The hard lessons from Ukraine’s summer offensive
Christopher Miller and Ben Hail in Kyiv Additional reporting by John Paul Rathbone
The Manila Times
“YES, people tend to want [results] immediately. This is understandable,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told a conference in Kyiv two weekends ago, speaking about Ukraine’s summer counteroffensive. “But this is not like a feature movie, where everything happens in an hour and a half.” The idea that Ukrainian forces, lacking any air cover, would storm through Russian lines was always going to be more of a Hollywood plotline than reality. But three months into the counteroffensive, Zelenskyy and his government are dealing with the reality that it has not achieved the desired decisive breakthrough — and are girding themselves for a drawn-out war. Ukraine’s armed forces have made slow but significant gains in the south of the country in recent weeks, including a first puncture in Russia’s formidable defensive line. But some officials in western capitals regret that Kyiv has failed to use the opportunity afforded by western weapons stockpiles and possibly peak political support. Moreover, the meagre results have exposed divisions between Kyiv and some western officials over strategy. Some US officials have complained privately to the media that Ukraine had failed during training to master modern operations that combine mechanised infantry, artillery and air defence and were too risk averse in their approach. Ukrainian officials, meanwhile, have pointed out that American forces have themselves never conducted operations on battlefields like Ukraine’s, without air superiority, against a military the size and calibre of Russia’s, and against some of its most advanced weaponry and military technologies. “Show us at least one officer or sergeant in the American army who has fired, for example, 5,000 to 7,000 rounds with this [M777 howitzer],” Viktor, a battery commander in a Ukrainian artillery unit, told the FT in eastern Ukraine in July, referring to the US-supplied weapon that has helped his troops more accurately target Russian forces. US General Mark Milley told the BBC that while Ukrainian forces were now advancing, they maybe had only a month to six weeks left to pursue their counteroffensive before autumn rains set in. It was the kind of comment that irks Ukrainian officials, who point out that southern Ukraine, where the main counteroffensive thrust is taking place, is relatively dry and its winters less harsh than the rest of their country. “We’re not Africa with a rainy season,” scoffed Lieutenant General Kyrylo Budanov, chief of Ukraine’s defence intelligence, at the Yalta European Strategy (YES) conference in Kyiv. Yet amid the defiance and occasional sniping, there is a greater mood of realism among Ukrainian officials that the war will be a slow grind. The question is whether Ukraine’s western backers, who have dug deep into their weapons stockpiles, are committed to giving the country the support and ammunition over the longer haul. After early unsustainable losses, Ukraine has pivoted back to a campaign of attrition — wearing down the enemy at the front with artillery and destroying supply lines with long-range strikes — while using small infantry assaults to retake Russian positions. While some in Nato worry this attritional approach sounds like the old Soviet mindset taking hold, Ukrainian officials and western analysts who have studied this summer’s fighting say it is more adapted to conditions on the ground, including Russia’s heavy fortifications and dense minefields, Ukraine’s lack of air power and the prevalence of drones exposing everything on the battlefield. Ukraine’s new strategy has had some success, but it will be slowgoing at best without a sudden Russian collapse. Crucially, it will depend on Ukraine’s allies increasing production of ammunition and other equipment to sustain an attritional war. “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,” say military analysts Michael Kofman and Rob Lee in a report on the counteroffensive. But they, like other analysts, say it is imperative that Ukraine learns lessons from its counteroffensive so that it can continue to push Russian forces back along a 1,000km frontline, possibly well into next year and beyond. At the same time, they argue, Kyiv’s allies must acknowledge the shortcomings in their training and equipping of Ukraine’s forces that have contributed to the disappointing progress. If US and European leaders are to stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes, as they repeatedly profess, they will also need to be much more systematic in their provision of artillery, aviation and training. General James Hockenhull, head of the British army’s Strategic Command, said on Tuesday he did not believe the Ukrainian offensive was a “one-off shot” but that it was imperative for Kyiv’s allies to “continue to provide ammunition, weapons and training” and “if we fail in that task there are significant risks”. A turn towards attrition Ukraine is counterattacking in multiple directions. Its main effort has been its southern push from Orikhiv, in the Zaporizhzhia region. It was on the battlefield there that the 47th mechanised brigade, serving as the tip of the spear in the counteroffensive, ran into trouble in the first weeks of the operation in early June. Slowed by formidable minefields — in some areas up to five mines per square metre, military officials say — the Ukrainians came under attack from Russian helicopters and heavy artillery. Images emerged soon after of western-supplied equipment, including Leopard 2A6 tanks and Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, damaged and abandoned. Dozens of troops were reportedly killed or badly injured. The losses amounted to nearly a fifth of the Nato kit provided for the counteroffensive in its opening days in May and June, according to Ukrainian and western officials, and forced Kyiv to pause its operation and rethink its strategy. Ukraine has kept its focus on the same area but has changed tactics — from attempting to punch through Russia’s fortified defensive lines in a mechanised assault to focusing on a more attritional approach, using heavy artillery to pound enemy forces and clear a path for dismounted infantry to inch forward. “Attrition makes for poor headlines, but it plays to Ukraine’s strengths, whereas attempting to scale offensive manoeuvres under such difficult conditions does not,” say Kofman and Lee. Three months on from those early setbacks, Ukraine has the momentum there after piercing the first line of Russian defence at Robotyne in the south and is now trying to widen the breach, with expectations rising of taking Verbove before advancing on Tokmak — both towns in the Zaporizhzhia region. Securing Tokmak would mark a significant step towards cutting Russia’s so-called land bridge, a crucial supply route connecting its southwestern Rostov region with occupied southern Ukraine and Crimea. In their second effort, Ukraine’s troops are pushing south from Velyka Novosilka, where they are endeavouring to reach the Sea of Azov port city of Berdyansk. Despite managing to capture a handful of small villages, progress there has been slow and largely stalled since mid-August. The area around Bakhmut remains a focal point. Russian forces captured the city in May after a 10-month battle that reduced the city to rubble. But the fighting around it never ceased and the Ukrainians have clawed back territory on its northern and southern flanks metre by metre, advancing to the villages of Klishchiivka and Andriivka this week while securing crucial roads around the city. Only in the Serebryansky forest to the north-east, which stretches east to the strategic town of Kreminna currently occupied by Moscow’s forces, have the Russians been on the offensive. That effort, Ukrainian officials and analysts say, is meant to try to draw Kyiv’s forces from its southern axis and push those in the area west, beyond the Oskil River, a natural defensive barrier and recapture territory in Donetsk and Kharkiv regions, where the Russians were dislodged during the sweeping Ukrainian counteroffensive a year ago. In these tough battlefield conditions, Ukrainian forces found it impossible to follow Nato doctrine of combined arms warfare — co-ordinated actions by infantry, armour, artillery and air defence. Kofman and Lee say they are best at fighting in small highly manoeuvrable assault units. They struggle to run operations above the level of company (200 men) or even platoon (20-50). But if Ukrainian forces are to exploit any breach in Russia’s defences, they will need to co-ordinate larger forces and for that they need better training. One of the main lessons of the counteroffensive so far, say analysts, is that western training of Ukrainian troops, typically of five weeks, is too short. It is not adapted to the way Ukraine fights best or to conditions on the ground, such as the impenetrable minefields or fortifications. And it takes place without the omnipresent drones hovering over the Ukrainian front lines. “If I only did what [western militaries] taught me, I’d be dead,” says Suleman, a special forces commander in the 78th regiment. He says he had trained with American, British and Polish soldiers, all of whom offered “some good advice” but also “bad advice...like their way of clearing trenches. I told them: ‘Guys, this is going to get us killed.’” Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds, analysts at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi) who studied a two-week Ukrainian operation to recapture two villages in the south of the country, say in a recent reportthat the fighting showed the need for more collective training — to help brigade-level planning and platoon and company commanders. There is also the question of how Ukraine deploys its more experienced forces. It was criticised by some US officials earlier this year for expending too many experienced troops in a futile defence of the eastern city of Bakhmut. Rochan Consulting, a Polish outfit which also produced a lengthy assessment of the counteroffensive, says Ukraine might have done better this summer had it used experienced brigades equipped with Nato weaponry rather than newly trained ones. On a more positive note, say Watling and Reynolds, with its Nato-standard artillery, Ukraine has become better at detecting and destroying enemy artillery with counter-battery fire, a crucial advantage that can help offset Russia’s greater number of canons. But Ukraine’s advantage will only persist if its western allies expand production of ammunition and reduce the number of artillery systems Ukrainian forces have to operate. It also needs more mineclearing equipment and armoured vehicles to protect its infantry. Lastly, the analysts all note, Russian forces are continuing to learn from their foes and adapting their tactics, whether through dispersing their supply lines, greater deployment of drones or in fending off Ukrainian assaults. Russia’s “big advantage over 18 months ago is they [now] respect our forces and understand our real power”, says a Ukrainian official. “In terms of flexibility, we still have the edge on them. They are rather crusty and dusty and [their command structure is] still very vertical — which means they take longer to adapt to changes,” says Budanov, the defence intelligence chief. “We must not underestimate them; we should not think they are stupid. They have made some changes, for example with their massive use of drones. They are adapting, that is a fact.” With its trenches, artillery barrages and bloody infantry assaults, Russia’s war against Ukraine can often appear grimly reminiscent of the first world war. But it also features transformational new technology. Underscoring that point, Mykhailo Fedorov, deputy prime minister in charge of technology and digitisation, recounts a recent ministerial meeting held over Zoom. He followed a live feed of the meeting on one side of his screen while at the same time streaming real-time drone footage of Ukrainian forces destroying a Russian air defence system on the other. “Ukraine is writing new war history and the new drone doctrine,” Fedorov tells the FT. The power of drones This summer’s fighting has revealed the vital importance of drones to both sides, for reconnaissance and attack. The war is fundamentally different from previous conflicts because the prevalence of drones means that the battlefield is “totally visible in real time for both sides”, Vadym Skibitskyi, deputy head of military intelligence, told the YES conference. Manoeuvres with armour, in particular, are quickly exposed. It can take as little as 10 minutes to destroy a column of tanks, he said — from the initial spot, to verifying its location, calling in artillery and striking. Every Ukrainian unit goes to the frontline with drones of its own, often Chinese-made civilian reconnaissance drones costing a few hundred dollars or so-called firstperson view racing drones [operated with a headset], that can carry a high-explosive charge. Ukrainian forces have been burning through drones in extraordinary numbers as they attack Russians lines and equipment and Kyiv is struggling to keep up with demand. Rusi estimates Ukraine is losing upwards of 10,000 drones a month. Meanwhile, Russian forces have caught up with Ukraine in using commercially made drones and still have plenty of military-grade devices. Russia’s Lancet-3 kamikaze drone — which can track and swoop on its targets autonomously — has proved to be a particular menace, for which Ukraine has no match. Andriy Zagorodnyuk, former defence minister, says Ukraine is not building enough of its own drones, although it is trying to expand production. “We are in an arms race with a small time span,” he says. “Drones are making other weapons systems completely redundant.” Fedorov says Ukraine will have increased domestic drone production 100-fold by the end of the year since the start of the war. It created a special headquarters to co-ordinate the mass production of drones and is relying on the free market to deliver, with a multitude of commercial providers pitching their devices to a single procurement platform. Ukraine is also expanding domestic production of component parts. Ukraine’s advantage over Russia, Fedorov says, is the speed with which information about performance, losses and tactics is reported by frontline drone operators back to his technical teams. “The next stage of development is not the technology itself but the usage,” he says. While Ukraine is developing its own drone capabilities it still relies on its allies for long-range strikes. Hopes are rising in Kyiv that Washington will soon agree to send ATACMS missiles, which have a range of 300km. This could unlock German approval for its Taurus cruise missile, since Berlin tends to wait for the US to move first on weapon decisions. Ukrainians argue they have done more damage to Russia’s war machine than it appears with a strike campaign involving drones and western-supplied Himars and Storm Shadow missiles targeting its rear. On Wednesday, Ukrainian missiles struck a Russian navy yard in the occupied Black Sea port city of Sevastopol, damaging at least two warships undergoing repairs in dry docks. Next year, Ukraine is likely to take delivery of its first F-16 fighter jets. They will eventually help Ukraine contest the airspace, thereby pushing Russian aviation back from the front lines, but not necessarily give it air superiority, say Kofman and Lee. Ultimately, the course of the war will be decided by how each side manages its reserves of manpower and equipment. “Our big problem is sustainability,” says a Ukrainian official. “It is a war of resources.” “Ukraine and Russia are in a slugging match where neither side has a decisive advantage. It’s going to be a long war and Ukraine is now in the messy middle part that happens in every major conflict,” says one senior western official. “Militaries very rarely deliver decisive outcomes, they win battles,” the official adds. In attritional conflicts such as this one, “it’s economies that win wars”.