On Monday, there were reports that Ukrainian forces had moved out of the recently liberated town of Rivnopil in the Zaporizhzhia area and were heading toward the village of Pryyutne, 7 kilometers to the south. On Tuesday, there were reports that there was fighting near that town. On Wednesday, there are unconfirmed reports that Pryyutne has been liberated. That might not be the same kind of lightning race across the landscape that was seen during the Kharkiv counteroffensive last year, but it’s pretty darn good by anyone’s measure.
Also on Monday, Ukrainian forces were at the edge of high ground to the west of the town of Klishchiivka, just south of Bakhmut. On Tuesday, Ukrainian forces took much of that high ground. On Wednesday, there are reports that Russian forces have abandoned positions in Klishchiivka and are retreating to “more defensible positions.”
But the most amazing and encouraging thing about both these accomplishments is that Ukraine seems to be gaining ground while inflicting losses on Russia that are far greater than what Ukraine is suffering. In part, that’s because Russia is conducting their defense in a way that’s not just counterintuitive, but very costly. But it’s also because people keep making a claim about the cost of attack that’s just plain wrong.
Based on the numbers from Oryx, since the counteroffensive got rolling on the first of June, Ukraine has confirmed losses of 302 vehicles and pieces of heavy equipment, including 49 tanks, six towed artillery, 10 self-propelled artillery, and one MLRS. Of those tanks, eight were the German-made Leopard 2. At least two of those Leopards have been recovered and sent for repairs. Still, the rate of tank loss was 50% higher than average for Ukraine in the last month than it has been over the period of the whole invasion, and it shows just how tanks have been taking the lead in pushing through the heavily mined fields in southern Ukraine.
Over that same period, here’s how Russian losses have been structured: Russia has confirmed losses of 446 vehicles and pieces of heavy equipment overall. That includes 79 tanks, 23 towed artillery, 29 self-propelled artillery, and 22 MLRS.
Those numbers are, of course, well below the estimates of the Ukrainian military, which would set Russia’s losses over this period at 258 tanks, 814 artillery pieces, and 81 MLRS. Even though these numbers seem high compared to what Oryx has been able to confirm through photos, it’s always worth remembering that the Ukrainian military has access to information, including photos and video of incidents that are not floating around the internet. Their numbers are almost certainly high, but they could easily be more accurate than those of Oryx. That’s especially the case with artillery systems, where destruction rates have been very high over the last week. Oryx generally runs several days behind in recording losses, and Ukraine has claimed over 30 artillery.
But no matter where you feel the truth lies, one thing is clear: Russia is losing more equipment and more men defending against Ukraine’s counteroffensive than Ukraine is losing in conducting that counteroffensive.
The big surprise to many may be that this is exactly how it’s supposed to work. All over the internet—especially in statements from Russian-supporting politicians and Twitter tankies—there are claims that anyone conducting an offensive can expect to lose three times as many men as the defending side. That’s usually accompanied by some claim that Ukraine has lost tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people since the counteroffensive began. Oh, the humanity. Toss in a little performative hand-wringing. Finish up with a declaration that the only solution is for Ukraine to sign an agreement right now that cedes Russia a huge chunk of their nation.
However, this idea that the attacker is going to lose more than the defender is a basic misunderstanding of what’s usually called the “3:1 rule of combat.” That rule actually says that although there are situations where the necessary ratio may be smaller or larger, in general an attacking force needs to bring about three times as many resources to bear on a front-line location than defenders can use in holding that point. There is an assumption that:
In any combat, there is a point where losses reach a level where unit cohesion collapses.
Being on the defense provides a tactical advantage.
Because of this, an attacking force needs to bring additional resources to the fight. Otherwise it is more likely to fall below the level of unit cohesion, ending the possibility of advance.
How much more? It could be 1.5:1. It could be 10:1. It depends on how well prepared the defensive positions are, and how well defenders are deployed to use their tactical advantage. The 3:1 number has become a general rule of thumb widely spread in both military textbooks and general media that is based on experience across a wide variety of conditions. There are actually studies that indicate an appropriate ratio for attacking troops striking well-established defensive positions (think hitting the beaches at Normandy) should be closer to 6:1.
This isn’t just an American rule. The Russians have also been big believers in the 3:1 rule, though they’ve also tended to add that the ratio of artillery should be a whopping 8:1 or 9:1, because their system of attack is based on simply pulverizing enemy positions.
However, there are things about the 3:1 rule that are rarely mentioned when it makes it into the media–things that have a lot to say about what’s happening right now in UKraine.
This is a local rule. The generally accepted idea is that it involves the number of forces that can be concentrated over an area of the front line from 20-50 km wide. Having 100,000 men sitting around elsewhere doesn’t help. It’s what’s on the ground, at the position of attack, that counts.
The 3:1 ratio only applies to what’s known as a “breakthrough battle”--that is, a battle in which an attacker goes head on against a defender in an “extended and well-developed front.” It doesn’t apply to fights between isolated groups, or to attacks made against defenders holding recently captured territory. That’s why so many times, there are see-saw battles where small changes result in the same ground trading hands multiple times.
The rule does not apply to “envelopments” where the attacker is able to assault a position from multiple directions, cut off the defender’s lines of communication, or strike defending forces from the flank or rear.
And here’s the big one, the one that really fits what’s happening right now in Ukraine: The 3:1 rule of combat does not apply to what are called “meeting engagements.” These are defined as fights where the defender leaves prepared positions and meets the attacker in the open. To quote from a 1989 study assessing the importance of the 3:1 rule:
The 3:1 rule is not relevant in assessing [this type] of combat, because the defender is not fighting from prepared positions and surrenders his defensive advantage.
Which is exactly what has been happening all along the Zaporizhzhia front line as Russia has repeatedly attempted to hold territory in advance of its defensive positions.
The reason that “sit here and shoot everyone coming up the hill” is intrinsically easier than “take that ridge” is largely dependent on “here” being a spot with a trench, or sandbags, or pillboxes that make shooting more likely than being shot. Russia has given away that edge. Instead of sitting in the defensive positions a dozen kilometers south of places like Staromaiorske or Zherebyanky, Russia keeps rushing more forces to those locations and trying to retake ground that Ukraine has recently liberated.
Here’s another quote from that 1989 study.
During the breakthrough battle, the defender must fight largely from prepared positions, and not rely heavily on counterattacks as his means of defense. Otherwise he surrenders his defensive advantage.
In this situation, the idea that the defending Russians are losing more than the attacking Ukrainians should not be a surprise. Not only does the 3:1 rule not predict the rate of casualties, it also explicitly does not apply to this situation.
Russia reportedly has 120,000 men on the front lines between villages just north of Kupyansk and the woods bordering Kreminna. However, it only has 50,000 men remaining in the area around Bakhmut, where the fighting on the eastern front is taking place. In that area, Ukraine is able to provide a ratio of attacking force able to generate a level of losses necessary to destroy Russia’s unit cohesion.
That’s why Ukraine is about to take Klishchiivka. It’s why they are successfully moving toward Yahidne. It’s why they are coming close to pushing Russian forces from the heights near Dubovo-Vasylivka.
It’s unclear how many men Russia has on the southern front. It’s undoubtedly a lot, because Russia values this area above all the other territory it has taken in Ukraine and knows that Ukraine also desperately wants to liberate cities like Melitopol and Mariupol. Frankly, Russia would tut-tut sadly over the loss of the “Luhansk People’s Republic” and “Donetsk People’s Republic,” but so long as they had that land bridge to Crimea, Putin would be smiling.
That’s why Zaporizhzhia Oblast is so heavily overrun with trenches, pillboxes, dragon’s teeth, mine fields, and whatever else could be erected that might slow a tank or trip up infantry.
However, at the moment Russia seems to be counting on two things to slow the Ukrainian advance: minefields and artillery. So long as advancing Ukrainian vehicles are constrained by the need to move slowly, on defined lanes, through fields heavy with anti-tank and anti-personnel mines, and artillery is available to hit vehicles picking their way through those lanes, Russia seems to feel that they don’t need no stinkin’ trench.
But despite Russia’s best efforts, not every approach to the south is mined and not every location is subject to crossing fire from multiple artillery positions. Ukraine has been inching forward for weeks at heavily defended Robotyne. It advanced on Pryyutne in a couple of days.
No one on Ukraine’s side in the conflict is happy about the speed with which the counteroffensive has been able to regain territory, or about those Leopard tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles sitting in fields north of Robotyne. But what’s happening in this counteroffensive has other measures than just kilometers gained.
Look again at that first bullet point describing the concepts behind the 3:1 rule: “In any combat, there is a point where losses reach a level where unit cohesion collapses.”
When that happens to an attacking force it’s called culmination, and it represents an ideal time for a counterattack. When it happens to a defending force, it’s just called collapse. It’s also known as losing.
By fighting outside of its defensive positions, attempting to hold ground where it surrenders most of its defending advantage, Russia is risking suffering a level of attrition that brings it to that point of collapse. In some areas, it may be bordering on that point already. When that happens, all the dragon’s teeth in the world won’t save it.
In the area around Bakmut, Ukrainian forces have reportedly withdrawn from the southern end of Berkhivka, finding it too costly to occupy so long as Russia still clings to the high ground near Dubovo-Vasylivka. That Russian position is close to being cut off and there are reports that some forces have been withdrawn, but it still represents a dangerous position, and one that Russia would very much like to hold. If Ukraine can surround the Russian artillery there, or force them to retreat, Berkhivka will come in a walkover.
Instead of Berkhivka, Ukrainian forces have turned east to press into Yahidne where they are having apparent success advancing into the edges of the town. There are also reports of more Ukrainian forces moving east from Orikhovo-Vasylivka, possibly to join forces northwest of Bakhmut, but right now those reports are lacking detail.
The counteroffensive northeast of Vasylivka appears to be just about where it was last week. FIRMS data shows likely artillery fire at positions just across the bay south of Kamyansk, and south of the highway about halfway between Pyatykhatky and Zherebyanky. Both of these likely represent Russian artillery firing at Ukrainian positions.
However, for the third day in a row there is also a large collection of hotspots down near Hladke, though today activity appears east of the town rather than west. This may well represent Ukrainian fire on Russian positions near that settlement. If so, Ukraine is really pounding this area.
Images from the area show that Russia is still fighting, and still taking losses, in Zherebyanky. Russian sources claim Ukraine lost three tanks in the original assault on Zherebyanky back on June 27. They also report an assault “supported by armored vehicles” was stopped by fire from helicopters on July 4.
The best bet is simply that fighting in this area is ongoing. Again, this is well in advance of Russia’s defensive lines in the area, which are closer to Vasylivka.
Ukrainian forces continue to advance toward Robotyne and are reportedly just outside the town. Fighting in the area continues to be hard, but it has also been very hard on that Russian attrition rate.
Based on the units involved, this T-90M was likely lost at Robotyne.
And it looks like Ukrainian forces have advanced sufficiently to pose with this liberated T-72.
Keen-eyed observers will note the new blue area around Luhviske. This is a genuine Ukrainian advance. It was not previously on the map because I somehow managed to miss that Russia had taken control of this village some months ago. Fighting in that area is now at Novokarlivka. Russia has reportedly rushed several units to defend this location, which is seen as an important highway intersection along the road to Polohy. Though again, this is well in advance of their prepared defensive positions.
There are also some indications that Ukraine has moved south at two other points between Robotyne and Luhviske. No details as of yet, but that blue salient above Robotyne should likely extend at least as far as the next highway to the east.
The push south toward Pryyutne reportedly concluded within the last few hours with the liberation of that location, but this remains unconfirmed. However, the capture of Rivnopil last week, and movement west from Makarivka, placed an area of high ground southeast of Rivnopil in Ukrainian control.
This area looks down on the towns of Staromaiorske and Urozhaine that Russia has now been fighting to hold for almost three weeks. An attack on this area was reportedly underway at (checks watch) now o’clock.
Russia has pushed a lot of material and troops into these towns in an effort to hold the line. Should Ukraine complete the liberation of these two towns, the next fight in this area will likely be at the actual defensive line near Staromlynivka—though I wouldn’t bet against Russia pushing forward more men and machines in an effort to hold the fields in between.
Elsewhere there are reports that Ukraine has made an advance in the area of Vuhledar. No details. There are also reports that Russia has failed, again, to eliminate the Ukrainian bridgehead east of Kherson. An attempt at hitting Ukrainian forces with Russian “precision” weapons appears to have resulted in splashes located precisely in the middle of the river, hundreds of feet beyond Ukrainian positions.
Continued concerns about Zaporizhzhia
Make no mistake, any effort by Russia to deliberately damage the nuclear power plant at Zaporizhzhia would be an extraordinary mistake. While even this would be unlikely to put American boots on the ground in Ukraine, it might be enough to put American pilots in the skies over the Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Other nations have already made it clear they would treat any deliberate nuclear catastrophe in the same way they would treat deployment of a strategic nuclear weapon.
Russia is losing in Ukraine. They’re losing in the counteroffensive. Whether they’re losing so badly that they would consider a move as desperate as blowing up the largest operating nuclear plant in Europe … let’s hope not.
We’ve had situations before where Ukraine warned of a plan by Russia to damage the plant.
We’ve had situations before where locals reported Russian forces leaving the area of the plant.
We’ve had situations before where there were reports of explosives at the plant.
Now we have all three. The IAEA says their most recent inspection found no signs of explosives, and that’s a good thing. But the Ukrainians appear to be genuinely and understandably concerned about Russia’s intentions toward the Zaporizhzhya NPP. Over the holiday, there were even reports of evacuations taking place as far away as Melitopol, which were attributed more to Russia’s plans to blow up the plant rather than fretting over Ukraine’s advance to the south.
This falls in the category of, “I do not know.” But it’s definitely a threat that can’t be ignored.
How to turn a collection of rifles into a makeshift anti-aircraft gun.