Opinion

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

After five months on the defensive, Ukraine has seized the initiative from the Russian armed forces and is on the offensive. In the south, Ukrainian troops are pushing Russia’s most capable combat units back towards Kherson and fixing them against the west bank of the Dnieper River, where they can be destroyed in place with artillery.

In the north-east, Ukrainian forces launched a surprise counteroffensive to sever the ground lines of communication north of Izyum, the base from which Russian forces were attempting to push into Donbas, compelling a Russian withdrawal. Several key capabilities have enabled these successes. In June, the Ukrainians could not concentrate their forces because of the volume of Russian artillery arrayed against them and struggled to get timely tactical intelligence from unmanned aerial vehicles – drones – because of extensive Russian electronic warfare and air defence complexes.

The provision of guided multiple launch rocket systems from the west has allowed Ukraine to systematically target Russian ammunition dumps, starving its guns and command posts, reducing the responsiveness and coordination of Russian forces.

The fitting of high-speed anti-radiation missiles to Ukraine’s aircraft, along with the provision of modern artillery systems, has enabled Ukrainian troops to disrupt Russia’s air and electronic warfare complexes in localised areas, strengthening their own reconnaissance capabilities and allowing them to employ precision weapons against a wide array of tactical targets. The result has been to allow Ukrainian infantry to get into close combat with their Russian adversaries. Here the disparity in morale and unit cohesion is giving Ukraine decisive advantages.

For analysts, offensive operations are much harder to write about than defensive ones. If external commentators accurately predict the intent and direction of an enemy attack, the enemy must either continue with its plan against a better-prepared defender or have its plan disrupted if it wishes to change their approach.

Offensive operations, however, depend upon concentration, tempo and surprise to succeed. If analysts discuss the actual intent then they risk undermining the basis for successful operations. It is therefore inappropriate for those with any insight into Ukrainian planning to comment on what they may do next.

For the Russians, however, the situation poses several challenges. First, news of defeats and setbacks is rippling through the Russian armed forces, undermining confidence in the chain of command and sapping what was already poor morale among Russian units. Even though neither the Kherson offensive nor the thrust north of Izyum are in themselves conclusive, they do have a broader impact on Russian capabilities and will likely cause growing anger over the management of the war among Russian military and political elites.

The biggest question for the Russian command is whether to use reserves to counterattack to try and retake ground in the north-east or to redeploy forces from other axes to establish a more defensible line.

Russian forces had been mobilising new units that were in the process of being trained and equipped for renewed offensive operations against the Donbas. If these are committed early, they not only risk taking heavy casualties but will also be no longer available for further gains in Donbas, ceding the ability to take the initiative back from the Ukrainians.

Alternatively, the Russians can redeploy troops from other axes in Ukraine. Given the threat to their logistics, however, this risks being chaotic and opening up other gaps in their lines that local Ukrainian commands can exploit.

The immediate prospects for the autumn season of fighting, therefore, are for Russian troops to suffer significant setbacks as local Ukrainian commanders exploit confusion and demoralisation to make gains. At the same time, however, Ukrainian units have taken significant casualties, as is inevitable during offensive operations.

In this context it is important that Ukraine’s political leadership do not push their military commanders to become overstretched. Ukraine must also endeavour to retain combat power for larger-scale offensives in the future.

Ideally, Russian forces will enter the winter having had to significantly redeploy, with few prepared positions and vulnerable logistics, after suffering heavy losses. Persistent harassment of their supply lines while forcing them to expend resources through skirmishing should ensure that they remain cold, wet and vulnerable to exhaustion and collapse. If this can be achieved, then Ukraine can plausibly look to achieve significant gains in 2023.

For Ukraine’s international partners there are three necessary lines of effort. First, they must keep up a steady supply of military materiel through the winter. Second, they must guard against Russian unconventional warfare in their own states and manage the humanitarian challenges that will arise from winter conditions among Ukraine’s civilian population. Third, it is vital to show the Kremlin that it faces the prospect of military defeat if it persists, and to begin to convince Russian elites that withdrawal is the only means to avoid a worse outcome.

Jack Watling is senior research fellow for land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi).

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