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Post Running into a Wall of Steel: Analysis of Ukrainian Counteroffensive
Created by John Eipper on 06/18/23 6:33 AM

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Running into a Wall of Steel: Analysis of Ukrainian Counteroffensive (Cameron Sawyer, USA, 06/18/23 6:33 am)

JE wrote, in response to another excellent post by Alice Whealey (June 17th): "As for NATO expansion, an inconvenient truth: no country of the former Soviet bloc joined NATO against its will."

Why is this "inconvenient"? Why in fact is it even relevant? Were Soviet missiles put into Cuba in 1962 "against Cuba's will"? What does that change? Cuba's wanting them hardly made them less threatening to us.

We haven't discussed the military situation in Ukraine in a while, although there is a lot going on at the moment. I have started a couple of posts but am so busy with my work these days that I haven't really had time to put them into a condition worthy of WAIS.

We're now reaching the end of the second week of the much-awaited big Ukrainian spring counteroffensive, which has produced almost two weeks of the largest scale battles of the war so far, saving only the peak of the Battle of Bakhmut, perhaps. It's way too early to declare the counteroffensive a failure--most of both side's forces are still uncommitted. But the counteroffensive has gotten off to a really bad start, much worse than I ever imagined could be possible, which is really bad news.

A bit less than two weeks ago, the Ukrainians launched very large attacks in two axes, one from Orekhovo aimed at capturing Tokmak (a key transport hub in the Russian-held land bridge), and the other from Velikaya Novoselka, both in Zaporozhets Oblast'. On the first axis, one of the 9 crack Western-trained and Western-equipped brigades, the 47th OMBR, formed the tip of the spearhead consisting of five brigades, but was ambushed before even reaching the forward line of enemy troops, with loss of equipment and personnel sufficient to render the 47th combat-ineffective. According to Rochan Consulting's (a Polish military think tank) Ukraine Conflict Monitor, citing Oryx:

"[T]he initial attacks cost Kyiv 17 M2A2 Bradley IFVs, one Leopard 2A4 and three [Leopard] 2A6s, two AMX-10 RC fighting vehicles, and three Leopard 2R Heavy Mine Breaching Vehicles. These losses, respectively, represent 15%, 2%, 14%, 5%, and 50% of Western vehicle types supplied to Ukraine. Particularly concerning is the loss of Bradleys and mine-breaching capabilities in such quantities so early in the counteroffensive."


A soldier from the 47th interviewed by the Wall Street Journal reported that it was like "running into a wall of steel." https://www.wsj.com/articles/ukraines-offensive-meets-strong-russian-riposte-4d588bdf . Videos showed whole convoys of Western equipment destroyed. What is worse, ominously, the Russians have full air superiority over the battlefield for the first time in the war. So Ukrainian forces are not only dealing with dense minefields, drones and artillery, but now also Russian helicopters and attack jets using anti-tank missiles with a range considerably greater than the Stinger missiles they have for close air defense. One video showed a Ka-52 helicopter methodically destroying 5 armored vehicles in a single sortie.*

On the second axis, the Ukrainian forces had better results, using seven brigades, including none of the NATO-prepared ones, but several battle-hardened brigades using Soviet equipment, which, interestingly, appear to be more effective than the NATO-prepared ones.** The Ukrainian forces in this direction managed to advance several kilometers beyond the FLET, capturing a number of villages, before losing momentum. But they are still 8 to 10km from the first line of Russian fortifications.***

The situation is bad enough that our media is here and there hedging its bets and is starting to question Ukrainian official sources and muse on the possibility of failure. Spin coming from these sources that the counteroffensive hasn't really started yet, that these are only "probing" attacks, is even widely ignored. The mood among Ukrainian soldiers is not very good. Here is one poignant post from these days:


"For the second night I can't sleep normally, and every day I monitor the situation ... And against the backdrop of what is happening there [at the front lines], which cannot be named with any non-vulgar word, I have several questions:

"Is this still ‘probing'???

"--Is this what our fighters were taught in Europe???

"--Is this what our generals have been studying at NATO exercises since 2014??? Yes, yes, I do not put the blame only on the current government, because we started to ‘implement' NATO standards even under the previous government. No matter how much the gunpowderers [turbo-patriots who dislike Zelensky] would like it, we could not have suddenly become stupid this regard only with the advent of Zelensky.

"I have a feeling that from the first day of ‘probing' something did not go according to plan, but instead of putting everything on pause, drawing conclusions, arranging retraining, someone with the look of a lost gamer yelled at us--‘F**k it, I bet everything on red!!!'--and threw away all that considerable fortune that he had accumulated in a year. Or rather, which they had loaned him.

"I am sure that in this war we are being advised from NATO headquarters, but what is happening now is clearly a ‘local initiative,' this is evidenced by the cold statements from the Pentagon that the next volume of military assistance will depend on the success of the current ‘probing.' Like--well, since you are so smart, blame yourself, but we are not going to chip in on such adventures just like that!

"Or maybe someone at the very top has an infantile delusion that we are like a child for the Western allies. Who can screw up, who can be reprimanded for breaking an expensive toy, but then, with a smile and a pat on the head, they will give a new one. And they will say--Hold on, keep playing, but be more careful in the future!

"But we are not a child for them, and they are not parents for us. We are a fighter who is not afraid to take on a big enemy and they are our sponsors for this fighting season. And if the fighter messes up, ‘performs' in the ring and does not act the way he was taught, and then wallows with a broken face, sponsors will not pat him on the head. They'll say--You know what, f**k you, we'll look for someone more promising. And yes--here's a bill for our expenses on you. Pay up everything by the end of the week, we don't care how."


From the same source, and this is new and important, a clip from Ukrainian television showing a GUR (Ukrainian successor to the KGB) official musing that Ukraine may have to give up Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts in any peace deal, and that this may be even a good thing [!] because "the population of Donbas and Lugansk are fully prof-Russian [that's not entirely true], and although it's understood that this is the territory of Ukraine, you can't change the people, you can't change their mentality, and so [taking back that territory] would mean integrating into your own country, an enemy people."

It is astonishing that this is being said on Ukrainian television, but in fact this lines up with many statements of Ukrainian soldiers over the last half year or so, statements like "why are we fighting for these people who don't want us here?" The Ukrainian soldier who manages this Telegram channel is upset that GRU officials can say such things, when ordinary citizens are accused of treason for saying the same thing. https://t.me/HolodniyYar/3514

This is in contrast to astonishing statements last week of US General Ben Hodges, that:

The Ukrainians' strategic objective is to regain Crimea, and if they can do that by a Russian withdrawal without firing a shot, so much the better.  But if they have to kill or capture every Russian on the Peninsula, they will.


Surely Hodges meant Russian soldiers; but how could he so recklessly ignore the fact that about 80% of the civilian population of Crimea is Russian. It sounds like he is advocating for genocide, and there is an uproar about this in the Russian channels. This kind of thing convinces them more and more that they are fighting for their existence--not what we want.

At this point, I don't know what to hope for. If the counteroffensive turns out, after all, to be a failure, that might possibly end the war. An end to the killing would be a good thing. Statements from high officials about giving up Donbas and Lugansk might indicate that the Ukrainians are preparing for this. But would Putin be emboldened to not be satisfied with this, and keep going? God forbid.

I do think that the situation for Ukraine gets worse and worse as time goes on. Before the war started, the Russian demands were for guarantys of neutrality and never joining NATO. Before that, there were the Minsk agreements, not fulfilled by Ukraine and later claimed by Angela Merkel to have been merely a sham intended just to buy time for arming up (I don't believe that's what she intended at the time, however). Under the Minsk agreements, the civil war would have been ended, with Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts reintegrated into Ukraine, but with greater autonomy. The question of Crimea would have been put off to a later date. That seems like a dream now.

And even after the war started, according to statements of the then-PM of Israel, Bennett, and according to Ukrainian sources (major online newspaper Ukrainska Pravda, and discussed also here: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/russian-federation/world-putin-wants-fiona-hill-angela-stent ), there was a peace deal in April 2022 more or less agreed which would have left these regions in Ukraine, at least, those parts of them which were still in Ukraine before 24 February 2022. From today's point of view, even this much worse result seems today like a dream.

Now yesterday Putin has shown what he claims to be an actual draft of that agreement, with initials of the Ukrainian delegation, to a group of African leaders: https://www.thezimbabwemail.com/world-news/putin-shows-initialed-draft-agreement-with-ukraine-to-african-leaders/ . Interesting that this hasn't been picked up in the Western press yet.

*Over the weekend, it appears that the Ukrainians finally shot down two Ka-52 helicopters over the battlefield, after failing to down a single one over hundreds of sorties which destroyed dozens of Ukrainian armored vehicles during the first week of the counteroffensive. The reason for this appears to be that Russia has finally perfected countermeasures against Stingers and other infrared-seeking AA missiles (the "President-S" system). There is a video showing one Ka-52 avoiding 18 (!) Stinger missiles on a single sortie. Well, the two Ka-52s appear to have been brought down not by Stingers, but by British Starstreak MANPADS, which are active laser guided, not infrared. So perhaps the Ukrainians will now pull up more of those and get more control over the battlefield airspace.

** It is impossible to understand the military situation, even a little, without understanding what both sides are trying to do. The Ukrainians are trying to overcome Russian "defense in depth," which can be understood pretty well from this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defence_in_depth . So basically what the Russians have done is arrayed a kind of picket along an outer perimeter lightly manned by lower-value troops known as the Forward Line of Enemy Troops. There are some trenches but no fortifications on this line. Some distance behind the FLET start several successive defensive lines, heavily fortified, with minefields, anti-tank ditches, dragon's teeth, fortifications, and manned by higher value and better equipped troops. The idea is that when the enemy reaches the FLET, the defender is supposed to fall back and harass the enemy in mobile fighting, slowing down the advance, and giving time for the defenders to bring up reserves to the right point at the first defensive line, where the enemy will arrive having been weakened and clearly identified by the forward-most forces. So-called "fire bags" are prepared using natural obstacles and mine fields, where the enemy force is funneled into prepared artillery positions. The goal of the attacker against such a defense in depth array is not to get caught in minefields, ambushes, or fire bags, to keep up momentum to get to and break through the first line as quickly as possible--before the defender has managed to weaken the attacking forces, and before the defender has had time to concentrate forces behind the real defensive line. The Ukrainian forces are still 8 to 10km away from even the first line of defense after almost two weeks of heavy fighting, so the initial attempt cannot be called a success (ignore the coping spin about "steady gains"--the Ukrainian objective was never to take territory in the "crumple zone" in front of the first defensive line, but to get to and decisively break through the real defensive line before the enemy could bring up forces). But the Ukrainians still have a lot of forces in reserve, and it is conceivable that the main blow will fall in an unexpected sector of the front, not in these two axes. We shall see. What has happened so far are not indeed "probing attacks"--five full brigades, including one of the very best equipped ones in the entire army, is a breakthrough force, not a probing force ("We will know the counteroffensive has started when we see the heavy Western equipment being used at the front"). So this is clearly not a feint, but a failed breakthrough. But there are enough Ukrainian forces left to attempt another breakthrough in a completely different direction (which is surely what I would do, if I were the Ukrainian commander). We shall see.

***The Ukrainians express disappointment in the Western equipment, saying that it is designed for use in deserts under full air cover and not really suitable in this terrain or for this kind of war, and the Russians express surprise that the Western equipment is easier to destroy than expected. One Leopard 2A6 tank was destroyed by a Lancet drone, a small weapon which is not even designed to be used against armor, and which has had no success against Soviet tanks. The Leopard seems to be quite vulnerable to top attack. Another Western armored vehicle which turns out to be highly vulnerable is the American MaxxPro MRAP. The high, boxy profile means it is visible for many miles, and almost all the armor is in the v-shaped bottom of it--it is designed to protect against IEDs. Even a near miss from a Vikhr or Kornet missile, as it turns out, turns it into a fireball. The Leopard tank has, it is said, the best main gun of any tank ever made, but so far none of them have gotten close enough to the Russian forces to show their effectiveness. Probably different tactics are needed.

JE comments:  Is the Ukrainian counteroffensive looking more and more like the battle Kursk?  We know how that turned out for the attackers.  This "probing" business leads to appalling losses that the Ukrainians cannot afford.  Finally, can any offensive in modern warfare succeed without air superiority, or at least something approaching parity?

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  • Ukrainian Counteroffensive: Comparisons to Battle of Kursk (Cameron Sawyer, USA 06/19/23 3:22 AM)
    JE asked, in response to a post of mine yesterday: "Is the Ukrainian counteroffensive looking more and more like the battle Kursk? . . . Finally, can any offensive in modern warfare succeed without air superiority, or at least something approaching parity?"

    Comparisons to the Battle of Kursk seem to be on the lips of many historians. Indeed, the parallels are striking.

    Kursk was one of the most important examples in military history of Defense in Depth, and moreover, it was a case of Defense in Depth using multiple lines of elaborately prepared fortifications which the Soviets had time to prepare for because the Germans delayed the start of Zitadel again and again because they were... waiting for the new Tiger and Panther tanks which they hoped would give them the edge in tank battles. Much the same thing has happened in the present war.  The winter offensive turned into a spring offensive which was only launched in summer, as NATO trained and equipped the nine brigades, including--yes, German tanks. Tigers, Panthers--Leopards? Meanwhile the Russians mobilized and retrained 300,000 reservists and 100,000 volunteers and prepared the most elaborate fortifications of any war in Europe since probably--the Battle of Kursk.

    For example:

    "[T]he Soviets created a triple band of entrenchments, anti-tank and anti-personal obstacle belts, and gun emplacements nearly 25km deep and ringing the Kursk salient like an iron horseshoe. The Soviets, too, had learned much from their earlier envelopments at the hands of the German Wehrmacht in 1941 and 1942. Not only had the Stavka greatly increased the depth of Soviet defensive lines, but had greatly increased the density of forces occupying them and the tactical doctrine needed to prevent a German armored breakthrough. The Soviet defense-in-depth at Kursk combined the WWI ‘elastic defense' doctrine with its prodigious employment of channelizing obstacles and pre-registered artillery targets, as well as mobile armored strike groups at every echelon from battalion to front. The further German forces penetrated the defense, the greater their channelization and the greater the density of concentrated fires and armored counterattacks they would face."


    Elastic defense and "channelization" (into minefields and artillery kill zones) is exactly what we have seen so far, indeed as textbook examples. That's what was happening in those videos of destroyed Ukrainian convoys (and no, it was not a single incident shown from 20 different angles).

    Failing to achieve a breakthrough in the critical first week at Kursk, the Germans lost the initiative in the battle and indeed, in the war. Failing to achieve the breakthrough in the critical first few days, the Soviets had time to bring up mobile reserves to the right places and the Germans lost the element of surprise and could no longer achieve a local concentration of forces required for a breakthrough.

    That's strikingly like what we have in Zaporozhia today. I guess it is still possible to break through somewhere else--there are still a lot of forces left on both sides, and the lines are long, longer than at Kursk--if surprise can be achieved somehow. But this is damned hard when dealing with Defense in Depth because the front lines are merely a trip wire, and are not intended to be held. The real defensive line is further back. You simply can't get to the defensive lines with any surprise and therefore with local superiority, unless the whole offensive is a surprise, and that moment has been lost.

    As to air superiority--the Soviets beat the Germans without achieving anything like overall air superiority until nearly the very end of the war. But by the time of the Battle of Kursk, the Luftwaffe had lost overall air superiority and was limited to achieving local superiority here and there. So the Soviets had something like parity by then in air power.

    But the role of air power has increased greatly in this era of combined arms operation. If the Ukrainians can achieve success on the attack in large-scale battle (as opposed to guerilla warfare) without significant air power and without fully suppressing Russian air power, that will be some kind of miracle. I don't say it's impossible, but it will be unprecedented as far as I know.

    JE comments:  Cameron, didn't the Iraqis construct something like "Defense in Depth" in the First Gulf War?  The ease with which the Coalition plowed through (or was it around?) Saddam's trenches and "killing zones" has probably influenced military doctrine since.  Did air superiority make all the difference? 

    And now in Ukraine we return to an earlier time.  It's mind-boggling and terrifying to think of what is going on at present.  How are Ukraine's military leaders able to convince their forces to attack these lethal defenses?  And for how much longer?

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    • Contrasts between Ukraine and First Gulf War; on Ukrainian Morale (Cameron Sawyer, USA 06/21/23 3:51 AM)
      John E asked on June 19th: "Cameron, didn't the Iraqis construct something like ‘Defense in Depth' in the First Gulf War? The ease with which the Coalition plowed through (or was it around?) Saddam's trenches and ‘killing zones' has probably influenced military doctrine since. Did air superiority make all the difference?"

      Yes, air superiority, or rather massive air supremacy on the US side, made all the difference in the Gulf War, that and overwhelming armored force on the ground, and massive overmatch in artillery, all combined in a well-coordinated combined arms operation. Basically, it was overwhelming force in all respects. Remember the Gulf War started with 42 days and nights of continuous cruise missile and air attacks, one of the most intensive and destructive air campaigns ever conducted. Iraq's weak and obsolete air defense assets were overcome almost immediately so the coalition forces had air supremacy almost from the first day. By the end of the first week, what was left of the Iraqi Air Force had left the battle and fled to Iran. The scale of the air attack is hard to grasp--over 2,500 fixed-wing aircraft were involved (not counting helicopters!), of which most were attack aircraft. Iraqi military infrastructure was systematically destroyed, then civilian infrastructure including the power grid, every single dam in the country was destroyed or damaged, sewage treatment plants, most water supply infrastructure, telecommunications facilities, ports, railroads, bridges, oil refineries--remember "bombing them into the Stone Age"? That's what we did.

      Thousands of civilians were killed and wounded in these attacks. Then, we attacked the Iraqi ground forces from the air. A-10 Warthogs chewed up Iraqi tanks with depleted uranium shells fired from their chain guns; Apache helicopters systematically destroyed Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles using Hellfire missiles, the same way the Russians are using Vikhr missiles fired from Ka-52 Alligators today. The A-10s alone destroyed 900 tanks, 2,000 other armored vehicles, and 1,500 artillery pieces. Command & control centers were destroyed; Iraqi Army logistics were completely disrupted. Iraqi Army positions were attacked with napalm, rockets and cluster bombs, and were strafed with depleted uranium shells.

      That's what you get when you have 2,500 military aircraft plus cruise missiles to attack an enemy without effective air defense. By the time the coalition forces started the ground attack, there wasn't much left of the Iraqi forces. The coalition's massive advantage in artillery was used at the beginning of the ground campaign to basically eliminate Iraqi artillery. By this time, there was nothing left of Iraqi prepared defenses, and there was hardly any organized resistance. The war was over just four days later. Obviously a far cry from what is happening today in Ukraine. The Ukrainians heavily overmatched the Russians in personnel throughout 2022, and overmatched the Russians in military leadership. The Russian mobilization eliminated the first advantage, and as to the second advantage--Zaluzhny, the best military leader of the war on either side--is gone now. The Russians have large overmatch in artillery and air assets, and are no longer outnumbered in personnel. Attacking such an enemy, to boot one dug in with elaborately prepared defenses, is a really tough task.

      JE further wrote: "And now in Ukraine we return to an earlier time. It's mind-boggling and terrifying to think of what is going on at present. How are Ukraine's military leaders able to convince their forces to attack these lethal defenses? And for how much longer?"

      The Ukrainians, now obviously fighting against all odds, are amazingly courageous and determined.* The Russians are constantly amazed by this and have huge respect for the Ukrainian soldiers (very often Russian soldiers comment on how horrible it is that "such worthy Slavic brothers" have to "die for NATO"). It must be said however, that the Ukrainian forces have not yet even started attacking "these lethal defenses." They haven't even reached the first line of fortifications. They are still in the crumple zone, where the Russians don't have to defend anything and can move around at will.

      Note that the Germans did much better than this at Kursk. They broke through the first Soviet line and reached the second defensive line on the very first day. Hitler was actually not wrong about the superiority of the Tiger tanks--the early model T-34 could not penetrate the armor of the Tiger with its smaller gun at all, and the early tank battles at Kursk had lopsided results like 10 or more T-34s knocked out for every Tiger. But by that time, Defense in Depth had worked as intended--after fighting their way through the "crumple zone," even though it only took a day, the Germans were deprived of any element of surprise, and were weakened, and the Soviets met them with their fresh mobile reserves and were able to counterattack. It would be an exaggeration to say that "and after that, the Soviet Army chased the Germans all the way back to Berlin," but not a huge exaggeration. Despite the absolutely brilliant German comeback victory at the Third Battle of Kharkov (conducted not far from where the current war is raging), the Germans had dashed enough of their men and equipment against the steel walls of the Soviet defenses at Kursk that they were never again to regain the strategic initiative, which is why some historians consider Kursk to have been the turning point of the war.

      Note that all of the best commanders on both sides were involved in the epic Battle of Kursk--Rokossovsky, the best Soviet commander, also Zhukov and Konev, and von Manstein and Guderian, the best German ones (I would say von Manstein was the best commander of the entire war), together with Model and Hoth.

      Back to Ukraine--during the last few days, the frontal assaults have continued, using bigger and bigger forces of infantry, but without the higher value armored vehicles. The Ukrainians are saving their Leopards now, but not their men. There are no reliable casualty figures, but it must be a horror. How long can the Ukrainians keep it up? If Zaluzhny were around, I believe he would break off this offensive and save his forces to regroup for another go in a different axis.

      On the other hand, there may not be another axis available, or time for any regrouping. Tokmak and Melitopol are the keys to the land bridge; there are only so many ways to get there. The Ukrainians do fear that without demonstrable victories achieved before the NATO summit coming up, they will be cut off (see the quotes I posted earlier) by their sponsors. They also fear that the only leverage which will give them anything in peace negotiations is threatening Crimea (and I agree with them), which can only be done by cutting the land bridge. So they may be simply betting everything on this one number because they don't have any choice.

      We shall see.

      *That being said, as in all armies in all wars, there are moments of low morale, and units who lose their cohesion and fighting ability because of low morale, in the Ukrainian Army. Yesterday there were reports that the Leopard tanks were no longer being sent into battle, not because the command decided to husband them (as I speculated), but because the crews were refusing to take them into battle--sabotaging them by pouring sand in the engines, and so forth. Because the Russians are paying their troops bounties for destroyed Western equipment, and so the Leopards draw a lot of fire when they appear, and seem to be more vulnerable to top attack than Soviet tanks. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of this report, but it would not be unprecedented and is not implausible.

      JE comments:  Cameron, what are the latest reports you're hearing about Zaluzhny?  Is there now a consensus that he was gravely wounded and may never be able to resume command?


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