As the second fall season of war grinds forward, some conclusions regarding the current state of play in this war can be drawn. The much touted (at least in Western media) Ukrainian counteroffensive can be said to have largely failed in its goals for the time being. It is important to note “for the time being” because often in war, an action that appears to have failed inadvertently proves upon later analysis to have been the catalyst for future successes. That being said, the hopes of the West that the Ukrainian offensive would punch through the Russian lines and sweep through to the coast and on to Crimea have been dashed. Russian defenses have proven to be much more formidable than the armchair generals on Western cable news channels believed. In addition, it isn’t known whether Ukraine ever had sufficient armored forces to exploit any break through that might have happened. However, as we move towards the end of the year, the situation from the perspective of the Ukrainians and the Russians appears to be as follows:
From the Ukrainians perspective, the much-touted offensive cannot be said to be anything but a disappointment. A prior essay in January indicated that starting the offensive without adequate armor would result in a grinding offensive that would take some territory but fail to be a decisive victory, and indeed that is largely what has happened. The initial Russian resistance forced the Ukrainians to change their tactics and move to a small unit tactical attack strategy, instead of a sweeping armored thrust. This change appears to have allowed the Ukrainians to ultimately break through the first line of Russian defenses, but the nature of the strategy relies on slow, plodding advances, rather than sweeping armored columns. In addition, it isn’t yet clear what losses the Ukrainians have sustained to achieve this limited success. While the weather at the moment makes armored movements nigh impossible, Ukrainian advances could set the stage for more armored movements once the ground freezes. That being said, it still isn’t clear that Ukraine has amassed sufficient armor to exploit any breakthrough. Consequently, the change weather allowing armored movements isn’t likely to be enough for a quick punch through the remaining unbroken Russian defensive lines in the south, culminating in a drive to the Sea of Azov and accomplishing one of the main goals of the original offensive. However, that additional armored movements resulting in additional territory recaptured could set the stage for additional gains in some future offensive cannot be ruled out. What the summer offensive has shown is that the Ukrainian commanders have shown the ability to improvise and adapt (switching out mass armored assaults for more small unit tactics), a skill that will be indispensable if Ukraine is to recapture significant amounts of territory.
Despite the disappointing results of the Ukrainian offensive, they have had some strategic successes in other areas. The have used missiles and drones to make Crimea very uncomfortable for Russian warships at the key Russian naval base of Sebastopol. Russia has made the strategic decision to move some of its naval assets to bases in Russia proper further to the east to try and move them out of range of Ukrainian attacks. This success should not be understated. With no warships of their own and a limited air force, Ukraine has managed to effectively reduce the area of Russian control in the Black Sea. While this cannot be said as of yet to have completely freed up shipping bound for Ukrainian ports, it has improved the situation and set the stage for a higher level of shipping than had perhaps previously been the case. In addition, this success is likely to be noted by strategic military planners around the world for future military conflicts as it points to the use of drone technology and how it can be used to impede or deny an enemy fleet access to certain areas.
Finally, in recent weeks, the Ukrainians have also established several small bridgeheads across the Dnieper River to the south. While still small, the fact that Russian troops haven’t been able to destroy these could be significant at some point down the road. While a bridge can be a narrow logistical bottleneck, the destruction of which can initially leave troops trapped on the wrong side of a river, as a bridgehead expands it also expands its control of a section of the river which can be used to construct multiple temporary bridges sufficient for the movement of supplies and materiel to the other side of the river. The fact is that the Ukrainians seem to be able to defend and perhaps slowly expand what they have. If Russia is unable to destroy these bridgeheads, they are likely to eventually be used at some future point to launch an offensive directly at Crimea. Or, the bridgeheads ability to be used for this purpose could prove to be one factor forcing Russia into negotiations to end the war. At this time however, it is too soon to say.
Overall, despite a disappointing few months, Ukraine has had some successes which could prove significant in the long run. Only time will tell.
Russian forces, for their part, have proven to be much more durable than those in the West have given them credit for. While failing to overthrow Ukraine, a goal that is currently out of reach barring the introduction of nuclear weapons, the Russians have proven themselves adept at certain aspects of defensive warfare. While Ukrainian forces have apparently broken through one line of defenses in Zaporizhia Oblast, it took roughly 3 months of grinding and many casualties in order to do it. And even with the breakthrough, there are still two more lines of defense that have not been broken and the existing breakthrough has not been able to be exploited. And Ukrainian attacks on other parts of the front have had limited, if any, success.
That’s the good news.
The bad news from the Russian perspective is that Russian forces do not really seem to have fundamentally altered their tactics when they are attacking to be more sophisticated and careful, and appear to still be using tactics that rely on massing forces and trying to overwhelm the enemy. Consequently, Russian forces are taking high losses.
Furthermore, Russia seems to be suffering from a lack of strategic imagination and, as is usually the case in combat operations being managed by dictators who often prioritize political and symbolic goals over military relevant ones, they seem to be attacking in areas on a wide front in areas of questionable military value. They have spent the last months attacking north of Bakhmut near the Kharkiv Oblast with little to show for it. While some might argue that they are “fixing Ukrainian forces in place” and preventing them from moving to reinforce the southern (and more strategically critical) front, the apparent lack of tactical sophistication calls into question whether the bulk of these forces are being expended wisely, given the Russian need for sheer masses of troops to have any prospect of success.
Even more concerning from the Russian perspective is the inability of Russian forces to destroy the bridgeheads in Kherson Oblast. The position of Ukrainian forces isn’t especially strong at the moment, and even a tactically unsophisticated attack should be able to push the Ukrainians back across the Dnieper River. While it is possible that the Russians have not yet fully massed their forces for such an attack, it doesn’t appear that Russian high command is taking these bridgeheads seriously. Although not critical at the moment, this may turn out to be a strategic mistake as a stable Ukrainian base on the south side of the Dnieper could grow into a staging area for a future Ukrainian offensive directed at Crimea. Massing forces to destroy these bridgeheads while they are still able to be destroyed should be a key Russian priority.
Finally, as a general observation, Russia seems to lack the ability to sustain any kind offensive operations. While the Ukrainian ground offensive has been grinding forward in Zaporizhia Oblast and has, as noted, broken through the first line of a three-line defensive construct, the Russians have not been able to mount much of a counter-attack to throw them back. At best, Russian forces seem to be able to take back a few lost positions here or there, but nothing that can recapture serious territory.
The clear lack of any serious Russian offensive capability means that the original goal of capturing Ukraine and replacing the government in Kiev though force is out of reach.
The Road Ahead:
The trajectory of the war in the coming months, as all wars do, will depend on the supply situation. While there is some question about Western-support for Ukraine, those hoping for a change in the fundamental stance of the West are likely to be disappointed. The West has spent too much money in Ukraine to simply walk away. Walking away now an cutting off aid to Ukraine would almost certainly result in a Russian victory eventually. In fact, getting the West to end its support for Ukraine is currently the only plausible Russian path to victory. A Ukraine armed by the West is simply too big for Russia to swallow, if it retains its will to fight (something that is admittedly more precarious than those in the West would like to admit).
As for Russia, it appears to have ramped up production of drones & other munitions and will likely be able to sustain a higher pace of operations going forward than they have over the last few months. Supply shortages, while maybe not a thing of the past, should be less critical that what has been observed in recent months. While still not able to launch a strategic offensive, Russia could plausibly gather enough supplies to allow it to have some local successes measured in kilometers rather than meters (as appears to be currently the case).
If I were the Ukrainian supreme commander, I would focus on keeping pressure up on the southern front heading towards the Sea of Azov. Meanwhile, I would begin to feed forces and try and expand the bridgeheads in Zaporizhia. It doesn’t appear that Ukrainians thought that they would have serious success there, but lack of Russian success in destroying the bridgeheads calls into question the capability of Russian forces there. If Ukraine has the forces available held in reserve in other theaters, it might be wise to feed some of them into this section of the front and build out the bridgeheads in preparation for some future offensive.
If I were the Russian supreme commander, I would accept the reality that my forces and preparations appear to be adequate for defensive purposes, but that I will need to mass my attacking forces at a single point in the line order to have any serious hope of offensive success going forward. To me, the most critical points of the front are the Ukrainian offensive in the direction of the Sea of Azov and the bridgeheads over the Dnieper. While maintaining adequate reserves for defense of other sections of the front, I would move the bulk of my forces (including those engaged in attacks around Donetsk City in the direction of Avdiivka) and move them to try and cut off the forces the force that have broken through the first line of defense in the Surovikin Line and try to re-establish that defensive line. And/or I would take my forces and try and wipe out the bridgeheads across the Dnieper. I suspect that the chances of success are higher with the bridgeheads and I would have that as my higher priority. While the bridgeheads are currently smaller and therefore less of an immediate threat, offensive success in the Zaporizhia area is less certain. The worst thing that could happen would be for Russian forces to bleed themselves out in offensive operations in Zaporizhia and still have the bridgeheads sitting there. In addition, there are still two lines of prepared fortifications in Zaporizhia region that have not yet been broken through that Russian soldiers could settle into if there are not enough troops to launch an offensive on the bridgeheads AND in Zaporizhia Oblast.
The interesting thing about warfare is that it is often hard to predict how it will go, as is evidenced by the long string of failed predictions we have witnessed over the last couple of years. Overall, it appears that Ukraine will keep up offensive operations in the south, and will likely continue to grind forward at least until there is a change in Russia’s strategic thinking. As for Russia, they appear set to continue on the path that they are on with unproductive attacks all along the front. However, despite this, they are likely continuing to build out their fortifications in the south which will make these likely even more formidable obstacles should Russia have a sufficient number of trained troops to man them (a big if). Furthermore, I expect that their munitions shortages will be less severe in the coming months (although not eliminated) which should allow them to maintain their defensive lines.
In other words, the contours of the front lines should not change significantly for the next few months.