Sen. Lindsey Graham was recently in Ukraine, telling Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a meeting that “the Russians are dying... it's the best money we've ever spent.” This display earned him an “arrest warrant” from the Russian government. Russian propagandists called for his assassination. I’ve never been more defensive of a Republican. He’s our asshole. Back off! Fulton County has dibs on arresting him, thank you very much.
That said, it’s great seeing prominent Republicans—especially strong Trump allies—hold the line against the Republican Party’s creeping pro-Putin, pro-Russia sentiment. “I will submit to jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court if you do,” he quipped at Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. “Come and make your best case. See you in The Hague!”
More excitingly, he claimed he got an advance look at Ukraine’s counterattack war plans and ramped up the hype in an interview with Politico, saying a date for the counteroffensive has already been set.
The Russians are “in for a rude awakening” when the Ukrainian counteroffensive begins, Sen. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-S.C.) told NatSec Daily following a weekend trip to Kyiv.
The lawmaker received a “deep dive” briefing on Ukraine’s military plans from President VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY and his team, he said in a phone interview during his return home. “In the coming days, you’re going to see a pretty impressive display of power by the Ukrainians.”
The reaction in the online pro-Ukraine space is jubilant, but there are two camps emerging. The first urges caution, arguing that combined arms warfare is incredibly difficult in the best of circumstances, and Ukraine is dealing with freshly formed units operating unfamiliar equipment. The other camp sees rank Russian incompetence and assumes a cakewalk.
It’s okay to hope for the latter, but it’s safest to assume the former, and to plan for it.
Lest I be accused of hypocrisy up front, I have been optimistic. “We’ll find out soon enough if the hype matches the reality. But given what we’re seeing in Bakhmut today, I’m feeling particularly optimistic about Ukraine’s near-term prospects,” I wrote two weeks ago, hopefully not jinxing anything. “I’ve certainly lost all faith in Russia’s ability to do anything right So I’ll go out on a long limb (knocking on wood) and predict that at some point, we may be writing updates about Ukraine’s real problem in its offensive—the problem of advancing so fast that they outrun their supply lines.”
Thing is, that is a hope, based on the performance of Russian troops in a small corner of the map, and one which doesn’t feature the extensively prepared positions. Those gains around Bakhmut? They were squad-level, small-unit, opportunistic advances. Here’s one such attack:
I’ve linked to that before, and it certainly bears watching if you haven’t seen it before. The assault involves a single M113 armored personnel carrier and a squad of eight Ukrainians. There is no armor support. An engineering unit is supposed to assist, but repeated calls on the radio yield nothing. Even at this smallest scale, they couldn’t combine two branches of their army, much less the seven or more branches that go into a combined arms defensive breach attempt.
Here’s what that looks like:
A combined arms assault requires the close choreography of scouts/reconnaissance, artillery, air, electronic warfare, combat engineering, armor, infantry, and logistics. Every piece has to do its role to perfection, or the whole dance falls apart. The video is based on NATO doctrine, so there’s a lot of aircraft involved. Ukraine would use drones, so the details might differ some, but all the elements in the video, plus more (like counter-drone electronic warfare), will need to exist.
The OSINT account Ukrainian Memes for NATO Teens (which is far better than the name implies) had a great look at the challenges a Ukrainian assault should face:
In this road to Popasna, you can see how defenses extend outward into the field, making it difficult to either go down the road, or go offroad into the fields in an attempt to flank these defenses. With drones, Russia will see any attack coming from miles away and relatively easily move its forces to the contact point while their artillery pounds the incoming assault. Even in the best-case scenario, lots of Ukrainians would die before they even reach the first line of mobiks.
There’s a reason that Ukraine is claiming dozens of destroyed artillery guns every day for the last month—their “shaping the battlefield” operations are prioritizing Russia’s big artillery advantage, and its ability to thwart any Ukrainian advance.
Ukraine Memes explains the challenge:
For context here, these defensive lines are littered with AT [anti-tank] mines in advance of the dragons teeth with shallow trenches that stop wheeled vehicles.
Obstacle belts are not impenetrable defenses nor are they meant to be. They offer staggered obstacles that must be cleared one by one.
This diagram is a good example that typifies a lot of these lines. Before and after the anti tank (probably should be called anti-vehicle, narrower trenches can be crossed by tanks) ditch will be AT mines covering the width. So your breaching force needs to first clear a hole through the mines.
Mind you this is a very narrow hole that all follow-on vehicles must follow. And if this is being watched by drones the enemy now knows the only path you can cross & makes that area a priority artillery/mortar/guided munitions target.
So you have this narrow path through which only tracked vehicles that can bridge the first ditch can get across until bridging assets are placed (all while under fire). Now the far side of the anti-tank ditch must be cleared of mines, again, a very narrow lane (which must be done super speedily).
Now tracked & wheeled vehicles can cross (in a super well defined targeting area for the enemy) but the dragons teeth must also be cleared. And owing to the continuous issue with mines, tanks/breaching vehicles can't just full speed ahead & pray their momentum overcomes the dragons teeth. Some of them will get knocked out in the process, some will face issues displacing dragons teeth/get stuck. Invariably a portion will reach them & breach them, and hope to God the other side is not yet another mine belt.
At this point your actual breach force, the tanks, [Infantry Fighting Vehicles], HMMWVs etc etc can push through & begin assaulting the defended trenches (or treelines) and hope they're minimally defended/enough of the assault force survived to get there. But your follow-on forces are still having to stream through these narrow channels to slowly get enough forces through the gap. Hopefully you've made multiple successful beaches so any one effort failing or stalling doesn't ruin your push. All the while you hopefully have reserve engineering forces to widen the breaches: for follow on forces, to evacuate casualties, or in case an effort fails, that you can safely exit without getting trapped.
All of this is visually shown in the breach video above, but it bears reading it to underscore the challenge. Note that during this entire process, Ukraine is getting hammered by artillery. The idea that Russia’s untrained mobilized mobiks will turn and run at first sight of the enemy is a possibility, for sure. Still, most of the Ukrainian carnage will happen before the first contact, in a hail of artillery, mortar fire, anti-tank missiles, and other long-range ordinance. And while Russian battlefield effectiveness is mockable, they continue to fight. In the small-unit assault video above, a Russian soldier in a trench is given multiple opportunities to surrender. He fights to the death despite being surrounded.
There is a lot of chortling at the quality of the Russian defenses, like its dragon's teeth:
Russian craftsmanship certainly isn’t up to the WWII standards featured in the main image at the top of this story. But remember, these defenses aren’t meant to stop an advance. They’re meant to slow it down so artillery can wipe out the assault force.
My hope is that once the first lines are breached, Russia’s obvious lack of a mobile reserve and an empty backfield allows Ukraine to romp behind enemy lines, cutting off supplies and isolating the defenders. That seems quite possible, in fact. But breaching the lines will require a great deal of planning, practice (which is why no one has been in a hurry to start the counterattack), some more practice, and a great deal of luck.
Did I mention lots of practice?
Again, people on Twitter laughed at the ease with which this Challenger tossed aside the dragon’s teeth, but this is a tank with an engineering (plow) attachment. What happens if an artillery shell or anti-tank missile knocks it out? Do all the tanks in the assault have these attachments? Of course not. Suddenly, this tank isn’t just prevented from clearing the opening, but it is now part of the defenses, a bottleneck blocking the path of follow-up vehicles, making them susceptible to defensive fire.
Again, this shit is hard. The most experienced, best-trained, most-cohesive armies struggle to pull it off. There’s nothing easy or trivial about these defenses. In any realistic best-case scenario, it will be bloody.
If Ukraine has successfully trained the ability to launch a massive multi-brigade combined arms assault, then yes, they’ll succeed. Hopefully, they’ve used the last eight months to learn those skills because, to date, we haven’t seen them (or the Russians, for that matter) pull it off. Otherwise, not only will their losses be frighteningly high, but the sacrifice made by the defenders of Bakhmut and elsewhere along the front will have been for naught.
Hope for the best, plan for the worst, and pray the stars align.