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How Ukraine shaped the battlefield for its counteroffensive

Ukraine offensive on Russia
A Gvozdika artillery system at the moment of fire. Photo: Volodymyr Monomakh Separate Mechanized brigade
How Ukraine shaped the battlefield for its counteroffensive
Article by: Hans Petter Midttun
“This is a war Russia has already lost – it just hasn’t realized it yet. Ukraine will be victorious. It has only taken longer than necessary due to the slow and incremental defense support,” says military expert Hans Petter Midttun.

Ukraine is actively preparing to liberate occupied territories. It has been building (most of) the capabilities needed to conduct a series of counteroffensives.

It has been building new formations on top of the existing force structure holding the frontline. While Russia has made slow and incremental gains throughout the winter at tremendous costs, Ukraine has focused on holding the line while building new capabilities. Instead of throwing reserves into Soledar and Bakhmut to save the cities, it has sent troops abroad to train on new equipment and receive NATO-level training.

The Ukrainian Armed Forces have prioritized training abroad to enable it to conduct joint and combined arms operations: a capability Russian forces lack.

It has used the winter to build three new army corps, each with four brigades, and each comprising more than 20,000 men. Nine of the 12 mechanized (or motorized) infantry brigades will mainly be armed with Western-provided equipment.

Additionally, the Ministry of Interior (MoI) has built eight assault brigades that form Ukraine’s new “Offensive Guard” force. As of 2 May, all eight have been established but are at various stages of training and preparations. MoI is considering forming additional brigades. The brigades will be to carry out offensive or assault operations in support of the Armed Forces.

The 20 fresh brigades are made up of both experienced soldiers and fresh volunteers. They will lack experienced personnel as many junior officers, non-commissioned officers, veterans, and troops previously trained by NATO have been lost during the last 15 months. The fresh forces have had a short time to master new equipment and conduct combined-arms training as a unit. Having trained on a compressed schedule, they are uneven in quality. Their main advantage, however, is that they are far more adaptable, motivated, and intention-based than the Russian military.

The Armed Forces of Ukraine have undergone a remarkable transformation

Almost a third of Ukraine’s army will soon have NATO-standard equipment. Its network of air defense systems is in the process of being formed around (mostly) new Western systems like IRIS-T batteries from Germany, the American and Norwegian-built NASAMS, the European-built SAMP/T systems, and the American-built HAWK and Patriot batteries. Its Navy is also – little by little – being rebuilt. Its ability to damage and sink the Russian Black Sea Fleet has already been greatly improved since the start of the full-scale invasion.

After 15 months of slow and incremental weapon supplies, Ukraine has received several capabilities, enabling it to target key Russian capabilities far behind the frontline. That includes both HIMARS, the GLSDB (ground-launched small diameter bomb) produced by Boeing and Saab (Sweden), the JDAM-ER (joint direct attack munition-extended range), manufactured by Boeing, and lately, the UK-produced  “Storm Shadow” cruise missiles.

Additionally, the UK is about to send hundreds of Long-range kamikaze drones to Ukraine. They have a range of more than 125 miles – more than twice as far as HIMARs – and a similar range as the Storm Shadow missiles.

Additionally, Ukraine has been busy developing its own capabilities to strike Russian targets in the deep. In January, Ukraine’s defense industry completed several stages of testing a long-range drone with an alleged range of more than 1,000 kilometers and a payload of up to 75 kilograms. Russian airfields, naval bases, and ammunition depots have been attacked.

Commercial UAVs are being transformed into weapon carriers in great numbers. Ukraine is expanding its drone program for both reconnaissance and attacking enemy targets to reduce the gap in military capabilities on the battlefield.

It has developed unique maritime drones that have taken the war to the Russian Navy.

Additionally, Ukrainian volunteers have started to develop a “people’s” missile called Trembita with a range of 140 km. The work is conducted by the engineers from the PARS volunteer design bureau and with the participation of volunteers from the сivic movement Vidsich.

Drones and long-range fire will play an increasingly important role in the coming weeks and months. Ukraine will try to break the will of the Russian soldiers, prepare the battlefield and destroy critical Russian capabilities, command and control nodes, logistical hubs, and key infrastructure objects. It will aim to reduce Russia’s ability to maneuver once the first new major Ukrainian counteroffensive is launched.

The recent Western shift in policy regarding the delivery of modern combat aircraft will greatly help transform the Ukrainian Armed Forces into the most capable military power on the European continent. Once delivered, it will help defeat the Russian Armed Forces. Depending on the number of F-16s and type of weapons provided, they will help fill gaps in the Air Defence Network, provide air cover for the land forces, provide air support, provide suppression of enemy air defense, and, not least, improve Ukraine’s ability to destroy the Russian Black Sea Fleet and break the maritime embargo.

Ukraine has succeeded where Russia has failed because both reflect the society they serve.

Ukrainian Armed Forces have changed partly because it reflects the Ukrainian society: A vibrant, open, and engaged democracy. Its success is, however, also because of international impetus. It has reformed, trained, exercised, and operated alongside NATO forces (in NATO-led international operations; built capacity and interoperability through participation in the NATO Response Force; participated in consultations and joint working groups; and not least, worked alongside their international partners providing intelligence, weapons, sensors, communication systems, ammunition, maintenance and support systems, and so much more.

It is an ongoing process with multiple compromises and adaptions. Michael Kofman and Rob Lee argue that:

“Ukraine has fought the war its own way, with a mixture of mission command at junior levels and at times Soviet-style centralized command at the top. It has placed a strong emphasis on artillery and attrition over manoeuvre in warfare, while also integrating Western precision and intelligence for long-range strikes.

 

The Western approach has been to train Ukrainian forces in combined-arms manoeuvre in an effort to have them fight more like a NATO military would […].

 

The challenge with this approach is that NATO militaries are unaccustomed to fighting without air superiority, especially air superiority established and maintained by American airpower, or at least with the logistics and enabling capabilities that the United States typically brings to the fight.”

While doing all the above – transforming its armed forces and preparing to liberate occupied territories – Ukraine has also been busy shaping the battlefield.

Shaping involves striking targets such as ammunition and fuel depots, command posts, key capacities, and communication hubs to create the conditions for success.

The shaping process started before 24 February 2022. It started the moment Ukraine received intelligence that the invasion was imminent, and it dislocated its forces and key enablers to protect them against the initial onslaught.

Securing the capacity to continue the fight after the Russian assault was the first crucial step.

It has since been able to launch many strategic, operational, and tactical assaults against Russian forces to shape its will and ability to continue its illegal and unprovoked war.

Ukraine has achieved stunning success (e.g., the liberation of Kharkiv Oblast and the west bank of Kherson last autumn) and many smaller, but no less important operational and tactical victories.

The latter include (but are not limited to):

  • the destruction of an amphibious vessel and damage to two other vessels in Berdiansk (24 March 22), the sinking of the Russian flagship Moskva (14 April 22) and several air and surface drone attacks on the Russian Navy in Sevastopol (29 October 22 and 22 March 2023) designed to reduce the amphibious threat from the south and limit the freedom of action of the Black Sea Fleet.
  • attacks on the Saki Air Base (9 August 22), Dyagilyaevo and Engels Air Base (5 December), and Seshcha airbase – a hub for Russia’s military transport aircraft (3 May), forcing Russia to relocate its strategic bombers and strengthen its air defense across the Russian Federation at the cost of its frontline units.
  • Multiple attacks on Russian logistical hubs, command and control nodes, ammunition, and fuel depots on occupied territories and beyond, including spectacular attacks like the Kerch Bridge (8 October 22) and the destruction of 10 oil tanks near Sevastopol (29 April 23) to reduce its tempo and ability to advance.

Ukrainian forces have been “shaping” the battlefield for 453 days already. It has destroyed Russia’s Land Forces.

On May 1, the White House assessed that Russian forces have suffered 100,000 causalities—80,000 WIA and 20,000 KIA— so far in 2023. Based on previous Western assessments at the end of 2022, it has, therefore, endured at least 260,000-280,000 casualties in total since 24 February 2022. These estimates are, however, conservative.

Ukrainian reports indicate that the Russian Federation so far might have lost its initial invasion force three times over.

According to the Ukrainian General Staff, Ukraine has eliminated more than 200,000 Russian soldiers. If the numbers are accurate, additionally 345-400,000 more have been wounded (of which 65% will be unable to return to military service due to the extent of the trauma experienced).

The extreme numbers are partly explained by the fact that Russia has lost its most experienced troops and is presently waging war with an Army mainly consisting of poorly trained mobilized reservists, increasingly reliant on antiquated equipment, with many of its units severely under-strength. According to UK Defence Intelligence, it routinely conducts only very simple, infantry-based operations.

The losses are in part explained by Russian lack of strategic patience. Instead of reconstituting and rebuilding its exhausted land forces, Russia has been trying to regain the initiative on the battlefield. It has committed most of its reserves to take cities like Soledar, Vuhledar, and Bakhmut. Consequently, already reduced forces have become further eroded.

Russia has not been able to generate a large, capable, mobile reserve to respond to emerging operational challenges. It is no longer capable of large-scale combat operations. Instead, it conducts localized attacks with smaller formations and assault detachments.

The numbers are, however, also partly explained by the terrible state of medical care in the Russian army. iStories claim that over half of the Russian soldiers who have died in Ukraine lost their lives because of improperly provided medical care, with a third of amputations due to improper tourniquet application.

The battles for Soledar, Vuhledar, and Bakhmut are just some of the many hotspots that have helped bleed the Russian forces to a state where fighting skills, morale, and motivation are at rock bottom. Its tactic of a human wave has led to catastrophic losses and has helped demoralize its soldiers since last spring.

Based on reports from the Ukrainian General Staff

According to the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Russia has lost between 10,000 and almost 23,000 units of military equipment since the start of the full-scale invasion.

Ukraine has, not least, been targeting some of Russia’s key capabilities protecting its entrenched forces. While the number of tanks and armored vehicles lost has steadily dropped, the number of artillery pieces and air defense systems has increased substantially. The former is meant to protect the minefields and decimate the advancing ground forces, while the latter denies Ukrainian Air Force the ability to support the counteroffensive. Taking out these capabilities will help reduce the Ukrainian losses during the initial assaults.

Ukraine is actively hunting down Russian artillery.

Ukrainian forces have destroyed far more pieces of Russian artillery in May than in any month since the start of the full-scale invasion. If the present trends persist, about 500 will have been destroyed by the end of the month. In total, 3258 have been eliminated since 24 February 2022. 38,4% of these (1251) have been destroyed since 1 January. Additionally, Russia is experiencing increasing technical problems upholding the operational status of its old artillery pieces.

While a stunning success and a quick liberation of occupied territories is the desired outcome, it is important to acknowledge that Ukraine has not received the tools it needs to achieve a decisive win. The West has, for several reasons, failed to set up Ukraine for a quick victory.

The forthcoming series of Ukrainian offensives will be challenging

Despite all the abovementioned improvements, Ukraine is about to do something Russia has failed to achieve for 15 months at tremendous costs: Attack well-prepared, fortified positions protected by tank traps, minefields, artillery, anti-armour weapons, and not least, Russian Air Power and Air Defence.

Managing expectations are, therefore, important. Ukraine and the West are committed to a protracted war. They must plan and prepare accordingly.

This is a war Russia has already lost – it just hasn’t realized it yet. Ukraine will be victorious. It has only taken longer than necessary due to the slow and incremental defense support.

The F-16 combat aircraft and additional Air Defence Systems cannot arrive fast enough.

That said, the human factor is the big uncertainty. Each and one of the forthcoming Ukrainian counteroffensives might trigger the panic needed to ensure a Russian military collapse and withdrawal in disorder.

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