When the Ukrainian military launched its counteroffensive into occupied territory in Zaporizhzhia, many analysts were at first disappointed that it didn’t seem Ukraine was taking its new Western gear and assembling it into a NATO-style combined arms attack. But truthfully, that was never realistic.
Ukraine doesn’t have the careful set of matched military components found in the U.S., or U.K., or any other army. It’s saddled with a set of castoffs, has-beens, and overruns—an assemblage of the Soviet-era gear it had on hand when Russia invaded, and the Western weapons and vehicles that have arrived in unpredictable fits and starts over the last year and a half. It doesn’t have the air dominance on which Western tactics often depend. It doesn’t have the years of training and repeated practice that it takes to turn combined arms from an easy-to-mouth phrase into a tough-to-execute, but effective, practice.
There was also disappointment that Ukraine wasn’t doing what it did in Kharkiv, where rapid flanking left Russian line forces protecting unimportant hard points, and a quick drive penetrating deep into Russian-controlled territory turned what had been the front lines into a crumbling collection of unsupported positions. We’re only just starting to understand what Ukraine is doing in the south. And what we’re learning … looks pretty good.
In Kherson, Ukraine used medium- and long-range precision weapons, like HIMARS, to take out Russian-controlled bridges across the Dnipro River and repeatedly punish Russian attempts to replace that access using pontoon bridges or ferry systems. The results didn’t come overnight, and Ukraine sacrificed terribly in places like Davydiv Brid and Snihurivka while waiting for the long game to deliver benefits.
But the strategy of choking off Russia’s access to supplies paid off in the most spectacular way. In fact, it may have been the only strategy that allowed Ukrainian forces to do this.
In a way where “liberating” a city has often meant weary troops marching into ruins, Ukraine liberated the only regional capital taken by Russia in spectacular style, with highways lined by cheering crowds and tearful homecomings. It was glorious.
There has certainly been something of the Kherson strategy at work in Zaporizhzhia. Ukraine has repeatedly made efforts to limit the supplies that Russia can bring in across the Kerch Bridge into Crimea. It’s also hit both road and rail bridges in the area around Novooleksiivka, where supplies come up out of Crimea.
But there are definite limits to how well the supply-starvation strategy can work in southern Ukraine for a simple reason: Russia borders Ukraine for hundreds of kilometers. Even if Russian logistics suck, even if they haven’t discovered that modern wonder that is a pallet, supplies can still ooze their way to the front lines along rails and highways that run straight back into Russia. Ukraine’s efforts to damage bridges and rail infrastructure certainly don’t make it easy for Russia, and there’s no doubt that regular strikes against ammunition stores and storage sites are testing Russia’s limited ability to replace both arms and ammo, but Ukraine is never going to damage enough roads and bridges in southern Ukraine to make Russia stroll out of Crimea in a “gesture of goodwill.”
Tokmak and Melitipol, Berdyansk and Mariupol, are all going to come down to a fight.
So far, as Ukraine has progressed across towns and villages like Robotyne, Staromaiorske, and Urozhaine, the future signal to cities in southern Ukraine has been … not great. Because in all those smaller places, Ukraine has deployed tactics not so dissimilar from those that Russia engaged in when capturing Severodonetsk or Bakhmut. Tactics that might as well say “Step 1. Knock down anything big enough to hide a rabbit.”
But there are reasons to be hopeful. Because as Ukraine advances, this is becoming less of an artillery war. It’s becoming, as kos has discussed, an infantry war—one in which the heavy vehicles are confined more and more to playing a role that’s mostly that of artillery in the rear, rather than tanks leading the charge.
You can see something similar in how the head of Ukraine’s Main Intelligence Directorate, Kyrylo Budanov, explains why Ukraine isn’t too worried about how the coming fall rains will interfere with efforts to continue the counteroffensive.
According to Budanov, tanks and other heavy equipment have become less effective because of the proliferation of human-carried anti-tank systems and the effectiveness of kamikaze drones.
Look at any record of losses over the past several weeks and you’ll see the same thing: Drones costing less than $1,000 represent a tremendous threat to equipment whose value runs into the millions. So much so, that the role of that equipment on the battlefield is being forced to change.
“Therefore, our offensive is mainly conducted on foot,” says Budanov. “It was the same last autumn in Bakhmut; we used minimal armored vehicle support.”
That doesn’t mean that Ukraine doesn’t need tanks, or armored transports, or the F-16s that will, hopefully, appear around the end of the year. It does mean that the kind of videos you’ve seen again and again on the southern front, the ones that show Ukrainian forces flushing Russian troops from a position with the help of drones and cluster bombs, then rushing forward to capture those positions, is something you should expect to see often in the future.
The tank isn’t dead. Yet. Artillery certainly isn’t dead. Yet. But drones are driving a high-speed evolution of tactics in Ukraine, and where those tactics are currently driving the counteroffensive looks like a strategy that is heavily dependent on skilled infantry forces willing to advance against enemy fire.
But these aren’t suicide troops. Ukraine hasn’t adopted the Wagner Group’s zerg approach to warfare. Instead they’ve created a new kind of “combined arms,” where those arms are precision-guided cluster weapons, drones that do everything from providing surveillance to taking out equipment, and infantry that clears trenches and sets the new forward position. Then the rest of the army tucks up behind them so they can do it again.
There will undoubtedly turn out to be places where a good old-fashioned tank charge still works, and hopefully locations where Ukraine can make the kind of lightning advance it did in Kharkiv. But the point is those tactics are old-fashioned now. Weaponry, and warfare, has moved on.
As awful as this kind of display has been, this kind of attack has turned out to be only sporadically effective. That’s something of a surprise. It’s probably a surprise to Russia, as well.
Whoever is keeping those lists of how many tanks and other vehicles Russia still has in reserve might want to chat with this guy about how many should be stricken from those lists.
Several big explosions today at different locations on the eastern front. Boy, if this whole Zaporizhzhia attack turns out to be a feint, we’re all going to be surprised when Ukraine drives into Donetsk.
Speaking of which …
Kerry and Markos talk about what is happening in Ukraine, what needs to be done, and why the fate of Ukraine is tied to democracy’s fate in 2024.