Ukraine’s Slow-Moving Counteroffensive: Problems and Solutions (Part One)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 127

(Source: Daily Sabah)

At the time of writing, Ukrainian forces had managed to reach the so-called “Surovikin Line” in a number of places. Ukrainian units finally managed to break through the Russian echeloned defensive lines in the area of Priyutnoye-Staromayorskoye-Novodonetske and now threaten to enter the operational zone in the direction of Tokmak. Another breakthrough happened in the Staromayorskoye-Staromlinovka-Orlinskoye direction, as the Russian defensive lines there had not been prepared in strict engineering terms. This will make it possible for Ukraine to successfully employ its operational reserve to reach the flank of the main grouping of Russia’s 58th Combined Arms Army (, July 27).

Meanwhile, an unsuccessful push was observed in the Robotino area, which cost an entire battalion-tactical group from one of Ukraine’s armored brigades (, July 31). In this, some analysts have posited that the notions of a “failed counteroffensive” are a matter of the West’s inflated expectations and accompanying political pressure (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, May 7). But beyond that, a number of considerations explain why the current Ukrainian counteroffensive has been so difficult and whether it will succeed in its current form.

To begin with, the level of effectiveness for Western aid to Ukraine needs to be evaluated. More than a year after the start of hostilities, a definitive positional stalemate materialized on the battlefield. And while Western military and technical assistance provided to Ukraine have played a significant role in helping the country retake the initiative, it has not been without its issues. The idea that such military assistance has been nothing but effective has become a sort of dogma. However, upon closer analysis, it becomes clear that some mistakes were made that could have been avoided. Despite political statements and numerous assurances from Western politicians, in general, the West’s aid to Ukraine can be characterized as “chaotic.” This is largely due to the fact that equipment is being provided in insufficient quantities and has not been standardized, which causes problems with logistics. Furthermore, due to some countries “dragging their feet,” much of the aid has not been given on time.

The Ukrainian army, despite Kyiv’s declared modernization “to NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] standards” was and remains essentially derived from the Soviet Armed Forces. This is expressed primarily in the doctrines, which are a synthesis of NATO and Soviet doctrines from different periods; weapons; organizational methods; and, importantly, human resources currently being employed by Ukraine. To put it bluntly, a large part of Ukrainian military strategy is based on Soviet approaches and has been gradually implemented since 2014 in the form of restoring the Soviet mobilization system (see EDM, June 14, 2022).

From a military perspective, the Ukrainian leadership made an extremely clever calculation. Unable to compete on an equal footing with Moscow militarily and technologically, Ukraine relied on mobilizing the country’s human resources, compensating for the lack of equipment and weapons with people. Yet, here, the problem was different: Kyiv was not prepared to deploy an over one-million-man army, and, crucially, to sustain it during active fighting. From 2019 to 2021, the ranks of the Ukrainian Armed Forces were shrinking due to the lack of recruits and the departure of contract workers. At times, this meant that, in tank battalions, only 22 tanks were used instead of the standard 31, as there were not enough people to crew the other eight tanks. Furthermore, artillery batteries were reduced from six to four guns for the same reasons (, July 21, 2020, October 21, 2021).

What would happen if weapons from a completely different school of warfare were incorporated into the combat order of an army based on the principles of a competing school of thought? At best, the use of these weapons will be ineffective. And what happens if unfamiliar tactical doctrines are introduced overnight? Such an approach will simply undermine the functioning of the structure it is trying to support. It is not necessarily that such a process might be detrimental in and of itself. In fact, the constant introduction of such “alien strategies” is usually what moves a country’s military science forward. In Ukraine’s case, the problem is that the system itself sometimes fails to promote those officers who have the consummate skills and knowledge (, March 5, 2021).

Overall, the West’s military-technical support to Ukraine has been based primarily on the assumptions that Russia does not have the capability to conduct combat operations for an extended period of time, does not have a reserve for deploying additional military industrial capacities and has a high degree of sensitivity to human, material and economic losses. Based on these beliefs, as early as the spring of 2022, the concept of local support for Ukraine was formed, providing, in essence, for the formation of an “army within an army.” This concept was seen in the preparation of shock brigades that could carry out offensive operations, break through the front and force Moscow to withdraw from hostilities. This plan was partially implemented in the fall, when Ukrainian forces conducted successful operations near Kharkiv, Izium and Kherson. However, this thrust stalled as it proved unprepared to maintain a high rate of advance due to the depletion of shock troops, lack of logistical resources and inability to introduce line brigades into the operation (, June 17)

In response, the West began to supply Ukraine with non-standardized military equipment, not only from different military schools but also from different eras, thus overloading the Ukrainian military logistics and administrative system. Moreover, it is futile to talk about the multiple increases in military capabilities for Ukraine based on the increased supply of Western aid, as, overall, this equipment was provided in small quantities and has thus been “diluted” along the front.

Beyond the ongoing lack of sufficient political will in the West to provide Ukraine with adequate military equipment, problems abound in the training of Ukrainian forces. Often during training in NATO countries, only the basics are taught, without proper combat alignment. In this, it seems the greatest criticism concerns the exercises in Germany. For example, Ukraine’s 32nd Mechanized Brigade was trained in Germany but received a weak level of training—reportedly, only the loading and unloading with Bradleys was completed. Meanwhile, the opposite is being said about the United Kingdom, where extensive training was completed from MARCH protocol to basic engineering knowledge. … A lot of attention was paid to tactical exercises and shooting, practicing clearing in the field and in urban areas. A trench was being stormed, which was an exact copy of the Russian position in Chernihiv Oblast, recreated to the smallest detail. … The trench assaults were rehearsed in such a realistic way that explosions, gunfire and a drone dropping paintball grenades were used” (Author’s interview, August 3). These discrepancies in training mean Ukrainian units struggle with cohesion and cannot realize their full potential during direct combat operations.

Additionally, with Ukraine’s officer corps being largely knocked out in the past year and a half of fighting, the percentage of reserve officers in the newly created brigades, who were not sufficiently trained, has increased. Furthermore, the number of junior officers has also increased through a new system of promotion in which there is no need to receive an education from a military university. Now, it is enough to spend six months in a combat zone as a sergeant (, July 23).

This results in Ukrainian brigades entering the combat zone with an insufficient level of cohesion. For example, when the Americans started preparing for war in 1940–1941, they had neither a clear idea of how troops could and should operate nor confidence that peacetime commanders were fit for their positions. Thus, the United States military conducted a series of combined arms exercises involving all levels to test the readiness of its forces (, accessed August 7).

In truth, NATO countries have the opportunity to help Ukraine in conducting similar exercises, which would not only prepare the Ukrainian Armed Forces more effectively for its offensive operations in the appropriate order and conditions but also partially help NATO gain precious experience—something that may become critical as the war drags on.

*Read Part Two.