This week Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister stated that Russia is expanding its war aims to include the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. He said that this expansion was required to protect Russian territory from Ukrainian long-range missiles. Further, in recent days the United States National Security Council stated that Russia was aiming to annex more territory confirming suspicions that collaborating local governments were being formed in these regions. On the ground though Russian attacks in the east are not making any ground and Russia is under intense pressure in the south near Kherson.
Lavrov’s statement points to a change in tactical conditions. The tide is turning, modern NATO weapons are impacting disproportionately on the battle and more are coming. An already exhausted Russian army is unable to maintain forward momentum in the east and is on the defensive in the south. The situation is grim, everyday Ukraine gets stronger and Russia gets weaker. Yesterday, MI6 Chief Richard Moore speaking at the Aspen Security Forum stated that “the Russians will increasingly find it difficult to find manpower and materiel over the next few weeks,” and that “They will have to pause in some way and that will give the Ukrainians the opportunity to strike back.” An assessment that this blog’s readers shouldn’t be surprised by.
In the east, Russia is attacking the Ukrainian defence around Sloviansk and tactically this is a big challenge. The Ukrainians dominate the heights around the city and recent attacks from Izyum towards Sloviansk bogged down in difficult terrain. Likewise, attacks from the east towards Siversk and Bakhmut were unsuccessful. Tough Ukrainian defenders are dug in on ground of their choosing and Russia’s key combat advantage; their artillery is currently being systematically depleted by clever Ukrainian tactics.
Omar Bradley, World War Two United States general said that when discussing war ‘amateurs talk tactics and professionals talk logistics’. Currently, the ‘centre of gravity’ of the tactical battle is artillery, whichever side dominates the artillery duel will win ‘on the ground’. In modern war, about 30-50% of all truck movements are moving artillery ammunition forward so winning an artillery battle means knowing about logistics. One round of ammunition for a medium artillery gun weighs about 55-60 kgs, the projectile being about 40kgs and the propellent charge and fuses making up the remainder. Rockets weigh more and take up more space.
Russia’s standard tactical trucks can carry a load of about 40-60 rounds of medium artillery ammunition travelling across country. On 17 June 2022, the Royal United Services Institute published an article titled ‘The Return of Industrial Warfare’ by author Andrew Vershinin, who estimated Russia’s average ammunition expenditure at approximately 7,000 rounds per day. At 50 rounds per truck, that is 140 trucks of ammunition being moved forwards to replenish gun lines every single day. A line of trucks about 10-14km long travelling on the highway.
However, this movement is more complex than it seems because artillery ammunition needs to get to gun lines that are widely dispersed, move often and are not generally on roads. The process starts with large quantities of ammunition arriving from Russia by train or on large trucks. It is unloaded then stored in large dumps well outside of artillery range. Formation (brigade, regiment or division) logistics elements move ammunition from these dumps to rendezvous with the artillery’s own trucks a much shorter distance behind the frontline. Sometimes at these levels large forward ammunition dumps will be established, to shorten travel times especially if an intense period of battle is expected.
Artillery units have their own cross-country trucks shuttling between their gun line and its parent formation to replenish their gun line as it runs out of ammunition. Essentially, bringing 50 rounds of ammunition forward to a Russian artillery gun line, involves a complicated web of logistics that starts with unloading at a rail hub and involves transfer between trucks; two to three times before arriving at their destination. Finally, all of this logistics chain needs to be secured (i.e. convoys need to be guarded) and coordinated with other military movements.
Ukraine’s tactic of using HIMARs to target formation and rear area ammunition dumps, is effective because Russia’s logistics system is not fit for purpose. Early in the war it failed to evacuate casualties, maintain supplies of food, fuel and ammunition. Later as the war became relatively static it has still been shown to be weak. The Russians are unlikely to have resolved the systemic issues associated with decades of corruption in four months. Targeting formation and rear area ammunition dumps forces the Russians to locate their supply hubs further behind the frontline straining their artillery logistics.
HIMARs has a range of about 80km. Weapons like this fire from well behind the frontline, normally about a third of their range so Ukraine’s tactics probably force Russian artillery logistics hubs to be sited approximately 50-60 km behind the front line if they are to reduce their risk of being hit by HIMARS. This is probably double or triple the distance they were form the front before HIMAR’s entered the theatre. Doubling or tripling the distance increases logistics issues exponentially because of the extra ‘friction’ it creates; including increased travel time, more truck re-fuelling stops, move convoys getting lost, wrong information being passed, gun lines moving to new positions without warning, road space conflicts and a range of other issues that arise in any logistics chain.
This tactic uses Russia’s logistic weaknesses to undermine their only combat advantage, artillery. Regardless of Shoigu and Putin’s bluster Russian activity in the east has not increased in recent days and even the small attacks that they are making in this area are failing. This trend will continue, last week the Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS) that the United Kingdom donated to Ukraine started to be deployed. MLRS is HIMARs older and bigger brother, being tracked it can’t move as quickly but fires the same rockets. Further, Ukraine’s deployment of longer ranged NATO artillery guns continues and when matched with new artillery locating radars will make targeting Russia’s front-line artillery easier. Russia’s only tactical advantage is being crippled and it is simply a matter of time before Ukraine starts taking ground back.
If Putin cannot declare war and mobilise fully, then he has limited options and this week’s activity hints that he may know it. So the Russians reverted to their playbook and brought out two of their favourite tactics, bluster and hybrid war.
Hybrid war is the use of a range of historically non-military activities to wage war. In this case the key tactic is annexation. Russia is working hard to create sufficient stability in its recently occupied territories to achieve some sort plebiscite providing a legitimate claim that these territories have been rightfully returned to Mother Russia. Russia is bribing collaborators, shipping in workers and removing dissidents as quickly as it can to create stability and security in these areas. John Kirby a spokesperson for the United States National Security Council said last week that Russia is planning to annex more Ukrainian territory, stating that “Russia is beginning to roll out a version of what you could call an annexation playbook, very similar to the one we saw in 2014” referencing the Russian occupation of Crimea. Annexation achieves an important goal; it makes these areas ‘Russian’ territory. This provides a legitimate reason for them to fall under Russia’s nuclear umbrella. This distinction could become increasingly important as Russia’s army is defeated in conventional battle.
Annexation links to Russia’s second tactic – bluster. Lavrov’s statements about the need to push further into Ukraine to ‘protect’ Russia are not at this stage backed by any realistic threat, instead they appear to be an information operation designed to establish conditions for negotiation. The game being played is simple. By threatening big now, when they do sit down to negotiate, they can claim reasonableness – “Well we wanted Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, but we are reasonable people and we won’t attack them if you let us keep Donbas and Crimea”. It plays to those in NATO who lack resolve and are scared by Russian threats, the people that believe Russia’s hype and think that their military has the capability to advance further into Ukraine. By most estimates about a third of Russia’s total combat power has been lost, so even if Russia declared war and mobilised fully it would struggle to conquer much more of Ukraine.
Annexation and bluster meet at the point when Ukrainians start to push the Russians out of their newly acquired territory. Unable to defeat the Ukrainians conventionally the Russians may threaten to use nuclear weapons and the conditions are set for escalation followed by negotiation based on the following reasoning “We wanted Kherson and Zaporizhzhia to protect Russia from attacks by rockets supplied by the NATO aggressors, who are now supporting the Ukrainian invasion of Donbas and Crimea both legally annexed Russian republics. This invasion is an existential threat to Mother Russia and we will use nuclear weapons to defend our people.”
This is all predictable and in the following months it is likely that the war will develop as follows:
- Russia will continue to make small attacks in the east. The attacks will not make significant progress and will slowly peter out as Russia runs out of resources and Ukraine defeats their artillery.
- After defeating the Russian’s artillery the Ukrainians will start to advance. Probably, near Kharkov but most likely in the south pushing east along the coast. It is possible that the attack will include an advance south towards Mariupol perhaps along the H40 from near Vulhedar. Getting to Mariupol would be a significant political victory and tactically would split the Russian land bridge. Even a feint in this area would force the Russians to redeploy forces from defending in the west near Kherson or from the Donbas diminishing Russian combat power in these areas.
- If the Russians have annexed areas at this stage, unable to defend them with conventional forces it seems likely that they will threaten to use nuclear weapons to defend them. This will be NATO and the world’s decision-point. Do we believe the corrupt Russian kleptocrats will risk nuclear war? Or will we take the risk and support the Ukrainians to liberate their country? It seems likely that Russia’s nuclear threats would be a bluff, the problem with a kleptocracy is that it is perpetuated by self-interest and greed, factors that contribute to the men that control the nuclear deterrent being unlikely to risk global nuclear war.
The unknown factor is whether Russia will negotiate sooner, yesterday’s agreement to allow grain out of Ukraine is an indication that this could be close. Negotiation may achieve more than continuing a losing fight. If the Russians call for a ceasefire, it puts Ukraine under enormous pressure to negotiate and provides time to dig in and consolidate the captured territories. An operational pause to negotiate could be used to secure the occupied regions and undertake annexation.
The next few weeks could be pivotal to this war. Russia is close to failure; and as tactical defeat cascades into strategic defeat it is important that Ukraine’s allies maintain their resolve and not allow Russian tactics like bluster and false negotiation stop their military defeat and eviction from Ukraine.
Ben Morgan is a tired Gen X interested in international politics. He is TDB’s Military analyst.