200 days after commencement of the war in Ukraine which Russia continues to call a “Special Military Operation”, a new phase has begun that of Ukrainian counter offensive.
Whether this is a strategic shift or an operational one cannot be determined at this stage of the campaign, however for the first time Ukraine Armed Forces have launched major offensives on at least two fronts – Kharkiv in the North and Kherson in the South, while continuing to contain Russian offensive on the main Eastern Front in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblast.
The Ukrainian counter offensive has outlined several lessons which remain confined to the initial phase of success on the Kharkiv front so far and thus need to be read within that prism.
Crystal ball gazing beyond is not the work of serious military analysts given speculation entailed. Never the less demonstration of capabilities and limitations of the forces of both sides – Ukraine and Russia have portends which can be deciphered in the times to come.
But first some significant military lessons
Surprise and Deception. Creation of surprise and deception can determine the fate of a campaign, and this was amply proved by the artful employment by Ukrainian armed forces in exploiting time and space signaling to create operational gaps for exploitation.
While for weeks build up of the counter offensive was demonstrated on the Southern Kherson front through concentration of forces and equipment and preparation of the battlefield, Kharkiv in the North East remained relatively quiet. The Russian military is reported to have moved reserves to Kherson in the South denuding other fronts including Kharkiv.
Yet the main counter offensive was launched in Kharkiv on September 01 taking the Russian forces by complete surprise and paving the way for rapid collapse of the front.
Use of strategic signaling including statements by Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky supplemented the operational movement of forces on the ground, thus surprise in terms of timing and location of the offensive was complete while deception in the South was concomitant. Security of Plans is another key element of surprise and deception achieved by the Russians.
Concentration of Force in Time and Space. Superiority of force ratio in the offensive in modern wars with heavy employment of artillery and air is said to vary between 6 to 8 vis a vis the defender. On the Kharkiv front Ukraine armed forces achieved an 8 to 1 superiority over the Russian forces. This concentration of force in time and space was successful in breaking Russian resistance.
Rapid Exploitation of Collapse. Rapid exploitation of collapse of Russian resistance in Kharkiv Oblast was exploited to advantage thus within hours areas secured extended were claimed from 1000 square kms to 6000 square kms as villages and townships were liberated.
Selection of Operational Objectives. Operational objective selected were such as to be vital for Russian forces across the North Eastern and Eastern front to include Izium, Kupyansk, and other logistically vital cities. This will have an impact on the ongoing phase of operations.
Strategic Force Ratios The strategic force ratio has shifted in favour of Ukraine in the past six months. While Russia has been constrained in general mobilization of forces given continuance of the Special Military Operation paradigm by President Putin,
Ukraine has gone in for national as well as international mobilization to build up force levels. Thus presently Ukrainian armed forces are said to be fielding higher numbers than those deployed by Russia on the Ukraine front, this provides an inherent advantage.
Unpreparedness Russian Frontline Troops. Multiple media reports indicate that Russian forces on the Kharkiv front were completely unprepared for the impeding Russian offensive. No system of reconnaissance and surveillance was in place while there is obviously an intelligence failure at the highest level. Unconfirmed reports from the front line indicates that Russian troops were abandoning weapons and equipment large tranche of which has fallen in Ukrainian hands.
Arms and Munitions Support. A turning point for the Ukrainian armed forces has been the weapons and munition support by the United States and other NATO countries. A report in the Defense One states, “United States had sent the beleaguered country 16 HIMARS launchers, thousands of Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System, or GMLRS, rockets, and almost half a million rounds of 155mm ammunition, thousands of anti-tank missiles, anti-aircraft weapons, small arms and other pieces of equipment”.
While this fire power may not have outmatched the Russian artillery and missile strikes in terms of numbers, it is apparent that this was far more effective.
Ukraine Adaptability. Ukrainian forces have been able to rapidly adapt to the American weapons systems and used the same effectively. This is expected to lead to more supplies coming their way including the long range Army Tactical Missile System, or ATACMS system being debated by the US Congress.
Morale and Motivation. Morale remains an important factor in any operation, evidently Ukrainian armed forces have demonstrated very high determination which comes about from a number of factors including national and military leadership and aim and purpose of the resistance of defence of and reclaiming sovereign territory.
Winter, Russian Resilience and TNW
Winter is fast approaching as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned, “The winter is coming, it's going to be hard, and therefore we need both to continue to supply weapons and ammunition but also winter clothing, tents, generators and all the specific equipment which is needed for the winter," after meeting U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Brussels.
Russian strategic and operational resilience is another factor which cannot be underestimated. Russian arms factories are reportedly working overtime to produce tanks and weapons for the frontline.
Finally, is the N Question – will the situation lead to possible employment of a tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) by Russia? These are the imponderables ahead.