The Ukrainian Offensive Must Come in Stages

Pushed back: wreckage of a turret from a destroyed Russian tank in Mykolaiv Oblast in southern Ukraine. Image: SOPA / Alamy

Deliberate offensive operations must be conditions-based, and the Ukrainian military need assurances if they are to most effectively allocate the resources they have in order to liberate their territory.

On 29 August, Ukrainian forces significantly stepped up the intensity of their attacks on Russian positions around the city of Kherson. After months of discussion about a Ukrainian counteroffensive, this has precipitated a deluge of speculation about Ukrainian objectives and intentions. It would be inappropriate to discuss the specifics of Ukrainian planning, but it is important to establish reasonable expectations so that observers can accurately assess success or failure.

Ukraine is contending with three conflicting imperatives. Firstly, there is a political demand to demonstrate to Ukraine’s international partners that the donation of equipment leads to progress on the battlefield ahead of a challenging winter in which many states will be seeking to curtail expenditure. Secondly, there is the need to continually disrupt Russian forces occupying Ukraine so that they can neither regain the initiative nor consolidate their control of the country. Thirdly, there is the ultimate aim of driving the Russians from Ukrainian soil through a deliberate offensive.

The first of these objectives requires the immediate expenditure of a high volume of resources to bring about quick results. The second depends upon the prolonged expenditure of resources at moderate intensity. The third necessitates the husbanding of personnel and materiel until a critical mass of units are available. Major offensive operations require a large pool of reserves because even if a small force is able to breach the lines of an adversary, exploiting that breach to occupy large areas of territory calls for fresh troops to be surged forwards following the breakthrough.

The Kherson Front

Kherson Oblast offers an opportunity to reconcile the conflicting imperatives outlined above. As the city is predominantly on the western bank of the Dnipro, Russian forces there can be pushed up against the river, and as they become more concentrated they will also be more vulnerable to attrition from artillery. The river, meanwhile, prevents the Russians from counterattacking in the Ukrainian’s flank, and interdiction of supplies moving across Kherson’s bridges can prevent the city’s defenders from being effectively circulated or reinforced.

With the prospect of a bitter winter spent outdoors, there is ample opportunity to ensure that Russia’s forces remain cold, wet, hungry, miserable and therefore vulnerable to shock and a collapse in morale

If the Ukrainians can expend a limited amount of their combat power to pen the Russians into the city, they can reverse the challenges they faced in Severodonetsk and create a killing area for a large portion of Russia’s best assault troops – primarily airborne forces – who will be fixed defending a politically critical position even as it becomes militarily untenable. In this scenario, the Russian leadership must either contend with the progressive degradation of their assault troops at a time when they are desperately short of motivated infantry, or make a ‘goodwill gesture’ and withdraw – in the process suffering a heavy symbolic defeat, as Kherson is one of only two cities that were occupied largely intact during Russia’s war against Ukraine.

At the same time, unless the Ukrainians want to expend scarce reserves needed for wider offensive operations, or unless Russian units collapse owing to abysmal morale – which is possible but not something that can be assumed in planning – a deliberate storming of Kherson city would likely be a mistake. Furthermore, seizing Kherson – while politically significant – would not enable rapid exploitation operations to occupy territory on the east bank of the Dnipro, because the Ukrainians would suffer from the same challenges with supplies over a small number of damaged bridges as the Russians, and would therefore risk outrunning their artillery support. Success, therefore, looks like a methodical driving in of Russian positions followed by the affliction of heavy attrition on the Russians. Moreover, the Kherson offensive should be seen as limited in its objectives.

Reclaiming the East

The conduct of a broader offensive to liberate occupied oblasts east of the Dnipro is a separate question to operations against Kherson. Any assessment of the amount of ground involved must lead to the conclusion that the Ukrainian armed forces need time to build up sufficient manoeuvre units. Combined with the hiatus in manoeuvre to be imposed by winter, these operations are most likely to take place through 2023. This, of course, also gives the Russians time to mobilise and train new units. These could either pre-empt a Ukrainian offensive or be used for a Russian counteroffensive to dislocate Ukraine’s attempt to liberate its territory. For this reason, it is important that Ukraine forces Russia to commit new units through the winter to hold its current positions.

We may therefore understand Ukrainian offensive operations to be implemented in three broad phases: the Kherson offensive, a protracted period of asymmetric skirmishing and deep strikes to disrupt Russia’s occupation and demoralise its troops, and a period of major combat operations in 2023. It is clear that the Russians have come to the same conclusion. This is why they have significantly reduced attempts to conduct further offensive operations and are instead trying to conserve their combat power while regenerating new units, which Putin has suggested will be available coming out of winter. With the prospect of a bitter winter spent outdoors, there is ample opportunity to ensure that Russia’s forces remain cold, wet, hungry, miserable and therefore vulnerable to shock and a collapse in morale.

Convincing the Russians to negotiate seriously requires demonstrating to them that military defeat – and not just a stalemate – is entirely plausible

A period of winter skirmishing also holds out the prospect of significant unconventional warfare. Ukraine – like the rest of Europe – is looking at the prospect of energy and fuel shortages. Unlike states not at war, however, many of its citizens lack homes, and much infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed. The Russians will work hard to stir up criticism of the Ukrainian government from within, just as they will use propaganda and agents of influence to argue that Western governments should spend money at home rather than in support of Ukraine. This is a false dichotomy, but given Ukraine’s dependence upon Western financing and ammunition, one of Russia’s theories of victory centres on breaking support for Ukraine this winter.

Prospects Matter

Given that offensive operations to liberate occupied territories are likely to run through 2023 and are dependent upon Western aid, it is important that Ukraine’s international partners stop periodic announcements about specific lists of equipment and instead articulate a longer-term commitment to structural aid out to 2024. The reasons for this are straightforward. Firstly, it would remove the political pressure from the Ukrainian government to expend combat power to make short-term gains at the expense of longer-term prospects. Secondly, it would generate more realistic expectations among Western publics about the duration and impact of the conflict, and therefore reduce their vulnerability to Russian propaganda. Thirdly, and most importantly, it would show the Russians that their prospects are deteriorating.

Much of Russia’s willingness to grind on in the face of setbacks has been premised upon a belief – and perhaps a self-deluding hope – that Western support for Ukraine will fade. If this war is to end, it is vital that the Russian leadership understand that in the medium to long term their position on the ground will get worse, the capability gap between their forces and the Ukrainian military will expand, and the gap between their rhetoric and the reality will become insurmountable. In this context, public commitments to provide Ukraine with combat aircraft like Gripen may take a year to come to fruition, but the impact of such a long-term commitment on the Russian government should not be underestimated.

As during the assault on Kyiv or the abandonment of Snake Island, Russia’s leadership have demonstrated that they are prepared to desist when they see a bigger failure looming on the horizon. There are a number of Western academics and former officers calling for negotiations with Russia. There is nothing wrong with negotiations, but treating them as separate from fighting is ahistorical and immature. There is no reason why negotiations need take place from a presumption of weakness. Convincing the Russians to negotiate seriously requires demonstrating to them that military defeat – and not just a stalemate – is entirely plausible.

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

Military Sciences

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