Ukraine’s upcoming strategy is starting to take shape, look to the southeastJuly 21, 2022
From the beginning, Ukraine has claimed any real counteroffensive to liberate Russian-held territory will start around late August into September. The rationale is simple, and comes in three parts:
- Western equipment has been flowing in, and Ukraine has been busy standing up entire new armor brigades. Training and equipping such units takes time.
- Winter is coming, and Ukraine doesn’t trust Western resolve in the face of a Russia gas shut-off. People lost their shit over a strip of cloth during a deadly global pandemic; having to use extra blankets might cause European politicians headaches they don’t want to deal with. If Ukraine’s partners force a cease fire and freeze the conflict in place (no pun intended), then Ukraine needs to make sure Russia has as little new territory under its control as possible.
- Russia isn’t just depleting itself with its plodding advances (in both material and personnel), but thanks to HIMARS, an already precarious logistical system is on the verge of collapse. Indeed, Ukraine’s intelligence chief has been talking about this coming moment since May: ”The breaking point will be in the second part of August.”
We are now about a month from this long-running timeframe, and of course everyone wants to know, where and when will Ukraine strike?
When going on the offensive, an army will do what’s called “shaping the battlefield.” You may have heard the term before, but if you haven’t, you’ve been reading about it for months. Russia “shapes the battlefield” by leveling a town, sending troops in to see if anything is left alive to defend the rubble. If no, then great! It has captured territory. If those troops get killed, no problem! They start the process over. Rinse, lather, repeat until nothing is left standing. In other words, you create the conditions that maximize your chances of success, based on your doctrine and strengths.
American/NATO doctrine is to focus first on all air defenses and air fields in order to gain air superiority. Then they use that air superiority to support ground forces in any advance or defense. We saw that during the First Gulf War: The air portion lasted 42 days, while the ground war was done in about 100 hours. The battlefield had been shaped to the advantage of the allied armies. (I’ve also written before of how four-dozen American troops held off 500 Russian Wagner and Syrian proxies in a battle in Syria, killing 200-300 of the attackers and suffering zero deaths … or even injuries. A big factor in that battle? Air superiority.)
Ukraine, for obvious reasons, has no interest in replicating the Russian model. It wants Kherson and its people intact and alive. It cannot replicate the U.S./NATO model because it lacks air superiority or the means to achieve it. So what’s left? You’ve been seeing it in action: Deny Russia its supply lines, starving both the advancing forces as well as those entrenched in defensive positions.
Yesterday, Mark wrote a great update on the bridges in Kherson Oblast.
What if someone took out the bridge east of Kherson, and Russian forces found their only lifeline back to the remainder of their forces, and their only source of supplies, was a bridge 50km to the north, at a position that’s much less well defended? Russia has a dozen BTGs clustered around Kherson. They have dug-in and fortified positions. They have forces in the city itself, where Ukraine definitely doesn’t want to employ heavy weapons. That’s a big obstacle.
Given Ukraine’s limits in heavy armor and a real desire to minimize casualties, head-to-head assaults against well-defended and well-supplied Russian positions could be prohibitively costly. Remember the old adage that an attacking force in an urban environment needs a 3-1 to 5-1 advantage in manpower. So the trick is to avoid as much direct combat as possible, forcing either a surrender or retreat of those 12 BTGs (which could be anywhere from 5-12,000 troops depending on their strength levels).
As Mark said, cutting the bridges would be a huge problem for Russian forces in Kherson and north of it. But what if Ukraine could cut off supplies not just from the south, but also from the east? There are indications that Russia, having flooded reinforcements to Kherson, have hollowed out their defenses in the southern Donbas and Zaporizhzhia fronts. And Ukraine has been making advances in the area.
Check out this map of southeastern Ukraine:
You all know Mariupol, the site of heroic resistance by a besieged Ukrainian resistance at the Azovstal plant. Berdyansk is the second major Black Sea port under Russian control, the site of the sinking of a massive troop landing ship earlier during the war. Both of these are critically important economically to Ukraine, more so than Kherson.
Melitopol is the third-largest city captured by Russia during this war after Mariupol and Kherson, the site of an active partisan movement. Nova Kakhovka hosts one of two remaining bridges over the Dnipro river in the region, a major Russian “filtration” camp (read: concentration camp), and is the source of the Crimean peninsula’s water supply. Kherson is around 230 kilometers west of Nova Kakhovka.
Tokmak and Polohy are less well known, but that will change over the coming months. Of the two, Tokmak is the most important and might be among the most strategic spots on the map for Ukraine’s counteroffensive. Those green lines on the map are rail lines, and we all know how critically important those are to Russia’s logistics. They can’t function far from a railhead, lacking the trucks to move supplies and ammo and the systems to make loading and unloading fast and efficient (such as cranes and pallets).
Follow those green lines from the bottom left of the map to the bottom right, and what do you see?
There is just one rail line connecting both sides.
There is a highway that runs along that southern coast, but again, trucks aren’t helpful to Russia, not over those hundreds of kilometers. Their main way to move supplies—rail lines—all converge at Tokmak (pop. 32,000 pre-war).
From the south, there is a single rail line from Crimea to Kherson:
So we have a single rail line connecting Crimea to Kherson, and at Kherson, there is a single bridge left standing—the one Mark wrote about yesterday, Antonovsky Bridge. Ukraine has started shelling it, rendering large parts of the bridge unusable. It can be repaired, so Ukraine will need to keep hitting it, but it has shown an ability to do so at will.
If Ukraine takes that bridge out, Russia will be forced to move supplies from that Crimea-to-Kherson railhead 230 kilometers out to Nova Kakhovka, across the bridge there, and back to supply Kherson. Meanwhile, if Ukraine cuts off Tokmak … you see where this is going? All Russian forces between Tokmak and Kherson will be effectively cut off. Trucks can only carry a fraction of rail capacity, and the roads will be swarming with Ukrainian partisans and special forces, exactly like they did early in the war around Sumy:
Russian milbloggers are starting to see the danger. Voennyi Osvedomitel (military informer) on Telegram, with 450,000 followers, sees the danger to Russian forces in the region if they’re cut off:
The (temporary) closure of the Antonovsky Bridge for the passage of freight transport promises serious logistical problems for the right-bank grouping of the RF Armed Forces in Kherson in the future.
Despite the fact that at the moment it is possible to redirect transport columns through the Nova Kakhovka hydroelectric power station, this will already affect the delivery, and given the recent attacks on warehouses in the Kherson region, the problem is becoming more acute.
It is obvious that the Armed Forces of Ukraine will not stop at just minor damage to one bridge, and in the coming days we should expect a repetition of missile strikes both on the Antonovsky bridge, and on the Nova Kakhovka hydroelectric power station and other possible crossings.
If this problem is not resolved in the near future, this will create enormous risks of cutting off Russian troops in Kherson from permanent supply communications with the left bank, which, in the event of a possible offensive by the Armed Forces of Ukraine, may result in another gesture of goodwill.
If you didn’t catch the sarcasm, “gesture of goodwill” is what Russia calls its humiliating retreats, whether from Kyiv or Snake Island. Without supplies, Kherson and Melitopol could certainly follow that pattern.
Ukraine is also pushing toward Polohy, another railway hub and one that has been hit pretty hard in recent weeks. This supply and ammo depot was on the main railway, because these things always are.
Without Polohy, Russia’s efforts to push north from southern Donbas will be dead, not that they’ve been going anywhere the last few months anyway. More importantly, it will prevent Russia from easily reinforcing any effort to outflank from the east Ukraine’s push toward Tokmak.
A Russian withdrawal from Kherson-Melitopol-Enerhodar (where that one nuclear power plant is located) wouldn’t just be a crushing Russian defeat akin to their Kyiv debacle, but would allow Ukraine to focus the bulk of its energy on retaking the economically critical port cities of Berdyansk and Mariupol. At that point, any frozen conflict would effectively reset the status quo to the pre-invasion lines. Russia would have more Luhansk territory, but it would have little reason to stick around Izyum area—that pile of rubble only exists to support Russia’s push toward the twin fortress cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk.
But better yet, serious Ukraine progress in liberating its territory could very well stiffen Western resolve. Everyone loves a winner, and the morale effect on Russian and proxy forces could be devastating, leading to mass desertion and surrender.
It should be clear that I don’t have particular insight into Ukrainian war planning, but this is an educated guess on what Ukraine is doing in shaping the battlefield. For example, if Ukraine intended to take Kherson, then push east toward Melitopol, why would it bomb the one bridge that connects the two cities? By targeting the region’s supply depots and lines of communication while pushing south toward Polohy and Tokmak, Ukraine is shaping the battlefield to precipitate a Russian withdrawal from Kherson to avoid being cut off from its supplies.
And just last night:
The U.S. has announced four more HIMARS to Ukraine in the latest upcoming aid tranche. The Pentagon said it was monitoring Ukraine’s ammo usage as that is the bottleneck with HIMARS, not the launchers themselves.
It’s amazing how many people still don’t get this, demanding the U.S. send “100 HIMARS!” to Ukraine, as if they’ll be using the launchers to ram into Ukrainian defenses. Given that each launcher can go through hundreds of rockets per day if properly supplied, imagine trying to feed 100 launchers. Only about 50,000 GMLRS rockets were ever made, and many are in the hands of countries not supplying Ukraine.
Speaking of rockets, the demands for ATACMS from both Ukraine and its supporters is relentless. These rockets can be launched from HIMARS and M240 MRLS launchers and have a range of 300 kilometers. The problem is only about 3,000 were ever made, and around 500 have been used up in our various wars. More are in the hands of other nations that would be loathe to give up their $1 million rockets.
I don’t doubt Ukraine will get some of these, but the numbers will necessarily be low; a few hundred? They are also more vulnerable to Russian air defenses (just like Ukrainian air defenses are shooting down a fair number of Russian cruise and ballistic missiles). Ukraine should get enough to take out some targets, put the fear of god into Russia, and force them to pull their command and control and ammunition supply depots even further behind the front lines. Heck, that is already happening at the mere rumor of these rockets arriving. But no one should expect ATACMS to single-handedly wipe out Russia’s deep-rear infrastructure. There just aren’t enough of those rockets to give out.
The U.S. Air Force hates its A-10s. The U.S. Army is allowed helicopters to support its ground forces, but the Air Force has a monopoly on fixed-wing combat aircraft. It only agreed to field the A-10—designed exclusively to support ground troops—to keep the Army from encroaching on it turf. They are being phased out, and if the Air Force could dump them on Ukraine and speed things up, even better.
Passions run deep over the aircraft. Supporters say it’s the most capable close-ground support aircraft in the world. Detractors say it isn’t survivable in a modern battlefield, designed for a time when infantry platoons didn’t walk around with shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles. Warthogs are slow aircraft, making them easy pickings for fighter planes when lacking air superiority. (See? Shaping the battlefield again.)
In Ukraine, neither side has air superiority, meaning Warthogs might have a chance, but if you see Ukrainian aircraft and helicopters engage in combat, they fire unguided rockets from far distances to avoid Russian air defenses, meaning their efficacy is … questionable. And if they’re afraid to engage closer to the front lines because of those Russian air defenses, why would A-10s perform any better? Throw in the significant training, maintenance, and sustainment requirements for the aircraft, and the proposition is questionable.
It would be cool to see them flying, but less cool to see Ukraine lose fighter pilots if they are indeed obsolete on a modern battlefield.