As the Ukrainian summer enters mid-September and the Ukrainian offensive enters its 4th month, it is clear that the Western hopes for a quick victory with a George Patton-like breakthrough sweeping the Russians before it have not been met. If this war has shown anything, it is that Western military punditry, including former generals, is abysmal. Predictions of a quick Ukrainian victory appear to have been a mix of naivety, ignorance, and wishful thinking. Russian defenses have held up better than the West expected, and although Ukraine has recaptured some territory, its progress has been slow to say the least.
The reasons for this have been several. Firstly, unlike the quick, successful blitzkrieg offensives in other wars, Ukraine doesn’t have overwhelming command of the air. The Kharkiv offensive that recaptured a significant amount of territory was an anomaly caused by that section of the front being lightly defended as the Russians had the bulk of their forces elsewhere. Secondly, the Russians had 6-9 months to prepare defensive lines and the forces manning these defenses, especially in the key sectors of the south, are executing a doctrinally sound defensive plan. The minefields that have been laid out are causing a real hinderance and it is taking time for the Ukrainians to work through this. Thirdly, it isn’t clear that the Ukrainians have received sufficient quantities of tanks and other military equipment for what they are attempting to do. Whatever the case is, they at least initially did not have sufficient mine-clearing equipment, and it’s not clear that they do even now.
Currently, the Ukrainians and the Russians are now engaged in a war of attrition as Ukraine tries to grind down the Russian defenses. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, Ukraine is using its missiles and artillery to strike logistics routes and hubs. While videos of enemy equipment being blown up is being shown by both sides on social media for propaganda value, logistics is the key factor in any war. The Russians have a rather tenuous route through Crimea to supply their forces in the Kherson Oblast. It consists of the Kerch Strait bridge on to Crimea and then two bridges and one narrow land route off of Crimea into southern Ukraine. Blowing up the Kerch Strait bridge (which Ukraine has been trying to do) would leave only the land route across southern Ukraine to supply forces in Kherson, a route that could come under pressure should Ukraine achieve a breakthrough on the southern front. A breakthrough to the city of Melitopol and destruction of the Kerch Strait bridge would leave no way for the Russians to resupply their forces in the Crimea and the western part of southern Ukraine.
Right now, the war is in a very critical phase. And both sides seem to know it. Ukraine is working to disrupt Russian supply lines and it appears that they are having some success. Even if Russians aren’t completely cut off from supplies, simply reducing the rate of resupply can be enough to cause the Russians to run short of ammunition and reduce their ability to keep up an adequate rate of fire. Also, it appears that the Russians at the current time lack operational reserves that can be used to limit or roll back a potential Ukrainian breakthrough. The Russians today appear to be in a similar position to the Germans in 1944 where it was necessary for the Germans to weaken one part of the line to strengthen a part of the line where a breakthrough appeared to be imminent. What this means is that if a breakthrough does come and if the Ukrainians have reserves capable of exploiting it, the entire Russian defense in southern Ukraine could collapse rather suddenly as Ukrainian units could bypass entrenched Russian positions and threaten to cut them off. Then Russian troops would be forced to abandon their entrenched positions and retreat towards Crimea. This likely would leave them with only the Kerch Strait bridge as their resupply channel, a most precarious position indeed.
While Western analysts may envision a Ukrainian breakthrough and a collapse of the current Russian defense lines in southern Ukraine as being tantamount to recovering Crimea and all but ending the war in that part of Ukraine, it should be remembered that Russia has some experience in conducting a fighting withdrawal. The Russian troops evacuated out of Kherson north of the Dnipro River in good order last fall, and there is reason to suspect that they would be able to do so again. Even if this turns out not to be the case, it appears that the Russians have built prepared defensive positions north of Crimea that would allow them to make a stand. Even a collapsed line with Russian troops fleeing for their lives in panic would still likely be able to coalesce at this point. And even were this not the case, there is only a narrow strip of land that an invading force would have to traverse to make it on to the Crimea peninsula. This represents a chokepoint that a very small force with adequate resupply could likely hold indefinitely.
Regardless, it’s also not clear whether or not Ukraine possesses the logistical capability to keep up with a fast-moving armored offensive of the sort of which the West is dreaming. Any breakthrough that is achieved may turn out to be substantially more limited than what Western observers are hoping for.
Overall, what the world is watching is a race against time. Russia currently lacks operational reserves and is trying to hold on until the units that are in training are able to reach the front lines. Ukrainian forces seem to have had some success in grinding down Russian forces and the appear to have maybe breached the first Russian line of defense at one point. The Russians are also trying to hold on until their war plants are able to produce munitions, equipment and drones in sufficient quantities to overcome the shortages that they are currently experiencing. Ukraine, for its part, is trying to attain a strategically meaningful breakthrough before the fall rains come. At this point, fast-moving mechanized warfare becomes practically impossible until the winter comes and the ground freezes. Once the rains come, the Russians should have 2 to 3 months of relative respite to build up their supplies and repair their fortifications before mechanized warfare becomes possible again. Whether Ukraine will have sufficient reserves at that time to continue a strategic offensive remains to be seen.