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Nothing’s Quiet on the Eastern Front—What Does the Ukrainian Counterattack Mean? by Bálint Somkuti

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Nothing’s Quiet on the Eastern Front—What Does the Ukrainian Counterattack Mean?

It’s been a while since official Ukrainian communication disclosed details about the current offensive. Everyone thought that it would be an attack launched towards Kherson, but only after intensive preparation—something that never happened. Observers of the war were further put off guard by what looked like a false start, when Ukraine began a manoeuvre that was slowed down relatively quickly, and then completely stopped, putting into doubt the capability of Ukraine’s forces, now mostly trained and equipped by the West.

An offensive attack against Kherson seemed desperate; the weakness of the positions in the Kherson area of the southern Ukrainian battlefield was known to both Ukrainian and Russian military leadership. Therefore, after the territory fell into Russian hands, a defence-in-depth, consisting of several protection zones, was created there. This is the type of defence that, in the absence of significant artillery advantage, is almost impregnable.

In contrast to the southern battlefield, weaker reserve forces had been stationed in the wavering northern areas around Kharkiv. Thus, with an attack launched there, the surprise of the Ukrainian offensive was fully felt, as it was directed against the most vulnerable formations—made up of reserve militiamen of the People’s Republic, using the method also used in the southern area, and often from several directions. Some of the militiamen ran away almost without opposition here, and only a few units resisted, such as the battalion recruited from the special police that held part of the city of Balakliya which endured unremitting attacks from several sides.

The power of surprise is well characterised by the fact that the weak Russian forces evacuated the western part of Kupyansk and withdrew to the opposite shore of the Orlik River. In fact, according to Saturday afternoon news, this was the fate of the city of Izyum as well, resulting in the evacuation of two dozen villages by Russian soldiers who were forced to flee.

One of the contributing causes to the surprise was the Ukrainians’ ability to mix techniques received from the West with an ancient eastern battle tactic in ways never seen before in Europe.

The method supported by the American military expert John Arquilla essentially adapts the tactics of the horseman-nomads of the eastern steppes. The swarming light forces attack defenders from multiple directions; in cases of greater resistance, taking advantage of their mobility, they can withdraw, regroup, and then, by bypassing stronger points, threaten the supplies and liaisons of their opponents.

According to records of the offensive, these forces used battle tactics similar to those of the Islamic state, moving in formations of five to ten vehicles instead of vulnerable larger convoys. Tank formations included the Polish T-72 variants and the obsolete M113 Armoured Personnel Carriers, which, although having weak armour protection, possess excellent mobility which could be maximised in this battle tactic.

According to the news, technicals—that is, four-wheel drive vehicles mounting machine guns—which are commonly used in the Middle East and in Africa, also appeared in these groups. Technicals offer the utmost combination of firepower and mobility, at the expense of protection. For although these simple units can be used effectively against less mobile, or weak and irresolute enemies, they could fall to organised defensive formations.

Strategic decisions about where to attack were one reason for Ukraine’s success. They attacked right against the weakest formations, thus they surprised the reckless Russian military leadership which completely neglected the defence of the northern sector. A friend of mine drew my attention to the fact that in light of the fatalist perception typical of Russian culture, this was not an isolated incident.

Ukraine’s offensive clearly shows the beauties and difficulties of our profession. Until very recently, I thought—and wrote on several media platforms—that today it is no longer possible to achieve operational surprises with ground troops. Now I see I was wrong. The ‘vojenkors’, the Russian equivalent of ‘milbloggers’ [military bloggers], had predicted that there was trouble ahead too. Several channels had been writing about the Ukrainian reinforcements arriving to the north for weeks, and that the Russian forces stationed there were insufficient.

All the same, some argue that the victory may only be an apparent one: they point to the Russian leadership, and suspect the situation as a trap, especially since the final goal of the operation cannot be seen yet. They point out that it would have been logical if the diversionary attacks had launched first, perhaps followed by the secondary direction and, lastly, by the main attack—or if the latter two had started simultaneously to deceive the enemy. To this end, Ukrainian communication subsequently claims that Kherson was just a distraction, but it seems more likely that so many new formations were available to the Ukrainian forces that they were able to focus on several areas. (This last point is confirmed by the vojenkors’ blogs, as well as the impossibility for a military force to traverse the physical distance between the two battlefields, from the south to the north, in such a short time.)

The Russian ‘let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may’ attitude has been a part of its military thinking, operating with great force, for a good while. From the extended holy trinity of military strategy (space, time, power) and the information that connects them, Russian military thinking has typically focused on power and space, as well as on time related to space. They knew exactly that, because of the vast distances, power could only be interpreted in terms of distance and the time required to cover it.

According to historical experience, if a Russian formation plants its feet somewhere, it stays there for a long time, even though in the course of military history such an approach put it at a disadvantage. The battle of Eylau against Napoleon in February 1807 is an excellent example of this. In that battle, the Russians, despite being attacked from several sides and significant losses, remained in their places even in the raging storm, and although Napoleon’s military genius could not prevail, Russia suffered severe losses.

Coming back to the Kharkov counterattack: in my opinion, the withdrawal from Izyum and Kupyansk can be interpreted as strategic. The Russians gave up space in order to buy time. And they need this because, as I wrote in one of my first articles, the Russian manpower deployed so far is simply not enough for such a large area. For territory can only be held with manpower. More than eighty years ago, nearly one million German and Romanian soldiers set out to occupy this area. Today, Russian underestimation of the necessary numbers of boots-on-the-ground has been reinforced by several videos on the Internet about the delivery of paratroopers to the site by Mil Mi-26 Halo heavy transport helicopters. 

But since the Ukrainian leadership—and the Western sources supporting them—report on the events with a delay of two or three days, practically the only open and somewhat reliable news source has been the accounts of the vojenkors—a video showing the arrival of the antiaircraft and the artillery units was uploaded to one of these channels. A new sign appeared on the vehicles, a circle drawn in an upside-down triangle. There is speculation that these are formations of the 3rd army corps, a type of Russian superior unit assembled for the autumn attack, which has not been used in Soviet/Russian formations for a long time.

The real question, however, is indeed what happens next. It seems that learning from its previous mistake, the Russian leadership decided to give up the indefensible areas according to the situation.

Currently, the Russians are trying to create a new defence line behind the Oskol and the Severski Donjek Rivers. Since the recently occupied Pisky was also attacked, it looks like the Ukrainians are attempting a full-court press mode. According to the news, the significant territorial gains were accompanied by significant blood sacrifice as well; several thousand Ukrainians have been killed.

However, it is uncertain in which direction the attackers will improve their success. The smaller, weaker forces can be pushed back by cutting off their supplies, but just as the light cavalry of the steppes could not cope with the castles, the agile units with technicals avoid the cities. What could be the operational objective of the attack? Will the Ukrainians turn south and relieve their besieged forces in the Donbas region? Or will they pass on to the east and reach the Russian border? And where will they go from there? Entering Russian territory would result in immediate massive retaliation.

There are several tools that we have not seen used before: medium and heavy bombers; mass attacks against the civilian population and their towns’ crucial infrastructure; powerful cyber attacks. Weapons of mass destruction may be considered as well.

One thing is for sure: the Ukrainians surprised the Russians with their attack. This unexpected success overturned the schedule of the Russian offensive expected this autumn. But what the further consequences of the attack will be, will only be known in the days and weeks to come.

Bálint Somkuti is a security policy expert and military historian in Budapest, Hungary. This article originally appeared on the Hungarian news site, published 12 September 2022.

Translated to English by Lábady Laura