We saw two significant Ukrainian offenses at Kherson and Izyum fronts. The first, it seems, has already failed, and the second, it seems, has already succeeded. The measure of success or failure for Ukrainian side here lies in the realm of propaganda (not necessarily in a negative sense) benefits, not in a strategical military sense. As far as I understand, Russians have enough reserves to eventually stop any force Ukrainians are able to throw at them. Ukraine has no hope of military victory over Russian Army, but it desperately needs some tactical victories for domestic and international use.
I don’t know how bad things are in Ukraine for the current regime, but internationally the support for weapon supplies and financial aid is falling down. Firstly, because public attention cannot be held on any foreign issue for too long; secondly, because it looks like Ukraine is losing the war and also doing a lot of highly questionable things (like shelling the nuclear power plant); and, thirdly, because the economic pressure on the West was intentionally connected to the Russo-Ukraine war, so any dissatisfaction with the worsening economic situation will be translated to the dissatisfaction with the continuing support for the war (instead of a diplomatic solution). That is why any Ukrainian victory or optics of major success on the battlefield are very much needed for Ukrainian regime and its Western sponsors at this time.
So, the Kiev’s logic is understandable. What is not understandable is the Russian tactics that we are witnessing.
I hear many people explain Ukrainian military successes by pointing to the insufficient number of Russian troops in those regions. I think this is misleading. Yes, Russians don’t have enough manpower to wage an effective war against Ukraine. This is nothing new. Russians went for the slow option that doesn’t require a lot of first line troops, in order to gradually “grind down” the Ukrainian manpower to the point at which either the internal political pressure in Ukraine will break their will to fight and they will capitulate, or the number of Ukrainian troops will fall low enough, and the number of Russian newly recruited and mobilized professional soldiers will become large enough, to conduct effective offensive operations.
For this tactic to succeed, Russian Army needs to be able to concentrate enough troops locally to defend or attack. They keep the minimal needed forces of militias, Russian Guard, etc. to control the line of contact, and enough regular Russian Army forces to support them and inflict damage on Ukrainian troops. While at the same time they need to create local concentration of forces to stop any Ukrainian offenses or conduct offensive operations themselves.
Since the contact line is stretched for more than a thousand kilometers, there is a need to keep reserves near logistical hubs in order to move them quickly to where they are needed. The second requirement is a good intelligence, that will alert Russian command of impending enemy offensive, so to move the reserve forces in time to defend. If so, the real problem isn’t the insufficient numbers, but insufficient intelligence.
It is obvious Russian Army has failed at the intelligence portion of this equation. They were caught with their pants down at the Kherson front, and even more so at the Izyum front.
If I wanted to give credit to Ukrainian-cum-NATO war planning abilities, I would speculate that the Kherson offensive was a distraction effort, in order to draw Russian attention and reserves to the south, while planning an attack in the East. But since the Kherson offensive force was (it seems) considerably larger and better equipped with armor, obviously the main effort was to be in Kherson. Still, it isn’t impossible it is actually the eastern offensive which was intended to distract Russian attention and divert their reserves from the southern operation, to prevent the total disaster there. If so, I’m sure Ukrainian military command is extremely surprised with how much actual success they had, and how unprepared were the Russians.
When I’m talking about Russian failure, it isn’t just a failure to defend. Actually, it is much worse than that. Because, as it is well known, in the peer-to-peer situation, defenders have a significant advantage over attackers. The usually quoted ratio is 3 to 1, i.e. 3 attackers are needed for every one defender in order for the attack to succeed. Which means, attackers would have larger casualties than the defenders, unless they have a very large advantage in numbers and equipment.
That means that for the Russians, the best possible scenario is to successfully defend, thus causing a large number of casualties on the Ukrainian side, and then to counterattack the weakened enemy in order to destroy the remaining forces and make easy advances. I’m talking about easy advances, because the usual defenders would be participating in the attack, which means the defensive positions are left undermanned and underequipped. On the other hand, if Ukrainians are in defensive posture, it is Russians who have to create a local numerical advantage in manpower and equipment in order to advance, and risk large casualties (and this is why we don’t see a lot of Russian offensive operations — minimizing losses is one of their top priorities).
If so, not only Russian military lost some territory (which is, frankly speaking, is insignificant), but they also failed to inflict significant damage to the enemy, and even more importantly, they have wasted the opportunity to counterattack in advantageous conditions.
So, then I’m talking about failure of intelligence, what does it mean? Usually, intelligence can be gathered by different means: capturing enemy officers who have knowledge of their military planning, agents or collaborators behind the enemy lines, technical intelligence by intercepting communications, visual reconnaissance by drones and satellites… Historically speaking, many times some intelligence information does come through, but is being disregarded by the military planners as false or erroneous, because it doesn’t fit into their paradigm.
While I see these affairs as Russian military failures, I’m sure the Ukrainian side will view this instead as a great Ukrainian military success, and some on the Russian side will view it as some cunning Russian plan to lure the Ukrainian forces into a less defendable positions in order to destroy them. And I believe both of those to be false. As I wrote in one of my first posts on this blog, this war isn’t about which side is better (frankly speaking, neither is), but which side is worse. Ukrainians went into a war they cannot win (even though they were prepared for it), and Russian went into a war they weren’t prepared for (but which they cannot lose nonetheless).
(And then I say Russia cannot lose this war, I mean it in a strictly military sense. Where is always an option to lose politically. We saw such a political defeat in the 2014 and the fallowing years, when Russia still was able to “demilitarize” and “denazify” Ukraine with a little effort, blood and distraction. In hindsight, it is obvious that the current war is a direct result of that political defeat. But it is pointless to try and guess if things would have been better in the long term, had Russia exercised its military option in the past.)