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The State of the Ukrainian 2023 Campaign
Progress and Challenges
Because attritional wars can only be won if the enemy army collapses through depletion and exhaustion, generals prefer to win through manoeuvre, involving bold offences that lead to territory being seized and a victory imposed. This was much to be preferred to waiting for the enemy to give up. Attrition therefore tended to get ‘disparaged as an inferior and undesirable form of warfare, requiring patience and an ability to absorb pain, without necessarily offering a plausible route to victory.’ Yet…it could still lead to victory, by creating the conditions for manoeuvre warfare or by forcing the enemy to recognize that its position could only get worse.
Lawrence Freedman, Comment is Freed, 30 July 2023
Almost two months into the Ukrainian 2023 offensives, the tempo of operations has settled into the pulse and pause of military operations that has been observed in other large wars. Ukrainian ground forces are slowly advancing on their Donetsk axis of advance as well as in their Zaporizhia axis of advance, through ‘bite and hold’ approaches. Some progress is being made around Bakhmut as well.
Ukraine has also continued its operational and strategic strike program. This week, Ukraine launched three drones at Moscow. One advisor to the Ukrainian President noted that these strikes are about signalling to the Russians that they should become “used to a full-fledged war.” While the military impact of these strikes are minimal, they do send a strong political message about the Russian military’s inability to defend its airspace, and Putin’s continuing ineffectiveness in protecting against cross-border threats.
Another part of Ukraine’s deep battle operational strikes is naval drone warfare. This week, the Ukrainians used naval drones to attack Russian patrol vessels in the Black Sea.
The Russians are sustaining their stout defence along the Surovikin Line. Although, as the Ukrainians close on the main defensive positions of the line, it will be interesting to see if the Russians are able to sustain their current rate of attrition. At some point, one side or the other will culminate.
So, while progress is slow in the south, there is still a lot going on. As such, it is time for a campaign update on the 2023 Ukrainian offensives.
Five Important ‘Battlegrounds’
In my 15 July 2023 update on the Ukrainian campaign, I included five important competitions, or battlegrounds, that would shape the outcome of the Ukrainian and Russian summer/autumn campaigns in 2023. It is time for a quick update on each of these key ‘battles’ and how it is impacting on the trajectory of this war.
Logistic and Transport Hubs. The battles for logistic and transport hubs continues as part of Ukrainian deep battle. In the east and the south, the Ukrainians continue to strike key locations that will provide a hub for transport and the logistics required to sustain the Russians large scale military defensive operations. Recently, there has been the 29 July Ukrainian strike on the Chongar Bridge. Ukraine’s armed forces continue to strike these deep targets, while its tactical assaults seek to capture such hubs as part of the close fight.
Seizing the Initiative. In the south, Ukraine has the tactical initiative and is conducting its breaches and attacks on at least two principal axes of advance. In the east, Ukraine has the initiative now in the Battle of Bakhmut. In the north, the Russians are conducting a minor offensive along the Kreminna-Svatove axis that is forcing the Ukrainians to respond. As I wrote in my article for ABC News (Australia) this week:
The Russians probably want to draw as many Ukrainian formations away from the southern offensive as possible. The Ukrainians did not achieve the rapid penetration that many unrealistically expected in the opening days of their counter-offensive. But they have been slowly conducting attrition of Russian frontline forces in the south, as well as Russian headquarters, logistics and artillery. Russia's southern forces might face some peril in the coming weeks if their attrition continues and this shifts the correlation of forces in Ukraine's favour. As Michael Weiss and James Rushton recently put it, in the south, "the Russians see Ukrainian progress where others don't".
At the operational level, I believe the Ukrainians still retain the initiative, with some combat forces in reserve. However, with more of their reserves committed to the south, and some potentially being held back against any Russian advances in Luhansk, this will be a careful balancing act for the Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief in the coming weeks.
The Adaptation Battle. In a 1973 speech, soldier and scholar Sir Michael Howard declared that: "Whatever doctrine the Armed Forces are working on now, they have got it wrong. I am also tempted to declare that it does not matter that they have got it wrong. What does matter is their capacity to get it right quickly when the moment arrives." Predicting the shape and outcome of future wars is all but impossible. What matters is the ability to learn and adapt better than an adversary. The subject of how both sides have adapted during the war has been one of the central themes of my writing about the war in Ukraine since February 2022.
In the south, the Russians have adapted, including the construction of fake trenches which are booby trapped, and designed to lure in and then kill and maim Ukrainian soldiers. The Russians have also been using their attack helicopters with greater effectiveness than we have seen for some time in this war. And, as a recent British Intelligence report notes, the Ka-52 attack helicopters have been armed with a new anti-tank missile (the LMUR, range: 15km) which has increased their battlefield effectiveness.
As for the Ukrainians, their tactics have evolved since the commencement of the Ukrainian offensive in June 2023. As I wrote in a separate article recently:
Instead of seeking quick penetrations of the Russian defences, the Ukrainians are now moving more deliberately and adopting a "bite and hold" approach to preserve their combat power. This idea, developed in World War I, has forces seize and hold small portions of enemy territory, and then move forward again behind artillery barrages. This requires a lot of friendly artillery; time will tell whether it succeeds in Ukraine.
I believe that further adaptation will probably be needed to more rapidly get through the Russian defences in the south. As I wrote in my previous substack article, we need a Minefields Manhattan Project to transform the technology and tactics of minefield detection, mapping, clearing and marking. This is an imperative for the close combat being undertaken by the Ukrainians, as well as the enormous task of humanitarian mine clearing and clearance of remnants of war throughout Ukraine.
Finally, the Ukrainians continue to adapt their longer-range strike activities in the air and maritime domains. While President Zelensky has recently called on the West to provide more long-range strike weapons, Ukraine now appears to have the capacity to generate small-scale periodic strikes against Moscow with drones.
At the same time, the development of the Ukrainian Navy’s maritime strike drones is continuing. For an excellent report on this, H.I. Sutton’s report of 28 July 2023 is recommended.
The Attrition Battle. As I wrote in the previous post on this topic, every military activity features attrition. Even in peacetime, military organisations suffer attrition through training injuries, poor retention and bad equipment maintenance. This is magnified in war by combat losses, injuries and sickness as well as psychological injury. Key elements of the attrition battle in Ukraine remain the fight to reduce the capability and size of Russian forces deployed in the Surovikin Line, the campaign to destroy Russian artillery in the same area, and the Russian missile/drone versus Ukrainian air defence missile attrition fight.
As part of this wider attrition fight, industrial production in the West is only slowly adapting to the Ukrainian needs for munitions. U.S. production alone is unlikely to meet Ukrainian needs for some time to come. A recent Financial Times article notes that while Ukraine needs up to 8000 rounds for their artillery each day:
The US is now also working to ramp up supply of shells, with a target of producing up to 90,000 a month by fiscal year 2025…compared with 24,000 now.
Recent Russian announcements about force generation indicate that keeping the Russian Army at a desired strength is also proving to be challenging aspect of this attrition battle. The Russians are amending legislation to allow more men to be quickly drafted into the armed forces, and in mid-July, the State Duma increased the maximum age for conscription from 27 to 30. At the same time, the upper age limit for callout of reservists has been increased to 70. Despite this, there remains only anecdotal information at present on how either side is going in larger attrition battle.
The Strategic Influence Fight. Finally, beyond the battlefield in Ukraine, both sides are seeking to gain ascendancy in the battle of strategic influence. While many will focus on the tactical aspects of this campaign, the strategic influence campaigns of Ukraine and Russia are being rolled out at pace. We continue to be saturated with messages from Russian sources (and Russian apologists) about the failure of the Ukrainian offensives. Additionally, Putin’s new narrative is that the Ukrainian offensive is preventing peace negotiations.
Additionally, there is some evidence that the Russian government is reigning in Russian milbloggers so that Russia can better manage the strategic influence fight. As a recent ISW report notes:
The lack of Russian milblogger reaction to a Ukrainian strike on the Chonhar bridge represents a notable inflection in Russian reporting on the war in Ukraine and may suggest that the Kremlin has directed Russian milbloggers to refrain from covering certain topics.
The Russians have also been resorting to leaflet dropping over Ukrainian lines, encouraging Ukrainian soldiers to surrender. While I don’t have definitive proof about the impact of these leaflets, one effect is that that there is probably no longer any shortage of toilet paper in Ukrainian ground forces units in the south!
From the Ukrainian side, there remains tight operational security about battlefield progress. As I have noted before, the Ukrainian, have to be successful in their 2023 offensives, and they have to make politicians and citizens beyond Ukraine believe they have been successful.
Measuring Progress in Ukraine’s 2023 Campaign
One of the most import aspects of designing, planning and executing a large-scale offensive campaign is deciding what the measures of success are. What objectives, or proportion of objectives, must be achieved, to judge the overall campaign a success? Back before the Ukrainian offensives were launched, I explored the topic of success and failure in the Ukrainian offensives to come.
In my Futura Doctrina post on this topic from 30 April 2023, I outlined seven key measures of success for Ukraine’s 2023 campaign. I updated these last month, and now offer another update on Ukraine’s progress as assessed against the seven key measures of progress.
Measure 1: Ukraine achieves surprise. Generating tactical and operational surprise should lead to shock. This shock, at tactical and operational levels of the Russian military, should lead to slower decision making and responses to Ukrainian operations, while also breaking down the tactical and operational cohesion of the Russian plan for defending occupied Ukraine. While relatively easy to assess on the ground, limitations on sharing information with news organisations may make this harder to assess in the short term. It is, however, a key component for the success of the Ukrainian offensives.
Assessment: That a Ukrainian offensive was coming was no surprise. The locations in the south could probably have been whittled down to less than a dozen by Russian analysts looking at the terrain and key potential objectives. There may have been some local, tactical, surprise achieved on the ground in the south. But the effects of this appear to have been short-lived. Ukraine does appear to have achieved some tactical and even operational surprise around Bakhmut, which it is continuing to leverage in its advances north and south of the destroyed city.
Perhaps the key areas where Ukraine is currently generating surprise is in its operational strike program, with strikes against Moscow, the Chongar Bridge and against the Russian Black Sea Fleet in the past week. At best, this measure of success remains partially achieved.
Measure 2: Ukraine destroys or degrades Russian tactical and operational reserves, C2 and logistics. The Ukrainians will want to limit the Russian’s ability to respond to their attacks, particularly if they are able to achieve a breakthrough in Russian positions. Therefore, finding and neutralising mobile Russian reserves before - and at the beginning of - the offensives will be important. And just as the identification and neutralisation of reserves is important, so too is the identification of Russian headquarters. Their destruction or degradation in effectiveness helps break down the cohesion of the Russian response to Ukrainian attacks. Concurrently, identification of Russian logistics – especially artillery ammunition stocks – will be vital in Ukraine generating a firepower advantage.
Assessment: Clearly this was an incomplete task when the offensive began and remains an ongoing task now. The deep battle aims to attack, degrade and destroy headquarters, reserve troop formations, fires and logistics. This is a very complex and evolving task, although there are few insights into this very sensitive undertaking other than its observed effects. Recent strikes on Russian large ammunition supply locations, key transportation hubs and Russian senior leadership are part of this approach to the ‘deep battle’ by Ukraine. However, this is an ongoing and only partially achieved measure of success for the 2023 Ukrainian offensives.
Measure 3: Ukraine takes back its territory. Underpinned by tactical and operational battlefield successes, recapturing large parts of its territory and liberating Ukrainian citizens from the predations of the Russians is a key measure of success for the offensives. Part of this will be Ukraine’s capacity to reduce and fight through the various obstacle zones created by the Russians in eastern and southern Ukraine. I don’t propose a certain percentage of territory that should be recaptured, but if most of Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia are recaptured, this would be a very successful outcome. And it would be good foundation for subsequent operations against Crimea and Donetsk in the future.
Assessment: Ukraine is making some progress. Because none of us, except the Ukrainian military high command and government members, know the actual Ukrainian objectives for each phase of the war, we cannot say with any certainty whether this is behind or on schedule. However, Ukraine is recovering its territory. According to the excellent work of @War_Mapper, during July the armed forces of Ukraine reduced the area occupied by Russia by approximately 85 square kilometres. As such, this measure of success would best be described as ‘partially achieved’.
Measure 4: Ukraine is well placed for actions to return Crimea at the end of the offensives. As I have written previously, the last campaign of the war may be the campaign for Ukraine to take back its Crimea territory. President Zelensky has been clear on this as one of the Ukrainian war termination conditions. Therefore, the coming offensives will be successful if the Ukrainian armed forces are well placed for follow on operations to take back Crimea – either through making it untenable for the Russians to stay, or an actual military operation to seize it.
Assessment: This measure of success is related to achievement (or otherwise) of Measures 2 and 3. Ukraine must liberate the majority of Kherson and Zaporizhia to have a chance of placing at risk Russian forces, and the Russian occupation, in Ukrainian Crimea. Given the Ukrainian operations so far, this measure of success can only be assessed as ‘not achieved’, and will remain dependent on success in measures 2 and 3 explored above.
Measure 5: Ukraine captures or destroys Russian forces. Related to the recapture of its territory is the capture or destruction of Russian forces. A successful Ukrainian offensive will reduce the quantity of Russian forces that the Ukrainians have to fight, and it will also force the Russian commander Gerasimov to make hard decisions about pulling forces from other areas to replace those destroyed. This leads to other opportunities for the Ukrainians. And, it should go without saying, it will have an impact of Putin’s calculus. A successful Ukrainian offensive will also ensure sufficient Russian combat power is destroyed to prevent Russia conducting any follow-on offensives for the remainder of 2023. Clearly it will also aim to degrade Russia’s military capacity in the short term, but it could have a significant impact on politicians in nations friendly, and not so friendly, towards Ukraine.
Assessment: The Ukrainians are achieving attrition of Russian combat power in the south and the east, but at the same time, have taken significant casualties to their own forces. The current correlation of forces between Ukraine and Russia remains uncertain, however there is some evidence that the Ukrainians are having success targeting Russian artillery and approaching ‘fires parity’ in some areas. Just as the discussion on attrition above implies, this will be a race to generate a relative advantage in forces (mass, good tactics, etc) over the coming weeks and months. Therefore, the assessment of Measure 5 is ‘some progress but ongoing.’
Measure 6: Ukraine preserves sufficient combat power to continue defending some areas and conduct subsequent offensives in others. While the Ukrainians will invest a significant part of their air and land combat power in this offensive, they will want to do so in a way where they don’t sustain massive casualties. The degree to which Ukraine can inflict disproportionate casualties and destruction on the Russians in the coming offensives will be an important measure of success.
Assessment: The Russians have been conducting a series of attacks in north-eastern Ukraine on the Kreminna-Svatove axis. This has been ongoing for several weeks, and the Russians have managed to advance beyond the lines they held in early June. Despite this, the Ukrainians have been able to defend against the Russians and minimise their gains. There is also evidence that Ukraine has committed more of the forces that it had kept in reserve to its southern campaign, so the amount of formations that remain in reserve is unclear but probably less than there were last month. This will impact the endurance of the overall Ukrainian campaign as well as their total fighting power in the last quarter of the year. The assessment of Measure 6 is ‘partially achieved – but let’s wait and see what happens in the next couple of months.’
Measure 7: Ukraine’s supporters believe the offensives have been a success. Not only must Ukraine achieve considerable tactical and operational success in its operations, the Ukrainian people, foreign leaders and populations will need to think they have succeeded. One does not automatically follow the other. Therefore, ongoing strategic communication from the Ukrainian government will be essential to tell the story and achievements of the offensives. This can be challenging at times, given the imperatives of operational security. But news of success is essential to Ukrainian morale, as well as ongoing support for Ukraine and pushing back on Chinese and Russian ‘peace’ overtures that would essentially freeze the conflict to Russia’s benefit.
Assessment: The perception of campaign success will be almost as important as actual success over the coming months. There has been a wide range of views expressed in the West, in Russia, in China and beyond on how the Ukrainian offensives are progressing. And while the accuracy of these narratives can often be questioned, it again highlights just how important it is for Ukraine to achieve a success on the battlefield and in the minds of people – in Ukraine and beyond.
The recent strikes on Moscow will have an impact on perceptions of success in the West and beyond, but these are not decisive strikes. At the same time, Western polls (in Europe, Australia and the US) indicate that support for continued assistance to Ukraine is holding up. As such, the assessment of Measure 7 is, at best, ‘slight trend to the positive, but overall, too soon to tell’.
The Road Ahead is Long
As with all wars, particularly ones of this scale and intensity, there remains an abundance of uncertainty. The degree to which both sides are having their combat power – intellectual, moral and physical – degraded in the Ukrainian 2023 offensives has some data (such as vehicle losses, ground taken or lost) but overall it is difficult to come to definitive conclusions at this point.
That said, the Ukrainians probably have the operational initiative at the moment and have secured the tactical initiative in some parts of the eastern and southern fronts. However, the Russian mini-offensive in northern Luhansk remains an operational risk for the Ukrainians. Even if the Russians do not gain significant territory, it offers the Russians the ability to draw in Ukrainian forces needed in the south, and for Putin to message his people about Russia being ‘successful’ on the battlefield.
But there remains a tough and long road ahead. As has been pointed out here and in multiple articles, the Ukrainians are seeking to advance against an enemy that has prepared well for a large-scale defensive campaign. Challenges in integrating larger scale combined arms operations have also been a challenge in some areas for the Ukrainians. And slow decision-making last year is now having an impact as well. As Brady Africk notes in his excellent article in the Washington Post:
Ukraine’s allies have long recognized the frantic pace at which Russia has been building defenses in occupied territory. But this realization had little bearing on the speed of their own decision-making. That needs to change. Instead of uncomfortably looking on as Ukraine’s counteroffensive devolves into a slow war of attrition, Western leaders should become more proactive.
The Ukrainians and Russians continue to struggle for tactical and operational supremacy in the south and east of Ukraine. Both sides demonstrate the will to continue fighting for some time to come. The outcomes of the five battles described earlier in this article will largely determine the success or otherwise of Ukraine’s 2023 offensives.
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