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Ukraine-The Second Summer Of War

In a war that has lasted far longer than most thought possible, a look at the calendar in June reveals that the Ukraine war has entered its second summer. With the ground now drying out which allows for armored formations to operate more extensively, it appears that the first stage in the long-awaited Ukrainian counter-offensive has begun.

As the war has dragged on, it has largely turned into a war of attrition. While Ukrainian and Western hopes were buoyed in the fall of 2022 after a sudden Russian collapse on the Kharkiv front and an offensive in the south that pushed Russian forces behind the Dnieper in the Kherson province, Ukrainian offensive operations over the last 7 months had been limited. Meanwhile, Russia had launched a grinding offensive in the eastern part of the country. While Russia did capture some additional territory, it appears to have been very costly in terms of Russian lives. In some cases, it wasn’t even obvious that an offensive was being attempted.

What has been noticeably absent from western media is an accounting for Ukrainian casualties. There is a lot said about Russian losses, but not much about Ukrainian ones. To the extent that Ukrainian losses are stated, they are usually lumped in with Russian ones such as maybe 300,000 have been killed/injured on both sides so far. Given western support for Ukraine and the importance of keeping up western morale to sustain said support, it isn’t surprising that the western press would like to downplay or simply not report Ukrainian casualty numbers. But as the war drags on, it becomes increasingly hard to avoid the suspicion that Ukrainian casualties must be very high as well. Wars where one side suffers massive casualties and the other side only a few are characterized by massive air superiority and bombing campaigns by one side followed by a short blitzkrieg style offensive that breaks through the enemy lines and effectively ends the war, such as what we saw from Israel in the Six-Day War or from the U.S. in the 1991 Gulf War and the initial phase of the 2003 Iraq War. The war in Ukraine as it has been fought over the last 7 months is the antithesis of this style of war, with massive artillery bombardments and grinding small unit attacks. This is the kind of war that tends to be high in casualty counts on both sides (aka a war of attrition).

The fact is that a war of attrition favors Russia because it simply has more men to lose. In addition, attrition and sending waves of soldiers & materiel at the defenders to overwhelm them with numbers can be said to be the Russian way of warfare. Tactical sophistication in the manner of a western army has never been a Russian strength. Even in the Second World War, victory on the Russian front came from the fact that Russia had more men than the Germans had bullets (to grossly oversimplify). Although the current war started out with a Russian blitzkrieg, it became apparent very quickly that the Russian army couldn’t handle the logistical challenges inherent in such an offensive. Consequently, over the last year they have fallen back on the tactics more in keeping with the Russian way of war. While the size of Ukraine and the inability of the Russian military to launch a massive blitzkrieg style offensive puts the realization of Putin’s initial war aims out of reach, unless the Ukrainians can switch the war from one of attrition that favors Russia to a more mobile one in which Russia is likely to be at a tactical disadvantage, they are likely to lose more men and more territory before being forced to negotiate some sort of settlement with Moscow that will involve accepting certain territorial losses as permanent.

The Next Four to Six Months:

The next four to six months are likely going to be critical as to the outcome of the war. While there was hope in some quarters when the Russian lines in Kharkiv collapsed that the Ukrainians would be able to roll up the Russian defenses and essentially drive Russia out of eastern Ukraine by the end of the year, the Ukrainians hit the limits of their logistical capability and Russia was able to reestablish its defensive lines. While the world’s attention has been focused on the Russian offensive operations in the Bakhmut area in the east, Russian troops have been busy preparing defensive positions in depth in southern Ukraine for the last 6 months. It is worth remembering that the Ukrainian offensive in the Kherson province which ended with the Russians being pushed by across the Dnieper River was a grinding affair, rather than the spectacular offensive in Kharkiv.

As the Ukrainians in the early phases of this counteroffensive are finding, the Russian prepared defenses are not insignificant. Ukraine has made a small bit of progress so far, but the defenses are still holding up. And although there is a decent chance that a focused Ukrainian combined arms assault using modern western tanks and aircraft can achieve some sort of a breakthrough, it is far from assured. For one thing, Ukraine hasn’t had much experience running a combined-arms, tank army offensive, and it isn’t yet clear that they have the capability. In addition, the aforementioned 6-Day War and Gulf/Iraq War examples were situations where the winning side had total and complete command of the air; something that Ukraine decidedly lacks. A positive factor on Ukraine’s side is that Russia doesn’t have command of the air either, and the air defenses of Ukraine appear to have been effective in creating an air defense umbrella in which it is next to impossible for Russian aircraft to operate. The ability to maintain this air defense umbrella is and will remain a critical factor if Ukraine is to have success.

In addition, it isn’t clear that Ukraine possesses the manpower reserves to be able to retake its territory even with western weaponry. Although one must be careful when reading news reports as there is a lot of deliberate misinformation put out to deceive the enemy or manage morale on one’s own side, the numbers that have been thrown around are that 30,000 Ukrainian troops are preparing for the offensive. If true, this number appears to be way too small to allow Ukraine to retake all of its territory, even if a breakthrough is achieved.

Another factor that needs to be considered is the neutrality of countries like India and the UAE as well as the support that Russia is getting from China. Despite denials, it appears likely that China is providing Russia with some sort of weaponry, even if it is just artillery shells. The western attempt to collapse Russia’s economy to the point that they would be unable to continue to the war appears to have failed. While Russia’s economy could still theoretically collapse at some point, it doesn’t appear it will in a relevant time period. A collapse of the Russian economy in 5 years that forces it to halt operations in Ukraine at roughly the current front lines and seek some sort of settlement with Chinese support cannot be said to have been a successful policy. Chinese support, even in secret, likely means that Russia is not likely to run out of artillery shells or munitions. Furthermore, the fact that a not insignificant portion of the world is still doing business with Russia means that it is not going to turn into a large version of North Korea. While everything that the West is doing is almost certain to leave Russia worse off than before the war, it isn’t likely that it will be enough to force Russia to give up its gains nor to create a pariah state shunned by most of the world.

In the next 6 months, I expect that Russia will continue to conduct local attacks to keep pressure on Ukrainian forces, while continuing to build out its defenses where they are not under direct attack. For now, Ukraine appears to have the reserves capable of launching an offensive as their attacks have clearly started. However, time is not on their side. When the fall rains come, armored movement becomes difficult/impossible. Any further significant Ukrainian offensive action would then likely have to wait until the spring of 2024. With Ukrainian losses mounting, it isn’t clear that they can wait this long for a decisive, essentially war-ending, breakthrough. Giving the Russians another 6 to 12 months to build out defenses makes it hard to see how a Ukrainian military that will have taken another 12 months of manpower losses will be in a position to conduct a successful offensive, especially with a Russia that will have had another 6-12 months generate more soldiers.

As painful a realization as it may be for western audiences, in a war of attrition, time is on the side that has the most troops. And in this case, it happens to be Russia. Despite the supply of high-tech western weaponry, Ukraine doesn’t have the U.S. Air Force with squadrons of B-52’s that could carpet-bomb and annihilate Russian defensive lines. While the Ukrainian military can be said to be contesting the Ukrainian airspace, it cannot be said to have anything approaching air superiority. The Ukrainian offensive is likely to be grinding like what we saw in Kherson, rather than a Six-Day War Israeli-style blitzkrieg.

Although it is hard to make predictions in war, the first phase of the offensive appears to be a more grinding affair. That being said, the offensive is still in its early phases. The Ukrainian military appears to be probing at a few different points in the line, and trying out various tactics. They have not yet committed their main force yet. My sense is that Ukrainian military leadership has a good understanding of Ukraine’s capabilities and has reasonably good intelligence sources and will eventually commit their main attack at a single point; one that they deem to be Russia’s weakest. Because, Russia and China also have spy satellites, Russia will likely see military preparations for the main offensive and have a pretty good idea of where it is going to hit. The key for Ukraine will be to not move their main force into position until a few days ( 3 or 4 at the most if possible) before launching the main attack, hopefully catching the Russians with their main forces elsewhere.

As for where I would launch the offensive, the south of Ukraine is the most strategically important sector. Pushing the Russians as far away from the port of Odessa as possible will be key for Ukraine’s economic security after the war. The way to accomplish this, assuming Ukraine has the capability, would be to start the offensive in the Zaporizhian Oblast and swing south to push the Russians out Kherson Oblast and back into Crimea. In this way, Ukraine won’t have to conduct a river crossing of the Dnieper with an armored force, something that was likely to be extremely costly even before the destruction of the dam. Although the media seems to be focused on Ukrainian forces driving south, taking Mariupol, and severing the land link between Russia and Crimea, I would be focusing my forces to try and sweep the Russians out of Kherson. Severing the land link between Russia and Crimea is an important strategic goal. However, sweeping the Russians out of Kherson would accomplish that, as well as pushing them further away from Odessa. Taking the port of Mariupol, apart from severing the land link as important as that may be, doesn’t really add anything for Ukraine. It sits on the Sea of Azov which is largely surrounded by Russian territory, and could be closed off very easily. As such, the port itself isn’t a strategic prize as long as Russia remains in Crimea.

Once Ukrainian forces have advanced as far as they are able, it may be time to explain to Zelensky that he is going to have to negotiate some sort of ceasefire/peace with Russia. It isn’t clear at this moment that Ukraine has the forces now to recapture a strategically significant amount of territory, and any offensive is likely going to use up a significant fraction of their manpower reserves. Going forward after a ceasefire, Ukraine can and should expect continued western support to build out its military. Zelensky has said before that Ukraine will have to be a garrison state, such as Israel has been. It is easier and more effective to build up a garrison during peacetime when your troops aren’t being ground down with fighting. A competent statesman will admit reality and act accordingly, rather than squandering the lives of his men to continue a war in the hope that something will happen to change the political/strategic calculus.

Whether Zelensky and the West are willing to accept a painful reality that throwing Russia back to 2014 lines (i.e. out of Crimea) is likely out of reach is perhaps the most consequential fact that we will discover over the summer & fall.

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