GUEST BLOG: Ben Morgan – Tide of war is turning

It has been a week since we predicted that the Russians were exhausted.  The hypothesis being that Russia’s ground forces were worn out in the east, only pushing forwards because of overwhelming artillery fire. And, that as Ukraine started to successfully deploy modern NATO artillery this advantage would disappear and Russia would not be able to continue its advance. Further, that as this situation impacted on the Russian forces it was likely that a Ukrainian offensive would start.  

Last week’s events have tended to support this analysis, in the east we have seen two key combat indicators that tell us the Russians are in trouble in the battle to advance towards Sloviansk:

  • Ground gained: The Russians have not made any significant progress since the last article.  Numerous attacks have been launched and repelled, these are small attacks so may be probes or could indicate that Russia’s strength is ebbing and that they simply can’t muster the numbers to attack in strength.
  • NASA Fire Data: Analysts are using NASA satellite records of wild fires to measure artillery and bombing activity. The NASA satellite maps show fires, in war zones fires are often started by artillery or bombs so this system provides useful independent information about where bombing and shelling is occurring.  This week there are less fires on the Ukrainian side than in previous weeks indicating less artillery bombardment and that Ukraine’s artillery strategy may be working. 

Taken together these indicators support the assessment that Russian advances in the east are culminating.  It should be noted that Wagner Group soldiers did successfully capture the Vuhlehirsk power plant but this is a relatively minor victory.  The general trend is that the battles to advance on Sloviansk from either Izyum, Siversk or Bahkmut are all static.  

This week it was reported that Russian forces are being re-deployed from the advance on Sloviansk. Both north for a possible offensive against Kharkov and south to bolster defences around Kherson.  This probably gives the Russians to much credit; it is unlikely that Russia has the capability to move large numbers of troops around and both for an offensive near Kharkov and to defend Kherson at the same time. If the Russians had any kind of significant reserve, it would have been used as a ‘second echelon’ to push west after Lysychansk was captured securing a crossing point on the Sieverts-Donetsk River.  It is more likely that the Russians don’t have significant reserves and that any movement of forces in this area is relatively minor.

However, on 30 July 2022 photographs of Russian troops massing north of Kharkov, on the Russian side of the border became available.  This force is interesting and what is planned with it is a key question.  Is this force a legitimate threat or is it a bluff? It is most likely that this force is being constituted from poorly trained, covertly mobilised forces arriving from across Russia. It is likely that it will be deployed in an assault.  An assault that will not be successful, but that is designed to draw Ukrainian attention away from other areas.  

In the south, the situation appears to be developing as predicted with the Ukrainians using Russia’s increasing weakness to launch an offensive, the current operation aiming to recapture Kherson. Early, last week the Ukrainians carefully targeted the Antonivskyi and P47 bridges to ‘cut off’ the 49th Combined Arms Army garrison on the west side of the Dnipro River and are now advancing east to encircle the city. The operation is marked by tight Ukrainian control of information and apparent disinformation. The Ukrainian government issuing instructions to local government leaders in the area not to publish information on social media limiting the amount of open-source information available. Further, although media reports claim that HIMARs is being used against the bridges it looks more like the damage is caused by medium artillery, likely GPS guided Excalibur shells.  

It is reported that Russia has about 10-12 battalion tactical groups in the Kherson area, about 10,000 soldiers and that they are moving another ten battalion tactical groups to the area as quickly as they can aiming to build a force of about 20-25,000 and there are reports that they aim to launch a counter-attack.   It is unlikely that these troops are coming from the area near Sloviansk. Instead they are likely to be from areas in the south. 

The big question is what happens next?  

The best way to analyse Ukrainian strategy is to think about American doctrine.  Since 2014, the United States has invested billions training the Ukrainian military. Even during the war the United States is training senior Ukrainian officers and it appears that the investment was well founded. The Ukrainians demonstrated a smart, tactical command structure well-versed in doctrine like ‘mission command’, the philosophy of devolving tactical authority to the lowest levels encouraging flexibility and innovation on the frontline.  The defeat of Russia’s first attacks on Kharkov and Kiev demonstrated Ukraine’s level of tactical flexibility and frontline leadership.

However, if we are going to try and predict Ukraine’s next move it is the higher levels of command doctrine that we need to understand.  And, if we look at recent American wars, we can see a number of doctrinal concepts that may help us to see how the Ukrainians will fight in the next few weeks. Understanding modern American war-fighting requires an introduction to ‘Manoeuvre Warfare Theory’. This is a war-fighting doctrine that underpins modern NATO military thinking. This doctrine stresses the idea that wars are won by destroying the enemy’s will to fight rather than trying to destroy their forces.  If we look at American campaigns since this doctrine developed, they are characterised by the following tactics:

  • Fire supremacy. Using battlefield ‘effects’ like airpower and artillery to ‘shock and awe’ opponents wiping out command and communications and paralysing the enemy’s leadership and logistics.  
  • Deception. The famous ‘Left Hook’ used by coalition forces during Operation Desert Storm or the diversionary attack used in the Second Battle of Fallujah are examples of deception.  In both examples, the enemy was engaged from one direction distracting them, while the real attack came from another direction.  
  • Information war. If your main target is the enemy’s will to fight then it is vital that you dominate the information domain and ensure that the enemy sees and hears what you want them to rather than being able to make informed decisions.
  • Simultaneity.  A military jargon for using fire, movement and information war to overwhelm the enemy’s ability to make good decisions.  

Often when teaching tactics the Soviets are used as historical examples of Manoeuvre Warfare Theory. Soviet tactics emphasised all of these key doctrines and Soviet campaigns were typified by the ability mass artillery fire quickly, using deception, rapid advances and propaganda together to overwhelm the enemy’s ability to fight effectively. Think of the Soviet campaigns of World War Two; Vasilevsky’s effortless ‘Blitzkrieg’ of the Japanese in Manchuria, Vatutin’s seamless transition to the offensive after the Battle of Kursk that drove the Nazi’s out of eastern Ukraine or Zhukov’s advance through Belorussia and into Europe in 1944.  All operations typified by the use of tactics that would now be call ‘Manoeuverist’.  

It seems likely that the Ukrainians are working to these tactical concepts and developing a strategy based on this doctrine.  Throughout the war the Ukrainians have dominated the ‘information war’ their propaganda has effectively positioned them as the ‘plucky underdog’ with moral legitimacy.  A good example of their success in this sphere is mainstream media coverage of the Azov battalion’s last stand in Mariupol.  How often was the neo-Nazi history of the Azov battalion mentioned? Or that its emblem, the wolfsangel is a Nazi symbol? Instead, the Azovs were presented as heroic freedom fighters. Further, Ukrainian ‘OPSEC’ or operational security is very good, how much open-source information is available about their unit strengths or locations? Ukraine is dominating the information battle.

A key failure of Russia’s planning is not securing air supremacy when they had the chance at the beginning of the war.  Soon they will pay the price for this omission because Russia does not have air superiority so the only way to achieve fire supremacy is with artillery. Ukraine is now deploying modern, long-range artillery and has started an effective strategy to counter Russian artillery supremacy. This strategy includes targeting Russian command centres. We can legitimately predict that as more accurate and long-range NATO artillery systems are deployed the balance of fire will tip, and Ukraine will soon be able to achieve fire supremacy in the areas it wants to operate. 

So we can see that the Ukrainians are winning the information battle, are likely to defeat Russia’s artillery establishing fire supremacy and are targeting Russian command centres.  This means that the next doctrinal element to create ‘simultaneity’ that we should be looking for is deception. The Ukrainians are moving in the south but is Kherson their real goal?  

Kherson is a definitely an immediate objective, however it seems unlikely that there will be a significant battle for the city; or that it is a final goal.  If the Russians are ‘cut off’ in Kherson it seems more likely that they will surrender than fight to the death.  The morale and motivation of Russia’s frontline soldiers has been an issue throughout the war and a force isolated on the west side of the wide Dnipro River will be at significant risk of simply – giving up.  By surrounding Kherson Ukraine is aiming to undermine the defenders will to fight. If they do stand and fight; the Ukrainians would be better to isolate and bypass the city, perhaps using the Dnipro as a secure right flank for an advance north or crossing the river and advancing east. 

The next moves, will depend on what Ukraine has hidden either in the south-west between Odessa and Kherson, supporting the current offensive; or further north in the top of the Zaporizhzia and Kherson Oblasts (regions) and in the east of Donetsk Oblast roughly in the triangle between Zaporizhzia, Dnipro and Kramatorsk. If Ukraine has been able to concentrate a reserve in either of these areas this is where their next offensive operation is likely to start.  

In summary this week look out for the following activity and these predictions:

  • In the north Russian forces will build up and threaten Kharkov.  This is the divert Ukrainian attention away from other areas.  An attack may be launched but will not be successful, Russian forces are not up to the task and the Ukrainians are well prepared. 
  • In the east the front line will remain relatively static. The Ukrainians will continue to hold their positions near Sloviansk and may continue to strike north towards Izyum.  However, this operation is not about offensive action but rather fixing a large part of Russia’s combat power in one place far away from the decisive battle. 
  • Watch the south.  The Russians are reinforcing Kherson most likely with troops that were occupying nearby areas like Mariupol or Melitopol. This movement of troops west will weaken the Russian’s northern boundary roughly along a line through the following towns and villages; Kamainska, Orikhiv, Huliapole and Vuledhar. If the Ukrainians do have forces available within the triangle between Zaporizhzia, Dnipro and Kramatorsk then this weakness could be exploited.  The Ukrainians pushing south towards the coast and threatening to split the ‘Crimean land bridge’.  Even a feint in this area will force the Russians to make sudden decisions between defending Kherson and stopping the new advance. This is the kind of rapid decision-making based on sudden changes that is forced on decision-makers overwhelmed by an enemy force that has achieved simultaneity. 
  • It is also possible that the Ukrainians have moved too soon and the Russian counter attack will push them back from Kherson. However, this seems less likely. 

August will be an important month in this war, it is high summer and the best time for military operations.  In Autumn, the rains will come and movement will be harder. Further, intelligence indicates that Russia has plans for annexation of the occupied territories in September. Ukraine needs to move now while Russia is weak.  Let’s hope that Ukraine has the combat power available to inflict a significant defeat on Russia before autumn and before their country is stolen in a sham annexation. 

Ben Morgan is a tired Gen X interested in international politics. He is TDB’s Military analyst.

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