ukrainian offensives, must align with and achieve political and strategic requirements.
Finally, an important determinant of timing to launch the offensives - or at least the initial phase - will be opportunity. Ukrainian intelligence will be closely monitoring Russian troop strength and morale, holdings of key munitions, reserves and other issues for signs of weakness that can be exploited. At some point, the broader Russian offensive in the east will eventually culminate. While the Russians have generated some momentum with their eastern offensive, they have failed to seize the initiative in this war with these operations.
The Ukrainians will be observing for when the optimal time is to strike the Russians taking this into consideration. And, it means a Ukrainian offensive could come sooner than we think given the waning Russian offensives in places such as Bakhmut.
The Ukrainians, who will be fighting with first rate western tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, artillery and support, will pose a massive challenge to Russia’s hold on its occupied territory. As the Ukrainians have shown at Kyiv, Kherson and Kharkiv, they - unlike the Russians - know how to plan and conduct successful large scale offensives.
But this one will be different from those that have preceded it. This time, the Ukrainians will have to fight through more dense obstacle belts established by the Russians in the east and south. These are designed to both channel attackers into ‘killing zones’ as well as slow down and break up the cohesion of attacks. The obstacles include the enhancement of natural ones, as well as tank ditches, dragons teeth, and mines. But, like all obstacle plans, they are most effective if covered by Russian observation and fires.
The last few American aid packages have recognized this with large amounts of combat engineering equipment. Recent European donations of armoured vehicles have also included these vital parts of the combined arms team.
Mechanized obstacle breaching is dangerous and slow and requires armored engineer vehicles, explosive breaching capability’s (think MICLIC) and very tight, well-led combined arms integration and orchestration. There are ways around obstacles in some areas, but it is unlikely the Ukrainians will be able to avoid them entirely. This will make the offensives harder to plan and execute, and probably lead to large casualties. But, if the Ukrainians can penetrate these defensive zones, and break into Russian rear areas, they could capture both Russian forces and large swathes of territory.
The other difference in the coming offensives is the growing asymmetry in the quality of equipment. The Ukrainians, with the infusion of western aid, have improved the quality of their tanks and other vehicles. The Russians, having lost much of their best kit in the first year of the war, are turning to much older tanks and armoured vehicles drawn from Cold War stores. This will have an impact on the battlefield, and not just because of the age and technological disparity in vehicles.
Imagine you are the tank crew of an old Russian tank, that is 3-4 times as old as you are. And, imagine then you have been briefed that you will be coming up against the latest Western tanks. Regardless of what the ludicrous Russian propaganda tells us, this will have a significant impact on Russian morale.
And of course, it will have the opposite impact on the morale tankers in the Ukrainian Army!
Finally, in planning such activities, the Ukrainians will be pondering a key question: “are there things we are not seeing that the Russians might surprise us with?”
I think there might be.
First, the locations of Russian reserves will be important. If the Ukrainians are not able to find and strike these reserve forces, they can plan an important role in local counter attacks and counter-penetration activities to slow down or repulse Ukrainian attacks.
Second, what if the Russians have been able to form other operational maneuver groups that they could employ to undertake a subsequent phase to their current offensive? This would not only spoil some aspects of any future Ukrainian offensive but also draw away important Ukrainian forces. And it might have significant political impacts if Ukraine was not able to launch the large scale offensive many in the West are expecting. Given Russia’s performance so far however, this is low probably but still within the bounds of possibilities.
Finally, what if China has provided military assistance to Russia, providing lots more ammunition and other capabilities? This is unlikely, but a prudent planner would at least consider this before discounting it.
Anticipating the Ukrainian Offensives
The Ukrainian government and armed forces understand how important the coming offensives are. (My next article will look at the reasons why). Therefore, much planning and wargaming will have gone into planning the coming Ukrainian offensives. Considerations such as deception and surprise, counter-intelligence and counter-recon, integration, rehearsals, prioritization and sequencing will have been considered and incorporated into the plans.
But, even with the best planning and shaping, the success or otherwise of the coming offensives will be determined on the ground. Good leadership at all levels, flexible execution, determined close combat and adapting to opportunity will all be vital to tactical and operational success. Fortunately, these are qualities we have seen from the Ukrainian Armed Forces throughout the war.
While success or failure in the coming offensives may not win or lose the war, they will have an important impact on Ukrainian morale and western support. As we hold our collective breath in anticipation of the Ukrainian offensives, hundreds of thousands of young (and not so young) Ukrainians are working, planing, training and preparing to land a succession of hammer blows against the Russians.
I wish them god speed.
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Great post. Are Russia’s “extensive fortifications” a double edged sword?
They will tie up large numbers of Russian troops in locations not central to the battle. Also, once breached, the potential to encircle poorly equipped and supplied conscripts will present itself. Finally, EVERYTHING Russian in the war so far -- every weapons system, military branch, tactic and strategy -- has proved to be overhyped and underwhelming. Will these fortifications prove to be any different? One hopes not.
Slava Ukraini and thanks again for your posts!
I think the point about the density of the Russian defences is an important one.
To my knowledge neither side has been able to make rapid advances where defences have been well manned.
As a result, I expect the Ukrainian offensives to look more like Kherson than Kharkiv. However, as Mick points out the Ukrainians have shown ingenuity and adaptability throughout so a breakthrough shouldn’t be discounted.
My main concern remains China providing artillery ammunition to Russia most likely covertly. That said US intelligence seems to have pretty good penetration amongst Russian leadership, which would mean the risk of detection and the consequences of that i.e. western sanctions, would be considerable
Is Xi willing to take that gamble (I hope not)?