Ukraine can now exploit Russia’s confusion, but must plan carefully | Jack Watling

BUTafter five months of defense, Ukraine seized the initiative from the Russian armed forces and goes on the offensive. In the south, Ukrainian troops are pushing Russia’s most combat-ready combat units to Kherson and pinning them on the western bank of the Dnieper, where they can be destroyed by artillery on the spot.

In the northeast, Ukrainian forces launched a surprise counteroffensive cut ground communications north of Izyum, the base from which Russian forces attempted to advance into the Donbass, forcing Russian forces to retreat. Several key capabilities contributed to these successes. In June, the Ukrainians were unable to concentrate their forces due to the large amount of Russian artillery fielded against them, and struggled to obtain timely tactical intelligence from unmanned aerial vehicles – drones – due to Russia’s extensive electronic warfare and air defense systems.

Providing multiple launch rocket systems from the west allowed Ukraine to systematically strike at Russian ammunition depots, depriving it of guns and command posts, reducing the efficiency and coordination of Russian forces.

Equipping Ukrainian aircraft with high-speed anti-radar missiles, as well as equipping them with modern artillery systems, allowed Ukrainian troops to disable Russian air defense and electronic warfare systems in localized areas, strengthening their reconnaissance capabilities and ensuring the ability to use high-precision weapons. weapons against a wide range of tactical targets. As a result, the Ukrainian infantry was able to engage in close combat with their Russian opponents. Here, the disparity in morale and unit cohesion gives Ukraine a decisive advantage.

It is much more difficult for analysts to write about offensive operations than about defensive ones. If the outside commentators accurately predict the intent and direction of the enemy attack, the opponent must either continue with his plan against a better prepared defender or break his plan if he wants to change his approach.

However, the success of offensive operations depends on concentration, pace and surprise. If analysts discuss actual intentions, they risk undermining the basis for successful operations. Therefore, for those who understand at least a little about Ukrainian plans, it is inappropriate to comment on what they can do next.

However, for the Russians, the situation creates several problems. First, news of defeats and setbacks is spreading throughout the Russian armed forces, undermining the credibility of the chain of command and undermining the already low morale of Russian units. Although neither the Kherson Offensive nor the thrust north of Izyum are decisive in themselves, they have a broader impact on Russia’s capabilities and are likely to generate growing dissatisfaction with the conduct of the war among the Russian military and political elite.

The biggest question for Russian commanders is whether to use counterattack reserves to try to recapture positions in the northeast, or move forces from other directions to create a more secure line.

Russian forces mobilized new units that were in the process of being trained and equipped to resume offensive operations against Donbass. If they are committed sooner, they not only risk heavy losses, but will no longer be available for further advances in the Donbas, giving way to the opportunity to seize the initiative from the Ukrainians.

Alternatively, the Russians could move troops from other directions to Ukraine. However, given the threat to their logistics, this could become chaotic and open up other gaps in their positions that could be exploited by local Ukrainian teams.

Thus, the immediate outlook for the fall fighting season is that Russian forces will suffer significant setbacks as local Ukrainian commanders use confusion and demoralization to gain ground. At the same time, however, Ukrainian units suffered significant losses, which is inevitable in offensive operations.

In this context, it is important that the political leadership of Ukraine does not push its military leaders to the limit. Ukraine should also strive to retain combat power for large-scale offensives in the future.

Ideally, Russian troops will enter the winter after a significant redeployment, with few prepared positions and vulnerable logistics, having suffered heavy losses. Constantly harassing their supply lines while forcing them to expend resources through firefights should ensure they remain cold, wet, and vulnerable to exhaustion and collapse. If this can be achieved, then Ukraine is likely to be able to make significant progress in 2023.

There are three necessary areas of work for Ukraine’s international partners. First, they must maintain a steady supply of military equipment through the winter. Secondly, they must protect themselves from unconventional Russian military actions in their states and solve humanitarian problems that will arise due to winter conditions among the civilian population of Ukraine. Third, it is vital to show the Kremlin that it faces military defeat if it persists, and start convincing Russian elites that withdrawal is the only way to avoid a worse outcome.

Jack Watling is a Senior Ground Warfare Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi).

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