With two cleverly executed counter-offensives, the tide has turned for the Ukrainians. Is the writing on the wall for Putin?
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Quite often, nothing really happens in wars where there are deadly stalemates for weeks on end. And then, everything happens all at once. This last week, everything has been happening all at once in the Russia-Ukraine War.
To understand what has taken place and how a lightning counter-offensive was planned and executed, we need to rewind to the beginning of the conflict.
Initially, Putin had envisaged waltzing into Ukraine and deposing of the sovereign government over a two- to three-day period, mopping up any minor protests over the proceeding fifteen days. This was confirmed by plans discovered in the following months, as well as in realizing how poorly prepared the Russian forces were for a lengthy conflict (with parade uniforms found in vehicles, and rations lasting only 5 days or so).
The Russians were expecting to be met in Ukraine with open arms by the population. Instead, they were met with outright hostility and fierce military resistance.
The importance of SEAD
I remind you of this in order to bring into play the notion of SEAD—Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses. The Germans, in World War 2 in 1940, fought the Battle of Britain as a precursor to invading the island nation. They realized that if they didn’t acquire air supremacy, they would be unable to successfully invade Britain. Without achieving air supremacy, an attacking army allows the enemy to inflict untold damage on ground forces and navies, thus incapacitating any offensive.
The Germans lost the Battle of Britain, and unable to attain air supremacy, gave up on the idea of invading.
Fast forward eighty years and many intervening conflicts where SEAD operations were developed as integral to any war, and it seems that Russia failed in their military history exam. Before any conflict is properly started on the ground, SEAD operations seek to take out enemy air defenses and air force capabilities. In the opening days of the conflict, Russia did try to take out Ukrainian air defenses and air bases, hitting runways and parked planes. But their efforts were simply not good enough. Ukraine managed to maintain a functional air force that meant the skies remained, at best for the Russians, contested.
The Ukrainian skies have remained contested to this day, with Russia utterly failing to achieve anything close to air superiority, let alone air supremacy.
This alone has meant that the Russian forces have essentially relied on the Soviet tactic of rendering towns into “moonscapes” by bombing them with “dumb” munitions (that aren’t guided or precise), before moving small numbers of troops into what is left of a given settlement. This is a devastating tactic, and an odd one if you are attempting to take control of an area that you desire to be part of your “empire” or nation. This approach is short-sighted, entailing killing a lot of people, destroying entire communities, and then spending huge amounts of money for years afterwards building those towns back up, all the while trying to win over the hearts and minds of those communities you have destroyed.
Because the Russians haven’t at any time achieved air superiority, and having exhausted their guided munitions, their jets and helicopters have had to operate far behind the frontlines, preferring to release longer-range rockets blindly at the Ukrainians from distance, with helicopters lifting their noses to increase the range, firing them high into the sky.
The genius of Kherson
For a good number of weeks before the beginning of this current counter-offensive that started in Kherson, the Ukrainians did a seemingly bizarre, potentially suicidal thing. They announced, over this protracted time period, that they were going to carry out a counter-offensive in Kherson. Counter-offensives are best achieved when those carrying them out have the advantage of surprise. Why would Ukraine want to announce such an attack? More on this later.
So why Kherson? When Russia invaded Crimea back in 2014, they took a vital naval port (Sevastapol) and a large amount of agricultural and industrial land. Crimea, however, depends upon the Kherson Oblast (region or state) for its fresh water. The Ukrainians cut off the fresh water to Crimea, and for some years, Crimea has been suffering from drought, water shortages, rationing, and water quality problems.
When Russia invaded more recently, one of the first (and only) cities they took was Kherson. They needed that water. Moreover, Kherson was a necessary stepping stone to Mykolaiv and then Odesa—the jewel in the crown. Odesa is not only of huge cultural importance, but of great economic and logistical worth, too. Russia changed their initial objectives and recognized that taking the whole coastline would ruin Ukraine’s economy, since the ports are vital for the export of almost all of their produce.
For some of the best mapping of the conflict, see the FT’s latest maps also showing progress over time, as well as the Institute for the Study of War’s main map and their static maps from reports. See the larger map below to understand where Odesa sits on the coast.
But the Russians couldn’t advance much past Kherson, and we have observed months of attritional stalemate from Kherson to Zaporizhzhia, and up to Donetsk and then Severodonetsk, taking a westward turn to Izyum and beyond.
Given this stalemate, it was odd to see Ukraine announce their forthcoming counter-offensive. As a result, Russia obliged, and collected somewhere around 30,000 troops and materiel from up and down their lines and reinforced the Kherson lines, where they were comfortably dug in, to the west of the Dnipro River.
And this was genius.
Over the length of the conflict, Ukraine has received a vast amount of armaments, munitions, equipment, and vehicles from NATO countries and allies all over the world. The list is too long to detail, but the highlights are:
- Longer-range artillery than the Russians have.
- SPGs—self-propelled howitzers that operate on tracks or wheels. This allows the guns to “shoot and scoot” (firing, and then getting out of the area quickly to avoid counter-battery fire). These include French Caesars, German PzH 2000s, and Polish AHS Krabs.
- Huge amounts of basic, but decent equipment, including quality body armor, helmets, and night vision goggles (that the Russians effectively lack).
- Huge numbers of APCs and IFVs (armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles), tanks and other specialist vehicles.
- Soviet-era and Russian fighter jets that they are used to flying.
- Vast quantities of shoulder-mounted anti-tank launchers (Javelins, NLAWS, etc.) and MANPADs (man-portable air-defense systems that can hit helicopters and planes at 5km).
- Gepards: German anti-aircraft autocannons with effective radar capability.
And much, much more.
But the recognized game-changer has been the provision of multiple rocket launch systems, most notably the HIMARs (High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems), which have a 50-mile/80km range, and are also mobile (shoot and scoot). These have allowed Ukraine to pick off hundreds of high-value targets for over a month, destroying Russian logistics capabilities, and staving them of ammunition for their high-intensity artillery and rocket attacks.
The Ukrainians also built a whole host of wooden decoy HIMARs such that Russia boasted having destroyed far more HIMARs than Ukraine even owned! The reality is that Russia hadn’t actually destroyed a single one.
Simply put, HIMARs enabled the tide to be turned, and Joe Biden’s US administration has been generously giving successive donations of materiel, including a steady supply of rocket launcher ammunition.
The honey trap
The protracted announcements gave Russia enough time to properly reinforce their defenses to the west of Kherson.
And then it happened.
The first stroke of genius was the fact that Ukraine had attracted a mass of some of the best Russian troops to the region to the west of Kherson to add to those already there (including two airborne divisions and special forces units). But all of these troops had their backs to the Dnipro River. With the troops and all of their equipment in place, Ukraine hit the three road bridges (and railway) that crossed the Dnipro. eventually, they were destroyed. And when Russia tried to repair them, to make pontoon bridges, and to use ferries, these were all hit.
Suddenly, Russia was utterly unable to resupply all of their troops and huge numbers of armaments (with fuel and ammunition) to the west of Kherson. Ukraine had sucked them in and cut them off. Advancing three places, the Ukrainians made slow but meaningful progress. The Russians had nowhere to go, no way of being resupplied, and were being consistently hit by HIMARs and artillery.
The counter-offensive was costing both sides dearly, but the writing was on the wall. There was no way, short of magically receiving a bountiful supply of fresh reinforcements, that Russia was going to hold on to this Kherson territory.
The second stroke of genius
Of course, as you probably know by now, the Kherson counter-offensive was also acting as a feint. Secretly, Ukraine had amassed forces near their second city of Kharkiv. This was a city that was never taken by Russia but that has suffered daily and nightly rocket and artillery attacks, being in the northeast of Ukraine and near the Russian border.
Russia had sent troops from up and down the frontlines in Ukraine to support the Kherson defensive. As a result, their lines were weak. Ukraine’s third piece of ingenuity was to attack where they knew the lines were weakest. In this case, to the east of Kharkiv, where their enemy were LNR and DNR troops or militia (also known as LPR and DPR, the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics). Luhansk and Donetsk are the regions to the east of Ukraine that were partially occupied in 2014, who had traditionally had more support for the Russians (in the east, marked in purple on the map below).
However, the LNR and DNR forces were, at this point and in this area, to a significant degree made up of forced conscripts who are poorly trained and with low morale, fighting with outdated equipment. Not only this, but the region was also being defended by military police, who had no anti-tank weaponry and didn’t know how to fire multiple grenade launchers.
Ukraine picked their spots perfectly. As such, they broke through the frontlines with ease. Real ease. In fact, comparatively speaking, Ukraine has hardly lost any troops or equipment in the entire Kharkiv counter-offensive. In a matter of days, Ukraine has liberated upwards of 6,000 square kilometers, more than Russia has achieved since April.
There were no tiered defenses, no secondary lines that the defenders could retreat to. Instead, they ran. First Balakliya fell after being encircled, and then the key logistical hubs of Izyum and Kupiansk. As the Russians fled, they left their equipment (and even half-eaten meals). By the hundreds. Open-source intelligence aggregators such as Oryx and Ukraine Weapons Tracker have been unable to keep up with the sheer volume of pieces of materiel that Russia has gifted to Ukraine or that has been damaged and destroyed. Stockpiles of ammunition have been left for Ukrainian use.
Many POWs have been captured (though so many also escaped), including several higher-level commanders. Some troops even changed into civilian clothes and were caught escaping on bicycles.
Thisd was a rout.
And it is hard to ovre-estimate how damaging this will be for Russian morale going forward, and how encouraging this will be for the Ukrainians.
In addition, Izyum and Kupiansk are vital rail and road logistics hubs for the Russians (who lean very heavily on railroads for their military). These Ukrainian gains damage the Russian ability to conduct effective warfare with sound supplies on the Donetsk front.
The Urkainian forces are now taking a breather on the Oskil River, a natural defensive line for the Russians to fall back on. It will be interesting to see how the offensive develops since Ukraine, if they can recinstitute successfully and sort out their own logistics, will see the east of Oskil as ripe for picking. Indeed, several bridgeheads have been gained along the river, and north of the Siverskyi Donets River to which it joins. Severodenetsk and Lysychansk are under somepressure from Ukraine.
Circling back to the beginning
And this is where we circle back to what we were discussing earlier: SEAD. The Ukrainians have suggested that one of the heroes of this offensive was the Gepard. The radar of the Gepard has a range of 15 km and provides all-round scanning with simultaneous target tracking. These can work in unison to provide a network to alert forces of incoming aerial threats, and can use their autocannon to automatically target drones, helicopters, and jets. Even though they are not rockets, the autocannons are actually effective deterrents to jets, and it is known that Russian jets steered clear of the region, and were thus unable to support the troops on the ground.
As lightning-quick as the Kharkiv offensive has been, it is a culmination of months of steady attrition of Russian forces and capabilities. Without that attrition, involving the destruction of huge amounts of equipment, and perhaps 100,000 or more casualties (deaths and injuries), the Ukrainians wouldn’t be in the strong position they now are.
Moreover, and I cannot emphasize this enough, with every passing week the Ukrainian armed forces are being further upgraded, going from strength to strength, helped technologically and in terms of hardware, intelligence, and special forces, by their allies. With every passing week, the Russian army is being degraded. They have approached Iran and North Korea to procure weaponry. They are desperate, as the wasr takes its inexorable toll on their capabilities.
As the Ukrainian army improves, the Russian army deteriorates, and this trend only goes one way. I said this back in April: Putin cannot win.
Putin’s options are few and far between. He can finally enact a national mobilization, or unleash tactical nuclear warheads. Neither option is viable. Nukes would be suicidal and would probably lead to a coup. In a political and domestic context where the war is becoming less and less popular, mobilization would be political suicide and a tacit admission that they were losing.
Even television pundits are starting to grumble. The following is a must-watch from several nights ago:
And, staggeringly, more than 30 Russian municipal deputies have signed a petition calling for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s resignation.
So far, Russia’s desperate retaliation has been to hit energy infrastructure, taking out several power stations in an attempt to cripple Ukraine and dampen their spirit. It will take more than that to succeed.
And now, since teh counter-offensive, Russia has stopped sending new units into Ukraine to reinforce any area. It is troops and equipment that the Russian forces desperately need. The issue is possibly one of struggling to obtain volunteer recruits, leading the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine to announce on Facebook yesterday: “The current situation in the theatre of operations and distrust of the higher command forced a large number of volunteers to categorically refuse the prospect of service in combat conditions.”
To make matters worse for Russia, while they are in such a precarious position, their neighbors are being opportunistic: there have been clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia concerning the the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. It is unlikely, this time, that Russia will be able to send troops and equipment to sort the problem out.
This last week appears to have sealed Putin’s fate, short of any insane move he might make.
The writing is on the wall for the Russian forces: there is only one direction of travel.
Before the war started, Russia were touted as the second greatest army in the world. They are now evidently the second greatest army in Ukraine.