The battle for Kherson is underway and it will take time to ‘play out’. Now, military commanders on both sides will be looking weeks or months ahead preparing for the next phase of the campaign. So what comes next? This column is my thoughts about how the war will develop in the next few months.
Ukraine will take Kherson – But it will take time.
The offensive has been planned for a long-time. It is part of an operational level campaign that started months ago with Russian forces being drawn into the battle for Luhansk and Donetsk. Once committed to that fight the Ukrainians were able to choose their next point of contact and chose Kherson. This city is important because of its political value, being the only large city the Russians occupied and if it is recaptured it is a significant political and moral victory for Ukraine. It also demonstrates to their international supporters that they are willing and able drive the Russians out of Ukraine.
Further, the area around Kherson is bisected by large rivers that allow the city to be isolated and ‘cut off’ from support while it is besieged. The area’s geography is complex with other smaller rivers, canals and drains limiting the use of large armoured formations negating a Russian advantage and forcing poor quality Russian infantry to bear the brunt of the fight. More importantly, the Dnipro River provides a defensible line on which the offensive’s limit of exploitation can be set. Essentially, Ukraine can ‘cut off’ and destroy a ‘bite-size’ portion of Russia’s force then re-organise after that battle, behind a new frontline protected by a large river. It is obvious that this ground is carefully chosen.
Ukraine is not going to lose this fight; it is too important for them and their Russian adversaries are not strong enough to resist. However, it will take time because the Ukrainians are probably not strong enough to easily defeat the Russians; and because minimising civilian casualties will be an operational objective. It is likely that the plan is to surround Kherson, but not assault the city directly. Instead, to slowly grind the Russians inwards forcing them to expend material and ammunition fighting outside the city. Combined with interdiction of Russian supply lines this tactic will drain Russian resources so that when Kherson is surrounded any fighting in the city is minimised.
The fight around Kherson is an artillery battle; and precision strike is winning
We have discussed the ground around Kherson, the major rivers, the canals and the boggy nature of the terrain. This restricts tank, armoured vehicle and truck movement making the impact of artillery more important. With limited vehicle mobility war-fighting becomes a slogging infantry battle dominated by artillery, think of the Western Front in World War One. The side that can dominate the artillery battle will win.
Ukraine’s artillery campaign is effective, using depth fire precision guided weapons like HIMARs to damage the Russian forces supply lines and ammunition dumps. This week the Institute for the Study of War reported that “The Ukrainian counteroffensive is tangibly degrading Russian logistics and administrative capabilities in occupied southern Ukraine”. NASA wild fire monitoring satellite network footage concurs; and we are seeing less fires caused by Russian artillery and more by Ukrainian artillery.
Further, this week we found out the Russians are buying artillery ammunition from North Korea. This a pretty firm indicator that they are in a tricky position and that the loss of artillery ammunition is impacting on planning. Another, factor is that North Korean shells are likely to be lower quality than Russian produced shells meaning their fuses will be less reliable and their terminal effect less certain (i.e. they may not do so much damage when they hit).
It seems that in this area Ukraine is using its artillery more effectively and is winning the artillery battle, reducing Russia’s ability to use artillery bombardments to reinforce their weaker infantry.
Kherson will fall by Christmas
Extending this reasoning it seems likely that Ukraine is planning the push towards Kherson to culminate in late autumn or winter. The change in season will make the ground muddy and wet, limiting vehicle movement (like Russian armour) so Ukraine can play to its demonstrated advantages and use their effective infantry to move into the city. Dislocating Russia’s armour advantage and forcing their less strong infantry to contest the streets minimises civilian casualties.
However, ‘no plan survives H-hour’ and there is a strong possibility that Kherson will not be defended. The Russians could either withdraw, or if left behind by their higher command the defenders may simply surrender.
Ukraine will probe elsewhere; and may be spectacularly successful
In coming weeks keep watching the full length of the front because as Russia becomes increasingly drawn into the battle for Kherson it will be forced to thin its lines elsewhere. For instance, on 7 September 2022 Ukraine made an advance towards the Russia’s supply base near Izyum, 460 kilometres north-east of Kherson. The Institute for the Study of War recording that “Ukrainian forces likely used tactical surprise to advance at least 20km into Russian-held territory in eastern Kharkiv Oblast on September 7, recapturing approximately 400 square kilometers of ground”. Attacks like this will continue and if there is sufficient Russian weakness, we may see some very sudden changes in frontline dispositions far from Kherson.
Although unlikely, there is a chance that a wholesale Russian collapse could happen in the east. Remember that frontlines are defended by infantry soldiers, a resource that throughout this war Russia lacked. An advance of 20 kilometres into the Russian frontline means that they now have to cover an extra 40 kilometres of frontage. Soldiers need to be withdrawn, repositioned and reorganised to cover the new longer line. A large reserve would make these evolutions easier, providing spare fresh troops to plug the gap. However, it is unlikely that Russia has sufficient forces in the east to constitute a reserve, if they did it would likely have been used to help transition to a larger offensive operation after the fall of Lysyschansk. Therefore, don’t be surprised if there is a collapse or hasty withdrawal in the north-east in the next few weeks.
The new 3rd Army will not affect the situation.
In recent weeks Russia has formed a new army group, the 3rd Army. It is stocked with new equipment and manned with fresh ‘volunteers’. Currently, it is sitting to the east behind Donetsk and its possible impact needs to be appreciated. Held back, it is a threat, a powerful reserve that can be deployed for a counter-attack or to hit a weak spot in the Ukrainian line.
However, regardless of its modern equipment it is manned by poorly trained soldiers. New ‘volunteer’ units and older soldiers re-enlisted well past their prime. It is unlikely to have developed any cohesiveness or espirit de corps so is not likely to be operationally effective. Given time and good training a viable force could be created but the question is will Putin give his forces the time they need? Historically, he hasn’t.
It is most likely that as the situation in Kherson worsens and as other local counter-attacks start, the 3rd Army will be deployed ad hoc. Its forces joining the battle piecemeal, firefighting rather than as a cohesive and possibly game changing force.
So what happens next?
It seems that the Ukrainian offensive in Kherson is likely planned to culminate as the worst of the autumn and early winter weather arrives and makes all military activity difficult. This will provide a natural operational lull that the Ukrainians in Kherson can use to rest reconstitute and prepare for the next phase of the war. If Kherson is in Ukrainian hands, it provides a ‘firm base’ that anchors a strong new frontline on the Dnipro River.
The next phase is likely to involve soldiers currently being trained in Britain, other countries and the western regions of Ukraine. This increasing military capability includes a range of armoured vehicles that are arriving in Ukraine from overseas donors. Currently, well-trained soldiers are being paired with new equipment and forming new units likely to be ready to deploy early in 2023. The ground freezes in January and February allowing for large armoured operations, so it seems that the natural phasing of the operation will be to capture Kherson by Christmas ready for a large offensive in the New Year.
However, the situation may develop quicker and we could see a more widespread collapse along the Russian frontline. Particularly, if more support is provided to Ukraine. Retired United States general, Ben Hodges was quoted this week saying that “After all this time, Russia still controls less than 20% of Ukraine’s territory, and their ability to conduct further offensive operations has been all but exhausted.” I agree, and it is only a matter of time and continued international support for Ukraine, before Russia is pushed out. The countries supporting Ukraine; and the international rule of law must remain committed even though Russian economic terrorism will impact on households across the globe.
Ben Morgan is a tired Gen X interested in international politics. He is TDB’s Military analyst.