Winning the War in Ukraine, Part #4
Given that the warring parties have ground themselves to a halt along a front line composed of the Dnieper River in southern Ukraine and a series of largely impenetrable trench complexes with associated tank traps, barbed wire and concrete walls in the Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk Oblasts in eastern Ukraine, it is difficult to see how concrete territorial progress can be made by either side that brings this conflict to a conclusion, especially in the last few weeks of the summer fighting season before the onset of Ukraine’s notoriously cruel winter renders the greater majority of ground fighting (for this is overwhelmingly a ground war; the role of either navies or air forces is negligible) unfeasible. Indeed the current location of the front line has existed in its current position for almost a year now: since November 2022, when Russian forces evacuated the southern city of Kherson that had remained under occupation since the early days of the Russian invasion that began on 24 February 2022.
In these circumstances, the conflict in Ukraine is a quintessential stalemate. For virtually a whole year, the territorial advances of either side have been, if not zero, then moderate. At the time of writing the city of Bakhmut in Donetsk remains under occupation in different zones and there is virtually nonstop fighting over every block. This remains the furtherest east of the various Ukrainian front line positions and the Ukrainian Armed Forces are trying to advance south of Bakhmut to place the city of Donetsk at risk. Donetsk itself is the jewel in the crown for a successful Ukrainian offensive; but having been occupied by pro-Russian forces for almost a decade it would take a monumental offensive to recapture Donetsk that would probably entail the destruction of the entire city. Bakhmut itself has been comprehensively destroyed during the fighting in which up to 15,000 Russian soldiers (it is very hard to assess just how many Russian troops are actually in the Bakhmut theatre) are holding the centre of the city and Ukrainian Armed Forces are trying to surround them and cut them off from their supply lines. The result is contribution to the stalemate. Bakhmut is a city of barely 70,000 people; Donetsk is a city of almost a million. If the Russians, as they appear to be doing, a maintaining control over a relative small city such as Bakhmut for months on end amidst carnage and destruction around all the parties, then it would be optimistic to imagine that Donetsk can be seized any time soon.
Robytyne is (or was) a small village in Zaporizhzhia Oblast just south of Orikhiv, another larger settlement east of the city of Zaporizhzhia on the road to Donetsk. Orikhiv is (or was) a town of around 13,000 people and has remained under Ukrainian control throughout the war but has been heavily damaged from proximate Russian shelling and most of its residents have been evacuated. Until just a few weeks ago, the front line was just to the east and south of Orikhiv. To the east, the road to Donetsk is abruptly punctuated by a heavily fortified front line in the face of which neither side can make substantial advancement. However to the south the village of Robytyne was held under Russian control and without substantial front line fortifications. This enabled the Ukrainian Armed Forces to push through from Orikhiv to the south and retake Robytyne in August of this year. However the village was comprehensively destroyed in the course of its recapture (the image accompanying this essay is of Robytyne after its liberation). This is an ominous portent for the future of any other settlements that are recaptured after fighting, as is Bakhmut. Now the front line has hardened, it seems that the battle tactics involved in fighting in the few parts of the front where it is possible to launch an offensive entail the total destruction of any settlement that the Ukrainian Armed Forces seek to capture.
Moreover it is not clear where the Ukrainian Armed Forces progress to next after Robytyne. Their stated goal is to continue pushing south and to cut the principal road / rail arteries from Donetsk to Melitopol, thereby weakening the logistical supply routes to Crimea and undermining the decade-long grip that Russia has exercised over the Crimean peninsula. In theory this makes good sense if the goal is (as it should be) to liberate the entirety of Ukrainian territory unlawfully occupied by the Russian Armed Forces or their proxies. However Crimea must count as one of the world’s most naturally defensible territories: a harsh clump of rock that serves as a natural harbour for the Russian navy with sheer cliffs and extreme weather. The British learned how difficult the invasion of the Crimean peninsula was in the nineteenth century, between 1853 and 1856, when they invaded Crimea to push the Russians back in support of the Sublime Porte in Istanbul, in an attempt to maintain the balance of power in the Black Sea. They prevailed against the Russians after an agonisingly difficult military assault upon the Crimean peninsula and then, having won, they promptly withdrew as they realised that Crimea was not a territory they had any strategic interest in retaining. As a practical matter, Ukraine may face the same challenge in trying to retake Crimea. It is an extremely difficult place to invade in the face of occupation by another army which is the current status quo.
Furthermore the attempt to cut Crimea’s logistical arteries, although in theory sound military common sense, is undermined by the notorious Crimean Bridge from the eastern Crimean town of Kerch to the Russian mainland across the Strait of Kerch. This bridge, constructed between 2014 and 2018, is actually two bridges both in excess of 18 kilometres long. One is a four-lane motorway and the other a two-track railway. It cost almost US$4 billion to construct and is one of the most heavily defended manmade structures in the world. This has not stopped the Ukrainian special forces and/or others from trying to blow it up on several occasions; but each time the Russians have repaired it and the bridge remains in operation. It is apparently defended by six or more S-400 Russian surface-to-air missile systems, that are armed with some of the world’s fastest hypersonic missiles designed to disable incoming aerial ordnance. Now Russia controls the entirety of the Sea of Azov, to the north of the Strait of Kerch and the Crimean Bridge, by virtue of her control of the principal Ukrainian Azov port city of Mariupol, the supply lines to Crimea are further fortified. Crimea also has several ports, and until construction of the Crimean Bridge was completed one of the principal routes for civilian supplies to the Russian-occupied Crimean peninsula was via Kerch port which by all accounts continues to operate. The Russian military base at Sevastopol in Crimea is supplied by both land routes and by sea. The Russian navy continues to dominate the waves around Crimea and in the Sea of Azov and much of the eastern Black Sea.
Another front the Ukrainian Armed Forces have recently been pushing, as this author has experienced personally, is in and around the city of Kherson that was the westernmost point of Russian occupation in their initial invasion of Ukraine that started in late February 2022. The rationale of occupying Kherson was to use the city as a jumping-off point for an invasion of Mykolaïv to the west, although when the Russian Armed Forces realised that a rapid and bloodless occupation of Mykolaïv was not possible they resorted to arbitrary aerial bombardment of the city instead and the invasion of Mykolaïv was quickly called off. The Russian Armed Forces had anticipated that Mykolaïv would fall quickly, much as had Kherson, Enerhodar and Melitopol. (Of the Russian-occupied cities taken in 2022, it was only Mariupol where there was significant military resistance and that was because one of Ukraine’s wealthiest Oligarchs, who had substantial investments and assets in Mariupol, funded the city’s defence.)
Once it became clear that with heroic resistance on the part of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and remarkable fortitude on the part of the city’s civilians, the fate of Mykolaïv was to remain within free Ukraine, the continued Russian occupation of Kherson lost strategic military significance as it was just an outpost stretching supply lines. The only asset of strategic value in Kherson is a railhead to Crimea; but the Russians already have a (superior) Crimean railway service over the Crimean Bridge via Kerch. Therefore the historically quaint city of Kherson became a burden - nothing more than a propaganda tool to appease Russian television audiences - and the decision was made to abandon the city in favour of regroupment on the south side of the mouth of the Dnieper River in November 2022. There the Russian Armed Forces have remained entrenched ever since, having destroyed the bridges and other crossings over the Dnieper River all the way up to their heavily fortified front line south of Zaporizhzhia, to the northeast of Kherson also on the Dnieper River.
The Ukrainian Armed Forces are currently undertaking a significant offensive in the closing weeks of the summer fighting period in the Kherson region, shelling the Russian Armed Forces’ positions on a daily basis and the Russian positions are retaliating and firing back. Now the Russians seem to be deploying armed drones with laser-guided bombs and possibly even cruise missiles in the region, to deter the Ukrainian offensive. The city of Mykolaïv has filled up recently with Ukrainian troops, who now increasingly occupy virtually every hotel in town. These troops are all part of the push upon the front in Kherson in the closing weeks of fighting in 2023 before winter sets in. However it is not entirely clear what strategic goal the Ukrainian Armed Forces hope to achieve in Kherson in the next few weeks. To obtain any significant advance, they would have to pontoon the river - extremely wide at its mouth at the city of Kherson - and then launch a ground invasion. Despite their aspirations to use air power to achieve military success in the Kherson region, the Ukrainian Armed Forces are still a long way from having sufficient aircraft or trained personnel to fly them in such quantities as to make a material difference in what is essentially a ground offensive to traverse a very wide river.
Throughout history it has been notoriously hard for ground armies to traverse rivers, particularly wide ones and particularly where, as with the Dnieper, the surrounding territory is flat on both sides. Flat territory entails that it is easy to observe and to target military movements without using substantially high-tech equipment, and that is what the Russians are presumably doing in their now frequent shelling of the city of Kherson and its surrounds. The frequency of Russian shelling - and contemporary Russian shelling systems are fairly accurate at short range - is such that Kherson is now extremely dangerous to visit for civilians and military personnel alike. If the Ukrainians have a plan to pontoon the river and invade the Russian-occupied south bank of Kherson then they would be foolhardy to attempt such a course in the absence of overwhelming air superiority which they are unlikely to be able to achieve given the effectiveness of the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile systems and the fact that, as the Russians have recently been demonstrating, they have hypersonic missile capabilities of both an air-to-air and air-to-surface nature that can be deployed from strategic bombers based in Russia that never leave Russian territory.
We need seriously to take stock of the fact that we are currently in a stalemate situation. Russia’s grip upon the occupied Ukrainian territories remains strong, and the recent Ukrainian advances, while laudable, have come at a cost of far too many lives of military personnel and civilian suffering alike. Although we are seeing substantial activity on the part of the Ukrainian Armed Forces at the end of the 2023 fighting season in Ukraine, perhaps to demonstrate that the much-advertised offensive is succeeding, it seems relatively unlikely that significant territorial gains will be achieved in the next few weeks.
We very much hope this prediction proves wrong and that the sudden upsurge in live fighting all along the front line in Ukraine achieves real results for the heroic and sturdy Ukrainian Armed Forces before the winter season sets in and the dynamic of the war shifts to one of protecting civilians and military alike from the cold, ensuring that all people get through the Ukrainian winter alive and well-nourished. Nevertheless as the fighting season now comes to a close, we should watch with great care the results achieved in the next few weeks as a result of the increased fighting and then we need to develop renewed strategies for territorial acquisition from the occupying Russian forces as the next fighting season begins in late February 2024. That may seem a long way off; but the time to start planning is now.
It is unimaginable that the de facto borders the Russians have carved for themselves out of sovereign Ukrainian territory are permitted to stand in modern Europe, that prides itself upon the rule of international law and the peaceful resolution of political disputes after a horrendous twentieth century dominated by carnage and destruction on the battlefields of Europe. That should never be allowed to recur, and yet it has done. If the Ukrainian Armed Forces are to obtain significant advances early in the next fighting season, we in the West need to start planning now and thinking precisely what quantities of equipment, munitions and civilian support are required to help them dislodge the entrenched Russian positions on their territory. This is a matter of urgency. We should be observing the course of the various offensives being pursued over the next few weeks with the utmost care, and then we should be developing those observations into a coherent and adequately funded and supplied military strategy to assist the Ukrainian Armed Forces to achieving significant territorial victories in early 2024.
Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.