Ferocious fighting continues as Russia advances on Avdiivka. Further south, all eyes are on Ukraine’s crossing of the Dnipro River. Meanwhile, both sides are battling against the clock as we count down to the autumn rain and winter snow. And, across the campaign we can see indications that the situation in Ukraine is evolving, that the battle for the ‘centre’ is over and that the campaign is rapidly developing into a battle for the flanks. Both sides trying to develop a credible turning movement that will draw their opponent’s forces away from the centre, creating space for manoeuvre.
Ukraine’s main effort has changed, although still attacking on the Orikhiv Axis and Bakhmut their intensity is reducing considerably. Russia meanwhile continues to maintain pressure, launching a continuous barrage of small attacks along the whole length of the frontline. Additionally, Russia maintains a large force of about 100,000 soldiers in northern Luhansk (See the ? on the map below.). At this point, Ukraine’s defences are holding but it clear that Russia is keen to keep Ukraine’s forces in the north-east fixed in defence, making sure they cannot be redeployed easily.
Additionally, the large Russian force in the north creates a dilemma for Ukraine’s commanders. The force may consist of newly mobilised and poorly equipped soldiers that have consistently failed to generate momentum in several large attack but is still very large creating a threat that must be mitigated. This means that Ukraine needs to keep reserves in position that can be deployed north to defend against an advance in this area. Early in the campaign, this area provided logistics facilities that Russia used to support forces advancing towards the important Ukrainian cities of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk. It is also the route to Ukraine’s second most important city Kharkiv. A combination of factors that makes this area vitally important for Ukraine to hold.
Russia’s force in north Luhansk is only a threat at this stage, and whether it develops into a flanking force executing a turning movement remains to be seen. It is dependent on the situation further south, the key factor being Ukraine’s capacity to develop a bridge head on the Dnipro River’s east bank. And, therefore on whether Russia need to send its best troops there.
Last week, Ukraine continued to expand and develop the bridge head an operation that is clearly a flanking manoeuvre designed to lodge a force behind Russia’s main defensive line. So far, the Russians have not been able to defeat the force and it is slowly expanding its foothold. Russian milbloggers reporting that Ukrainian forces are digging in and have brought mortars across the river. The reports are not confirmed but the observations are likely to be correct.
Ukraine’s assault force is from the well-trained and equipped 35th and 36th Marine Infantry Brigades. These brigades trained with the United Kingdom’s Royal Marines earlier this year and are very capable units that have spent the last four months raiding Russian positions along the river. Essentially, if Ukraine is looking to cross in large numbers these are the units they would use to create a bridgehead. Unlike a Russian or United States force, the Ukrainians cannot swamp a defended river with artillery and airpower then use masses of amphibious vehicles and assault bridges to cross a river very rapidly.
Instead, it is more likely that Ukraine’s foothold will develop slowly, the marines of the 35th and 36th Brigades slowly pushing forwards on foot to about 15km east of the Dnipro River. The rough distance that they can expect consistent artillery support from supporting fire units on the west bank of the river. The marines will carry lots of man portable air defence and anti-tank missiles that will be used to protect a foothold for other heavier units as they cross the river. On the map below, the blue line shows what a secure bridgehead might look like. A perimeter secured on natural features (like lakes, high ground and forests) at the limit of artillery cover. This week it was confirmed that Ukrainian forces are in Krynky and are fighting to capture Oleshky and Pishchanivka. Potentially tough battles as Russia has about 5,000 soldiers in the immediate area and is sure to be rushing more into the area.
Looking back at Ukraine’s September 2022 Kharkiv Offensive, we can see that if Ukraine can get highly mobile forces across the river with support it could create a very dangerous situation for Russia. The activities that we need to watch for in this area in coming weeks are:
- Whether Ukraine can maintain logistics support to the soldiers on the east bank.
- Ukraine’s aggression, if they push forwards quickly and try to secure places like Radensk.
- The movement of heavy equipment, especially artillery over the river.
Essentially, it is hard to tell if the crossing is an opportunist operation that developed from a sudden and unexpected Russian weakness being exposed or whether the operation is more carefully conceived and planned. In my opinion, the key combat indicator will be the movement of artillery across the river. Artillery is vital during all phases of war but requires enormous logistics support. If 35th and 36th Brigade plan to advance further than about 15 km then they need to have artillery on their side of the river. Likewise, if Ukraine intends to secure a crossing it needs to create the largest possible security zone and with artillery on the east bank the potential zone becomes much larger.
So far Russia is not able to push the Ukrainians back over the river unlike previous crossings that were defeated by Russian airpower, attack helicopters and ground attack aircraft. This may indicate the Russia’s aviation capability is reducing. This may be improvements in air defence or the impact of ATACMS destroying and forcing the dispersion of Russian attack aircraft and helicopters. In its 27 September update the Institute for the Study of War assessed that “Russian forces are likely worried about future Ukrainian strikes targeting Russian airfields in Russian rear areas. Satellite imagery dated October 26 indicates that Russian forces have likely painted four outlines of MiG-31 aircraft on the flight line at Belbek airfield near occupied Sevastopol, Crimea, likely intended to draw Ukrainian targeting from the four real MiG-31 remaining at the airfield.” The ATACMS threat is likely to be keenly felt amongst Russian aviators.
Further, we know that Russian troops have been moved from both the frontline and from reserves to Kherson because of Russian concerns about a crossing. Where are these soldiers? The most likely answer is a that they are furiously digging in defensive positions, outside of Ukrainian artillery range, to contain any future crossing. Russian conscripts may not be good on attack but in recent months have proven they can certainly defend.
Currently, Russia is clearly focussed on taking Avdiivka, sacrificing thousands of soldiers and scores of vehicles. Ukraine claims that the attack has destroyed whole Russian brigades and the White House stated on 28 October that there is evidence that Russia is executing soldiers that refuse to fight. An indication that Russian morale is low. However, last week Russian soldiers captured a small, 20m high artificial hill about 7km north of Avdiivka. An important feature despite its small size because it overlooks the main supply route into and out of the town. This small hill may be the key to Russia winning the battle, because from this vantage point Russian observers can interdict Ukraine’s supply line into the town. Russia’s continued concentration on Avdiivka is therefore warranted. My assessment is that Avdiivka will fall and that when this happens, we will see a Russian counter attack that’s objective is to drive the Ukrainians back over the river.
This may become a turning point in the land campaign. If Russia forces Ukraine’s soldiers back onto the Dnipro’s west bank, they remove the threat of Ukrainian forces breaking out in a relatively undefended area and running amok, defeating Ukraine’s operational level turning movement and forcing Ukraine to fight in the centre. Ukraine’s operations in the centre; the Orikhiv attack, the assault on Bakhmut and flattening the Velyka Novosilka salient have not been as successful as hoped. Russia’s defence system generally stopping Ukraine’s attacks producing stalemate. Strategically, a stalemate in the land campaign is a win for Russia. However, if Ukraine can execute its turning movement by successfully turning its lodgement on the Dnipro’s east bank into a base for offensive action, then Russia’s prospects look grim.
At strategic level the European Union has been active in the last week, demonstrating support and creating aid packages for Ukraine. Probably to demonstrate that regardless of the impact America’s domestic politics, Europe is firm in its dedication to deterring Russian (or future Chinese) aggression and will not be worn down. Putin on the other hand is ‘rattling the nuclear sabre,’ Russia conducting a large exercise specifically designed to test and demonstrate Russia’s capability to fight a global nuclear war.
My assessment is that this exercise has a larger purpose, Putin’s position in Ukraine is currently strong and he has grounds for confidence. His forces appear to have blunted Ukraine’s offensive and are holding on, creating an operational stalemate. Ukraine’s only option is crossing the Dnipro River and creating a new flank on which to generate manoeuvre. A difficult and time-consuming task. Further, it is likely that Russia will soon close the Avdiivka salient, and when that that operation finishes resources can be release to push the Ukrainians back onto the west side of the Dnipro River. Essentially, he may not have achieved his original objectives but can certainly claim to his domestic audience that he won. My expectation is that if Ukraine is not successful opening a new flank, then we will see more nuclear ‘sabre rattling’ and calls for a negotiated peace. The threat of nuclear escalation being used to force NATO and the United States to acquiesce.
In conclusion, the next few weeks may see sudden changes in the status quo. The outcome of the battle of Avdiivka and Ukraine’s river crossing look set to have far reaching strategic implications. If Ukraine runs out of options to turn a flank, then it faces either; a long and bloody battle of attrition or a negotiated peace. A long battle of attrition is unlikely to be supported by either Ukraine’s people of by their international supporters. So, the next few weeks may be very important indeed.
Ben Morgan is a bored Gen Xer and TDBs military blogger