07.06.23 War Review

Ukrainian Counteroffensive: Soviet-inherited management style has the potential to hinder the accumulated advantages of the Ukrainian armed forces

What are the chances of success for the Ukrainian counteroffensive?  There has recently been an abundance of analysis on this matter. The situation on the front today is significantly different from that of autumn 2022 when Ukraine launched its first successful counteroffensive, according to experts. Back then, the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) enjoyed a significant numerical advantage over the Russian army, which had suffered substantial losses and was stretched along an extensive contact line. The AFU had an additional element of surprise on their side. In 2023, the ranks of the Russian Armed Forces have been bolstered by hundreds of thousands of mobilised troops, and the Russian army has developed plans to repel the counteroffensive, constructing thousands of kilometres of defensive structures. On the other hand, despite losing the advantage of numerical superiority, Ukraine has acquired more modern weaponry and received substantial training under the guidance of Western instructors. However, military analysts argue that the Ukrainian army has inherited certain traits from the Soviet era that diminish its effectiveness. Specifically, junior officers of the AFU are not accustomed to taking responsibility and showing initiative, while senior officers struggle to coordinate actions with other branches of the military. According to experts, professionalising the army and transitioning to Western standards is the only winning strategy for Ukraine in light of Russia's undeniable numerical advantage.

The Ukrainian counteroffensive, eagerly awaited and actively prepared for by both sides over the past six months, is believed to have commenced. It holds significant importance in Ukraine, Russia, and the West, and has the potential to alter the course of the war. If successful, it could further weaken support for the war within Russia and its elites, while convincing Western public opinion of the need to supply more arms to Ukraine. However, if it fails (as the Kremlin hopes it will), it could instead prompt the West to contemplate possible concessions to Moscow.

The situation on the eve of the offensive is fundamentally different both from the situation at the start of the Russian invasion and the conditions that existed during the Ukrainian forces' first successful counteroffensive in autumn 2022. At the start of 2022, the Russian army possessed a significant advantage in terms of weaponry, and the position of the Ukrainian army looked almost hopeless. However, the complete unpreparedness of the Russian army for the strong resistance it encountered and the protracted nature of the war, coupled with Ukraine’s assistance from the West, resulted in a radical change in the situation by the end of August last year. Ukrainian forces gained the upper hand in terms of manpower, as a result of the significant losses suffered by the Russian army, which was unable to replenish its contracted units and was compelled to defend extensively stretched frontlines. Further, thanks to support from its allies, the Ukrainian army witnessed a significant increase in armaments. In addition to these factors, the initial counteroffensive had the element of surprise.

Today, the situation has once again undergone a radical transformation. The Russian authorities have carried out a successful mobilisation (which continues to this day) and have essentially abandoned offensive operations, focusing instead on preparing the defence of the territories it has occupied. At present, due to Western supplies, the Ukrainian army possesses an advantage in terms of firepower. However, it faces limitations when it comes to replenishing its personnel and faces the need to attack thousands of kilometres of defensive structures constructed by the Kremlin during a year of occupation.

According to satellite imagery analysed in a comprehensive military review by the Washington Post, in the Zaporizhzhia region, which has the fewest natural obstacles to an offensive, the Russian army has constructed up to six lines of defence with trenches, long-term firing positions, anti-tank obstacles, and extensive minefields. The region’s settlements such as Vasilyevka, Tokmak, and Pologi have been transformed into impregnable fortresses. The aim of the Russian ‘fortification project’ is to slow down any potential Ukrainian advances and, in the event of a breakthrough, redirect them to areas with limited room for manoeuvre. This would provide time for Russian reserves to regroup and for artillery to strike the advancing Ukrainian forces.

Ukraine has received a significant amount of Western weaponry and equipment, and has prepared approximately 20 brigades of the AFU and National Guard. However, they lack engineer tanks, vehicles, and other technologies capable of breaching defensive structures and clearing minefields. Ukraine possesses Soviet demining systems, such as the UR-77 Meteorit, and thanks to Finland, it has received several modern mine-clearing Leopard 2R tanks equipped with heavy-armoured buckets for detonating mines. Additionally, Ukraine has received M58 Mine Clearing Line Charge systems for remote demining. Nevertheless, this equipment may not be sufficient to clear the vast territories of landmines and break through anti-tank structures.

Nevertheless, the AFU can overcome these challenges through improved troop management and coordination, as they did during the autumn operations, and through an offensive plan prepared jointly with Western allies, as highlighted in the review. To succeed in these conditions, the Ukrainian army needs to act cohesively and swiftly, yet it is precisely in these aspects that it faces difficulties, as stated in an article published on the platform War on the Rock by highly ranked retired American military personnel who have consulted and trained the AFU for approximately a year. According to them, the Ukrainian army’s main problem is the management style it has inherited from the Soviet era. The majority of decisions taken by the AFU are made at high levels, discouraging personal initiative, and so junior officers are afraid of making mistakes and avoid taking responsibility. The article's authors point out that Ukrainian officers are always surprised by the fact that American battalion captains have the authority to make decisions and issue orders on behalf of the entire battalion commander. Moreover, the article notes that the AFU lacks experienced and qualified junior officers ready to assume command in critical situations.

The current training of the Ukrainian army is based on Soviet doctrine, which involves conducting large-scale exercises and manoeuvers. As a result, officers, such as platoon commanders, do not intervene during combat but observe ongoing battles as external observers. In addition, each branch of the military has its own training centre, and there is a lack of experience sharing and joint training. This leads to confusion during major operations that require coordinated efforts, resulting in significant human and equipment losses. Tanks are often used as mobile artillery, and successful coordination between tank units and infantry is rare. Tank barrels and artillery guns are worn out due to constant firing at maximum range or excessive use without proper maintenance. Artillery fire often lacks coordination with ongoing manoeuvers, and most units do not have direct communication with supporting artillery, resulting in delayed artillery strikes when the enemy has already left positions.

Another problem for the Ukrainian army is the logistics and maintenance of Western equipment. Due to transportation difficulties and a shortage of spare parts, only a small proportion of the incoming Western weapons reaches the front lines. The rest either get stuck in storage facilities or are dismantled for spare parts along the way. This is due to the fact that most supply officers have not undergone specialised training courses, and their activities are uncoordinated and disjointed. The entire supply system relies on personal initiative and the abilities of individual supply officers. Equipment maintenance is conducted through cannibalisation, with new equipment being dismantled for parts and exchanged/bartered between military units. Furthermore, the Ukrainian Armed Forces lack qualified mechanics — each unit has its own self-taught individuals who repair and maintain equipment with their own resources.

Elite Ukrainian units are often used as regular infantry. They may be deployed directly in trenches to repel attacks. This leads to a high casualty rate and an acute shortage of specialists capable of conducting secret operations such as reconnaissance, raids behind enemy lines, sabotage, and ambushes. It takes years to train new specialists for these roles.

Addressing these fundamental problems requires a change in the training of junior officers — it is easier to train them to NATO standards than to retrain senior officers who still adhere to Soviet principles of warfare. NATO instructors have already developed a month-long training course for junior officers, which assumes that on completion of the course, they will be able to continue training new Ukrainian officers themselves. It is crucial for this training to take place in Ukraine, involving local and foreign instructors with experience using both Western and Soviet equipment. For senior officers and generals, NATO instructors recommend a senior mentor’ program, where former high-ranking officers from Western countries, who are competent in planning and managing troops, can serve in advisory roles.

However, the main unknown in the early stages of the Ukrainian counteroffensive remains the morale of the troops, particularly on the Russian side, who are facing significant problems with their officer corps, training, discipline, and motivation. Meanwhile, for the Ukrainian army, in addition to all the above challenges, there are also inflated expectations regarding what the counteroffensive can achieve both from the West and within Ukraine.