Twilight in Ukraine
Disclaimer: Predicting the outcomes of wars and operations before they happen, and even decades after, is often an exercise in frustration and failure. Nor will I be discussing the possible axis of attack. ISW has done a great job with that, examining some relevant trends and trying to set some expectations.
“Over the past two weeks, Russia has likely suffered its highest rate of casualties since the first week of the invasion of Ukraine. [...] The uptick in Russian casualties is likely due to a range of factors including lack of trained personnel, coordination and resources across the front – this is exemplified in Vuhledar and Bakhmut.”
British Ministry of Defense, 12th of February
The fighting around Vuhledar has revealed an uneasy picture. The picture of how far Russia has fallen. During the early Russian attacks in January, the anemic effort was considered to be insincere, a feint, or a poorly organized local counterattack. Nevertheless, the continuous efforts and losses, deployment of high-level equipment (such as Military District level artillery), and larger movements along the front proved this was a major offensive. What was considered a localized counter-offensive continued to expand and escalate as it consumed staggering resources. Tanks were clumsily thrown forwards, often haphazardly supported by infantry, who, after failed mechanized assaults, sometimes came on foot. It soon became clear that this was not some minor effort. However, it was certainly poorly used for all the resources the Russians spent. The picture was better highlighted by the capture of the newly published Russian military manual detailing the new ‘assault detachment’ on February 26th.* If this document is to be trusted, it shows a development of the abandoned BTG concept from the early war. Moreover, it seems to reflect many of the Russian military's pains. It advises moving away from more sophisticated T-72 tanks as a key part of a combined arms force and relegates it to a rear, direct-fire support vehicle. This small look at a new concept for employing combined arms battalion-level units indicates Russia is not only trying to save on tank losses but also attempting to design easier-to-control and less sophisticated assault tactics. Some important notes are that these tactics help economize attritional warfare and work better in combination with less equipment and inexperienced and poorly trained reinforcements. This is not a bold step forward, such as an effort to make the best of poor circumstances. A little combined arms is better than none, and trading the idea of more dedicated maneuver elements for more economical and methodical assault forces is best at dealing with fortified positions. They are a bit more agile than the old BTGs. ISW notes that these tactics are ineffective at countering conventional Ukrainian battalions and brigades and likely wasteful in that role. ISW concluded that “Russian forces are unlikely to make operationally significant breakthroughs rapidly with this formation.”1
This consistent pattern we have seen from the Russians is an inability to coordinate their sophisticated systems into combined arms operations or facilitate complex operations, continuously stunting their ability to perform. This is an army where infantry is dropped off by Soviet infantry fighting vehicles to assault a fortified position frontally with the support provided by thermobaric weapons. Russia's sophistication is often wasted and attrited away in more primitive operations, not that these tools are ineffective, just that they are not being used to their full potential. As the Ukrainians are reinforced by Western-trained troops with Western-quality equipment in numbers, they are likely to be able to integrate their complexity into their operations to overwhelm the Russians. The shipment of Western equipment to Ukraine is not merely to replace lost material but to develop new capacities. As we saw in the Kharkiv offensive last year, the Ukrainians were able to utilize rapid offensives focusing on speed, surprise, and audacity, integrating Western wheeled vehicles for high mobility operations, deep disinformation operations, and shaping the battlefield with HIMAR strikes like the ‘Thunder Runs’ of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The employment of Javelin was similar, centralizing authority in small units to be deployed against massed armor to prevent breakthroughs, using Western equipment to fill the gap in their capacity by creating a new capacity with advanced munitions.2 While examining both armies' sophistication on a large scale is difficult in this information environment and beyond the scope of this article. That being said, it is worth examining two important trends often neglected that make up much of the fragile status quo.
1. It should be noted that this document shares much in common with the tactics being developed in Bakhmut by the Wagner Group. See that link for further details.
2. Distributed by the Research Center of Missile Troops and Artillery. Downloaded courtesy of Battle Order.
To understand what the upcoming offensive may look like, it is necessary to look at what has happened to Russia. Russian losses are worth contextualizing because, however, it may seem, they are not at all sustainable. Russia does not have the industrial capacity to support its consumption of shells and armored vehicles at the current rate. Russian material consumption comes from the reserves left behind by the Soviet Union, something that has always been factored into Russian strategic calculus, as it hollows Russia loses this safety net, one created by a collapsed state. The losses to destroying this inherence are significant.
Chief of the Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate, Kyrylo Budanov, is on record stating that Russia is only capable of monthly production of 40 cruise missiles. Considering that the large March 9th missile attack comprised more than 80 missiles, this number is insufficient for their current or past consumption in the long term. By last October, Russia had already launched more than 4,500 missiles, whose employment themselves was not economical. In terms of tank production, there is some information to indicate that Russia could be capable of producing some 200-250 tanks per year (as well as modernizing 600 older tanks), an impressive number, certainly with shortcuts taken that is still not yet capable of making up for the more than 1,819 tanks visually confirmed to be destroyed according to the open-source intelligence organization Oryx.1 For some context, that’s enough tanks to furnish more than 40 battalions of their pre-war Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs). Taking the paper strength from Military Balance 2021, Russia had an estimated 10,200 tanks in reserve. Unfortunately for Russia, the usefulness of these, in reality, is not as extensive. Some rather basic but thorough open-source investigating indicates that in early April that Russia is likely only capable of delivering some 3,000 of these reserves into service, likely of varying quality and condition. While these numbers are certainly inflated, they paint a less-than-ideal picture of the Soviet stockpiles.
It can already be seen how this is forcing Russia’s habits to change, forcing them to ration artillery shells along less active areas of the front—such as in the north—to a painful degree. Indeed, a situation must be truly desperate for a former security exporter like Russia to be importing artillery shells from North Korea. As well as the steady decline across the board of shell consumption since the onset of the war. For reference, Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Chief Kyrylo Budanov estimated that Russia was consuming 20,000 shells per day in late December 2022, only 30% of the amount used daily in the early days of the war. This is something that goes beyond decreasing consumption after the failure to end the war quickly; the nature of this new conflict and Russian employment of artillery has been extremely high, but when we consider how the Russian military will ration and pace their shell usage, it is important to understand how skewed their past consumption has been by their hollowing out much of their military inheritance. Certainly, Russia does not have decades to build up a new stockpile, nor does it have the same industrial capacity, economic resilience, or political control as the Soviet Union did (even before considering the massive economic and demographic strain they are experiencing presently). From cannibalization, poor storage, and disastrous employment, these stockpiles are neither as large as they seem nor as usable as discussed earlier. And the cost is beyond the material, With CISI estimating 60,000-70,000 Russian combat fatalities as of February of 2023, more than the combined combat fatalities of both US and Soviet invasions of Afghanistan.2
It is worth giving extra attention to the matter of artillery in light of the role it plays for both sides in this war. The Russian army is not merely an army heavy on artillery; it is not just an advantage they possess over the Ukrainians. Russia desperately needs superiority in artillery. It has been their most decisive tool in this conflict. In the words of Jack Watling of the Royal United Services Institute:
"The generally mediocre performance of Russia's ground forces has been increasingly offset by their leveraging of massed artillery fires to facilitate a slow and methodical advance. Sustained bombardment has progressively displaced the local population and levelled the settlements and infrastructure that were being defended, forcing the Ukrainian military to abandon territory after it is devastated."
It is not a tool they can afford to lose on the offensive or defense. Consistently when a Ukrainian offensive has begun to bog down, the Russians have leveled blistering fire against them to devastating effect.
In extremely simplified terms, Russian forces in Ukraine generally organize a fluid defense concept rather than stretching their forces alone on the massive front. They rely on a network of separate defensive groupings that keep enemies from slipping through and hold offensives that can penetrate them so that a reserve force can destroy or blunt that penetration. This allows for larger areas to be defended more thoroughly and to preserve the combat power of the defender into a concentrated response force. This system is good for that purpose. Yet, Russia is quite reliant on artillery to sustain it. Firstly, Russia uses its heavy artillery to protect gaps in its line. Secondly, Russia can delay and disrupt offensives at a distance with its artillery. Thirdly, to economize counter actions, Russia relies heavily on maneuvering by fire (basically, directing fire onto a point without moving the artillery firing). This is part of the reason why Ukraine focuses so heavily on rapid advances, surprise, and audacity in their offensives because the longer they remain in place, the more likely they are to be subject to heavy bombardment. Losing this advantage would not only allow the Ukrainians to sustain their offensives more easily but also to diversify their methods without fear of heavy bombardment. Moreover, the Russian army tends to employ artillery on mass to create such a high density of destruction they can neutralize opponents according to a rigid algorithm when planning is allowed. Still, usage of certain artillery assets is often left to high-level command, which can often be misused through poor information or deliberate deception from within. Somewhat tragically, Russian usage of artillery on mass to resolve problems, often regardless of the legitimacy or scale of the threat, has extreme wastefulness and poor prioritization of targets. Moreover, Russia’s reliance on overwhelming firepower has been dramatic and unsustainable for the tempo of operations in Ukraine. The sustainment of this scale at this tempo has a compounding effect, not just draining ammunition but straining artillery tubes themselves. In short, Russian artillery is extremely potent. However, it props up a much weaker force. It has been said that the US army supports maneuver with firepower, while Russia supports firepower with maneuver.
1. Three notes. One, Novaya Gazeta's made this estimate in November of 2022. Russia has since then advanced its request for tank production. Although, considering the limitations facing the Russian economy, it is unlikely to increase drastically and unlikely to meet the Kremlin’s ambitions of 800 per year. While it is not improbable that Russia could produce more than expected through cost-saving means, it is indeed a solid historical precedent. Two, Russian losses are certainly higher than losses visually confirmed by Oryx, and the number provided only counts those destroyed, not those put out of action, perhaps for significant repair. Three, we see signs that Russia is digging deeper into their Soviet stockpiles to modernize the older T-62 for combat (likely hoping to fill gaps in production as a short-term solution).
2. It is worth admitting that any estimates of casualties are inaccurate. It is just the nature of ongoing wars.
Dawn in the West
Ukrainian artillery has suffered for a large part of the war underneath the Russian heel, but this situation is becoming less common daily. Despite this, numerous factors have conspired to mitigate this advantage, we have already discussed the declining volume of fire on the Russian side, yet there are a few other variables that have changed. Firstly, Ukraine is not as artillery dependent as Russia, especially regarding volume. Ukraine is far more sparring with artillery and prefers to focus heavily on counter-battery fire or precise strikes, often relying heavily on direct fire and coordinating closely with small drones.3 Moreover, the fusion of extensive allied intelligence alongside effective systems such as Kropyva ‘Nettle’ or Delta. Additionally, Western aid, particularly that from the US, has focused on providing Ukraine with more precision munitions like M982 Excalibur and HIMARS, for that matter. Combined with more advanced artillery support systems and self-propelled artillery like the French Ceaser or British AS-90, this will allow Ukraine to focus on hunting Russian artillery to weaken that advantage and remember just how vital artillery is to Russia for holding the line. Furthermore, the delivery of Western fire support systems and radar continues to improve Ukrainian artillery’s ability to compete with Russia and decline differences in shell consumption and tube count. Russia’s grip on artillery superiority is slipping in terms of combat and maneuvering.
We should all be well aware of the Ukrainian military’s enthusiasm for large-scale deception, feigning attacks along the front before striking where the Russians are unprepared, like in Kharkiv. Considering the current information space, they are likely attempting to do so again. While I think it isn’t foolish to expect a feint, I wonder if the situation on the front is so that they might attempt to attack heavily on multiple fronts more closely than before to prevent the Russians from concentrating against a single breakthrough. This is only something I wish to entertain as it would require the Ukrainians to have a high amount of skilled personnel and maneuver assets that they might not have. However, I do believe we should expect this offensive to be different from past ones for a few reasons related to the rise of the Ukrainian military. Ukraine is much more capable of maneuver operations than they have ever been. The Kharkiv counter-offensive was mainly conducted by four maneuver brigades operating a high amount of Western equipment. In late March, Ukraine deployed 2 US-trained brigades of 14,000, one equipped with Strykers and one with Bradleys, more advanced AFVs than previously available to the Ukrainians on any similar scale. Beyond those, Ukraine has spent months training and equipping its troops with new Western equipment, particularly armored and engineering vehicles, and receiving additional Western-trained soldiers better prepared for sophisticated battlefield maneuvers to augment their national training system. Moreover, Ukraine is generally in a better position than it was before Kharkiv and has proven itself able to defend against the current blade of the Russian military at Bakhmut. A confidence that will likely make them more willing to commit additional troops, especially as their adversary is attrited.
3. Ukraine has heavily emphasized wearing down Russian artillery to facilitate future operations since the start of the war.
With the information environment the way it is, there is little point in putting units on a map to guess how deployments and maneuvers will occur. However, according to US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III states that nine Western-trained and equipped brigades in Ukraine are being held in reserve for offensive or defensive operations. Assuming all these units are thrown into the offensive, this would be Ukraine's largest and most advanced maneuver yet. Still, it will be against a more prepared opponent.
During the Kharkiv counter-offensive, Ukraine was able to exploit Russia's overextension along the front and deal a stunning blow. It was the fighting around Kyiv in the initial phases of the conflict where the Russians suffered their highest losses, retreated, and then launched high-tempo operations around Severodonetsk and Lysychansk. Russia’s strength was worn down in those battles, and its capacity to replace those losses was in the early stages of development. While the fighting around Bakhmut has been most similar in casualties and supply consumption to those days, it is not a perfect comparison to the conditions before the previous spring offensives. Russia has changed (as well as Ukraine); Russia is expecting this spring offensive with the bitter memory of their last failure still fresh in their mind. Additionally, Russia is more prepared for war now, calling in recruits in their mobilization scheme. Their surviving officers, soldiers, and support staff have learned and adapted to the conflict. Part of Russia’s preparations has been the development of seemingly extensive preparations along the predicted axis of advance.4 In the north, along the Kharkiv-Luhansk Oblast line, Russia has prepared a line of defenses between five and twenty kilometers behind the frontline as a sort of fall-back line to withdraw to once there is a sufficiently threatening Ukrainian penetration. This method provides Russia with few advantages, creating a buffer that allows them to understand better the forces they face, allowing them to take advantage of the terrain left behind, and helping economize force. However, it does not have a great deal of depth. In comparison, Bakhmut and Donetsk City are similar but with less depth and great emphasis on fortifying roads and towns. Defenses in the south differ, though they carry on the trend of emphasizing villages and roads, though with additional depth. In the south, defenses, consisting of fortified defensive belts, seem to be prepared in-depth. Notable, the fortifications in the south are the densest, with a much higher concentration of forces compared to Kharkiv. These schemes allow the Russians to not only fall back from an initial penetration but withdraw several times to defended positions to stagger out repeated offenses and potentially leave thorns behind to disrupt an enemy as they attempt to push the next position.
Yet, this scheme highlights the complexity of withdrawals. Any withdrawal would require high morale, good planning, a clear picture of unfolding circumstances, solid command and control, and coordination between units of differing quality in combat conditions. Unfortunately for Russian forces, they can expect to be executing these withdrawals with limited motorization and, therefore, privy to being overrunning not only due to the chaos and damage of the offensive but also logistic priorities. While Russian logistics increasingly rely on trains, these usually stop outside of range from long-range fires (like HIMARS) and unload onto trucks, and are brought to dispersed supply hubs along the front and distributed alongside other supplies such as food, spare parts, etc. Because of the Russian reliance on artillery, the infantry is usually sidelined regarding supply priority and transport allocation. This is part of the reason that Russian infantry assaults are increasingly unmotorised, as seen at Vuhledar. This logistical adjustment reduces the transport capacity provided to combat units for mobility.
Fortifications are important for a few reasons. Most importantly to this discussion, they can help Russia slow down Ukrainian forces with more economical deployments using fortifications to their advantage, helping to reduce deficiencies in quality and requiring further resources and time to dislodge. However, the quality of these defenses is crucial. Fortifications have played a major role in the War in Donbas and the fighting around Bakhmut. As said before, quality is significant, yet they seem lacking. Many examples indicate Russian fortifications are lacking, such as placing dragon’s teeth obstacles flatty on the ground rather than digging in or deploying prefabricated bunkers without deep foundations or reinforced walls. Trenches do not seem of a high quality lacking many mainstays of even the First World War, such as firing steps (small outcroppings to prevent a single shot from clearing out a trench), extensive overhead cover, or deep foundations even in strategically important areas such as the Crimea. These defenses are not particularly modern from what has been observed, with basically all of them comparable to defenses of the Second World War. An important difference exists between the defenses around Bakhmut and those set up by the Russian military. First, while hard to quantify, it simply cannot be ignored that the Ukrainian defense has generally been extremely stubborn and motivated even against bleak odds in poor conditions, this, combined with decent access to support weaponry, makes for a challenging enemy to dislodge. On the other hand, the Russians do not have quite the same record in this conflict. Secondly, due to abusive, offensive techniques, a culture of lying combined with a strong echelonment of force often leads to repeated frontal attacks. Moreover, there is more to occupying the defense than just fortifications. They must be manned and supported to provide a complex threat, and while it is easier to defend, a poorly coordinated defense can stifle any fortification. While I do talk down to these defenses, not all these fortifications are low quality, they are extensive and formidable, and I expect any attempted breakthrough will be costly and require a great amount of courage and skill. Still, Russia has not made a fortress of Crimea or anywhere else.
It is worth noting that the Ukrainians have several specific advantages for breaking through compared to the Russians. Material-wise, Ukraine has more access to precision weaponry, making dealing with hardened fortifications much easier than Russia and reducing their logistical tail. Ukraine is also increasingly equipped with quality Western engineering vehicles, including mine-clearing and bridge-laying tanks and light vehicles (mines have proven quite potent around Bakhmut and Vuhledar against a reckless opponent) to reduce enemy fortifications more efficiently. Personnel-wise, the situation is a bit more complex. Still, polling and anecdotal evidence suggest Ukraine maintains a high quantity of motivated infantry (especially useful for assaulting) and growing numbers of western trained troops and material which are likely a higher standard than most units in Ukraine. As alluded to before, Ukraine is more powerful than it has ever been before. The only significant measure they have really declined in has been in the air, which will be important. Despite a valiant effort, the Ukrainian airforce was unable to compete continuously with the larger and more advanced Russian airforce. While Russian air assets have suffered more losses than Ukraine, Russia has more to give.5 Air defense capacities in this war have outmatched aircraft. There is still a chance that offensives by Ukraine could be inhibited by Russian airpower, especially if the offensive strains their reduced anti-air capacity. This has been something rightly emphasized by NATO when considering how to equip Ukraine. Finally, the role of intelligence and planning between allies is significant. NATO and Ukraine cooperate extensively with the US helping to plan the upcoming Ukrainian counter-offensive, not only providing valuable experience, technical assistance, and staff support but also immense amounts of intelligence.
4. While obviously, it is important to be clear that as the attacker, the Ukrainian military can choose which part of these lines they want to assault or bypass and do so with concentration. Particularly in the north, if the Ukrainians do open a breach in Russian fortifications, it will put much of the remaining line at risk of being outflanked.
5. These numbers are from late 2022 and are very conservative by the nature of the methodology.
There remains a significant risk in whatever axis Ukraine chooses, Russia can defeat Ukraine on the battlefield, and they themselves are not yet defeated. This undertaking will likely be the most difficult counter-offensive for the Ukrainians. Russia is more prepared than before. They have learned many lessons since the start of this war, and defending has always been easier than attacking. While the quality of many of Russia’s fortifications is certainly lacking, the sheer scale will require complex combined arms operations to overcome and reduce Russian defenses during an active counter-offensive as well the Russian military seems more prepared for a breakthrough than before. We should look carefully at what unfolds after initial penetration at how the Ukrainian military coordinates its forces, negotiates with obstacles, and how Russia executes its withdrawal and the conduct of its counterattacks. It seems unlikely this counter-offensive will end this war however, the odds of success seem to favor Ukraine.