Major developments surrounding the war in Ukraine, with Russia capitalising on positional advantages and massed firepower over the last two weeks since the breakthrough in Popasna.
There is again little to celebrate from a Ukrainian point of view. In the second phase of the war, it is clear that no amount of heroism can negate a huge disadvantage in heavy weapons. The war continues to see Russia grinding out steady gains while causing a high rate of attrition. Ukraine’s defence could last for many more months at this rate, but it is hard to foresee them gaining the strategic initiative to reverse Russia’s gains on the battlefield.
The Russians have mostly taken Severodonetsk, destroyed the Lysychansk bridge, trapping defenders in the Azot industrial plant (not to be confused with the Azovstal plant in Mariupol).
A great deal of reporting appeared to indicate that Ukraine had launched a large counterattack in Severodonetsk, recapturing up to half the city. It is doubtful whether these events took place, and the counterattack may be an invention of Ukrainian propaganda. What is known however is that Ukraine has sent significant reinforcements to this town at the tip of an extended salient; we discuss this bizarre and risky decision below.
Russia also appears to have fully secured its control of the north bank of the Seversky-Donets, while several locations have been hypothesised to be successful bridging attempts. Russian forces are approaching Sloviansk from two directions.
In addition, the Russians have regained much of the ground yielded to the Kharkiv ‘offensive’ three weeks ago.
The success of Russian ground operations has even had repercussions on the information space, with many West-leaning OSINT (open-source intelligence) channels ‘taking a break’ from Ukraine coverage, all timed at around the 11th June mark. Various theories for this:
- These accounts are possibly related to information warfare efforts from national governments and intelligence agencies, and have been withdrawn as the Western establishment recalibrates its messaging on the Ukraine conflict — either gently manoeuvring the Western public away from all-out support of Zelensky and Ukraine, or preparing for a significant escalation of support.
- The OSINT accounts have lost credibility by reporting obvious untruths about the progress of the war in Ukraine, causing frustration to Ukrainian commanders and troops on the ground.
- They’ve been copying each other’s reports rather than supplying significant new information, so once one or two take a break, a number of the others have to either find new sources (which would be actual work) or go on hiatus.
- The amateur accounts are simply exhausted from covering 112 days of conflict and are taking a break to get back to their lives.
It must be emphasised that the success of Russian operations in phase two should not be measured purely in ground taken, as the advance has been rather slow. Russia is fighting a positional war in Ukraine.
- This strategy works due to Russia’s superiority in long-range fires (MLRS, artillery, airstrikes).
- The combination of better firepower and better positioning is intended to cause a higher rate of attrition among Ukrainian troops, in both material and manpower.
- Ukraine’s salient in Lysychansk is hard to defend and resupply, with long and difficult supply lines connecting to incoming Western aid and the rest of the Ukrianian military economy.
- Ukraine is strategically surrounded in the critical East Donbas region, where both sides have deployed the greatest concentrations of manpower.
The Significance of Attrition
The attritional element of this phase of the conflict cannot be overstated. Western industry is facing difficulties in replacing the equipment sent to Ukraine, particularly ATGMs and MANPADs: the rate at which these weapons are being expended on the battlefield is simply too great, and the production capacity in the West is too little.
This has identified an Achilles Heel of NATO: the alliance enjoys the most sophisticated weapons systems and warfighting capabilities in the world, but is less suited for a large attritional war. This presents an asymmetry compared to the Russian way of war, which accepts and expects large attrition rates in materiel.
Tanks provide a useful case study of this problem. Russia has reactivated thousands of T-62 tanks for the war in Ukraine. This has given plenty of amateurs a hearty chuckle, with ridiculous headlines like ‘Russia is running out of tanks’ circulating on social media. However, it takes the same amount of hypermodern single-use ATGMs to knock out a tank from 1961 as it does a tank from 2021. Meanwhile, despite the West donating tens of thousands of anti-tank weapons to Ukraine, the attrition rate of these weapons is high; Ukrainian staff estimated an attrition rate of 500 ATGMS per day during the first phase of the war! This does not translate directly to 500 destroyed tanks per day, due to malfunctions, misses, misfires, non-kills, lost or captured weapons, and (of course) some of these weapons disappearing into the international arms black market.
The number of Javelin ATGMs produced by the US daily is five. Lockheed estimates that it will be able to double this by the end of the year — going from 1% to 2% of Ukraine’s needs. The weapons donated to Ukraine so far have come from national military stockpiles, and officers across the West are rather reluctant to empty their own arsenals in a world where armed conflict looms increasingly large.
A similar picture concerns MANPADs, with the number of Stingers currently in production for the US military being zero. Raytheon hasn’t sold any to the US for 18 years, and many of the components are now unavailable, requiring a redesign.
Why Did Ukraine Reinforce Lysychansk?
Reinforcing Severodonetsk and Lysychansk seems like a terrible idea, since these cities are almost completely surrounded and difficult to resupply. Reinforcing the tip of a salient (bulge) is usually a classic blunder. If the flanks aren’t completely secure, the reinforcements may be cut off, surrounded, and forced to surrender. To avoid this, the defender must use every resource available to defend the flanks, which will cause them to trade with the enemy at a less unfavourable ratio of losses. Even if the flanks are secure, the attacker enjoys a great deal more space and supply options with which to conduct battle at the tip of the salient. In other words, by reinforcing a salient, the defender is voluntarily placing themselves at a huge disadvantage.
All of these factors weigh heavily on the morale of troops placed in such impossible situations, and a fair amount of footage has surfaced in recent weeks purporting to show combat fatigue from units tasked to Severodonetsk.
So why is Ukraine still there? I offer some possible explanations below.
Disparity in firepower, and particularly the lack of armoured vehicles and tanks in Ukraine’s arsenal, corresponds to a lack of offensive capability. When Ukraine loses territory, it can’t regain it and hold it by counteroffensive. This differs from the first phase of the Russian invasion, where the Russians operated under a completely different, aggressive strategy and overextended themselves in the north, before withdrawing to the borders.
Two examples illustrating this point would be the Ukrainian counterattacks in Kharkiv and Kherson, shortly before the 100 day mark. The ‘attack towards Kherson’ quickly disappeared from the news; the following footage appears to show more or less what happened to it. Assaulting a prepared enemy in possession of a large firepower advantage across open ground is always going to have a low chance of success.
The Kharkiv attack appears not to have faced a committed defence from the Russians, and in the weeks following its advance, the Russians have since reoccupied much of the yielded ground.
Since regaining lost ground appears beyond the Ukrainian Army’s capabilities thus far, the Ukrainian leadership may feel it must hold territory to the last man, even when this is strategic suicide.
Another factor in the Ukrainian leadership’s decision to reinforce the Severodonetsk salient may be the fear that a withdrawal from Lysychansk would cause a lack of confidence from Western backers that Ukraine is committed to the war, resulting in less materiel being shipped, while also reducing troops’ morale. However, this seems unlikely — after nearly 4 months of fighting and tens of thousands of casualties, Ukraine doesn’t have anything to prove in terms of will to fight.
To be charitable, the Ukrainian leadership may also want to delay the Russian advance in order to prepare defences in depth behind the East Donbas front, protecting cities like Dnipro and Zaporizhzhia, in case Russia follows up victory in the East with a major offensive to take central Ukraine. Under this calculus, losses in the East to delay Russia’s advance might be justified in the long term, if the long term plan includes a roadmap to victory rather than a protracted defeat.
Russia in many ways stunned the world with the failure of phase one of its invasion, which littered the Ukrainian countryside with abandoned vehicles. However, the conservative phase two strategy is working for them, in slow, bloody, and unspectacular fashion.
We in the West are used to the idea that large military superiority manifests itself in war through a quick decisive victory. However, this is not the only way. A superior army may also take the slower route of destroying the enemy through firepower rather than manoeuvre. Provided Russia has the economy to sustain this level of operations — and by all indications they do — the onus is on the Ukrainian High Command to come up with a strategic innovation that can turn this conflict around.