Kyiv aims to destroy Russia’s logistics routes, command centers and ammunition depots, weakening enemy forces so it can slice through them
By Daniel Michaels
October 12, 2023
The Wall Street Journal
Alongside Ukraine’s assault on Russian front lines, the country is conducting a second—and potentially more critical—campaign: destroying enemy command centers, ammunition depots and logistics lines that Moscow relies on to keep fighting. Even as Kyiv’s soldiers fight to crack open Russian defenses in the country’s south and east, they are using Western-supplied munitions to target Russian supplies that sit beyond the front lines. In doing so, Ukraine hopes to boost its chance of weakening Russian forces enough to slice through occupation forces.
Hitting those battlefield essentials depends on Ukraine’s ground troops advancing sufficiently to put Russian equipment within striking range. Ukraine is using artillery, rockets, drones and missiles to strike enemy forces, but most have limited range—meaning that much of Russia’s logistics operations remain beyond the reach of all but a few of Ukraine’s weapons. Russian forces are also working to strike Ukrainian logistics.
Soon, Ukraine may have a new, longer-range weapon with which to target more distant Russian logistics lines. President Biden recently told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that the U.S. would provide a limited number of ATACMS ground-launched ballistic missiles, which can strike between 100 and 190 miles away, depending on the model.
In a sign of how seriously Russia takes the risk to its logistics infrastructure, it has begun building new rail lines across territory it occupies in case Ukraine manages to damage the ones Moscow currently uses to deliver supplies to troops.
Further complicating Ukraine’s efforts is the fact that getting Russian logistics lines within range is only the start. Kyiv’s forces must also learn where the best targets sit or are moving to, which poses a significant intelligence challenge.
Last year, Ukraine scored significant gains against Russia by targeting its depots, supply shipments and command centers—vital nodes and links that tacticians call ground lines of communication. Rather than trying to hit every tank and troop formation, Kyiv took the more efficient path of destroying their necessities, often using precision armaments provided by Western allies.
Repeating that success is now Ukraine’s goal along a strip of land at least 50 miles wide that stretches from the Crimean Peninsula—which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014—east to Russia, along the Sea of Azov. Ukraine aims to sever what Moscow calls its land bridge, splitting Russian forces.
Breaking the Russian-occupied band would undermine its ability to sustain front-line troops and to exploit its operations in Crimea. Russia has used the peninsula as a naval base from which to attack Ukraine and menace ships carrying its exports across the Black Sea.
Moscow also supports its forces on the land bridge from Crimea. The new rail link that Russia is building to Mariupol—a Black Sea port on the land bridge—would, if successful, relieve pressure on supplies coming from Crimea, said an assistant to Mariupol’s exiled mayor, and so poses a threat to Ukrainian troops.
Still, accomplishing even the limited goal of hammering Russian logistics may prove a stretch for Ukraine because it requires large volumes of artillery. Russia, meanwhile, has adapted its operations to undermine Ukrainian tactics and may have reinforced its troops near the front, said Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a think tank, who visited the Ukrainian front in July.
One challenge is that Ukraine’s troops are at least 45 miles from a coastal highway that Russia uses, and most Ukrainian weapons systems must stay several miles back from the front line to reduce the chances of being targeted themselves. Only a small portion of Ukraine’s weapons can operate near the front or hit targets more than 50 miles away. That means the southern portion of the land bridge is largely safe from Ukrainian attacks. Ukraine’s military intelligence chief, Kyrylo Budanov, recently told a military website that Kyiv needs longer-range weapons to hit Russian command posts, logistics bases and similar targets.
Tokmak, an occupied town about 15 miles from Ukraine’s front line, is a large Russian logistics hub that is closer to Ukrainian targeting range, but Moscow’s forces have surrounded it with defenses. The arrival of the ATACMS could shift the balance. The U.S. missile systems boast precision guidance for pinpoint strikes, and some models spray bomblets that cast a rocket’s explosive force over a wider area, potentially causing more damage than a single explosion. When Ukraine will receive the rockets, which are launched from extremely nimble Himars trucks, hasn’t been announced, nor has the number to be delivered.
For now, Ukraine’s Himars are launching shorter-range rockets, including ones that each spew a cloud of roughly 180,000 tiny tungsten nuggets, which don’t explode but can perforate armor. Ukraine also has shorter-range, less-precise cluster munitions. Although Russian forces have a sanctuary in occupied areas beyond the reach of Ukrainian forces, Kyiv’s troops are working to complicate Russia’s replenishments for its front-line troops. Locating and hitting significant targets is a challenge for Kyiv, requiring good intelligence about the coordinates or routes of supplies. Ukraine relies on drones and other information sources. Strikes can require large volumes of artillery, particularly for moving targets or ones where only a rough position is known. “It is best to target static locations such as storage areas and depots,” said retired Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt. “A close second would be choke points such as bridges, transloading points and other transportation nodes.”
The Russian military has long relied on rail lines to move large amounts of heavy equipment and supplies. Loaded trains can offer juicy targets but can be hard to locate if moving and require precision targeting. Even long rail shipments are very narrow, so are difficult to hit.
Rail tracks can be even tougher to target, requiring munitions with pinpoint precision, and Russia is expert at repairing them in battles. “Rail tracks are hard to mess up with traditional munitions,” said John Nagl, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who teaches warfighting at the U.S. Army War College. Advancing nearer to rail lines and other logistics assets makes targeting them easier. “Every meter of battlefield matters,” Nagl said.
Russia, undermining Ukraine’s hard-fought battlefield advances, has shifted away from using large depots and instead is spreading its supplies across many transfer points, Lee said. Moscow is sending supplies one truck at a time, including using civilian trucks, routing them on circuitous paths and employing decoy shipments to thwart Ukrainian attacks, he said. “Russian logistics aren’t what they were in the spring of 2022,” when they offered Kyiv easy hunting, Lee said. “Using lots of trucks is inefficient, but there isn’t a big target.”
Hitting just one supply truck could help tip a local battle, so Ukraine may still want to try. But doing so, it faces the challenge of “intelligence persistency,” or being able to maintain eyes on a moving target, Kimmitt said.
Ultimately the test for Ukraine is how badly it can degrade Russia’s ability to defend its lines, fight and potentially stage a fresh offensive. ATACMS may be able to hit Russian targets more distant than those Ukraine can now hit, but they are valuable primarily if they can hamstring Moscow’s forces and change the course of battle, strategists say.
Daniel Michaels is Brussels Bureau Chief for The Wall Street Journal. He was previously German Business Editor, also overseeing coverage of the European Central Bank. For 15 years before that, he was the Journal’s Aerospace & Aviation Editor for Europe, covering airlines, aviation and aerospace industries in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Before that, he covered Central & Eastern Europe for the WSJ, based in Warsaw. Before joining the Journal, Daniel worked as a management consultant in New York, Warsaw and Moscow.