In this aerial view, a destroyed apartment building is seen next to an area of heavily damaged houses on April 21, 2022 in Borodianka, Ukraine. (Photo by Alexey Furman/Getty Images)
By John Nagl and Alexander Crowther
On Aug. 29, Ukraine launched a counter-offensive against Russian forces in and around the city of Kherson. Reports of Ukrainian forces breaking through front lines have already appeared, and it appears that Russia forces west of the Dnieper River are vulnerable given Ukraine’s attacks on Dnieper River bridges.
Roughly six months ago, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began; now Ukraine, a nation whose capital city was once under fire, is initiating an operation to take back Russian occupied cities. Such a shift in momentum begs the question, what went right for Ukraine and so very wrong for Russia?
Before the invasion, there was a consensus among foreign affairs and military experts that it would take a miracle for Ukraine to defend and defeat Russia’s forces. Instead, the course of the conflict has validated U.S. Army mission command doctrine. Under the extraordinary leadership of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine has adopted a philosophy of decentralized execution and distributed leadership. National level control of information, air assets, and conventional military forces has been reinforced by local militia-like forces that, by defending their local towns, are also defending the independence of Ukraine.
The support of Ukraine’s allies, led by the United States, in providing advanced weaponry has put Russian forces at risk anywhere in Ukraine and damaged the logistics that are essential in modern combined arms warfare.
As notable as Ukrainian achievements on the information battlefield and on the ground have been Russian failures in both arenas. Russian invasion troops expected to be greeted as liberators, carrying their dress uniforms with them in their tanks for the planned parade in Kiev that was prevented by Ukrainian arms.
Marooned by lack of fuel and ammunition, besieged on all sides both by Ukrainian armed forces and by a hostile population, Russian military leaders were forced to call off the decapitation attack on Ukraine’s capital and began to refocus their remaining forces on capturing ground in eastern Ukraine.
That effort has now also ground to a halt due to a combination of stubborn Ukrainian resistance stiffened by Western arms and by less than stellar performance from Russian conscripts and mercenaries. Ukrainian attacks on ammunition depots with long-range weaponry, likely targeted by partisans behind enemy lines, has further limited the ability of Russia to implement its preferred method of clearing ground: attacking with heavy conventional artillery preparation and then marching into territory now devoid of defenders.
Without the artillery rounds to destroy the defended cities and towns before them, Russian attackers in the east have proven unwilling to continue the offensive.
As Russia’s ability to take additional territory diminished and its offensive culminated, Ukraine gathered strength and weaponry for its counteroffensive. Armored vehicles well suited to clearing minefields like Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles with mine rollers appeared on the battlefield.
The stalwart determination of Zelenskyy and his cabinet to regain all Ukrainian territory ran head-on into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s refusal to surrender any of his country’s minimal gains, even if doing so exposed his troops to danger.
Putin has now left more than ten thousand Russian troops stranded on the west side of the Dnieper River, although his subordinate commanders undoubtedly knew that they were vulnerable to Ukrainian counterattack as the bridges connecting them to Russia collapsed behind them. They are now stuck, unable to withdraw across the Dnieper with their equipment, but unable to receive supplies across the heavily damaged bridges that remain their lifeline.
Zelenskyy hopes for an operational success that becomes a strategic victory. Capturing or killing ten thousand or more Russian troops in the Kherson Pocket, on top of the horrific casualties Russia has already endured, would put the lie to the fiction Putin propagates that the war is going well.
Even in tightly controlled Russia, where expressing dissatisfaction with the course of the war leads to imprisonment or worse, it will be impossible to hide losses of that magnitude, nor to suggest that losing Kherson is anything but a disaster for Russia. Putin’s control is fragile and brittle; when it breaks, it will shatter.
Ukraine is in a race against time. Russia has more resources and is finally beginning to mobilize them, while winter is coming, with concomitant pressure on a Europe that will shiver without access to Russian gas and oil. Ukraine needs a master stroke to knock Russia out of the war.
The Russian troops exposed in Kherson are Ukraine’s best chance to knock the support out from under Putin and perhaps bring the war to an end. The gamble may pay out because of Ukrainian courage and Western arms—to the relief of Europe, America, and the world.
John Nagl is an associate professor, and Alexander Crowther is a research intern, at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. These views are their own, are based on publicly available information, and do not reflect the views of the United States Army or the Department of Defense.
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