Perseverance and Adaptation: Ukraine’s Counteroffensive at Three Months

UkrainianOffensive

On June 4, Ukraine launched its long-awaited offensive. The operation has proven to be a test of Ukrainian determination and adaptation. Despite stiff resistance, Ukrainian forces have made steady gains in a set-piece battle against a heavily entrenched force. Ukraine’s main effort is a push from Orikhiv, with the goal of driving south past Tokmak and ideally reaching Melitopol. If successful, this would sever Russian lines along the Black Sea coast and endanger supply routes from Crimea. The second is at Velika Novosilka, a secondary offensive operation likely aimed at Berdyansk, also along the coast. The third is a supporting offensive along the flanks of Bakhmut further to the north. Ukraine has made gains here, pinning several Russian airborne units. The offensive is gaining momentum, and much remains undecided, but three months in offers an opportunity to take stock of the operation thus far.

This has become a war of tree lines, with shifts in the line often counted in hundreds of meters. Artillery fire and drones dominate the battlefield, as small groups of infantry advance through dense minefields, field by field, tree line by tree line. Progress has been fitful and slower than expected, as acknowledged by President Volodymyr Zelensky and now former Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov. However, Ukraine’s recent gains illustrate that it has worn down Russian defenses over time, leveraging an advantage in fires and long-range precision weapons to steadily press Russian forces back from their defensive positions. That said, Ukraine will need to both break through Russian lines and exploit that success to reach its objectives. Much could be decided in the coming weeks.

As we and others predicted, this kind of operation was bound to be difficult and costly. Without air superiority, a decisive advantage in fires, and limited enablers to breach Russian lines, any military would have faced similar struggles in such an operation. This is especially so against a force that had time to entrench, preparing a layered defense replete with minefields and fortifications. Ukraine’s military changed tactics, from initially trying to breach Russian lines in a mechanized assault to taking a more familiar attritional approach that achieved incremental gains. Over time this approach can work, and has worked for the Ukrainian armed forces in the past, but each battle has its own context with a different set of conditions, geography, and forces in play.

 

 

Ukraine needs more air defense, mine clearing, and similar enabling capabilities. Western assistance over the past 18 months has enabled Ukraine, but it has also limited Ukraine’s options, resulting in undertrained units having to go up against a well-prepared defense without the benefit of air support. However, the challenges of this are not only due to capability and capacity shortcomings. The Ukrainian military continues to struggle with scaling offensive operations, and conducting combined arms operations at the battalion level and above, with most attacks being at the level of a platoon or company. These are important areas to address in Western training programs, as we have discussed with our colleagues in various episodes of the War on the Rocks podcast and the Russia Contingency.

There is no single answer to the challenges Ukraine faces. The problem cannot be reduced to a lack of Western tactical aviation. The more important factors remain ammunition, training, providing the necessary enablers, and effective resource management in a war of attrition. War requires regular adaptation, since few plans survive contact with the enemy, but the process of adaptation equally requires identifying what has worked and what has not. The ability to discuss these challenges openly (which, in our view, doesn’t include leaks to newspapers from behind a veil of anonymity) is what separates successful militaries from those like Russia’s, which often falsifies success and buries bad news. Indeed, a poor understanding of how Ukraine’s military fights, and of the operating environment writ large, may be leading to false expectations, misplaced advice, and unfair criticism in Western official circles.

Ukraine’s summer offensive is coming down to the balance of attrition over time, which side has more reserves, and who can better manage their combat power in a prolonged slugfest. In order to sustain Ukraine’s war effort, Washington should support Kyiv’s preferred approach, which means resourcing ammunition for an intensive fight, providing the requisite long-range strike systems, and supporting enablers. However, it should also learn from this experience, tackling long-term issues such as training, helping Ukraine improve its ability to conduct operations at scale, and transitioning to employ Western airpower along with the associated organizational changes to make it effective. It is also critical for Western countries to draw the right lessons from the development and performance of Ukraine’s new brigades to improve future training efforts. The details discussed in this article are based on open sources and our own field research in Ukraine, but do not disclose anything that is not publicly available about ongoing operations.

State of Play

The offensive has thus far played out as a shaping phase, an initial breaching effort, followed by a prolonged attritional period with fitful gains, leading to the better progress seen in more recent weeks, as both sides are increasingly forced to pull from their reserves. In advance of the offensive, Ukraine spent several weeks conducting shaping operations to set the conditions for the assaults, including attacks on Russian command and control with Storm Shadow air-launched cruise missiles, raids into Russia’s Belgorod region, and various sabotage efforts. These were designed to weaken Russia’s ability to defend and potentially force Moscow to redirect forces away from Ukraine’s main effort. The initial axis of attack began with a localized counteroffensive around Bakhmut in mid-May, designed to draw Russian forces there by steadily pressuring the flanks. Then Ukrainian units attempted an advance along the Velika Novosilka axis in the south, followed by a push from Orikhiv farther west in Zaporizhzhia.

Ukrainian forces made gains along the flanks of Bakhmut, but the initial advances along the main axis in the south were not as successful as anticipated. In the second week, Ukraine managed to capture a string of towns running south of Velika Novosilka, but the progress afterwards there has been slow. What appeared to be the main axis of advance in this offensive, led by the 47th Mechanized Brigade south of Orikhiv toward Robotyne, also stalled early on. Most of the gains have been at the first Russian line of defense, but this is also where Russian forces had focused their defensive effort, making them particularly significant. The Ukrainian attack has created a salient that is steadily being widened. At the time of this writing, Ukrainian forces have degraded the defending Russian units, and show signs that they may have penetrated the main defensive line near Verbove, but the details are too early to assess. Ukrainian forces have recently liberated Robotyne, and pushed east of it, which represents an advance of about ten kilometers since the offensive began. The distance of advance has been similar on the Velika Novosilka axis at the furthest point.

 

Ukraine’s overall gains along the three axes of the counteroffensive (Map by Nathan Ruser, based on data from DeepState, an established Ukrainian OSINT source)

Ukraine’s initial plan appeared to be an effort to advance along several axes to reveal weaknesses that could reveal the best place to breach Russia’s main defensive belt. It is therefore likely that Ukraine sought to force Russia into a decision to deploy reserves to the front line, thereby reducing the Russian military’s ability to respond to a breach. Rather than a singular main effort, the campaign was split along several fronts to impose a dilemma.

Five of the first nine new NATO-trained and -equipped brigades were committed at the beginning of the offensive. The 47th and 33rd Mechanized Brigades assaulted south of Orikhiv axis as part of 9th Corps, and the 37th Marine Brigade and 31st and 23rd Mechanized Brigades fought along the Velika Novosilka axis. These were backed by established and more experienced units fighting alongside them. Supporting at Velika Novosilka were elements of 68th Jaeger Brigade and 35th and 36th Marine Brigades, as well as the 120th, 110th, and 129th Territorial Defense Brigades. Along the Orikhiv axis the supporting units included the National Guard’s 15th Brigade, the 128th Mountain Assault, and 65th Mechanized Brigade. It appears Kyiv’s original plan was for the 9th Corps to rapidly advance to the first main line of Russian defenses south of Orikhiv before committing its second echelon — the 10th Corps — to breach and then exploit with a task force of reserve brigades. The reserves included existing and newly formed airmobile and air assault brigades, such as the 46th and 82nd.

Ukraine committed elements from several other Western-trained brigades to the east. These include the 22nd Mechanized Brigade near Bakhmut, the 32nd Mechanized Brigade on the Kupyansk front, and the 21st Mechanized Brigade on the Kreminna front. It appears these three were not part of the first nine new brigades, which might explain why they were sent to the supporting axis in Bakhmut and to defend the Kreminna-Svatove front in Luhansk Oblast instead of the main axis in the south. More recently, elements from the 43th Mechanized Brigade and the 38th Marine Brigade have been committed near Svatove and on the Velika Novosilka axis, respectively.

Much of the fighting inside the towns Ukraine has liberated thus far has been done by more experienced brigades, with the exception of the efforts by the 47th Mechanized Brigade and more recently the 82nd Air Assault Brigade. Similarly, progress can be seen along the Bakhmut axis, featuring Ukraine’s more experienced units without new Western equipment such as the 24th and 28th mechanized brigades; 3rd, 5th, and 92nd Assault, and 80th Air Assault Brigades. Indeed, it appears some of the new brigades were used to replace elements from experienced brigades on the Kreminna-Svatove front, so they could be used around Bakhmut. Ukrainian special operations forces are also supporting the advance by assaulting Russian trenches and operating drones to locate and destroy targets. Elements from the 73rd Naval Special Operations Center took part in Ukraine’s advance on Robotyne, and teams from the 3rd and 8th special purpose regiments reportedly continue to operate in the Bakhmut area.

 

Map of Ukrainian gains along Bakhmut’s flanks and near Soledar (Map by Nathan Ruser, based on data from DeepState, an established Ukrainian OSINT source)

While there is no way to truly know what percentage of combat power has been committed, at this point most of the Ukrainian brigades expected to be involved in the offensive, including air assault reserve units, are contributing to the fight in one fashion or another. It is unclear if Ukraine is transferring additional forces from other fronts, though some recent reporting suggests this might be the case. Russia has also deployed strategic reserves, including the 7th Guards Mountain Air Assault Division and 76th Guards Air Assault Division, and elements of its Dnipro task force in Kherson.

A Hard Start

Ukraine likely has more combat power available to continue the attack, but heavier equipped units were indeed committed early in the operation, and the initial attack was not mere reconnaissance or probing, but rather a focused effort to rapidly break through Russia’s forward positions. Indeed, 9th Corps’ 47th Mechanized Brigade is arguably the best equipped new brigade with Bradley M2A2 infantry fighting vehicles. Images also showed that Leopard 2A6 tanks as well as scarce Leopard 2R and Wisent mine-breaching vehicles took part in the brigade’s initial assaults, which indicated that the Orikhiv axis was the priority and not just a probing or diversionary action.

The initial assault fell victim to a myriad of planning, reconnaissance, and coordination issues, which have been widely covered in the news. However, as we explore these, it is important to note that any Western military forced to employ units with only a few months of training would have struggled with such challenges.

One Ukrainian unit ran into problems that forced it to miss the start of the assault by a couple of hours. This meant the unit went into the assault long after the main suppressive artillery barrage had been fired, leaving its assault forces vulnerable to unsuppressed Russian artillery and antitank guided missiles. That advance was supposed to occur under the cover of darkness but instead happened near dawn, negating the advantage provided by their Western armored vehicles’ superior night vision capabilities. Another Ukrainian unit mistook the friendly units holding its flank for the initial Russian line and in the confusion engaged the friendly force . A different grouping became disoriented at night, stacking the formation, which made them vulnerable to Russian artillery and antitank guided missile fire. In some cases, vehicles from the new brigades might have struck mines emplaced by the units whose lines they had to pass through or run into mines by deviating from lanes cleared by the mine-clearing vehicles. These issues were not characteristic of the overall offensive, but of the initial problems faced by new brigades.

Some commentators had assumed the initial assault was not the main effort, and three months in, some still characterize the offensive as in its “early stages.” This reveals the continued problem with a lack of understanding of how Ukrainian forces typically operate. A Ukrainian brigade in the attack in practice is often two or three companies advancing, reinforced by armor, and support elements. A reinforced company or company tactical group is the main element of the assault. Even then, coordination is difficult and prone to mishaps, as the initial offensive illustrated. It takes an entire brigade to plan this kind of action. Significantly increasing the scale is a challenge for Ukrainian forces, especially among newer brigades who lack the experience and command staff training. The initial assault was the breaching effort, but it did not succeed.

Around Bakhmut, for example, many of Ukraine’s mechanized assaults feature one to two squads backed by two tanks. Ukrainian tank units, according to our field research, rarely mass at the company level because of the risk of losing too many tanks at once. Tank battles are rare. Tanks spend much of their time supporting infantry and providing indirect fires. They generally operate in pairs, or in platoons, supporting infantry attacks. This offensive has largely been characterized by platoon-level infantry assaults, fighting tree line to tree line. Despite their size, brigades often have a limited number of platoons and companies that have assault training, constraining the forces available for such tasks. Ukrainian forces conduct mechanized assaults when the conditions permit it, but Russian minefields, antitank capabilities, and artillery remain a potent threat whenever Ukraine masses combat power near Russian defenses. This reality stands in stark contrast to expectations that hundreds of tanks or infantry fighting vehicles will charge forward into Russian lines in a cinematic assault.

Western criticism — often appearing in the form of anonymous leaks by officials — sometimes holds that Ukraine won’t mass forces and accept the inherent casualties in such an assault. This fails to appreciate the real constraints on that military’s capacity to employ forces at scale. The United States has been misinterpreting this as a failure to commit forces to the offensive. Ukraine’s challenges at scaling how it employs forces cannot be overcome by a few months of training and Western equipment. Ukraine’s military excels at mobile and positional defense. It is also highly effective in small unit tactics and in effective employment of fires to degrade the Russian military. Given the challenges the new brigades faced at the beginning, brigade assaults with multiple battalions instead of companies likely would have exacerbated coordination issues and led to greater losses. There is also a failure to appreciate that steep losses to the assault element can significantly impact a brigade’s ability to continue operations and the confidence of its command staff. This is especially so for newer brigades with non-veteran troops.

Ukrainian preferences stem from an understanding of where their strengths lie, given the organizational capacity, experience, force quality, and limited enablers to support a larger scale assault. Western training efforts have suffered from being overly compressed, but also Ukrainian units are not necessarily trained in the West the way they would actually fight in Ukraine, using the same systems, tactics, techniques, and procedures. This is in part because Western training efforts cannot necessarily replicate said conditions. All of this points to the need for future Western training efforts to evolve — to become better linked to the realities of this war and how Ukrainian forces fight it — but also for greater understanding of the operating environment.

The Ukrainian attempt to breach Russian lines in the early days of the offensive was not deterministic for how the offensive would unfold, but it was an important test of whether newly formed brigades with Western equipment and training could more effectively overcome a prepared Russian defense. The offensive also featured a corps structure for the first time helping to coordinate logistics for the various brigades involved, with an overall operational or “front” command layer above the corps. This strategy made choices and took on risk. Putting new brigades into the lead assault role, along the two most expected axes of advance, with a plan that involved nighttime operations, compounded the risk. In addition, Ukraine chose the Orikhiv-Tokmak area as the main axis of advance, which is the most fortified part of the Russian defenses. These units faced a daunting task against a well-prepared defense with dense minefields, entrenched troops, numerous antitank guided missiles, loitering munitions, and attack helicopters backing the Russian lines.

However, based on our research in Ukraine, it also appears the new brigades lacked sufficient unit cohesion and experience, making mistakes that experienced brigades were less likely to make. Not just the infantry battalions and breaching elements but also the artillery and supporting components were new, while the brigade staff lacked sufficient time to train. These brigades were also comprised of freshly mobilized personnel, many without prior military experience, with officers pulled from other units. The new brigades were unfamiliar with the terrain, having not been previously deployed in that area. Asking them to conduct their first assault, in some cases at night, was a tall order. The new brigades’ issues forced other units — including less-well-equipped national guard units — to step into their assigned tasks, in some cases completely replacing them on the line. Indeed, even poorly equipped territorial defense units, which are typically used to defend, have taken part in capturing towns as part of the counteroffensive. Notably, some new brigades have performed better. After early setbacks, the 47th Mechanized Brigade managed to adapt and to advance, and the 82nd Air Assault Brigade appears to have achieved success soon after it was committed. This is likely because their training and equipment was prioritized among the new brigades, and possibly due to the 82nd commitment until much later in the offensive.

Defaulting to Attrition

After the first week, the operation moved into an attritional phase, not dissimilar to the offensive in Kherson. Ukrainian forces have been degrading the Russian defense with artillery fire, HIMARS, drones, and select strikes with Storm Shadow missiles against high-value targets. Ukraine is also attempting to interdict the flow of Russian supplies from Crimea by striking the connecting bridges and rail stations, including a strike on the Crimean bridge, reportedly with naval drones. An intense counter-battery battle has been playing out between Ukrainian and Russian artillery units, with HIMARS increasingly used in a counter-battery role due to improved Ukrainian ability to target behind Russian lines, and apparent distribution of HIMARS systems to individual units.

Despite the natural tendency to focus on settlements liberated, the balance of attrition will prove more significant in shaping Ukraine’s offensive prospects than anything else. This war has consistently demonstrated the difficulty of orchestrating a combined arms offensive against a prepared defense, with attrition proving the key enabler for maneuver warfare. This is in part due to the inability of one side to attain air superiority over the other, but the issue cannot be reduced to this single factor. Given Russia’s layered defensive lines, minefields, and entrenchments, it was unlikely that the Ukrainian military will be able to attain a breakthrough without first inflicting high levels of attrition on the defending Russian force. That said, this process is not necessarily linear, and lines can collapse once available manpower is no longer available to defend them or reinforcing units cannot deploy in time.

To some extent this approach favors the way Ukraine fights, even though it is not representative of what Western allies may have wished to see. Ukrainian forces prefer sequenced assaults, making fires the decisive element and exploiting with maneuver, less so using fires as a supporting component of a maneuver force. Ukrainian infantry has been conducting assaults typically as platoon- and company-sized elements. This is painfully slow and by itself cannot generate momentum, but Ukrainian units are generally better than Russian ones in the close battle. Ukraine is also likely sustaining less attrition by operating in small, dismounted units, but it offers less of an opportunity to achieve a rapid breakthrough. Similarly, with penetrating intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, Ukraine has been gaining the advantage in the counter-battery battle over time. Steady decimation and blinding of Russian artillery fire by targeting counter-battery radars have helped Ukraine establish a visible fires advantage.

Ukraine has killed multiple Russian generals in Storm Shadow missile strikes and has targeted logistics nodes and key bridges. These strikes have complicated Russian operations, enabling progress, but by themselves, long-range missiles have not proven a panacea. Part of the reason is Russian adaptation after the introduction of HIMARS systems last year, hardening command and control nodes, dispersing logistics, and pushing supplies directly to the front. A robust strike campaign to isolate the theater of operations by focusing on Russian lines of communication might have greater effect. Yet four months of strikes with Storm Shadow missiles suggest that the task of severing Russian supply lines with missiles alone is harder than some might believe.

Attrition makes for poor headlines, but it plays to Ukraine’s strengths, whereas attempting to scale offensive maneuver under such difficult conditions does not. It is, however, burdensome to resource, pressuring Washington to finally authorize dual-purpose improved conventional munitions — cluster munitions for lack of artillery ammunition available. Cluster munitions are a nasty weapon with lingering effects, but there is no other way to sustain Ukraine’s demands for artillery ammunition. This was a critical decision, extending the timeline available to give Ukraine’s approach the opportunity to succeed. They are also more effective against forces in the open and manned trenches. But the dual-purpose improved conventional munition stockpile is not just meant for the offensive. It will be used to sustain Ukraine’s war effort well into next year, until Western production increases sufficiently. This suggests that the primary factors affecting Ukraine’s offensive could still be ammunition and force availability.

A Daunting Task

In the south, the Russian military entrenched at the level of a combined arms army. In practice, this means overlapping minefields, strong points, concrete reinforced trenches, bunkers, and multiple defense lines with communication trenches between them. Russian forces have also adapted with nasty innovations — for example, decoy trenches mined with explosives that can be remotely detonated once they are occupied by Ukrainian soldiers. Russian anti-tank guided missile teams have deployed cameras in front of their positions to identify advancing Ukrainian vehicles, and they have dug tunnels that can be used to transfer ammunition, equipment and personnel They regularly counterattack lost positions, though the overall strategy is not to retain lines at any cost.

Minefields are presenting one of the greatest challenges to Ukraine’s offensive, not dissimilar to the situation Russian units faced in Vuhledar over the winter. Russian forces have deployed more mines than normal in Russian doctrine, according to our field research. Individual Russian company positions generally have minefields with hundreds or thousands of TM-62M antitank mines in front of their positions. They have been stacking three TM-62M mines on top of each other specifically to destroy — not just damage — the mine-rollers and trawls used by breaching vehicles and tanks. These are supplemented by TM-83 explosively formed penetrator antitank mines, often placed in tree lines to target tanks and armored vehicles from the side as they drive down the dirt paths that frequently run parallel.

These antitank mines are often mixed with antipersonnel mines to inflict greater losses when vehicles are disabled, including PMN-4 pressure plate mines, OZM-72 bounding mines, and MON-50 and MON-200 directional fragmentation mines. Russian forces are also using FAB-100 and FAB-250 aerial bombs as improvised mines. Russia is remotely deploying mines with artillery, ISDM Zemledeliye mine-laying systems, and even drones, such as the POM-3 and PFM-1 antipersonnel mines. These are used to refill lanes cleared by Ukrainian sappers and to mine roads behind Ukraine’s front lines. Ukrainian mine-clearing vehicles, including those that carry mine-clearing line charges, are a priority target for Russian defenders and antitank guided missile teams. This has forced Ukraine to employ them more cautiously.

Ukrainian infantry units are having success assaulting Russian positions, but the mines force them to move in a slow and deliberate manner to reach them. Even when infantry units can advance on foot, lanes have to be cleared to bring up vehicles. This complicates casualty evacuation for advancing infantry units and makes it more difficult to bring other supporting capabilities, such as air defense, logistics, and artillery, closer to the front line, which are critical for sustaining momentum. In addition, Ukraine’s advantages in night vision capabilities, which have been strengthened by Bradley vehicles and Leopard tanks, are reduced by these minefields. According to Ukraine’s Brig. Gen. Oleksandr Tarnavskiy, who commands the offensive in the south, “As soon as any equipment appeared there, the Russians immediately began to fire at it and destroy it. That’s why de-mining was carried out only by infantry and only at night.” The presence of mines, even when paths are cleared, has a psychological effect on traversing forces that makes most combat tasks more difficult.

Russian defenses were also stronger than expected, stymieing the initial assault. As Tarnavskiy has also said “In my opinion, the Russians believed the Ukrainians would not get through this line of defence. They had been preparing for over one year. They did everything to make sure that this area was prepared well.” This is different from the fighting in Kherson last year, where secondary lines were well manned while the forward positions folded quickly. In the south, Russian units have densely deployed antitank guided missiles along the forward line. They are defending by employing drones for observation, a heavy use of artillery, antitank guided missile strikes by infantry and spetsnaz units as well as Ka-52 attack helicopters, Lancet and improvised commercial first-person-view drone loitering munition strikes, and glide bombs dropped from Russian fighters and bombers. Ka-52, first-person-view drone, and Lancet-3 strikes are a pernicious problem, because advancing forces lack the same air defense and electronic warfare coverage when attacking.

Russia has also begun deploying modernized Ka-52M helicopters, which can launch the Vikhr-1 and longer-range LMUR antitank missile beyond the range of Ukrainian tactical air defenses. In many cases, a tank or armored vehicle will become immobilized after hitting a mine and then be destroyed by attack helicopters or drones. Russia is forced to ration the use of artillery due to ammunition shortages, but still employs artillery fire and aviation to disrupt advances. Although minefields can be penetrated, breaching them while the defender has good observation and can employ artillery and precision-guided weapons proves costly.

At the end of July, Ukraine began to commit elements of the 10th Corps in assaults along the Orikhiv axis in the south. After more than a month of primarily small-unit dismounted advances in the south, Ukrainian forces attempted a mechanized assault again in company-sized elements, particularly east of Robotyne. The Ukrainian military likely hoped to commit 10th Corps after the 9th Corps had already breached the first main defensive line. 10th Corps includes the NATO-trained 116th, 117th, and 118th Mechanized Brigades, as well as the National Guard 3rd and 14th Brigades. Although these 10th Corps brigades largely replaced 9th Corps at the front, 9th Corps’ 47th Mechanized Brigade continues to fight and recently helped liberate Robotyne.

In mid-August, Ukraine appears to have begun committing elements from its reserves, including the 46th Airmobile and 82nd Air Assault Brigades. The addition of these units seems to have achieved quicker results, as Ukrainian forces liberated the heavily fortified town of Robotyne and continued to advance to the south and east. The current situation is fluid. Geolocated footage and reporting suggests Ukrainian forces, possibly a reconnaissance unit, have advanced past the anti-tank obstacles on the first part of the “Surovikin line” towards Verbove. Though it is unclear if this is just a small dismounted force, or if Ukraine has managed to breach those defenses with vehicles. Ukrainian forces have also advanced towards Novoprokopivka and its eastern flank. The Ukrainian military appears focused on further degrading the Russian defenses and widening the salient, because a narrow advance could leave its forces vulnerable to counterattacks on the flanks. The renewed assault does point to a changing dynamic, forcing the Russian military to react in order to try and stabilize the situation.

 

Map of Ukraine’s offensive thrust south of Orikhiv, what appears to be the main effort (By Pasi Paroinen, member of Black Bird Group, a Finnish OSINT organization)

The coming weeks are likely to prove decisive, as the battle hinges on available reserves and resolve. Despite recent advances in Staromaiors’ke and Urozhaine, Ukrainian forces are approximately 11 kilometers from the main defensive line along the Velika Novosilka axis, and it appears they have shifted resources to the Orikhiv axis instead. Though the distance to the “main lines” is a less relevant metric than the attrition being inflicted. What matters most is where Russian forces choose to concentrate and man their defense.

Although the 82nd and 46th Brigades achieved results, they were enabled by other units having spent weeks of fighting over those areas. Russian forces appear worried and have also deployed reserves. There are indications that Russia has transferred elements from the airborne force’s 7th and 76th Air Assault Divisions, as well as other forces, to that axis. The Russian military likely made this decision after Ukraine began to commit its reserve units, which reduced the risk of a strong Ukrainian advance elsewhere. Ukraine’s recent advances appear to be largely conducted by dismounted units, but to achieve momentum, they will need to employ mechanized formations again. This will put to the test whether weeks of attrition, establishing an advantage in fires, and deep strikes against bridges, logistics, and command-and-control nodes have set the necessary conditions for a Ukrainian breakthrough. In particular, Ukraine’s ability to effectively suppress and degrade Russian anti-tank capabilities could prove critical.

 

Map of Ukraine’s offensive thrust south of Velika Novosilka (By Pasi Paroinen, member of Black Bird Group, a Finnish OSINT organization)

For Russia, the problem is straightforward: The entrenchments matter most if they’re manned. If their forces are degraded, and they lack reinforcements, these defenses will slow down but not impede Ukraine’s advance. It also depends whether Russia chooses to employ its reserves for counterattacks or to man the multiple lines of defense. For Ukraine, the primary challenge is not in breaching Russian lines, but rather doing so with sufficient forces in reserve to exploit that breach toward its objectives.

Russia’s Defense: Doctrine or Folly?

Despite appearances, Russia is not executing a true defense in depth. Russian forces are set up for such a defense, which enables a defender to degrade the attacker as they advance, trading space for attrition. They have constructed three defensive belts, minefields in between, communication trenches, and hardened defensive points in between. This was likely Gen. Sergei Surovikin’s vision (and his name provides the nickname for these defensive lines). But Surovikin is not in charge. Gen. Valeriy Gerasimov, the chief of general staff, is. He has consistently demonstrated poor military judgment and a weak understanding of what Russian forces can and cannot do, most recently in the failed Russian winter offensive. Russian forces have chosen to defend forward of the Surovikin line, concentrating their efforts on holding the first line of defense and the towns that anchor it. To be clear, the first line does feature extensive entrenchments, including tunnel networks. The follow on lines include machine dug trenches, anti-tank ditches, dragons teeth, and likely more minefields. The Russian decision to defend forward has favored Kyiv because it allowed Ukrainian artillery to attrite the Russian units deployed.

In Russia, the strategic concept of “active defense,” often mentioned by Valeriy Gerasimov, encourages maneuver defense and counterattack. This may be what we are seeing from Russian forces now. Essentially a defensive-offense, active defense envisions persistent engagement of an opponent rather than emphasizing a static or positional defense. Russia’s defense has featured regular counterattacks, which also depleted its armor, and available maneuver forces. The Russian military is rotating troops through the front line, but that force has been steadily worn down. On the other hand, Ukraine has also expended considerable combat power fighting in the first line of Russian defenses before reaching the other defensive belts and entrenchments. The course of this battle is therefore increasingly determined by who has the most reserves available and who pursues the best force management strategy over time.

Russian forces have consistently counter attacked during Ukraine’s counteroffensive. While in some cases they have been able to retake towns seized by Ukrainian units or prevent consolidation, their strategy is aggressive and costly. Given the dearth of forces available, the Russian approach has been aggressive and overconfident. Russian units are often fighting in front of their best fortifications instead of leveraging them for advantage. They can fall back if they are put in a disadvantageous position, but this approach has major tradeoffs: If Russian forces suffer too much attrition in holding forward positions or counterattacking to return them, they risk leaving their forces too weak to properly defend the rest of the defensive line. Hence, an “active” approach has stymied Ukraine’s advance, but at the cost of depleting the Russian defense forward of what were considered the ‘main lines.’ Consequently, solely looking at whether Ukraine has broken through the defensive lines is the wrong way to evaluate this offensive’s progress. Most of the fighting, and the attrition, has taken place at the first Russian line of defense, which Ukraine has pressed through at Robotyne and near Verbove.

Russia has a sizable force in Ukraine, but the quality varies significantly, and a sizable portion of that force consists of mobilized regiments. In the south, it appears the front line is largely being held by a mix of regular tank and motorized rifle regiments, mobilized units, naval infantry, and Storm Z units, which are manned by convicts. Storm Z units are distributed to motorized rifle companies to use as forward-deployed expendable infantry, typically along the first line of defenses. Naval infantry and more capable motorized rifle troops hold strong points and towns and are used for counterattacking. The Russian defense features echeloned battalions, with others in the rear. In addition, elements from the 22nd and 45th Spetsnaz Brigades are reportedly defending in the Orikhiv axis. These units appear to be playing a key role in locating targets for artillery strikes and providing a greater anti-armor capability to conventional units with antitank missiles and loitering munitions.

When in contact some Russian units have fled, but others have held their positions even when under pressure from advancing Ukrainian forces. This reinforces the challenge of integrating soft factors and intangibles such as morale into assessments, because the observed effects can be inconsistent and difficult to generalize. Some Russian units are defeated by smaller Ukrainian elements, some abandon positions, and others hold the line and counterattack. Poor morale surely afflicts Russian forces — with attendant effects on cohesion and performance — but it has not yet been severe enough to destabilize their lines and thereby permit sizable Ukrainian advances.

As an example, as we learned during our field research in June 2023, Russia’s 291st Motorized Rifle Regiment (42nd Division, 58th Combined Arms Army) defended a key part of the front south of Orikhiv that included Robotyne. As of late June, it was reinforced with a Storm detachment, two Storm Z convict detachments, multiple companies and reconnaissance groups from the mobilized Territorial Troops’ 1430th Motorized Rifle Regiment, a company from the 71st Motorized Rifle Regiment, an Akhmat motorized rifle battalion, and a battalion from the 810th Naval Infantry Brigade. Russia appears to have added a fourth motorized rifle battalion to the regiment’s table of organization, which lacks armored vehicles like the other battalions, to provide more infantry. Compared to its prewar structure of three motorized rifle battalions, the 291st defended with a force closer to the size of six or more infantry and motorized rifle battalions plus a tank battalion and other supporting assets.

The regiment was defending with two echelons. The first was held by two of its motorized rifle battalions reinforced with the less-well-equipped and -manned 1430th Motorized Rifle Regiment’s companies and Storm Z detachments, as well as the battalion from the more elite 810th Naval Infantry Brigade, which was defending Robotyne. The second echelon was composed of two motorized rifle battalions, and the tank battalion was held in reserve. The regiment’s other motorized rifle battalion was rotated to the rear to receive new equipment and personnel, and additional companies from the 1430th Motorized Rifle Regiment can likely be rotated to replace losses in the first echelon. Elements from the 22nd Spetsnaz Brigade are also operating along the regiment’s front.

Compared to Russian defenses earlier in the war, the 291st Motorized Rifle Regiment had been defending less frontage — approximately 11 kilometers — and with additional reinforcements had sufficient forces to maintain a second echelon of defenses as well as reserve. It could also afford to rotate battalions when they sustained attrition, so the exact units and composition have varied over the past two months. Indeed, it appears Russia has decided to not rotate the regiments holding the front line, but instead to rotate companies and battalions from other formations. This is true for both elite naval infantry units and the mobilized territorial troops regiments. The 291st sat behind well-fortified prepared positions and dense minefields, antitank ditches, and other obstacles. Thus, the 291st was better positioned to handle assaults without requiring the commitment of division or higher-level reserves. This is in contrast to Russian forces in Kharkiv in September 2022, when some Russian units were only at 20 percent strength and lacked a cohesive defensive posture. Once the initial line was breached there, Ukrainian forces were able to advance quickly. The situation is less favorable for Ukraine in Zaporizhzhia and southern Donetsk.

Fixing Russian Forces at Bakhmut

Ukrainian forces have also continued to progress on Bakhmut’s flanks after a series of successful counterattacks in mid-May as Wagner forces captured the western parts of the city. These counterattacks initially targeted relatively weak Russian military units that were moved from Vuhledar to guard the flanks of Wagner units. The Russian military units that arrived were poorly prepared, and weak coordination with Wagner forces hampered their defense. However, all Wagner forces were reportedly replaced in Bakhmut at the beginning of June, and most of Russia’s airborne forces are now deployed to the area, including elements from the 31st, 11th, and 83rd Air Assault Brigades as well as the 106th and 98th Airborne Divisions. Russian military units that had been attached to Wagner during the assault on the city returned to the Ministry of Defense’s control as well.

Ukrainian units at Bakhmut have made progress, most notably the 3rd Assault Brigade’s advance to Klishchiivka. In addition, Russian units in this direction appear to be taking heavy losses, including the 31st Air Assault Brigade, which was pulled back from the front line. The Russian military had less time to prepare defenses in the area compared to the south. However, Russian mines and artillery are still hindering Ukrainian forces. In contrast with the southern axis, the Ukrainian units around Bakhmut are almost all experienced brigades, most of which spent much of the winter defending along the frontlines. These units will likely continue to achieve tactical gains, but a deeper advance in this direction may require additional brigades and resources to be committed. Indeed, there has been intense fighting but little movement along the front line around Klishchiivka over the past month.

 

Close up of Ukraine’s offensive around Bakhmut (By Pasi Paroinen, member of Black Bird Group, a Finnish OSINT organization)

The challenge with the ongoing battle for Bakhmut is that the opportunity there cannot be exploited without pulling units from Ukraine’s southern offensive. Behind Bakhmut, Russia has better established lines of defense, making a breakout unlikely. At Bakhmut, many of Ukraine’s best units are fighting in a supporting offensive, while its newer and less experienced units are on the strategically significant axis in the south. Although Ukraine’s assaults have forced Russia to commit a large force to defend Bakhmut, Russia still had other reserves it could commit to the south. The losses inflicted on Russian airborne forces could sap Russia’s future offensive potential, but Ukrainian brigades there may also become exhausted by winter. A similar situation set in last year, leading to months of indeterminate fighting once the lines froze.

On Tradeoffs in Strategy

Bakhmut looms large in this offensive, and not just because of Ukraine’s recent advances there. Kyiv made a choice to stake the summer offensive on newly trained brigades that would receive NATO equipment instead of experienced units. Kyiv bought time to train these new brigades by keeping its experienced brigades on the frontline over the winter and spring, often with only a minimal rotation. Many of Ukraine’s best brigades played a key role in defending Bakhmut, including the 3rd Assault and 93rd Mechanized Brigades. Compared to other parts of the front, the fighting in Bakhmut was less favorable for Ukrainian defenders once Wagner took control of the flanks in January and February 2023. When Russian forces were within direct-fire range of the remaining roads into Bakhmut held by Ukrainian forces, resupply, casualty evacuation, and the rotation of units to the city became more dangerous and costly.

Ukraine committed several brigades to hold the city without including additional units holding the flanks and the roads leading out of it. Ukrainian forces fighting in the city faced a worse attrition ratio than the forces on the flanks. While this ratio varied, we estimate it as probably 1:3 to 1:4 Ukrainian to Russian casualties over the course of the battle. Wagner’s heavy reliance on “expendables” — poorly trained and equipped convicts — was more effective in urban terrain than across open fields, particularly when Ukrainian forces were holding high ground. Wagner forces were used for assaults, not defense, and would not have been manning the line in the south. Conversely, Ukraine could have held the high ground west of the city with far fewer units and resources. In an attempt to hold Bakhmut, Ukraine committed itself to an attritional fight under difficult conditions, with a significant percentage of the Russian losses among expendable convicts. Ironically, Russia’s problems began in earnest when Russian forces were saddled with defending Bakhmut.

As a counterfactual, if more experienced Ukrainian brigades were given the new equipment, they may not have committed many of the errors the new brigades made at the beginning of the counteroffensive. They also would have been able to adapt faster. Indeed, one reason Ukraine is having more success south of Bakhmut is due to the 3rd Assault Brigade, which continues to advance despite attrition. But its continued deployment to Bakhmut, as well as some of Ukraine’s other best brigades, is somewhat surprising given that the priority axis of advance is Orikhiv. Of course, pulling more experienced brigades from the front during Russia’s winter offensive would have risked losing more territory, and political considerations and foreign perceptions are hardly irrelevant. Ultimately, strategy comes down to choices and Kyiv had no cost-free or risk-free options.

Observers have also argued that Ukraine would have achieved greater success if it had received F-16 fighters. Western aircraft would undoubtedly have helped Ukraine during this offensive if Ukrainian pilots had started training on these aircraft early in the war. Even if that had happened, they might not have proven decisive, because of Russia’s extensive air defenses and tactical aviation. F-16 fighters will eventually help Ukraine contest the airspace, but having Western aircraft does not automatically convey the ability to attain air superiority. Too often airpower is treated as talismanic, as though it can resolve every challenge on the battlefield. What U.S. airpower can achieve is not representative of a typical Western air force because of the extensive U.S. investments that have been made in enablers, supporting capabilities, organizational capacity, and experience in integrating air-land operations. Those effects are not likely to come from F-16s alone, and their performance also depends on the missiles and additional systems provided. It is worth noting, the United States itself has not faced a capable air defense network akin to Russia’s in recent decades.

Combined arms operations, coordinating airpower with land forces, are much more difficult than just integrating infantry, armor, and artillery. Ukraine’s military is doctrinally, and structurally, oriented toward decisive employment of land-based fires, not airpower. In Western countries, it is often the opposite. This is not to say that a Western military could have done better in this offensive, but to make clear how much a military needs to change about itself to achieve air superiority, and the types of effects often associated with Western airpower. Attaining air superiority is therefore about more than getting aircraft and well-trained pilots. We think Ukraine is up to the challenge. F-16s will enable much better integration with Western weapons systems and give the Ukrainian air force the ability to push Russian airpower farther behind the forward line of troops. Acquiring F-16s is therefore an important step, and the sooner Ukraine can switch to employing Western platforms, the better.

Similarly, Ukraine has extensively employed Storm Shadow air-launched cruise missiles in this offensive, with range and payload similar to the long-sought-after Army tactical missile system short-range ballistic missile. By itself, Storm Shadow has made a notable contribution, but has not proven to be a “game changer.” Russian adaptations have also complicated the picture. The Russian military no longer relies on massive ammunition depots near the front lines. Instead, ammunition is often picked up by trucks at rail stations in Crimea or Russia, which are transferred to units in Ukraine. The transfer points change regularly, and a missile strike will not cause the same level of disruption as occurred in the summer of 2022 when HIMARS first arrived. That said, Russian logistics are still potentially vulnerable in Crimea, and much further behind Russian lines.

Ukraine cannot just interdict Russian supply lines with long-range missiles and press Russian forces out. If this was so, Ukraine would have little need for a major offensive in the first place. It could pummel away with Storm Shadow missiles and wait for the Ground-Launched Small-Diameter Bomb, with a range of 150 kilometers, to be deployed. Without persistent presence and reconnaissance over the routes in question, such interdiction does not work well in practice, and the munitions are not available to sustain it. In Kherson, HIMARS systems ranged Russian resupply routes across the Dnipro River for over four months. Russian forces were able to sustain themselves via a single bridge and a ferry network, eventually withdrawing over 30,000 troops. Russian positions in Zaporizhzhia are connected via land corridors running east and south to Crimea. Even when within range of tube artillery, supply roads have proven difficult to interdict, raising questions about what “fire control” can achieve. Indeed, the entire offensive in the south, and the long-running battle of Bakhmut, have played out with both sides’ positions barely a few kilometers from each other.

What the past 18 months of fighting illustrate is that Western nations need to develop a long-term plan to sustain and improve Ukraine’s war effort instead of pinning hopes on the next capability that will be introduced on the battlefield. For example, the Army Tactical Missile System would be a useful addition to Ukraine’s arsenal and should be provided, but there needs to be a more holistic approach to increasing Ukrainian capabilities. Often it is more about the basics — more M113s, Humvees, light mobility, night vision, and mine-clearing equipment could have more impact in aggregate than any one advanced weapons system.

Getting Beyond the Offensive

Much could have been done sooner by the West to increase defense industrial capacity sufficient to sustain Ukraine’s war effort. For example, European countries need not have waited 13 months to begin making serious investments in artillery production. The same could be said of scaling up training programs. Ukraine’s recent experience shows there’s more to creating combat-effective units than Western infantry fighting vehicles and more capable tanks. They have saved many lives, and Ukraine’s motivated soldiers can quickly adopt Western systems, but this can lead to the erroneous assumption that the time necessary to train cohesive units, and their commanders, can too be dramatically shortened. It is unclear why the training for Ukraine’s summer offensive had to be such a compressed effort, rather than something that was begun much earlier in 2022.

Looking at where the offensive stands today, Ukraine’s decision to attrit Russian forces via fires and advance incrementally with small units played to its strengths. This is a grueling fight. The combat power and reserves available to both sides will play a significant role in determining the outcome. Ukraine’s offensive neither is over, nor has it failed. Ukraine’s prospects depend on how well Western countries resource the Ukrainian war effort into the fall, replace lost equipment, and provide the necessary enablers — above all, artillery ammunition. Ultimately, in planning for their support, Western countries must also think beyond the offensive, rather than taking a wait and see approach. This includes learning lessons from this spring and summer to improve Ukraine’s chances in future offensives. Western efforts should be geared to the assumption that the war will continue well into next year, balancing long-term transition programs, such as the transfer of F-16s and scaled up unit training, with managing Ukraine’s more immediate needs.

The West ought to be introspective about missing important decision points, which had a profound impact on the course of the war, constraining everyone’s options later on. Decisions about future support should have been made well before this offensive even began, assuming that it was unlikely to end the war. Instead, another cycle of attritional fighting may ensue after this offensive, followed by yet another surge effort to restore Ukraine’s offensive potential. In short, the West has been unappreciative of the lead times required to reconstitute military potential or provide Ukraine with a decisive advantage.

The recent anonymous criticism by officials spilling select narratives in the press, rather than fostering an open discussion about Ukraine’s challenges and successes, reveals enduring problems in this war effort: The first, is  a lack of Western understanding of how Ukrainian forces fight. The second, which is closely related, is an insufficient Western presence on the ground to enable closer coordination or even the invaluable understanding that could be offered by battlefield observers. Western capitals have sought to keep this Ukraine’s war, avoiding an in-country presence that includes contractor support or trainers. To be clear, there are Western contractors and companies operating independently in Ukraine, but this is not the same as a government sanctioned and supported effort. There is much more that could be done without becoming directly involved in fighting or deploying uniformed personnel on the ground. The hitherto cautious approach has clear limits to its efficacy. Western support thus far has been sufficient to avert a Ukrainian defeat, and arguably has imposed a strategic defeat on Russia, but not enough to ensure a Ukrainian victory. Independent of the outcome of this offensive, Western countries need to be clear-eyed about the fact that this will be a long war. Taken together, Western industrial and military potential greatly exceeds Russia’s, but without the political will, potential alone will not translate into results.

 

Michael Kofman is a senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he focuses on the Russian military and Eurasian security issues. He served as director of the Russia Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analyses, where he conducted research on the capabilities, strategy, and military thought of the Russian Armed Forces.

Rob Lee is a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia Program and a former Marine infantry officer

Image: Ukrainian Ministry of Defense

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