The Ukrainian counter-offensive has been going on for a couple of months without any signs of significant progress, let alone a breakthrough. Putin had been crowing that the UkrAF summer campaign has “failed”.
Is there any truth in this? Well, it’s still early days and operations on this scale tend to take weeks and months, not days. A look back at the big battles of the Second World War can be illuminating here. The two Battles of El Alamein in North Africa in 1942 lasted roughly four months in total before Rommel and his German/Italian armies were forced to retreat.
The Battle of Stalingrad, in which the Soviets turned the tide on their German invaders, lasted five months before the German 6th Army surrendered. And in the Battle of Normandy, or Operation Overlord if you prefer, it took the Allies three full months before they broke through the German defences on their way to liberating France and the Low Countries.
So in historical terms it’s probably too early to say whether the UkrAF have been foiled in their plans and their aims defeated. However, there may be a number of contributing factors to why their advances have been much less than many commentators expected.
Firstly, conventional wisdom has it that an attacking force requires a minimum 3:1 ratio in troops over the defenders to ensure success. This is a rough rule of thumb; when the 2nd Battalion of The Parachute Regiment defeated the Argentinians at Goose Green in the Falklands War in 1982 the ratio was more or less reversed.
On the other hand, planners for the Allied Normandy invasion in 1944 were looking for a force ratio of 6:1 to ensure victory. The problem for the UkrAF is that they’re not achieving favourable force ratios as they attack, not consistently anyway. That makes for a hard shift and increased casualties.
This disadvantage has been exacerbated by what many see as the mealy-mouthed, grudgingly-donated dribble of weaponry coming to Ukraine from the west. This has meant that the UkrAF had to delay operations until they had built up their strength, which consequently has given the Russians more time to develop their defences.
Consequently the Ukrainian attackers are faced with a complex and powerful matrix on defence works in multiple lines, which in some places stretch to a depth of up to 50 kilometres. These lines have been hardened with concrete emplacements and are protected by vast minefields, anti-tank ditches, and other obstacles.
Tackling such defences calls for well-coordinated, all arms cooperation where tanks, infantry, artillery, engineers and so on complement each other in taking the battle to the enemy. Sadly, it would appear that the UkrAF do not yet have the training or sophistication in modern military methods to be able to produce such operations above company level, although of course they are learning all the time.
Breaking into and through such defended locations is one of the most difficult tasks in war. Minefields and obstacles are inevitably covered by direct and indirect fire, and the Russians have plenty of both. Clearing and capturing trench systems and dugouts is dangerous and exhausting work. And the Russians make it more difficult by sowing remotely delivered additional minefields as the battle develops.
And finally, as I have written until I’m blue in the face, it is all the more difficult if you don’t control the skies. Here the Russians have the upper hand if only through numbers alone, and their aviation is instrumental in blunting the Ukrainian offensive. If only the Americans had released the F-16s when Zelensky first asked for them, eh?
So we shouldn’t be too surprised that the Ukrainian counter-offensive has not made the progress that many assumed it would. We are now stuck in an attritional struggle which might be familiar to those of my grandfather’s generation who served in the First World War trenches. Minimal gains at great loss were the order of the day over a hundred years ago and seem to be once again today in Ukraine.
What might bring an end to the stalemate? More western weaponry and training for the Ukrainians might swing the pendulum, or possibly a Russian collapse brought about by internal dissent. The latter seems unlikely at the moment, though, as the invaders show themselves to be much more adept at defence than they were in the offensive over a year ago.
In the meantime time passes. Before too long the autumn rains will return and movement will be severely curtailed. We may now be looking to next year for any dramatic breakthrough, if indeed it comes at all.
Lt Col Stuart Crawford is a defence analyst and former army officer. Sign up for his podcasts and newsletters at www.DefenceReview.uk
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