Ukraine and NATO build castles in the air
“He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot, will be victorious” – Sun Tzu, The Art of War
War has a terribly addictive quality to it. People are fascinated by the destructive power war brings to the forefront, and even as they are repulsed by the violence, they are attracted by the allure of watching man do what man does best—organized destruction. In the past, people far removed from the conflict followed the course of a war by reading about battles long after they were fought, and charting progress on a map. Today, with the advent of 24-hour news networks and internet-driven social media, people can follow events in near real-time. The intimacy this access to information provides also transforms people away from the kind of measured analyst time and distance mandated in the past, to impassioned activists today self-empowered to second-guess the actions of those who are not only given the responsibility of waging war, but upon whose shoulders the burden of command responsibility rests.
It’s easy to be a hero while typing on a keyboard far removed from the reality of the battlefield.
It’s another thing altogether to make life-or-death decisions while events evolve in an active war zone.
When General Sergey Vladimirovich Surovikin assumed command of the special military operation (SMO), he inherited a situation which could best be described as “unstable.” The SMO had been operating with a force structure which was not up to the task, with significant segments of the front line undermanned, often with just 30-60 men allocated per kilometer, and no defense in depth. The Ukrainian army that had existed at the start of the SMO had been eviscerated by the Russian forces. However, the decision by the United States and its NATO allies to reinforce Ukraine with tens of billions of dollars’ worth of heavy weapons (tanks, armored fighting vehicles, artillery, and aircraft), and to provide vital strategic depth for Ukrainian forces to be organized, trained, and equipped without fear of Russian interdiction, and for critical command and control, intelligence, and logistics networks to be organized in direct support of Ukrainian military operations against Russia, put Russia at a disadvantage.
With the assistance of the US and NATO (and aided by thousands of foreign combatants), Ukraine was, by mid-summer, able to reconstitute a force of around 50,000 men trained and equipped to NATO standards. In accordance with an operational plan devised with the help of NATO, this new force went on the offensive against Russian forces in the Kharkov and Kherson regions. To prevent the unnecessary loss of life, Russia opted to cede territory in the face of superior Ukrainian forces, ultimately consolidating their lines along more defensible terrain.
The price paid by Ukraine in terms of lives and equipment lost was heavy, with an estimated 20,000 Ukrainian soldiers being killed or wounded, and hundreds of tanks and armored fighting vehicles destroyed. So heavy were the losses that, to sustain the offensive, Ukraine was compelled to forgo the formation of a second 50,000-man corps-sized unit, instead throwing in the units designated for this second wave into the attack as soon as they were made available.
Scott Ritter will discuss this article and answer audience questions Friday night on Ask the Inspector.
In response to this Ukrainian offensive, Russia undertook a “partial mobilization” of some 300,000 men; it is estimated that between 80-100,000 additional “volunteers” were assimilated by Russian recruiting centers at the same time.
The mobilized forces were all men with prior military experience. Some, who had been recently released from service and whose combat skills were still fresh, were subjected to a period of “refresher” training, and dispatched directly to the SMO, where they were integrated into existing formations, bringing them up to strength. Russian President Vladimir Putin estimated the numbers of such troops at around 80,000.
Others were allocated to reserve combat units, where they continue to receive specialized training on tactics and operations at the unit level. It is estimated that these forces, numbering some 200,000 men, will complete their training sometime in December. When they are dispatched to the SMO, they will be organized into a force of around 10-15 divisions, fully equipped and ready to be used as needed at the front.
General Surovikin took command of the SMO on October 16. Two days later, he gave a press conference in which he described the situation on the ground in the Kherson region as “tense.” On his orders, civilian authorities began evacuating non-combatant persons from the territory held by Russian forces on the west bank of the Dnieper River, including the city of Kherson proper. One of the reasons cited to justify this action was a growing concern on the part of Russian officials that Ukraine was preparing to destroy a major dam on the Dnieper, north of Kherson, at the Nova Kakhovka hydroelectric power station. If this dam were destroyed, a wall of water between 5 to 15 meters high would sweep down the river, washing away critical infrastructure, killing thousands, and trapping survivors—military and civilian alike—on the west bank. An estimated 200,000 civilians and 30,000 Russian troops would be put at risk. The evacuation of civilians from the west bank of the Dnieper River, when seen in this light, was a prudent humanitarian move in total compliance with the responsibilities assumed by a military commander under the law of war.
While this evacuation was taking place, Russian forces held off concerted attacks by the NATO-trained and equipped Ukrainian army. These attacks were all, without exception, defeated by the Russian defenders. In the month of October alone, Russia assesses that Ukraine lost 12,000 men in support of these operations, while Russian losses were limited to between 1,300-1,500 men. Most of the Russian casualties came because of artillery bombardment by the Ukrainian forces, using their western-provided heavy artillery, which were guided to their targets by real-time intelligence shared by the United States.
This artillery war was being conducted on terms which expressly favored the Ukrainians. Under normal circumstances, artillery attacks assume the character of a duel, with each side seeking to locate the artillery resources of the other either before or after they fire their rounds downrange. Despite western claims that the western artillery systems provided to Ukraine outrange their Russian equivalent systems, this is simply not true, and on an even playing field, Russia possesses artillery systems which, when combined with target identification techniques (drones, counterbattery radar, SIGINT, etc.), would enable Russian artillery to carry out effective counterbattery fires against the Ukrainians.
But when the Ukrainians can operate their artillery in a manner which allows them to interdict Russian logistics, making it difficult to resupply Russian artillery units or provide effective operational and intelligence support (i.e., interdiction of Russian command and control), the artillery duel becomes one-sided, and it is the Russian troops who pay the price. By pulling Russian forces out of the west bank of the Dnieper, the Russian command was eliminating the artillery advantage that Ukraine had accrued.
With Russian forces dug in on the east bank of the Dnieper, Russian artillery would be able to be employed in a fashion which maximized its qualitative and quantitative advantages. In short, any Ukrainian forces seeking to approach the Dnieper River would be targeted by massed fires, breaking up their advance. Likewise, Ukrainian artillery would find itself in an untenable position, unable to concentrate their fires or be employed in a tactically sound manner for fear of being detected and destroyed by Russian counterbattery fires.
Russian forces may very well have been able to sustain a presence on the west bank of the Dnieper, but at what cost? The highly favorable casualty ration that was produced in the October fighting would have evened out, or even been adjusted to favor the Ukrainians. The fundamental question facing Russian leadership was this: what price was Russia willing to pay to hold on to the west bank of the Dnieper River? No Russian leader was willing to sacrifice up to 3,000 troops to sustain a frontline which gave Ukraine all the advantages. General Surovikin recommended the adjustment, and General Sergei Shoigu, the Russian Minister of Defense, agreed.
Russian mothers, wives, and children should applaud this decision, as should anyone who holds the life of a Russian soldier in high regard.
Moreover, on can never forget the threat posed by the potential destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam. How could any responsible commander risk the lives of his troops under such a threat? Imagine the outrage that would be expressed by these very same keyboard heroes when trying to square the deaths of thousands of Russian troops, and the potential capture of thousands more, in the aftermath of such a catastrophe? Why didn’t the Russian commanders do something to prevent this, they would cry.
General Surovikin just did.
Ukraine and its NATO supporters will, of course, brag about this significant victory. But headline grabbing does not translate into battlefield success. At the same time Russia is preserving its most precious resource—its manpower—Ukraine will be squandering thousands more lives to obtain propaganda value from photographs showing the Ukrainian flag raised in Kherson. The Ukrainian “victory” in Kherson resembles that of the ancient Greek ruler Pyrrhus, in defeating the Romans at Asculum in Apulia in 279 BC. While his forces held the field, it was accomplished only at a great cost. “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans,” Pyrrhus said after the battle, “we shall be utterly ruined.” Pyrrhus was unable to call up more men, and his allies in Italy were becoming tired of conflict. The Romans, however, were able to quickly replenish their forces “as if from a fountain gushing forth indoors” and remained determined to see the war through to its end.
If the experience of Pyrrhus sounds familiar, it is because it directly mirrors the situation encountered by Ukraine in confronting Russia in Kherson in the present times. Ukraine has lost more than 12,000 men in the weeks leading up to the Russian withdrawal from the west bank of the Dnieper River and will lose thousands more trying to consolidate and hold the territory Russia has evacuated. While Ukraine is in the process of training and equipping some 20,000 new troops, the ability to generate more forces beyond that is questionable, given the dearth of modern equipment remaining in the inventory which can be transferred to Ukraine.
Russia, on the other hand, is in the process of finalizing the organization, training, and equipping of 200,000 fresh troops. When they arrive on the battlefield sometime in December, Ukraine will be hard pressed to respond in a meaningful fashion. Like Pyrrhus, Ukraine, in taking Kherson, has been “utterly ruined.”
And Russian troops will soon be like a “fountain gushing forth.”