Waiting for the Ukrainian Counter-offensive
This is a translation (Google translate + some correction) of my weblog entry
For a few months now, the media have had only one question in mind: "Where and when will the Ukrainian counter-offensive take place?" Indeed, Ukraine has formed at least ten (and possibly twenty) new brigades just for this counter-offensive, which have been equipped with the help of the West. It is at least 50,000 men (and probably much more) who are ready to lead this counter-offensive.
And in the eyes of these impatient media, this counter-offensive is overdue. But it has already started. Not the offensive itself, but its active preparation began in mid-April and intensified through May: more frequent artillery strikes, systematic destruction of Russian artillery pieces, radars and electronic warfare equipments, strikes on logistics hubs with the HIMARS and more recently the Storm Shadows, partisan action in Russia; all this contributes to weakening the Russians before moving on to the ground assault, which is now a matter of days (at best), a few weeks (most likely) or a month or two (at worst).
The "when" being settled, remains to know the "where".
As General Ben Hodges often repeats: " War is a question of will and logistics ". He is right. Also, to understand the stakes of the Ukrainian counter-offensive, one must understand Russian military logistics. It relaies mainly on the railroads. And this is the weak point of the Russians. Because there are only three major logistical axes for the Russians:
- In the north, several railway lines arrive at Luhansk which serves as important logistics hub
- In the center there is the "land bridge" that connects Donetsk with Crimea, passing through Mariupol and Melitopol
- To the south there is the Kerch Bridge which connects Crimea to mainland Russia
If the Ukrainians manage to destroy these three logistical routes, the war will become very complicated for the Russians, who will find themselves, on a larger scale, in the situation they experienced in Kherson once the 3 bridges over the Dnipro River were destroyed. : they had only the choice between withdrawing or being destroyed.
Of these three points, the easiest to destroy is the Kerch bridge. Now that the Ukrainians have stealth long-range missiles, they have all the means to destroy this bridge, it is only a matter of time. There will still be maritime traffic to supply Crimea, but besides its capacity limitations, it is vulnerable to missile strikes on port facilities and maritime drone attacks that the Ukrainians have.
So the objective of the Ukrainian counter-offensive must be to cut off at least one of the two Russian logistical axes. The two axes are not equal: if the Russians lose the first (Luhansk), it will complicate the logistics but they will be able to continue the war. If they lose the second (the land bridge), Crimea will be very difficult to maintain and this will pose a political problem for Putin: The Russians don't care about the Donbas, on the other hand they want Crimea.
That being said, let's look at the five possible axes of attack, which I have ranked from the most probable to the least probable.
1 Zaporizhja region
It's the most logical choice, so obvious that everyone expects the Ukrainians to attack there. Zaporijja is a bit like the "Pas-de-Calais" of the Allied landings during the Second World War: it is the most obvious place, but also the best defended. So I refer to Michel Goya's blog which detailed what this https://lavoiedelepee.blogspot.com/2023/04/assaut-zapo.htm l" target="_blank" rel="noopener">assault on Zapo could be .
2 South of Donetsk region (Vuhledar)
Another possible axis for the counter-offensive is the Vuhledar -> Mariupol axis. This axis has several advantages:
1) as for the first axis (Zaporijja -> Mélitopol) a victory on this axis would make it possible to cut the "land bridge" and therefore one of the three strategic objectives, while facilitating raids towards the Kerch bridge .
2) it would also allow a political victory: to recapture Mariupol. Mariupol is the largest city captured by Russia, a symbolic battle and a place strongly linked to one of the most famous Ukrainian units: the Azov regiment (which Russian propaganda uses as a scarecrow)
3) Vuhledar is where there are three very good Ukrainian brigades (68th Jager, 72nd Mechanized, 79th Air Assault), which can effectively support the new brigades. Moreover, the Russian troops in the region were worn down by the attacks they carried out against Vuhledar.
4) the Ukrainians have recently hit this area a few times with the Storm Shadows, and apparently done some significant damage
5) it looks like the Ukrainians have started to make some (very limited) progress in the area
There are a few points though negatives:
1) Ukrainian logistics will be complicated: Vuhledar is already "at the end" of the Ukrainian logistics chain, there is no railway available and only small roads
2) conversely, Russian logistics will be easier: they have many roads and railways in the region
3 Luhansk region
This is the second axis cited by Michel Goya, the one that attacks the other Russian logistics axis. The purpose of this attack is to cut the railway line that connects Belgorod to Luhansk taking Starobilsk. And to take Starobilsk, you must first take Svatove. Other targets in this region are the Kremina, Rubizhne, Sievierodonetsk and Lyssychansk settlement complexes.
There are a few advantages to attacking on this axis:
1) it is a less densely populated area, offering more scope for maneuver
2) it is perhaps less fortified than the southern front
3) several Ukrainian elite brigades ( 92nd Mechanized, 25th, 80th, 81st, 95th Air Assault) are in the area and can support the counter-offensive
4) Luhansk oblast is the only one almost occupied by Russians (besides Crimea); taking back a significant part of this region further ridicules Russia's annexation claims.
But there are also disadvantages:
1) even if successful (taking Starobilsk and Sievierodonetsk and Lyssychansk), the Russian army will remain in a relatively good position. It will then be necessary to succeed in another offensive in the south
2) the Ukrainian logistics axes are quite limited: no railway, the only important road goes from Kupyansk to Svatove
3) the terrain is more hilly than in the south, which could promote defense.
4) if successful, it also increases the length of the front to be defended for the Ukrainians
5) it is very close to Russian territory
That said, raids into Russian territory led by the Legion for Free Russia and the Russian Volunteer Corps can turn these last two points into advantages: it is possible to use these forces to outflank the Russians by passing through Russia to bypass their defenses.
4 North of Donetsk region (Bakhmut)
The idea of leading the counterattack here is not only to retake Bakhmut, but to do so by attempting to surround the Russian troops there by conducting attacks on the flanks.
Indeed, Russia has paid such a price to capture Bakhmut that it is possible they will hang on to the city too long. Ideally, two attacks would be made: in the south, from Toresk. To the north, from Siversk. If both attack successfully, the Ukrainians can create a large cauldron and trap all of the Russian troops concentrated at Bakhmut
1) arguably the least fortified point by the Russians, seeing as they have been on the offensive constantly for 1 year.
2) huge symbolic victory if the Ukrainians take back in 1 month all the territory conquered by the Russians in 1 year
3) many very good Ukrainian brigades present on the spot (even if they have necessarily been worn down by the fighting)
4) possibility of inflict great damage on the Russian army
1) this attack does not achieve any strategic objective on the Russian supply lines.
2) the concentration of Russian troops (and their quality) is perhaps stronger than elsewhere. Strong resistance to be expected
3) the immense destruction of all the towns and villages near Bakhmut risks slowing the Ukrainian offensive and disrupting their logistics if they want to continue beyond Bakhmut
5 Kherson region
The idea would be to cross the Dnipro by surprise to directly threaten the Crimea. Easier said than done. For this, the Ukrainians must mount an operation whose complexity has nothing to envy to the Normandy landings.
To succeed in this operation, the Ukrainians must:
1) Succeed in capturing the Nova Kakhovka dam intact by a commando action. Indeed, the Russians have probably mined this dam and can blow it up at any time, flooding everything downstream
2) Establish a bridgehead by an infantry assault supported only by artillery and drones (no armor at first)
3) Expand this bridgehead by about a radius of 20km to keep the Russian artillery far enough away
4) Create a 1km long bridge/pontoon over the Dnipro
5) Protect this bridge from air attacks
6) Move fast enough to break through multiple Russian defense lines before they react
It's very risky, and if a steps fail, the whole plan falls through, and all the equipment involved is destroyed. This is why I do not believe in a major offensive on this axis. On the other hand, everyone thinks the same (so the surprise can play). In addition, the two air assault brigades which are in reserve for this counter offensive (46th and 82nd) were photographed https://twitter.com/Militarylandnet/status/166386705020315238 5" target="_blank" rel="noopener">training in helicopter assaults. While this may seem normal, it must be remembered that the Ukrainian air assault brigades are mainly used as elite motorized infantry. So there must be a good reason for them to train for air assaults.
With what means?
A little over a month ago, Jérome had listed https://militaryland.net/news/ukrainian-units-ready-for-the-offensive /" target="_blank" rel="noopener">all the units available (according to him) for the counter-offensive : 27 brigades available to attack, seven others that could serve as a reserve (or in formation for a second, later offensive) plus other smaller units. This represents approximately 100,000 men. Since then, other brigades (notably the 45th Mechanized) have been announced as being in formation.
Also, the "Pentagon leaks" revealed that 9 new brigades were being formed in Western countries and should be ready by the end of April at the latest. The documents also indicated that 3 other new brigades were trained and equipped by the Ukrainians. One of these (the 88th mechanized) is already deployed near Kupyansk. An additional brigade would be equipped and trained by Sweden, and would have finished its training in May (if the images published are to be believed). Let's say a dozen new ready brigades. Added to this are the old brigades which are mainly in reserve: 1st and 4th armour, 46th air assault, 128th mountain assault, 60th, 61st, 63rd 115th mechanized + 3 brigades of the "offensive guard" (Azov, Kara-dag, Lyut). A total of 23 ready brigades (figure relatively close to that of militaryland.net). See also Michel Goya's post on https://lavoiedelepee.blogspot.com/2023/04/anatomie-du-corps-de-bataille.htm l" target="_blank" rel="noopener">the anatomy of the Ukrainian battle corps .
And these are only the maneuver brigades: to these are added territorial defense brigades, some of which have acquired a lot of skill with combat. As a reminder, the counter-offensives of last fall (Kherson and Kharkiv) each involved a dozen brigades (including 8 to 10 maneuver brigades). One might think that we are on an equivalent forces, except that the twenty brigades are added to the brigades currently holding the front. In each of the five possible attack axes, there are approximately 5 brigades holding the line (a little less on the Kherson front, a little more on the Bakhmut front). If all the brigades are concentrated, we therefore speak, for this counter-offensive, of about thirty brigades working together. An offensive power equivalent to three times what had been mobilized for each of autumn counter-offensive.
The Russians also have advantages, compared to the autumn 2022. First, they are better fortified, and will probably not be taken by surprise. Also, while it's hard to know their exact numbers, it looks like they're far outnumbered and certainly not lacking in infantry as was the case in autumn 2022. But there's still a great unknown: the quality of the Russian forces. Indeed, most of the defensive units have not been engaged for a long time, perhaps because of their low quality. The Russians, to carry out their offensives, relied only on a small number of units (VDV, marine infantry, Wagner), as if they had no confidence in the quality of their other troops. This great unknown makes the outcome of the Ukrainian offensive difficult to predict: it can range from the Ukrainian failure on the first lines of defense to the rout of the Russian army. And can't tell which outcome is the most likely.
But, I observe this: the Russians hastened to launch a winter offensive, in poor conditions, with poorly trained mobiks, and wasted a large part of the military potential that they had generated with the mobilization of autumn 2022. The Ukrainian generals, on the contrary, have nerves of steel and have the patience to prepare for several weeks, even several months, in order to launch their offensive in optimal conditions. We can trust them. And one day, it will be time to say, like old Jules: Alea jacta est !