August 8, 2022
The Russian army in Ukraine apparently is shifting a third of its forces in eastern Ukraine to southern Ukraine in order to defend against Ukrainian attacks in the south.
But that’s exposing gaps in Russian defenses in the east. And now the Ukrainian army reportedly is exploiting those gaps, especially around Sloviansk and Izium. Hitting the Russians where they aren’t.
In pressing these attacks, however, the Ukrainians risk overextending their own forces.
“Ukrainian forces are likely taking advantage of the redeployment of Russian forces away from the Sloviansk axis and conducted localized counterattacks to regain ground southwest of Izium and northwest of Sloviansk on Aug. 4,” the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C. reported.
The purported Ukrainian counteroffensive around Izium, reportedly involving the 93rd Brigade and other units, at best has liberated a few villages such as Dibrovne, Mazanivka and Dmytrivka.
But the eastern counteroffensive belies what ISW described as a more profound shift in Russia’s wider war in Ukraine, which began in late February.
“Ukraine’s preparations for the counteroffensive in Kherson and the initial operations in that counteroffensive, combined with the dramatic weakening of Russian forces generally, appear to be allowing Ukraine to begin actively shaping the course of the war for the first time.”
Five months into the wider war, Kyiv finally has the momentum, according to ISW. It’s an open question, however, whether the Ukrainian army has the resources to sustain this momentum.
It’s clear how we got here. Russia went to war in Ukraine with too few troops to achieve its aims. Just 125 battalion tactical groups, each with 800 or so soldiers and divided between four main efforts: capturing Kyiv in the north, Kharkiv in the northeast, the free portions of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts in the east and the entirety of Ukraine’s Black Sea coast.
But the Ukrainian army fought hard. Ukraine’s allies offered up intelligence as well as tens of billions of dollars worth of modern weaponry. After a month, Russia’s offensives around Kyiv and Kharkiv and along the Black Sea coast ground to a halt.
The Kremlin in late March pulled its troops away from Kyiv and paused attacks around Kharkiv and the half-occupied coast, shifting more than half its remaining battalions east to complete the occupations of Donetsk and Luhansk.
By early August, the Russian army was spent. It had buried thousands of its best troops and written off thousands of its best tanks, fighting vehicles and artillery. Those troops and vehicles that were left were concentrated in the east.
Russian authorities hastily organized a recruitment drive to form a few new battalions, but planned to deploy them to the front after just a month of training.
Russia’s exhaustion is Ukraine’s opportunity. The Ukrainian 17th Tank Brigade and other units in May launched a slow counteroffensive toward occupied Kherson on the Black Sea coast, taking advantage of the relative paucity of Russian forces in the area.
That counteroffensive intensified in July as the Ukrainians aimed their best new American-made artillery and rockets at supply dumps, bridges and trains behind Russian lines, steadily starving and isolating the Russian 49th Combined Arms Army in and around Kherson.
The Kremlin responded by shifting forces again—this time from the east to the south. “Russia’s war on Ukraine is about to enter a new phase,” the U.K. Defense Ministry stated.
More than a dozen of the roughly 50 battalion tactical groups in the east traveled by rail toward Kherson, occasionally stalling as the Ukrainians dropped a bridge or severed a rail line.
It’s an open question how much combat power these reinforcements still possess after five months of hard fighting.
In any event, the Russians this spring thinned the southern front to stiffen the eastern front, allowing the Ukrainians to counterattack in the south. Now the Russians are thinning the eastern front to stiffen the southern front—and the Ukrainians are counterattacking in the east, too.
Retired Australian army general Mick Ryan described Ukraine’s strategy as one of “corrosion.” “This strategy of corrosion sees Ukraine attacking the Russians where they are weak.”
If there’s a danger for Ukraine, it’s that its army also is exhausted. Ukraine enjoys geographic and morale advantages over Russia, yes. But Ukraine still is a much smaller and poorer country than Russia is—and its army is smaller. If raw counts of troops and tanks decided the winner of this war, the outcome would be clear.
They don’t. But that’s not to say numbers don’t matter. Ukraine has made good its own losses in part by pushing reservists and local territorial troops into the fight and leaning on saboteurs to chip away at Russian occupation forces.
Those forces might struggle to sustain intensive counteroffensives, retired U.S. Army general Mark Hertling explained. “For the [Ukrainian army] to conduct deliberate attacks mixed with relatively untrained territorials and resistance forces will be hard.”
Maybe Ukraine now has the momentum. But that momentum might not last if Ukraine can’t
muster the combat power to press its advantages—and defeat the Russians where the Russians are weakest.