A Ukrainian counter-offensive in Kherson faces steep odds

The Economist, 14.08.2022

The great wars of the twentieth century pivoted on counter-offensives: the Allied landings at Normandy; Douglas MacArthur’s shock assault at Inchon within the Korean conflict; Norman Schwarzkopf’s “left hook” to chop off Iraqi forces in Kuwait. Now Ukraine, with a fifth of its territory in Russian fingers, hopes to hitch that checklist. But a much-vaunted operation in southern Kherson province appears to have been overhyped. That could also be intentional.

For months Ukrainian officers have hinted that an assault within the south is imminent. In late July, American-supplied HIMARS rocket launchers started destroying bridges to Kherson metropolis to isolate the Russian forces west of the Dnieper river. These had been “serious preparatory steps” in direction of the town’s liberation, stated a neighborhood official. An replace supplied by British intelligence officers on July twenty eighth stated that “Ukraine’s counter-offensive in Kherson is gathering momentum”. On August ninth, a spectacular assault on Russia’s Saky air base in Crimea, past the vary of Ukraine’s recognized weapons, was depicted by Ukrainian officers as the beginning of that offensive. Kherson could be liberated by the tip of the 12 months, boasted Dmytro Marchenko, a Ukrainian normal.

These lofty expectations will probably be arduous to fulfill. HIMARS assaults have softened Russian defences, together with by stopping artillery attending to the entrance strains. On August thirteenth Ukraine stated it had destroyed a bridge over the Nova Kakhovka dam, tightening the noose across the metropolis. But solely infantry can seize territory. Conventional knowledge holds that attacking forces want 3 times as many troops as there are defenders to seize a well-defended place; extra in city areas. If Ukraine ever had such a bonus, it now not does.

In latest weeks Russia, anticipating a southern offensive, has withdrawn forces from Izyum on the jap entrance and bolstered Kherson and its environs. Refugees who lately left the town say they’ve seen scores of recent Russian military autos and troops, particularly close to Nova Kakhovka. Konrad Muzyka of Rochan Consulting, a agency which tracks the conflict, thinks there have been 13 Russian battalion tactical teams (BTGs) within the province in late July (a BTG normally has a number of hundred troops, although most are depleted today). Now there could also be 25 to 30. “We now believe that this window of opportunity has passed”, says Mr Muzyka. “Ukrainians do not possess enough manpower to match Russian numbers.”

Though Ukraine does have a big pool of troops, most of them are conscripts with days of coaching. The most demanding preventing has been accomplished by simply 5 brigades of Ukraine’s most skilled and expert troopers, notes Jack Watling of the Royal United Services Institute, a think-tank. These models are exhausted and have taken heavy casualties. Training new brigades and equipping them for an offensive will take time.

Attacking normally requires extra ammunition than defending. Attacking forces are likely to take extra casualties. “Since 1992, in our field exercises, we did not study offensive actions”, lamented Sergiy Grabskyi, a reserve colonel in Ukraine’s military, talking on the “Geopolitics Decanted” podcast on August third. “After eight years of war, Ukrainian forces are brilliant in defensive actions, but they have very limited or almost zero experience of conducting large-scale offensive actions.” Ukrainian counter-attacks round Kharkiv in May, although profitable, had been small and resulted in lots of casualties.

Russia’s military has had time to arrange. For months they’ve been digging trenches in Kherson, and trucking in fortifications. They could have already got artillery educated on the roads that Ukraine would use to advance. “If the Ukrainian assault looks like Russia’s attack on Severodonetsk, it’s probably a dead end”, says Chris Dougherty, a former Pentagon planner, referring to a metropolis that Russia captured in June utilizing crude ways and intense bombardment from artillery. “It will cost Ukraine dearly in scarce manpower and materiel, and would likely be the last major Ukrainian operation of 2022”.

Mr Dougherty says that Ukraine ought to take an oblique method: isolating Kherson metropolis and utilizing irregular forces and artillery to choke off Russian provide strains would “wither Russia’s defence”. A drumbeat of partisan assaults, in addition to latest strikes on Russian arms depots and command posts, means that this can be Ukraine’s true technique. Some Ukrainian officers say they’re content material to attend, whereas steadily carrying down Russian forces with such assaults. “We want to avoid street warfare, because we don’t want to destroy the city,” says Major Roman Kovalyov, based mostly within the northeastern reaches of Kherson province. “We want to surround them and force them to withdraw. We want to wring them out.”

But encouraging the concept a floor offensive is imminent has some benefits. It raises spirits amongst civilians in occupied Kherson. It retains Russian forces—already battered by artillery—on edge. And it forces Russia to divert forces from the jap Donbas area, which weakens its ongoing assaults in direction of the town of Slovyansk. Swaggering speak of a counter-offensive might even be a feint, drawing Russians in direction of Kherson and opening up gaps within the Russian line elsewhere that is perhaps exploited.

The downside for Ukraine is that its political and navy methods are in rigidity. Volodymyr Zelensky, the nation’s president, is keen to indicate his Western backers that the arms and ammunition they’ve poured into Ukraine are making a distinction, and that the financial travails of the conflict, resembling Europe’s power crunch, will not be in useless. Russia’s military can also be changing misplaced males over time. That, and the muddier floor in autumn, might make an offensive tougher in a number of months. “Right now, we have a unique chance and window of opportunity”, stated Colonel Grabskyi, noting {that a} thrust from Zaporizhia in direction of the Sea of Azov might sever Russia’s so-called land bridge to Crimea.

The danger is that hyping counter-offensives which fail to materialise will finally hurt morale. But if assaults happen and fizzle, the disillusionment could be even worse. An offensive pushed by political issues, in defiance of navy realities, could be “a really bad idea” says a seasoned navy analyst, “but we may not be able to control what they do and where”. The analyst factors to Severodonetsk, the place Mr Zelensky, some sources say, overruled navy recommendation and insisted that his armed forces defend the town for much longer than was prudent. “They barely got out of it alive”, he says. If Ukraine is ready on a counter-offensive, he says, it ought to be methodical and phased: squeezing Russia out of Kherson metropolis, however stopping on the Dnieper river and advancing east solely when navy circumstances enhance.

Tension between political imperatives and navy calculations is nothing new. In 1942 America and the Soviet Union needed the Allies to open a second entrance in France. Stalin hoped it might ease strain on the jap entrance; Roosevelt needed to indicate progress to Americans at dwelling. Winston Churchill and a few American generals disagreed, largely on the grounds that their armies weren’t prepared. A Canadian-led Allied raid on Dieppe in the summertime of 1942, wherein greater than half the 6,000-strong invasion pressure was killed, wounded or captured, was mounted for largely political causes. It underscored the dangers of going early. There are classes there for Mr Zelensky.

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