For now, AFU is trading territory for lives while RF is trading territory for time. Only winters will tell who is going to succeed.
Saurabh Kumar Shahi
The recent tactical setbacks—not that recent given that the last one happened almost two weeks ago—that the Russian Armed Forces (RF) received in Kharkov and Kherson sectors in Ukraine have created much excitement in both the pro and anti-Russia crowd. The Western press that was starving of any good news from the fronts ran away with it to such an extent that in the ever-hopeful western capitals, it appeared as if the Ukrainians were about to enter the limits of Moscow itself as the Nazis did in 1941-42. However, what’s actually happening on the battlefield is, like always, a bit nuanced.
The nature of this Special Military Operation (SMO) has shifted since it was launched in February. The RF, however, has not changed its tactics. At least not till two weeks ago. And therein lies the answer.
Russia started this SMO with less than 2 lakh soldiers. The majority of them consisted of the separatist militias from LNDR, contract soldiers and soldiers from Wagner PMC with regular Russian units in artillery and air-support roles. The total number of Ukrainians they were about to take on was around 6 lakh armed men including regulars, Territorial Defence and units from National Guards. The Lancaster Law of Battle says that an invading force looking at occupation of a foreign land must have a 3:1 superiority in force. Here, Russia was invading with a handicap of 1:3.
However, there was a simple explanation for it. Russia didn’t attack to occupy the territory then. The idea was to reach Kyiv quickly and force the hands of President Zelensky to keep his promise of implementing the Minsk 2.0 Agreement that Ukraine’s Western partners had promised it would do. To that end, the goal was about to be achieved. Shocked by the blitzkrieg, the ex-actor folded – and quickly at that. A deal was brokered by President Erdogan and Ukraine was all set to sign it. That is, till the then Prime Minister of the UK, Boris Johnson, personally landed there to sabotage it at the behest of the US. Zelenksy’s hand was forced and the war continued with the West willing to fight till the last Ukrainian. Every bit of this information is on record.
As the war persisted, and it became clear that this had to become a war of occupation, Russia didn’t change its tactics. It didn’t need to. The Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU), for all practical purposes, lost the war in the first month itself. They lost mobility and were pushed to doing heeled-in defensive actions with no capacity to mount even a limited offensive or so much as to force a manoeuvre. However, this also turned out to be a bane for the Russians.
As the RF gradually achieved victories, it didn’t think it shall have to abide by the Lancaster Law. While it kept rotating the initial 1,80,000 soldiers, Ukraine ordered five rounds of mobilisations. This meant that because of the Rest & Recuperation (R&R) regimem, at any given time, only 1,20,000 Russian soldiers were on the battlefield with one-third in the R&R regimen. AFU, on the other hand, even after losing over 2 lakh men as KIAs, WIAs and MIAS managed to replenish the ranks through mobilisation. Agreed, the quality of those mobilised was poor but they were anyways being used as cannon fodder. This helped AFU send the mobilised units to a certain death while keeping some of the better ones in the rear for future offensives. However, most importantly, it was NATO that was fighting this war on Ukraine’s behalf now. Their combined intelligence and reconnaissance apparatus was now targeted towards Russia, not to mention the sustained flow of around $60 Billion worth of weapons. To put it in perspective, that’s the combined total of the purchase the Indian Armed Forces has done in well over a decade.
This could have been taken care of easily by the Russians but for the obstinate position of President Putin. As soon as the nature and the goal of SMO changed in March, Russia should have gone for their own mobilisation. But it didn’t. This was, however, not the end of Putin’s folly. From the very beginning, he forced the RF to fight this war with one hand tied at the back. As soon as the NATO weapons started to flow, Russia should have destroyed the transportation and communication nodes and taken out the energy generation and supply infrastructure. It didn’t. Why? Because Putin wanted to look good in the eyes of the Western public. You can imagine the carefulness of RF by the fact that this is the first war in modern history where the civilian-to-soldier-killed ratio is so low. In itself, this might sound like a humane gesture, and it is, however it also means that FR created a problem for itself which could have been eliminated very easily in the initial days.
But because it was not, AFU managed to make tactical gains in September. What did it do? Well, it went for multi-vector probing attacks. How was it achieved? NATO reconnaissance gives it an accurate picture of the number of troops defending a sector of a front. Since Russians didn’t mobilise, they often leave very few soldiers, in the lower thousands, to defend a sector while the main force goes on the offensive. There are simply too few men. AFU, which has a very short shorter-internal-logistics structure manages to create feints easily by first probing the Kharkov line in the north and then quickly probing the Kerson line in the south. This made the Russian reserves giddy as they didn’t know which front they had to protect. AFU hid the actual plan till the last hours and then attacked the front that was manned the least and punched through the defences easily. Had the RF destroyed the railway and communication nodes of the AFU on the rear, they wouldn’t have managed to deploy forces so easily.
There are other issues as well. Ironically, the wanton destruction of AFU’s officer class has now started to help them. How? AFU’s junior-most commanders are now free to take tactical decisions regarding target-hitting and manoeuvres. Simply because there are often too few seniors to turn to. RF on the other hand relies on the archaic method where even smaller measures like bringing to bear the artillery fire have to go through a chain of command, which makes the process slower and consequently less effective.
AFU also enjoys NATO funded and SpaceX-facilitated Starlink Communication program. Without it, the Ukrainian Front will collapse in a week. Russia has the world’s best electronic warfare complexes that this correspondent has seen being used successfully in Syria. Why was it not used effectively against Ukraine is anyone’s guess. However, the recent setbacks in Kharkov and Kherson woke the Russians from a stupor and something is being done to suppress Starlink. This is the primary reason Ukrainian rollback has stopped in the last 15 days while the Western press is baying for Elon Musk’s blood as they suspect him of sabotage. The fact, however, is less conspiratorial. RF has simply started using EW complexes more frequently and effectively.
RF is rectifying other mistakes as well. The mobilisation is going as per the schedule and those mobilised should be able to participate effectively in the winter offensive that the RF is planning.
There’s a marked improvement in other areas as well. After the foiled sabotage of the Crimean Bridge, it appears that Putin has taken the gloves off. Several days of attack on Ukrainian railway nodes, 330MW Power Transmission hubs, and several arms-maintenance factories in the rear being hit is a testimony to that. However, there needs to be persistent hits on these places. A couple of days of attack wouldn’t degrade the AFU capabilities substantially.
The issue of command and control is also being sorted out. A new general is at the helm and the chief of staff and the defence minister, though not removed, have been cut from the chain of command for the day-to-day battle.
What does all this mean? The window for AFU to make further gains is shrinking. They might be able to still make some gains till mid-November, but once the expected winter offensive starts, the effects of their victories in Kharkov and Kherson will bear heavily. In capturing the 2000 square kilometres of land, they have lost several thousand of their best-trained soldiers. This will come to bite. For now, AFU is trading territory for lives while RF is trading territory for time. Only winters will tell who is going to succeed.
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.