Snow progress: Ukrainian troops walk through a field near Bakhmut in February 2023. Image: Zuma Press / Alamy
The lack of a breakthrough in Ukraine’s summer offensive and the shift in materiel advantage mean that Kyiv must fight carefully if it is to retain the initiative.
Despite the determined efforts of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU), five months of offensive operations have not breached Russia’s defence lines in Zaporizhzhia. Ukraine retains some options to make Russian dispositions uncomfortable, but it is highly unlikely that there will be a breakthrough towards Tokmak this year unless Russian forces decide to withdraw. The Ukrainians now face a difficult set of competing imperatives: to maintain pressure on the Russians while reconstituting their units for future offensive operations.
Attrition and Initiative
Both Russia and Ukraine have struggled to generate offensive combat power in 2023. The heavy attrition of experienced junior officers and trained field-grade staff has limited the scale at which offensive action can be synchronised. Combined with terrain that contains fighting and the canalising effect of dense minefields, Ukrainian forces have been restricted to company-scale operations. When they have expanded the scale of operations, Ukrainian forces have found that they lose synchronisation with their supporting arms. Russia has similarly struggled to synchronise and coordinate larger-scale activities, but this has not prevented it from attempting them, at great cost in personnel and materiel.
For both sides, the ability to expand the scale at which they can operate effectively is constrained by training opportunities. Ukrainian units – committed to the front – struggle to be pulled far enough from the Russians to train at larger scale. Russia, meanwhile, is having to commit many of its replacement troops to keep up the strength of its units at the front because of its high rate of casualties. So long as this high casualty rate can be maintained, therefore, it becomes possible to suppress Russia’s ability to train sufficient new troops to the standard needed to effectively conduct offensive action.
If sustaining a high casualty rate suppresses Russia’s ability to regain the initiative, the question becomes whether Ukraine and its international partners can refine the training pipeline – better connecting training inside and outside of Ukraine – to enable Ukraine to exploit the opportunity in the spring. This is complicated by the need to keep up the pressure on Russian forces.
If Russia can destroy the ability to pump water in Ukraine’s cities during periods of cold temperature, pipes will burst, potentially rendering urban areas uninhabitable
During the winter of 2022–3, much of the front saw intense skirmishing, but only limited Ukrainian attempts to significantly alter the line of control. The lack of a threat of offensive action by the AFU allowed Russia to build three extensive defence lines with mines, trenches and obstacles, which made Ukraine’s offensive operations this summer an order of magnitude more difficult. If Ukraine does not continue to pressure the Russian line in the winter, the risk is that these defence lines are expanded. Thus, Kyiv must balance reconstitution with a need to keep up pressure on Russian forces.
The Materiel Balance
Ukraine will face further challenges because of the shifting balance of materiel advantage. Over the summer Ukraine gained fires superiority for the first time, delivering more rounds per day onto Russian positions than came back in many sectors. This was critical to the progress made, but saw an ammunition consumption rate above 200,000 rounds per month.
Sufficient ammunition to sustain this rate of fire is not going to be forthcoming as NATO stockpiles deplete, and production rates for ammunition remain too low to meet this level of demand. On the Russian side, by comparison, production has turned a corner. Not only is Russian domestic ammunition production rising rapidly, but new ammunition production is being supplied from Iran, North Korea and other states. Bottlenecks in spare barrels and other critical parts will prevent Russia from establishing fires dominance for the next quarter, while NATO production should increase later in 2024, but for a while Ukraine faces the challenge of maintaining Russian attrition without an abundance of artillery.
Another challenge lies in air defence. The one plausible path towards Russia gaining a decisive advantage on the battlefield is if its aerospace forces are able to begin bombing from medium altitude, significantly increasing the accuracy of their strikes. To do this, they would need to denude Ukraine of its air defences. In this light, Russia’s impending strikes on Ukrainian critical national infrastructure remain a strategic threat. If Russia can destroy the ability to pump water in Ukraine’s cities during periods of cold temperature, pipes will burst, potentially rendering urban areas uninhabitable. Thus, the missiles must be intercepted – but interceptors are a scarce commodity.
For Russia, the supply of strike munitions is increasing. In October 2022 Russia was producing approximately 40 long-range missiles a month. Now it is producing over 100 a month, and this is supplemented by large numbers of Geran-2 UAVs. Furthermore, on 18 October, UN Security Council restrictions on Iran’s missile programme lapsed. Russia has been pushing for Iran to supply it with missiles after that date, with an expectation that this will provide a large supply of missiles in the winter. NATO’s ability to expand the production of interceptors and radar for air defences is therefore critical.
Keeping Russia Unbalanced
Despite these threats, Ukraine has options for continuing to cause Russia’s position in southern Ukraine to deteriorate. Long-range strikes using ATACMS destroyed Electronic Warfare helicopters that had been important for protecting Russian forces from a range of effects. Carefully orchestrated attacks on Russian air defences are also making a range of softer targets more vulnerable. Once these gaps open, Ukraine can maximise the efficiency of the limited stocks of GMLRS it possesses to destroy and disrupt Russian logistics.
It is notable that Russian casualties last winter were exceedingly high, even when Russia had fires superiority
At the same time, if a massed breakthrough is looking less likely, Ukraine can exploit the width of the front to keep Russian forces in the field as the weather deteriorates. Recent attacks across the Dnipro, for example, expand the frontage that Russian troops must defend, reducing the number of forces that can be pulled back and trained or reconstituted. Actions that make progress where the Russians have left themselves vulnerable can be rapidly exploited. Russian commanders cannot, therefore, simply trade space on their flanks.
The winter once again poses an opportunity to maximise Russian losses. If Russian troops are drawn into the defence along a wide front, with Ukrainian troops pushing into opportunities rather than trying to break through defended areas, then Russian forces will be outside, getting wet and cold. If targeted strikes can degrade their logistics, then the limited training and fieldcraft of Russian forces can maximise climactic injuries. It is notable that Russian casualties last winter were exceedingly high, even when Russia had fires superiority.
Further activity in the Black Sea is also important. Firstly, expanding the threat to the Crimean Peninsula spreads out increasingly threatened and scarce defensive systems like the S-400. Secondly, the progressive erosion of the Black Sea Fleet’s freedom of manoeuvre helps to set the conditions for the isolation of Crimea in 2024. While these conditions can be created, however, they are all dependent upon the AFU being able to reconstitute. With Washington embroiled in political dysfunction, the assurances needed to plan for 2024 will increasingly fall on European capitals. Thus, for Ukraine’s international partners, the task of creating the conditions for a successful campaign in 2024 must be committed to today.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Dr Jack Watling
Senior Research Fellow, Land Warfare