After seven months of ferocious combat, Bakhmut’s fall finally appears imminent. The city is strategically consequential. However, the predictable post-combat deluge of Western hand-wringing, alongside Russian propaganda, misses the actual combat dynamics of the war. Western audiences would do well to remember that this war remains one of movement, not of attrition. All the relevant advantages remain with Ukraine – it is the West’s task to amplify them and ensure Ukraine can push on to a battlefield victory, and only then generate a reasonable political settlement that secures the European peace for another decade.
The Ukraine War appears to have settled into an attritional rhythm. Since Ukraine drove Russia from the Dnieper’s right bank and recaptured Kherson in November, the front line has moved little. However, a static phase does not necessarily indicate an attritional war – a war in which the destruction of enemy forces and materiel over time is the primary goal. Indeed, very few wars are attritional: even the Great War, often viewed as the prime example of attritional combat, was only so for around a year. In fact, the defining factor of modern combat remains an operational breakthrough, exploited by fast-moving armored forces that penetrates into the adversary’s rear areas. From the Great War onwards, every major conventional conflict has been concluded with some sort of breakthrough, even if, as in Korea, political restrictions meant that it took years for a breakthrough to translate into a formal political settlement.
Since the Kherson Offensive, both Russia and Ukraine have sought to shape the battlefield. Ukraine has pursued a consistent strategy. It still seeks another phase of operational movement, akin to the Kharkiv Offensive in September, where it penetrated well into the Russian line and forced a withdrawal. However, Russia’s only strategically adept move of this war was its reconstitution after Kherson. Sergey Surovikin, formerly the commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, shortened the active front line by a third. This allowed him to thicken it with rotated forces from southern Ukraine and new soldiers from Russia’s mobilization waves. Hence Ukraine now faces a more concentrated Russian defense, a tactical reality that makes a breakthrough costly. Ukraine’s key decision, from which every other aspect of its current war planning flows, is when and where to mass and strike for a successful breakthrough. If Ukraine can breach the Russian line and swarm follow-on forces into the gap, even if only a handful of brigades, it can wreak havoc in the Russian rear and jeopardize Russian supply lines.
Russia, meanwhile, has not demonstrated the command-and-control system or operational competence to stage a riposte against a successfully staged Ukrainian offensive at any point in this war. Hence Russia’s objective is to prevent a breakthrough at all costs.
Until January 2023, under Surovikin’s command, Russia assumed the strategic and operational defensive. It probed the Ukrainian line, but Russia was content to bombard Ukrainian infrastructure, mitigate casualties and ammunition expenditure, and overall await Ukrainian action. This approach carried risks. It largely ceded the initiative to the enemy. But the strategic strike campaign pulled Ukrainian ground-based air defenses away from the front line, reducing the odds of an immediate Ukrainian offensive after Kherson. During an unusually warm December and January, Russia could take the time to reconstitute and prepare for a Ukrainian push in the spring.
Read the full article at RealClear Defense.
Seth Cropsey is the founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy Undersecretary of the Navy and is the author of Mayday and Seablindness.