11.09.23 War Review

Battle of The Reserves: Experts believe Ukraine is more effective than Russia in a war of attrition

While Ukraine's initial counteroffensive plan appears to have faltered, the Ukrainian armed forces have swiftly shifted from attempts to break through Russian defences with mechanised assaults to conducting a war of attrition, according to military experts Michael Kofman and Rob Lee. Ukrainian armed forces are seen as more effective in such combat operations, with recent successes indicating their ability to overpower Russian defences with superior firepower and long-range precision weaponry. The outcome of this counteroffensive will largely depend on which side can muster more resources. Ukraine needs air superiority and decisive firepower, with its primary objective being not just a swift breakthrough of Russian lines but also keeping sufficient forces in reserve. As for Russia, the trenches they have dug will only matter if they have enough soldiers to fill them.

At present, Ukraine has concentrated its main efforts on the Zaporizhia front. The objective of the offensive in the Orikhiv direction is to approach the city of Tokmak from the south and ideally reach Melitopol. This segment of the Russian defence is the most fortified. If successful, the Ukrainian army would rupture Russian lines along the Black Sea coast and threaten supply routes from Crimea. The second offensive direction, towards Velyka Novosilka, is likely aimed at Berdiansk, also located on the coast. Finally, the third direction is an auxiliary offensive on the flanks of Bakhmut to the north. Ukrainian armed forces have managed to capture several Russian airborne units here. As it stands, the offensive is still continuing to gain momentum, but military experts Michael Kofman and Rob Lee believe it is possible to draw some preliminary conclusions.

Ukraine's initial plan appeared to involve advancing on multiple fronts to identify the most vulnerable points in Russia's main defensive line. Experts believe it is quite likely that Ukraine aimed to force Russia to deploy its reserves along the front line, ultimately reducing the Russian army's ability to respond to a breakthrough.

Some commentators speculated early on that the initial assault was not the main effort, and even after three months, they still describe the offensive as being in its 'early stages.' According to Kofman and Lee, this is indicative of a continuing issue of misunderstanding how the Ukrainian forces typically operate. Offensive Ukrainian brigades often consist not of a full brigade but of two to three companies reinforced with armoured vehicles and support elements. Keeping in mind this organisational feature of the Ukrainian armed forces, experts came to the conclusion that the initial offensive was not reconnaissance or probing but rather an attempt at a full breakthrough of Russian positions.

After just a week, the Ukrainian military had to change their tactics. They transitioned from initial attempts to break through the Russian lines with mechanised assaults to a more conventional attrition-based approach. Now everything depends on which side will have more reserves and who can better manage its combat power, budgeting resources for a protracted engagement. Thanks to this tactical shift, the Ukrainian Armed Forces have managed to increase the number of successful breakthroughs of Russian defences. However, Ukraine still requires more air defence and demining resources, the experts note. In addition, factors like ammunition supply, military training, and efficient resource management remain crucial in a war of attrition. Adapting plans to a changing reality is an essential aspect of warfare, and the ability to openly discuss these challenges distinguishes successful armed forces from those, like the Russian army, that falsify success and hide bad news.

Western analysts have criticised the slow pace of the Ukrainian counteroffensive on several occasions. However, recent successes by Ukraine demonstrate that, over time, it has weakened Russian defences by leveraging its firepower advantage and long-range precision weaponry to consistently push Russian forces out of their defensive positions. Experts note that, without air superiority, decisive firepower superiority, and limited opportunities to breach Russian positions, any army would face similar difficulties. This is especially true when the enemy has had time to entrench itself with layered defences, minefields, and fortifications.

The ability to adapt to changing conditions is of paramount importance, as emphasised by experts at the London-based Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). They point out that Russian military personnel have also been adept at analysing their own experiences. In some cases, changes are made on an ad hoc basis, such as extending the length of minefields from the standard 120 metres to 500 metres. In other instances, systemic changes are being implemented, which are likely to have a significant impact on Russian military doctrine. One of the most significant changes, according to the experts at RUSI, is the dispersal of electronic warfare systems. Given that the Russian forces are becoming more experienced, Ukraine's partners should start helping Kyiv prepare for winter warfare now, the experts conclude.

Michael Kofman and Rob Lee note that a strategy of enemy attrition is more advantageous for Ukraine because it relies on its strengths, while attempts to scale offensive manoeuvres in such complex conditions would not contribute significantly to the Ukrainian counteroffensive. A war of attrition requires significant resources. Artillery ammunition supply is one of the most pressing issues. Kyiv has already destroyed several Russian generals and struck logistical and transportation nodes of Russian supply with Storm Shadow missiles. While this has undoubtedly complicated Moscow's operations, experts note that long-range missiles alone are not a panacea. After the introduction of HIMARS systems last year, Russia was able to adapt to the changed balance of power by reinforcing command nodes and reorganising logistics. Perhaps an operation aimed at isolating the Russian portion of the theatre of operations, focused on disrupting Russian communications, could have a greater effect. However, four months of Storm Shadow missile strikes suggest that the task of severing Russian supply lines using missiles alone may be more challenging than it initially appears.

As it stands, we do not know what percentage of Ukraine's combat power has been committed to the operation. However, experts believe that most Ukrainian brigades, including reserve airborne units, have already been involved in some capacity. It is possible that Kyiv is reallocating additional forces from other fronts. Nevertheless, Russia has also deployed strategic reserves on the Kherson front, including the 7th Guards Mountain Motor Rifle Brigade and the 76th Guards Air Assault Division.

Ukraine likely possesses more combat power at this time, but experts believe that it deployed its best-equipped and trained units at the beginning of the operation. Recent Ukrainian manoeuvres, it seems, were primarily conducted by infantry forces, but to accelerate the Ukrainian counteroffensive, they will need to use mechanised formations once again. This will serve as a test of whether weeks of attritional warfare and strikes on Russian infrastructure have created the necessary conditions for a Ukrainian breakthrough. The experts believe that Ukraine's ability to effectively suppress and weaken Russian anti-tank capabilities may also prove to be critically important.

As for Russia, trenches only matter if they have personnel in them. If Moscow lacks sufficient manpower and reserves, the trenches and other defensive measures they have put in place will slow but not halt Ukraine's progress. Much also depends on whether Russia decides to use its reserves for counterattacks or to bolster its multiple lines of defence. In turn, Ukraine's primary task is not to break through Russian lines as quickly as possible but to achieve this while preserving sufficient forces in reserve. Then, it can use these breaches to achieve its strategic objectives.