Ukraines 2023 Counteroffensive
It is now clear that Ukraines eagerly anticipated counteroffensive has been a colossal failure. After three months, the Ukrainian army has made little progress pushing back the Russians. Indeed, it has yet to get beyond the so-called grey zone, the heavily contested strip of land that lies in front of the first main line of Russian defenses. The New York Times reports that In the first two weeks of the counteroffensive, as much as 20 percent of the weaponry Ukraine sent to the battlefield was damaged or destroyed, according to U.S. and European officials. The toll included some of the formidable Western fighting machines tanks and armored personnel carriers that the Ukrainians were counting on to beat back the Russians. According to virtually all accounts of the fighting, Ukrainian troops have suffered enormous casualties. All nine of the vaunted brigades that NATO armed and trained for the counteroffensive have been badly chewed up on the battlefield.
The Ukrainian counteroffensive was doomed to fail from the start. A look at the lineup of forces on both sides and what the Ukrainian army was trying to do, coupled with an understanding of the history of conventional land war, make it clear that there was virtually no chance the attacking Ukrainian forces could defeat Russias defending forces and achieve their political goals.
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Type your email... Subscribe Ukraine and its Western supporters hoped that the Ukrainian army could execute a classic blitzkrieg strategy to escape the war of attrition that was grinding it down. That plan called for punching a large hole in Russias defensive lines and then driving deep into Russian-controlled territory, not only capturing territory along the way, but delivering a hammer blow to the Russian army. As the historical record makes clear, this is an especially difficult operation to pull off when the attacking forces are engaged in a fair fight one involving two roughly equal militaries. The Ukrainians were not only involved in a fair fight, but they were also ill-prepared to execute a blitzkrieg and were facing an adversary well-positioned to thwart one. In short, the deck was stacked against the Ukrainian counteroffensive from the start.
Nevertheless, there was pervasive optimism about Ukraines battlefield prospects among Western policymakers, pundits and editorial writers in the mainstream media, retired generals, and other experts in the American and European foreign policy establishments. Retired General David Petraeuss comments on the eve of the counteroffensive capture the prevailing zeitgeist: I think that this counteroffensive is going to be very impressive. He then effectively described the Ukrainians executing a successful blitzkrieg against Russian forces.
In fact, Western leaders and the mainstream media put significant pressure on Kyiv to launch the counteroffensive in the months before it began on 4 June. At the time, Ukraines leaders were dragging their feet and showing little enthusiasm for starting the planned blitzkrieg, probably because at least some of them understood they were being led to the slaughter. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky later said on 21 July that, We did have plans to start it in the spring, but we didnt because, frankly, we had not enough munitions and armaments and not enough properly trained brigades. Moreover, after the counteroffensive began, General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the Ukrainian militarys commander in chief, angrily told The Washington Post that he felt the West had not provided Ukraine with adequate arms and that without being fully supplied, these plans are not feasible at all. But they are being carried out.
Even after the counteroffensive bogged down, which happened shortly after it started, many optimists continued to hold out hope that it would eventually succeed, although their numbers have declined over time. Retired US General Ben Hodges, one of the most enthusiastic advocates of launching the blitzkrieg, maintained on 15 June, I think the Ukrainians can and will win this fight. Dara Massicot, a prominent expert often cited in the mainstream media, opined on 19 July that For now, the Russian front lines are holding, despite the Kremlins dysfunctional decisions. Yet the cumulative pressure of bad choices is mounting. Russian front lines might crack in the way Hemingway once wrote about going bankrupt: gradually, then suddenly. Michael Kofman, another expert frequently cited by the mainstream press, claimed on 2 August that the counteroffensive itself hasnt failed, while The Economist ran a story on 16 August that proclaimed: Ukraines counter-offensive is making progress, slowly: Ten weeks in, the army is starting to figure out what works.
A week later, on 22 August, when it was hard to deny that the counteroffensive was in serious trouble and there was hardly any chance of rectifying the situation, Jake Sullivan, the US national security advisor, stated: We do not assess that the conflict is a stalemate. We are seeing Ukraine continue to take territory on a methodical, systematic basis.
Sullivans comments notwithstanding, many in the West now recognize that the counteroffensive has failed, and Ukraine is doomed to fight a war of attrition that it is unlikely to win, chiefly because the conflict is slowly morphing from a fair fight into an unfair fight. But it should have been obvious to Ukraines Western cheerleaders beforehand that the blitzkrieg they embraced was doomed to fail and that it made little sense to push Ukraine to launch it.
UKRAINES THEORY OF VICTORY
The Russian and Ukrainian militaries have been engaged in a fair fight since the war began in February 2022. The Russian invasion force, which was comprised of 190,000 troops at most, conquered a substantial amount of Ukrainian territory, but soon found itself overextended. In other words, it did not have sufficient troops to defend all the Ukrainian territory it controlled. Consequently, the Russians withdrew most of their forces from the Kharkiv oblast, which allowed the Ukrainian army to overwhelm the remaining few. Subsequently, the overstretched Russian army was forced to withdraw from the slice of the Kherson oblast that lies on the west bank of the Dnieper River, which the Ukrainian army then occupied without a fight. Before the Russians withdrew, however, they inflicted massive casualties on the Ukrainian forces that were trying to drive them out of Kherson. One battalion commander reported that his casualties were so high that he had to replace the members of his unit three times. These two tactical defeats took place in the late summer and fall of 2022.
In response to the events in Kharkiv and Kherson, Putin mobilized 300,000 troops in September 2022; they would need a few months of training before they were fully ready to fight. The Russians also scaled up their ongoing effort to capture Bakhmut in November 2022. The Ukrainians responded to the challenge in Bakhmut, and the two sides engaged in a long and grinding battle for control of that city, which finally ended with a Russian victory in late May 2023.
Bakhmut was a serious defeat for Ukraine, in part because Zelensky publicly said that he and his generals were determined to hold the city and because he committed many of Ukraines best units to the fight. More importantly, Ukraine suffered huge losses in the months-long battle. To make matters worse, the war was likely to turn into an unfair fight in the months ahead, because the Russians had gained about a 5:1 advantage in population size in the wake of the early fighting, which meant they could mobilize a much larger army than Ukraine, giving them an advantage that matters greatly in attrition warfare. Furthermore, the Russians already enjoyed a significant advantage in artillery, the most important weapon in a war of attrition like the one being fought in Ukraine. Neither Kyiv nor the West had the capability to rectify that imbalance, which was estimated to be somewhere between 5:1 and 10:1 in Russias favor.
Indeed, there was reason to think that the West might not remain fully committed to supplying Ukraine with the weaponry it desperately needed, which included other kinds of arms besides artillery, like tanks, armored fighting vehicle, drones, and aircraft. There was growing evidence of war fatigue in the West and plus the US faced a threat from China in East Asia that was a greater danger to American interests than the Russian threat. In short, Ukraine was likely to lose in a protracted war of attrition, because it would be an unfair fight.
Both Ukraine and the West therefore had a powerful incentive to find a clever strategy that would quickly produce a military victory that would end the war on favorable terms for them. This meant Ukraine would have to employ a blitzkrieg strategy, which is the only way of avoiding or escaping a war of attrition in a contest between two equally-matched land armies facing each other across a continuous front.
THE ABCS OF BLITZKRIEG
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