A Ukrainian deminer examines a crater following a missile strike in Rohan village near the city of Kharkiv on August 24, 2022, three days before Ukraine marks its anniversary of independence

Opinion: Ukrainian northern offensive surprises not only Russia, but also the world

A Ukrainian sapper inspects a crater after a rocket attack on the village of Rohan near Kharkiv on August 24, 2022, three days before Ukraine celebrates its independence anniversary – Copyright AFP Mohammed SAWAF

Kharkiv region was one of the first parts of Ukraine to be attacked. Now this is the scene of another fiasco for Russia; a sudden strike that vacated a large area within a few days. Russia trying to answerwith delay.

It was not only the Russians who were taken by surprise. Military experts are now wondering if Ukraine’s large-scale and relatively slow offensive on Kherson was a red herring. Nobody knows, and the Ukrainians, of course, don’t say anything.

The story so far is that Ukrainians do not meet much resistance in the Kharkiv region. They took control of a large area east and south of Kharkov. The general theory is that the Russians shuffled their troops around to manage their eastern offensive in the Donbass and reinforce the Kherson region.

This is a war in which theory greatly loses to practice. Military experts try to analyze a war that rewrites theory, and they don’t have much luck.

A few highlights:

  1. This is a war for territorial and tactical control.
  2. Neither side has troops to occupy every square inch.
  3. Maps show who controls territories, not actual positions.
  4. A LOT of empty spaces.
  5. “Lines” are just local positions.
  6. Trench warfare in the Donbas is not necessarily applicable elsewhere.

In this situation, static positions are not so good. They are easy canards for HIMARS and other precision weapons. The Russians are in a truly lousy position due to the reduction of ammunition and supplies.

They are still making constant, usually ineffectual, small-scale attacks in the east. A big pincer attack designed to cut off the Ukrainians in the east failed miserably. They lost air superiority.

The defining factor in this war is that the Ukrainians managed to defeat the Russians in almost every mobile encounter. Russian tactics of siege warfare using heavy artillery in the east are a rather dubious option anywhere else in Ukraine.

Analysis

Ukrainian northern attacks are moving into areas that the Russians cannot defend well, if at all. The Ukrainians have a tactical advantage, they can dictate where and when the fighting will take place.

The current story is that Ukraine uses relatively small mobile units to infiltrate Russian-controlled areas. This is a good tactic; relatively low risk and creating strategic confusion that the Russians probably cannot control.

The northern region also hosts Russian supply lines, which are under threat from Ukraine’s advance. The noticeably stagnant northern arm of the Russian pincer attack is in trouble.

From the very beginning, the affairs of the Russians in the north were not so good. In Izyum, a large number of Russian units for months in good faith achieved absolutely nothing.

These are the remnants of the famous 100 or so Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs) from April. Since then, little has been heard of these troops. The loss of their supply lines, or the need to rearrange sun loungers to manage Ukrainian incursions, may well be beyond the capabilities of local Russian forces.

Russian lateral security services are known for their terribleness. It is debatable whether they can even track the movement of Ukrainian troops, let alone do something about them. So far, there are indications that they cannot.

Russian forces initially attempted to capture Kharkiv at the start of their advance into Ukraine, but were repulsed and have been shelling the city’s northern residential areas since then – Copyright CNS/AFP –

What’s good about Ukrainian tactics is that they now set the tone. They can strike anywhere and everywhere. The Russians were forced to give a purely reactive response.

Worse, they are forced to give predictable answers. How should they counteract multiple deep penetrations over such a large area? What should they resist? Press releases?

Can these big, clumsy guns harass Ukrainians in an area the size of France’s eastern border? Can what is left of the Russian mobile forces do something about it? Can the rabble unpaid troops in short everything to do anything at all?

Does not look like it. Appearance in this case means something. What you see really determines the current state of this war in many ways. Ukrainians don’t even have to take or hold certain plots of land. They can just go berserk and drag Russians around the region with relatively small forces.

Ukrainians have option take and hold land or not. The Russians have no choice in these matters. They have to defend themselves or suffer more catastrophic losses and risk making their support systems even more vulnerable.

Meanwhile in Kherson

Ukrainian Kherson offensive is highly methodical. There is no indication that the Ukrainians are in a big hurry, but they are making quite a lot of progress in this area. This is a hypersensitive area for Russians. It is not far from the Crimea. Theoretically, the Ukrainians could make the Russian southern “land bridge” very vulnerable, as well as cut off the Crimea.

The Antonovsky Bridge in the July 21 picture spans the Dnieper and is a key supply route for the Russian troops holding Kherson.
The Antonovsky Bridge, pictured on July 21, spans the Dnieper and is a key supply route for Russian troops holding Kherson – Copyright AFP –

…So, the Russians have protect him. A large number of Russian troops were transferred to the region. The Ukrainians destroyed the only bridge for supplies to Kherson, and the Russians built a pontoon bridge in its place. The situation for the Russians looks fragile.

Kherson was also the first major city captured by the Russians at the start of the war. For them, it is a matter of prestige. They can? Probably not, in the long run, and maybe not in the short run.

There are supposedly about 20,000 Russian troops in the region. (Rounded numbers are usually incorrect.) That’s about 15% of Russian troops in Ukraine. The state of Russian supplies can be anything, but it cannot be good.

They failed to push off much, if at all. These troops were supposed to attack Nikolaev, but nothing of the sort happened. Obviously, these forces have other problems, as well as Ukrainian counterattacks.

This is a decisive factor in the south for the Russians. This is a bleak picture. If they hold Kherson, they will suffer significant losses. They will lose troops they cannot afford to lose. If they don’t hold out, how are these troops supposed to get out of there?

Again, Ukrainian tactics dominate, dictating the conditions of the battle. The Russians have a choice: sit there and get blown to pieces, or try tactics that have failed miserably in the past.

The Kherson region is a magnet for Russian resources, to the exclusion of almost everything else. Holding Kherson with insufficient forces would be a disaster. The trick here is that Kherson is weakening the entire Russian army, at the very limit of its support capabilities. It’s a bit like saving and saving on gas bills while the house is on fire around them.

Thanks to politics, the Russians cannot simply leave Kherson. It would be a simpler and smarter move, but no, Moscow wants them to hold on. It was supposed to hold a fictitious referendum in which citizens would vote for joining Russia. Now things are so bad that even a referendum cannot be held with the Ukrainians on the doorstep.

Thankless war for Russia

Will the Russians really be able to hold Crimea? It used to be a rhetorical question. Now a working question about the real possibilities of Russia. Crimea can get support through the Kerch Strait, but how much support is left for Russia?

This incredibly wasteful and irresponsible war undermined Russia’s military strength. Ukrainians may not even have to take Crimea. It may simply fail due to lack of support. It would be much more than a purely symbolic situation. This would mean that Russia was completely defeated in this war.

A house damaged by shelling in Severodonetsk, Ukraine's Luhansk region, where authorities are urging citizens to evacuate ahead of an expected Russian offensive
A shelled house in Severodonetsk, Ukraine’s Luhansk region, where authorities are urging citizens to evacuate ahead of an expected Russian attack – Copyright AFP Aamir QURESHI

Look at the inventory for Russians – Donetsk and Lugansk are wastelands. The separatists are in an almost unbelievably difficult situation, both physically and economically. There is no “victory”; just a couple of cemeteries. Russians do not hold in the north. The Land Bridge is just a shooting range for Ukrainians. (It should always have been that way.)

Only a fool would insist on a war so obviously lost. However, this is what is happening.

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Denial of responsibility
The opinions expressed in this review are those of the author. They do not purport to represent the opinions or views of Digital Journal or its contributors.

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