Last week brought confirmation of the terrible atrocities committed by Russia in Ukraine, a sad indictment on the savagery of the Russian military. It was a stark reminder that ideals New Zealanders take for granted like the unalienable nature of human rights, are uncommon outside the world’s liberal democracies. Generally, we do not think about the regular atrocities committed in many parts of the world, normally we are too busy dealing with our day-to-day lives and are poorly served by media more interested in Will Smith slapping Chris Rock than the suffering of people in far away places.
The atrocities committed by the Russians are barbaric, unfortunately this type of behaviour is common throughout the world which is why countries from across the globe are supporting Ukraine. The only way to stop aggression and brutal war crimes is a strong, united international response. The Russian offensive needs to be stopped, the conquered areas re-captured and war crimes documented and investigated. It may take years for justice to be served but regime change in Russia is inevitable, and at that time indictments written today will likely be served.
NATO and the world community, spent last week transitioning from shaping their support to Ukraine as specifically ‘defensive’ providing systems like anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles towards a more aggressive posture. Germany and the Czech Republic sent ex-Soviet tanks and armoured personal carriers they inherited after the collapse of the Soviet Union to Ukraine. Britain’s advanced, un-jammable and deadly Star Streak anti-aircraft missiles started to shoot down Russian aircraft. Further, Britain has deployed Sky Sabre a very advanced air defence system to Poland providing a measure of protection for Ukraine’s main pathway for NATO support against long-range rockets and cruise-missiles. Britain is also sending a package of easy to use, maintain and support armoured vehicles.
Even, Australia has committed military support sending anti-tank missiles and very useful Bushmaster armoured vehicles. Bushmaster is useful support because it is a vehicle that is simple to use and operate. Javelin is a weapon system that the Ukrainian’s are familiar with. The key principle of NATO support is to provide weapons that are either; already in use with Ukraine, or are simple to use. This policy is so that the support provided can they easily be integrated into the existing Ukrainian force.
In the United States, retired generals last week filled cable news slots talking about sending modern American tanks, fighter planes and artillery so that the Ukrainians can transition to conventional offensive operations and drive the Russians out of their country. Although, an attractive idea it is unfortunately, wishful thinking fighting, a large-scale conventional operation is difficult. Integrating the ‘combined arms’ of artillery, tanks, infantry and all of their support like engineers, medics, maintenance and supply is not easy.
Now imagine trying to do it with a range of new equipment that you have never used before. Further, the M1 Abrams is the most fuel hungry tank in the world. The only armies that operate it are the United States, Australia and a number of rich nations in the Middle East because although it is a very, very effective tank the logistics tail required to support it is huge. It uses a gas turbine engine that means it can combine exceptional armour protection and a large gun with still being very fast-moving vehicle, but that powerful engine burns huge amounts of fuel. The United States with its massive military logistics capability can support a tank like the M1 however this is not support that the Ukrainians would be likely to be able to ‘cobble’ together at this time.
NATO has obviously appreciated this situation and their support seems to be well considered because the ability to easily integrate new equipment quickly and easily is tactically vital for the outcome of this war.
A couple of articles ago I noted a nagging concern about the Ukraine armoured force. (Ukrainian forces push forward in the north, east and south and who bombed Belgorod?) The concern was whether or not Ukraine managed to preserve any of its armoured brigades in the initial invasion. The Ukrainian armoured brigades are important because if they survived the invasion, then they would be the force with which to counter-attack Russian offensives in the east. If they did not survive the invasion then hopefully enough of their personnel survived to develop a new armoured force quickly.
Does Ukraine have a force capable of a large scale counter-attack? We just don’t know yet. This is probably the reason that Ukraine keeps requesting fighter planes and air-defence missiles because right now the only way the Russians can counter an armoured thrust is with air power. The Ukrainians are not going to use an armoured force without air cover, to do so would simply lead to its destruction.
After their collapse in the north, the Russians are moving the force that attacked Kiev, Chernihiv and Sumy around the border of Ukraine, to areas near Belgorod where they are being rested, re-equipped and likely re-organised into new battalion tactical groups. Reports are circulating that this force lost in the region of 20% of its combat capability. Putting this into a human perspective – Imagine that if, in your workplace two people in every ten were killed or wounded so badly that they could not come to work and you can see that these forces are in a bad way and logic dictates that they will need time to be battle ready.
Will Russia take that time? Or will they throw these soldiers straight back into the fight?
Events in the last twenty-four hours indicate that political pressure for a victory by 9 May, when Russia celebrates its victory over Nazi Germany may be too high and that the Russians could be moving. Since the end of March, Russia has controlled a small town called Izium, that sits on the Donets River about 100km south east of Kharkov. Izium is important because it provides crossing points over the river and is a rail junction.
South of Izium, is the city of Kramatorsk, an important rail junction and; the target yesterday of a rocket attack killing scores of people. If the Russians are planning an offensive, of a size and scale that may be achievable with their current forces a potential axis of advance could be towards Horlivka. A town currently held by Russia but under siege by Ukraine. An advance from Izium would be through the area defined by a triangle of towns; Izium at the north point, Barvinkov in the west and Kramatorsk in the south east.
Kramatorsk and its neighbour, Sloviansk are major road and rail junctions and would provide the logistics infrastructure required to thrust further south and east toward Horlivka. Relieving this city would be a victory and create a pocket of Ukrainians near the towns of Lysychansk and Bakhmut that could be slowly ‘mopped up’.
If I were a staff officer, in a Russian headquarters ‘needing’ to come up with ‘something…anything?’ to appease my political masters this would definitely be an option. Looking at the ground there are two options the Russians can take.
- Either, advance along the M03 motorway, a direct but difficult route from Izium to Sloviansk. It is difficult because of the rugged nature of the terrain the Russians need to advance through with lots of undulating ground and forests that will suit the Ukrainian defenders.
- Or advancing south west 30km, roughly towards Barvinkov in a ‘right hook’, then turning south east from there and advancing another 30km to Kramatorsk. This route is more likely to be affected by the spring thaw, melting snow turning low ground into bogs but is more open terrain. The open terrain allows more effective artillery fire, potentially easier use of tanks and easier coordination of air attacks.
In the next week or two remember these town’s names and keep your eyes on this part of the map. Activities on the ground in this area could define the rest of the war. Based on what I can see of Ukrainian numbers in this area my advice is that an offensive like this will require around 40-60,000 soldiers for any chance of success. The Russians could concentrate a force this size, but will they wait for those soldiers to be rested, re-equipped and re-organised? Or will they take a risk and force an early attack?
If the Russians wait, they risk a Ukrainian counter-attack because every day is another opportunity to build Ukrainian combat power particularly the ability to defend an armoured offensive from air attack. The Ukrainians will be racing to develop an armoured manoeuvre capability, a force with air-defence, tanks, infantry in armoured fighting vehicles and mobile artillery. Light infantry even with drones and advanced missiles is not enough to drive the Russians out. Instead, Ukraine needs to be able to deliver attacks that penetrate the frontline, then quickly destroy Russian artillery and logistic before they can be moved or reinforced. Soldiers on foot simply can’t move quickly enough.
In my opinion, I don’t think that the Russians have the capacity even for a limited offensive toward Horlivka. My advice, if I was on the Russian staff would be to ‘dig-in’ and defend what we have then transition to small local offensives using massed artillery to smash the defenders. Slowly and systematically hammering out territorial gains. This strategy does not involve the commitment of large forces in dangerous extended thrusts that could be catastrophically defeated. It forces the Ukrainians to try and fight Russian soldiers ‘on defence’ that will attrit their forces. Then when the forces from the north are rebuilt look at larger offensive operations again. However, as I have said before wars are fought by armies directed by politicians and what makes strategic or tactical sense may not be politically acceptable.
In summary the coming days and weeks are very important. The war is at a key point, do the Ukrainian’s have the ability to counter attack if they are provided air-defence options like fighter planes or missiles? Will the Russians try and launch an offensive? If so, an advance towards Horlivka via the ‘Izium, Barvinkov, Kramatorsk Triangle’ provides an option. However, the Ukrainian forces in this area are described experienced and tough, they are also ‘dug in’ so it will be a risky option. If the Russian do go ‘on the offensive’, it could bring them nothing but pain and shorten this war.
Ben Morgan is a tired Gen X interested in international politics. He is TDB’s Military analyst.