As the much hyped counteroffensive begins, the Ukrainian forces are faced with multiple disadvantages.
Saurabh Kumar Shahi
After months of dithering, the much-hyped Ukrainian counteroffensive is about to start, weather permitting. Ukrainian regime, which thrives on optics and PR victories, considers WWII Victory Day celebrations month of May, as a perfect month for such an operation. It also makes sense bearing the weather in mind. The spring has been unusually rainy in Ukraine, and it has turned the black soil of the Donbas into sludge. Any counter-offensive in such a situation will falter before it starts. Therefore the date got pushed ahead several times. We are already in the month of May and Russia and its allies are celebrating the Victory Day with a grand parade at the Red Square. Rain has subsided and the ground has solidified. The much vaunted 47th Mechanised Brigade & 82nd Airborne Brigade of the Ukrainian Army has already taken an offensive posture near the frontline. Under the circumstances, a push in the near future is not unimaginable.
This is the third Ukrainian Army on the battlefield. The first Army – and the most formidable one – equipped with Soviet and post-Soviet weapons was laid to waste by the Russians in three months. Its offensive potential was, in fact, destroyed within four days.
Ukraine and NATO raised the second Army and equipped it with Soviet and post-Soviet weaponry from the erstwhile Warsaw Pact countries. This army secured Pyrrhic victory by pushing Russians out of Kharkov and the Eastern banks of Dnieper along the Kherson Front. The Russians traded time for territory and withdrew, and destroyed half of this second Ukrainian Army from the prepared defences on the other side of Oskil and Dnieper rivers.
The remaining half of this second Ukrainian Army was destroyed in different fire-bags the Russians created in Donbas including, but not limited to, the ones in the cities of Bakhmut and Soledar.
NATO has raised a third, and in all probability the last, Ukrainian Army now. This one is almost entirely equipped with Western weaponry. On paper, it looks to be the strongest one considering the weapons it has conjured up from disparate sources. However, a closer look suggests that there’s more than meets the eye here.
For starters, it is the most poorly trained one. Different NATO countries have trained small groups of new recruits in crammed-up courses that aspire to train them on a new weaponry system, leave alone new weapons, in a few weeks – something that regular soldiers take several months if not years to train. This can prove fatal in a life-or-death situation.
However, this is just one of the issues. The second issue is the on-field maintenance. A big part of the weapons donated by NATO countries is in various stages of disrepair. There is a lack of spares. This is before the battle has even started. Once it starts and weapons and equipment get battered, it will be a nightmare repairing them on the field. Withdrawing them will make them even more vulnerable to secondary attacks and destruction.
Then comes into picture what is known as Lanchester’s Laws of Combat. The law suggests that an offensive army needs a personnel advantage of at least 3:1 to break the prepared defences. This third Ukrainian Army consists of around 1, 00,000 soldiers of various qualities – from the battle-hardened ones to the newly mobilised who let out a childlike shriek in the face of certain death. Facing them is a 3,00,000-strong Russian contingent stretching from North to South. Rather than an advantage of 3:1, Ukrainians are at a disadvantage of 1:3. It does not take a genius to realise what will happen when the fog of war settles a few weeks following the initial push.
Ukraine’s PR Victory
However, since the Ukrainians value optics more than substance, we need to discuss the scenario in the first few weeks as well, which is where the PR victories will be achieved by the Ukrainians.
The best case scenario for the Ukrainians is to concentrate the force in one sector and then make a push to break the defence line there. Russians have made prepared-defences all along the front in multiple layers. These are formidable arrangements.
For a PR victory, the Ukrainians need to employ three options. Push towards Melitopol and cut the land bridge to Crimea. Occupy a Russian border town. Last, but not the least, inflict a large numbers of casualties on the Russians even if it means complete annihilation of their own forces.
The Russians understand that force-on-force defensive measures will lead to lots of casualties. It is therefore entirely possible that while facing an attack, Russians will make tactical withdrawals. If their first line of defence is breached even after inflicting massive damages on the Ukrainians, they are likely to withdraw to the second and then the third line of defence all the while hitting Ukrainians trapped between the two layers of defence. In fact, this shall be the most likely plan of action.
However, this does not mean that the Russians are sitting idle waiting for the counter-offensive to begin. While the Bakhmut meat grinder is inflicting horrible numbers of dead and damage on the Ukrainians, there are other measures too that the Russians are taking. After several months of degrading once formidable air defence and air force of the Ukrainians, Russian Aerospace forces are now finally dominating the skies. The use of massive glide bombs that destroy prepared Ukrainian defences without the bomber even coming in the range of the Ukrainian ADs have wreaked havoc on men and material that Ukraine has been accumulating for the counter-offensive. Unlike the costlier cruise missiles that are limited in numbers and can only be used judiciously, these glide bombs are stored in the Russian armouries in several tens of thousands. Expect Russia to use them copiously when the counter-offensive is off the mark.
Wagner Private Military Company fighting on behalf of the Russians will be deployed to another front once Ukrainians decide to not send more fresh meat in the Bakhmut grinder and finally withdraw. Wherever the Wagner Group is next deployed will turn into another meat-grinder and start once again sucking Ukrainian troops from among what has been gathered for the counter-offensive – the long-term result of which is not very difficult to guess.
Expect a lot of self-congratulations and chest-thumping in the NATO capitals in the initial few weeks amidst the fog of war. The war, however, will go only one way.
Saurabh Kumar Shahi has covered The Greater Middle East for over 15 years and has reported from Kabul, Peshawar, Baghdad, Aleppo, Damascus, Beirut, and Jerusalem among other places.