Ukrainian Prudence Meets Russian Limitations: Explaining the Current Pace and Nature of Russia’s War on Ukraine

The factors explaining why things are now happening the way they are happening

(Russian/Русский переводBy Brian E. Frydenborg (Twitter @bfry1981, LinkedIn, Facebook), August 23, 2022; adapted for and published by Small Wars Journal as Russia’s Limits Meet Ukraine’s Discretion to Slow the War Down to Ukraine’s Advantage on August 25; see related articles: July 30’s Russia’s Defeat in Ukraine May Take Some Time, But It’s Coming and Sooner Than You Think and August 3’s How Ukraine War Will Likely Go Rest of 2022, or, Kherson: The Beginning of the End for Russia and September 7’s Why Is Russia Losing on 3 Fronts? Math (the Short Answer)

SILVER SPRING—We are at an interesting time in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a moment where we are seeing two grand overall trends unite to heavily propel things in Ukraine’s favor.  These two overarching trends are that Ukraine is contributing prudence and Russia is contributing its deteriorating capabilities to the conflict in ways that are dictating the pacing and nature of much of the conflict at the moment, especially as most of the energy is now being directed towards the southern theater of action.

ISW general Aug 22

First, an introduction to the situation is in order.  I have gone into detail with many sources over both much of the why behind the way the war is unfolding and how the war is very likely going to play out as a result, so herein will mostly be a discussion of certain previously stressed features of this conflict and how they are now progressing, but with some new points that build upon my previous work.  I strongly encourage anyone wanting to know more or where I have obtained my information to check out these two pieces especially, but also some of my other previous work (especially two articles from April regarding Crimea’s vulnerability and why the Russian Navy would be mostly sidelined or destroyed; on both counts, recent events have proven me quite prescient).

All Eyes on Kherson

Anyway, the context of the past month and then some has been that Ukraine has been loudly advertising its intention to conduct a massive counteroffensive in its southern territories occupied by Russia.  Using advanced weapons system mainly supplied by the West, Ukraine began a series of impressive, pinpoint attacks on targets in Kherson Oblast (province), home to the only regional capital city Russia has taken since its major escalation began on February 24: Kherson, the oblast’s namesake.  These targets included at first ammunition depots and command centers—replicating its success on the Donbas front—and branched out to include major bridges in the river-crossed Kherson Oblast that also borders the waters on the northern side of the Crimean Peninsula.

ISW Kherson Aug 22

We shall skip an extensive geography lesson here, but simply state that, the way Kherson’s geography goes, if you destroy the right bridges, you can effectively cut off any troops in certain parts of the area from effective resupply and reinforcement, isolating large pockets that can then be weakened—cut off from ammunition, unable to be effectively reinforced without exposing reinforcements to great risk, and unable to retreat without similar risk, nor with their heavy weapons and vehicles—and maybe even destroyed or compelled to surrender.  Even in the first month of conflict, it was clear Russia was bad at supplying food and water to its troops, so that those basic necessities may also be an issue in such a situation.

If even the best troops in the world are under such conditions over time, they can still be destroyed or forced to surrender relatively easily.  And we have to keep in mind we are talking about far from the best: the Russian Army, which has demonstrated an appallingly low-quality logistics operation even without bridges being blown and having its troops cut off from supplies and reinforcements.

That is the situation with apparently some 20,000 or so Russian troops on the west/north bank of the Dnipro River, on which the oblast’s main city—Kherson (and Kherson will from now on refer to this city unless it is specified that we are talking about the oblast)—lies, and they have already been in this situation for some time as Ukraine has damaged bridge after bridge in the oblast until more recently hitting the last one, though the other bridges closer to the city of Kherson had been damaged for some time and, thus, it was already a challenge for Russia to resupply and reinforce its now isolated troops and it has only become more difficult to do so every day the war continues as Ukraine keeps striking at Russia’s logistical lifelines in the region (indeed, a recent Ukrainian attack hit Russian trucks carrying supplies of ammunition as they were on the key Antonovsky Bridge, not only destroying the much-needed ammunition but further seriously damaging the bridge, which the Russians were repairing at the time).

Russia’s Response: Playing into Ukraine’s Hands

Furthermore, after this process started, Russia took a large number of troops from the slugfest on the Donbas front, where Russia has for months concentrated most of its troops and effort with relatively little to show for it—and moved them to the south, including Zaporizhzhia Oblast and Crimea, though reports on the latter were of Crimea being more of a staging area since it is a big hub for Russian military logistics.

Russian troops in the Donbas were on more elevated, hillier terrain with longer-established, more heavily fortified lines, and also fairly close to Russia, so supply lines were also shorter (though still problematic and coming under precise and devastating Ukrainian attacks time and time again).  Russia’s current main war aim is to secure the entirety of the Donbas region—the entire oblasts of Luhansk (more or less accomplished—for now) and Donetsk (definitely not accomplished), but here Russia is actually weakening its main effort to adjust to an announced counterattack by Ukraine.

An even more important takeaway from Russia’s redeployment is that Ukraine is dictating to Russia the way the war is now going, never a position you want to be in when your side is the one invading a country, a telltale sign of Russia’s weakening position as now it must compromise its plans and aims and be reactionary when it is supposed to be dominating the dynamics and flow of the war.

It should have been clear to Russia that its troops in Kherson—city and oblast—were in a weak and vulnerable position, especially after it learned the hard way of the amazing capabilities of Ukraine’s new Western weapons in action in the east on the Donbas front, which had more or less halted Russia’s offensive there or, at best for Russia, reduced it to a snail’s pace.

But what does Russia do?  Put more troops it can ill afford to lose, taken from its main-priority theater, into that more vulnerable situation, more troops into areas that can easily be cut off and isolated.

The limits of Russia’s capabilities not only see it stall in the east, not only have its navy mostly too afraid to do much more than lob cruise missiles from far away on account of Ukraine’s effective anti-ship missiles (many supplies by the West), but now mean both that it will likely fail with any major attempt to keep its Kherson troops supplied/connected to other Russian forces and that any new troops moved there will be facing the same problems that Russia is generally incapable of addressing effectively to begin with.

In short, Russia has essentially just gifted Ukraine more Russian troops that can be easily trapped.  And that is what is happening now.

As I quoted Forrest Gump in one of my recent pieces on all this: “Stupid is as stupid does.”

Crimea Is Also a Trap Waiting to Happen

I am also still surprised few people are realizing how the same treatment Russian soldiers are getting in terms of being isolated on the north/west bank of the Dnipro can easily be replicated in Crimea, a relatively isolated peninsula with only two land routes out of its northern border into the rest of Ukraine through Kherson Oblast and one long bridge—the Kerch Strait Bridge, also known as the Crimean Bridge—connecting its eastern tip to Russia, a bridge that Putin had opened only in 2018 (its construction began, illegally, in 2016 after Russia had already been occupying, and had illegally annexed, Crimea from back in 2014).

Now, a series of Ukrainian strikes throughout Crimea are erupting, involving targets from the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol to multiple military bases to Kerch, the Crimean entry point to the aforementioned Kerch Strait Bridge.  These attacks are causing panic among Russian colonists, collaborators, and sympathizers in Ukraine—causing many thousands of them (helpfully for Ukraine) to flee to Russia, undoing some of the demographic engineering Russia has long been undertaking there—and are wreaking havoc not only on Crimea itself but on its ability to offer logistical support to Kherson and Zaporizhzhia Oblasts.  Eventually, after Ukraine retakes Kherson city, just some sixty miles from the northern Crimean border, Ukraine should be able to seal off the two routes out of Crimea and into Kherson.  And Ukraine already has demonstrated that it can hit the Kerch area, so it is likely just waiting for the right time to strike the bridge there to Russia and render it inoperable for Russia’s military.  And, at that point, Crimea would be cut off by land and, with Ukrainian anti-ship missiles and air defenses supplied by the West, it would be quite risky for Russia to supply or reinforce Crimea by sea or air.

On Slicing and Sieging

Simply put, Ukraine is in the process of slicing and dicing a big chunk of Russian-held territory into three sectors that will soon be isolated from and unable to support each other: 1.) Kherson Oblast (including the city of Kherson) west/north of the Dnipro River; 2.) Crimea; and 3.) the rest of Kherson Oblast along with Zaporizhzhia Oblast, where Ukrainian strikes against key Russian targets have also been succeeding and repeatedly so.  Isolated from each other more and more, soon, it will be likely that eventually only Zaporizhzhia can receive supplies and reinforcements from the Donbas or Russia itself after the Kerch Strait Bridge is damaged significantly by Ukrainian strikes-to-come.  This process has been, thus far, slow and creeping but this pace is allowing Russia to stretch out its men and resources more and more over time and expose its forces more and more over time to being cut off or give their anxious commanders time and inclination to order generally fruitless assaults that simply weaken Russian forces in the sector and fail to push Ukraine back or would do so only than temporarily.

Taken to its extreme end point, the concept of siege warfare is to surround and starve an enemy into submission without fighting, to achieve victory without placing your own side’s troops at risk from actual battle.  You may be able to take a city faster with a direct assault but this would be at a much higher cost in lives lost for the attacking side; if time is not a particularly important factor, siege or tactics approaching a siege are a way to inflict maximum casualties on the enemy while sustaining minimum casualties for your own forces.

Sieges and attrition-focused tactics and strategies are generally not as sexy for journalists and analysts as battles (though some can involve battles as one side or another tries to break the lines of the opposing force throughout), but Ukraine using these tactics and strategy means it is happy, for now, to keep using its longer-range precision weapons to devastating effect, killing Russian troops, destroying Russian vehicles and supplies, ruining Russian logistical arteries and supply missions, and bleeding Russia’s overall positions out to make them weaker and weaker over time, so that when an assault does come (if the Russians do not withdraw or surrender), the Russians will not be able to put up much effective resistance and will crumble all the more easily in the face of any attacks.  And, to be sure, as the situation for Russian forces deteriorates, opportunities for some low-risk, high-reward infantry-led strikes will also present themselves.

If this type of progress is being consistently made by Ukraine (and it is), hollowing out the core of Russian positions in entire sectors, why would Ukraine risk high casualties in a costly wider infantry assault while there are still targets that HIMARS, M777s, drones, and other longer-range weapons can take out at little to no risk, all while the enemy’s morale, numbers, and supply situation weaken?  Many of these targets are far behind the front lines, meaning there is now nowhere Russian forces in the region can feel safe, a situation disastrous for morale.  Weakening the positions behind the front lines also means that if the main line collapses, much more than just that main line will collapse and it is more likely the whole sector could fall quickly.  Instead of weakness or any inability, this methodical, deliberative targeting by Ukraine signals confidence in its ability to continue to damage Russia at times and pacing of its choosing, a mature patience on the part of Ukraine that will yield significant results over time at relatively low cost.

Yet plenty of experts and reporters seem puzzled, as massive formations of Ukrainian forces not pouring into Kherson city and forcefully pushing the Russian lines back mean, from their perspective, there must not be any real Ukrainian counteroffensive or that it is stalled.  But Ukraine is not basing the timing of its operations to satisfy the impatience of itchy Twitter fingers of reporters and analysts who find it easier to tweet, write, and comment about heavy “action,” and it seems many takes on the war in the south are missing the bigger picture.

Contrary to such views, the offensive is very much underway, with Ukraine simply taking a prudent, risk-averse strategy while it can still easily hit Russian targets far behind the front lines.  Unlike Russia, Ukraine actually highly values the lives of its soldiers, a major factor in morale, as Ukrainian soldiers can count on their commanders to not throw their lives away carelessly or needlessly, unlike the clear, callous indifference that permeates Russian command (which I have detailed before).  And the very nature of the conflict is now defined by Russia’s inability to produce anything but marginally successful advances (if any progress at all) and Ukraine’s purposeful approach to strike Russian targets one-by-one with precision, distance weapons while keeping its own forces as much out of harm’s way as it can where it can.

And Ukraine can do all this knowing it is and will be getting more and better weapons and equipment from the West as we well as more well-trained Ukrainian troops from an increasing Western series of training missions.

Cutting off a larger enemy force from supplies and reinforcements, and cutting that force into smaller pockets that can be defeated militarily, is an approach that can have spectacular success.  Such tactics worked incredibly well for a far smaller Finnish force against two whole Soviet divisions at the battles of Suomussalmi and Raate Road from late November 1939 to early January 1940 during the Soviet-Finnish Winter War within World War II, a conflict I have noted at some length is rife with parallels and lessons for the current Russo-Ukrainian war.  In this conjoined pair of battles, nimble Finnish ski troops were able to slice into the columns of Soviet forces that, because of the deep snow and thick woods in the remote wilderness of Finland, were forced to stay near the only roads in the area.  The Finns would use the first waves of ski troops to cut the long, road-bound formations into pockets and would then immediately heavily fortify and reinforce where they penetrated the Soviet lines.  Cut off from supplies and reinforcements, running out of ammunition and weakened from starvation in these pockets (mottis), two whole Soviet divisions comprising about 50,000 men were destroyed, suffering massive casualties, by just a few thousand Finns, who incurred just a tiny fraction of their foe’s casualties. 

Suomussalmi
United States Military Academy Department of History/Edward J. Krasnoborski/Frank Martini/Raymond Hrinko/Jeff Goldberg

While the weather elements are not nearly as extreme for Russian forces in Kherson Oblast and Crimea today, nevertheless, they are still significant formations that can still be relatively easily cut off and, thus, brought to their knees or worse by Ukrainian troops.

Conclusion

We have seen here how Russia’s weakening capabilities on the battlefield are meeting Ukraine’s patient risk-averse tactics and strategy to slow down the pace and intensity of this war, at least for the time being.  But while some analysts have seen this as weakness or inability on the part of Ukraine, it seems more likely that Ukraine knows it has a big comparative advantage with its ability to strike precisely at a distance with superior Western technology and that it is content to keep weakening Russia’s positions and logistics—keep baiting it to send more resources into bad satiation for Russia—as long as Russia keeps presenting juicy targets, targets that, if taken out methodically and patiently by Ukraine before any general infantry-led assault, will mean less resistance from Russia and fewer casualties for Ukraine.  Ukraine is biding its time while increasing its capabilities and all while continuing to degrade Russia’s capabilities.  This is what is called “good generalship” in a war, and it can easily lead to both a large part of Kherson west/north of the Dnipro River and, eventually, Crimea being cut off from other Russian-controlled sectors and from each other.  The fall of both to Ukrainian forces could follow and also open Zaporizhzhia and the Donbas to come under this Ukrainian counteroffensive in a way that could more or less end the war, as I have argued before.

Ukraine’s prudence is meeting Russia’s limitations, and this prudence will carry the day with more Ukrainian soldiers alive at the end than without it, than with a more rushed general assault that would occur with still more Russian targets Ukraine could have taken out before that assault.  Contrary to what some think, Ukraine knows what it’s doing and is still in the driver’s seat of this war thar Russia started and is now clearly losing.

See related articles: July 30’s Russia’s Defeat in Ukraine May Take Some Time, But It’s Coming and Sooner Than You Think and August 3’s How Ukraine War Will Likely Go Rest of 2022, or, Kherson: The Beginning of the End for Russia; and see all Brian’s Ukraine coverage here

© 2022 Brian E. Frydenborg all rights reserved, permission required for republication, attributed quotations welcome

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