There is a growing sense in Western militaries and intelligence services that Ukraine’s celebrated counteroffensive is unlikely to recapture territory with the speed it was initially expected to do. This has also filtered down to media reporting. For instance, some 12 days ago, Anderson Cooper at CNN asked a former US Lt. Gen Mark Hertling what he thought of the slow and grinding offensive, saying “that does not sound good.” To that, Hertling responded, “It doesn’t sound good to the uninitiated,” before explaining the situation further.
The “uninitiated” is the punch word. Consider.
Those who are observing the war have known for more than eight months that Russian forces, while making tactical probes at certain places, were also hard at work digging in and building layered defences along a nearly 965-km front.
Reports indicate that they have built three such lines. Does this mean the Russians have decided not to launch another offensive? Not necessarily. A defensive action can be multi-purpose: retain or control terrain and/or gain time (which the Russians seem to be doing) for more favourable action. Another purpose could be to economise forces in order to concentrate forces elsewhere for offensive action.
Defences are always boosted with obstacles. The military definition of an obstacle is any hurdle or physical impediment that delays and frustrates enemy advance and allows the defenders to attrit an offensive force. Obstacles and likely enemy approaches are also always covered with fire. Natural obstacles, where they can be found (like rivers/marshy ground etc) are further reinforced with manmade obstacles.
So, what would the overall picture look like? Take one section of a defensive line. It will have primary, alternate and supplementary (or secondary) fighting positions. This is standard stuff. The primary position is always the best available position to deploy weapons for interlocking fire to cover the assigned sector(s) for defence; the alternate position is for weapons that need a crew and which can be used if the primary position becomes untenable; the secondary position covers directions from which the main attack is not expected and does not cover the same sectors of fire the primary position is meant to cover.
Now repeat this along the entire length of the front with two more such lines in depth. Add to this mix covered positions (trenches, bunkers/fortifications, pillboxes) and obstacles (where available, a water body or marshy ground; mines, concertina wire, metal hedgehogs, tank traps like ditches and dragon’s teeth (square pyramidal obstacles made of reinforced concrete).
None of these obstacles guarantees total success in blunting the enemy advance. But all of them, especially in tandem, force the offensive force to expend time and resources to clear obstacles (sappers de-mining, clearing concertina wire and metal hedgehogs or building pontoon bridges over water bodies). This means slowing down the advance or stalling it for days. And while this clearing operation is going on, the defenders can and will engage the enemy through mortar and artillery fire and nowadays with drones and other aerial platforms. Small strike forces can advance and strike. Tank traps can force the enemy to find pathways where there are apparently no traps and thus forced into kill zones (if the defending force has planned for that).
Both sides have been making extensive use of drones. The Ukrainians use drones to locate Russian positions and supply lines, while the Russians utilise drones to get early warnings on the axes of advance and put steel on those targets through long-range artillery or combat drones.
Nothing that has been written above is novel. As I said earlier, this is standard stuff. What is surprising is the Western media’s surprise that the Ukrainian advance has been slow and tortuous. Leaving the influence (information) operations aside, it stretches credulity to think that Western governments were not aware of how the offensive would unfold. If the information is now filtering out, it’s because the grinding nature of this war and its many battles is becoming all too obvious.
There has also been talk of combined arms offensive. The latest line is that without air support the Ukrainians could not have fought NATO-style battles. Incidentally, this also happened with the Afghan National Defence Forces, which were trained to operate with close air support and folded when that support was no longer available. Another argument is that weeks and even months of training is not enough to prep the Ukrainians for a combined arms offensive.
While both arguments have some merit, the failure of the Ukrainians to launch a counteroffensive at scale is also about sustainment. They just don’t have the numbers in men and material to go for scale even in a single theatre, let alone along the nearly 1000-km front.
There’s some indication that the Ukrainians have shifted their tactics and have begun to find and strike targets deep in the Russian rear and also in Crimea and Russia. This is a smart development. However, for greater success and psychological effect, the numbers and frequency of drone and long-range artillery strikes need to be increased. The effort seems to be to degrade supply lines (targeting Kerch and Chonhar Bridges is an indication) and to destroy ammunition and POL dumps and local bridges on the supply routes. Drones are also being deployed for strikes at Russian naval vessels in the Black Sea.
Up until now, the strategy has notched some successes though it has failed to fully degrade Russian supply lines. It has forced the Russians to relocate some of their fixed assets further southeast and east, at least out of the range of Ukraine’s long-range artillery. The losses incurred in the offensive since June have also created the problem of spares for equipment, some of which is likely being cannibalised. The replenishment of ammunition, especially artillery rounds, also poses a problem, given the numbers expended every day.
For their part, the Russians aren’t having a picnic either. Strikes at their supply lines and depots have certainly taken a toll and resulted in ammo/POL hunger. At some places certain equipment, ammo, rations are being heli-delivered. There are reports of fatigue among troops along a long frontline. Alexander Khodakovsky, a former commander of the Alpha special unit of the Security Service of Ukraine who defected to the Russian side and leads the Vostok battalion has suggested a freeze, a phase of neither war nor peace. According to an Institute for the Study of War assessment, Khodakavsky believes that “Russia would be able to exert more influence over Ukraine in such a situation than it currently can during the 'Special Military Operation’”.
There have also been reports that at certain places in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, Russians have had to laterally redeploy troops. If this is correct then it means the Ukrainians did manage to effectively degrade Russian defences at those points before advancing.
Be that as it may, it does not appear that either side is fully geared for an offensive. The Ukrainians are trying and largely failing in unhinging Russian defences or breaking through a strategic point that could have a cascading effect in that theatre. Russia also seems wedded to entrenching itself and gaining time.
Corollary: the conflict is likely to drag on with few gains here and there for Ukraine but no major breakthrough.