Last week Russia continued to throw soldiers at Avdiivka, without success and launched the war’s most extensive artillery barrage to date hitting 118 Ukrainian towns and villages in one night. Ukraine continues to attack Bakhmut, retains its bridgehead over the Dnipro River and captured ground on the Orikhiv Axis. On 5 November, Ukrainian missiles hit the port of Kerch damaging at least one warship. However, the week’s biggest news is General Valery Zaluzhny, Ukrainian Chief of Defence Force’s frank discussion with the Economist. He made a powerful statement about the war; including discussing the offensive’s slow progress, Ukraine’s exhaustion and the prospect of a long war of attrition. The general’s statement reflects a growing acknowledgement that the war is entering a new phase. The ‘centre,’ or the section of frontline roughly between Orikhiv and Bakhmut is effectively frozen and although both sides are active, neither has momentum. This raises the possibility that the land campaign may settle into a long stalemate.
In an essay and an interview, General Zaluzhny provided the Economist with his insights into the changing nature of war. He concludes that this war is like World War One in that technology has strengthened defence to a point at which manoeuvre is almost impossible. The general stating “I realized that is exactly where we are because just like then, the level of our technological development today has put both us and our enemies in a stupor.” After nearly two years observing this war, he may be correct. The key issue that separates this war from past conflicts is not the depth of minefields or huge expenditure of artillery, it is not even precision strike or drones.
Instead, it seems that the change is that both armies are sufficiently ‘network enabled’ to ensure almost complete surveillance of the battlefield and that the ‘sensor-shooter link’ is almost instant. In lay terms, the whole of the battlefield is now under observation not only by military observers but by anybody with a cell phone. “The simple fact is that we see everything the enemy is doing, and they see everything we are doing” says the general. Further, almost any of these observers can be quickly linked to a weapon system capable of hitting the target. Whether it is a suicide drone, a precision guided artillery shell, a normal artillery fire mission or ATACMS; targets almost anywhere can be quickly identified, easily located and quickly attacked. The fact that both sides have this technology and the way it is being integrated with the tools of traditional conventional war like minefields and massed artillery is unique.
The 1990 and 2003 Gulf Wars, were both ‘near peer’ conventional wars fought by large armies like the Ukraine War. However, only one side the American led Coalition was network enabled so this technology was not tested against a similarly integrated force. Afghanistan’s long occupation involved extremely network enabled American and NATO led forces achieving high-levels of surveillance and very short response times for air, missile or artillery strikes. In this war the enemy was an un-structured guerilla force so again there was not a test of this technology within the context of a near-peer conventional conflict.
And; this is the secret to understanding the current situation because this is the first war in history in which a defending force has integrated obstacles like mines, Dragon’s Teeth and barbed wire with digitally enabled surveillance and immediate, accurate fire. The combined effect is to massively strengthen the defence’s combat capability. Clearing a minefield is now a much more difficult task than it was even only twenty years ago, the preponderance of surveillance is oppressive and difficult to avoid. Any mistake spotted immediately by loitering drones, or by a local person filming on their Smartphone.
The overall impact of this technological change, the general argues, is to create a situation like the Western Front’s stalemate during World War One. That neither side can develop sufficient movement to create enough momentum to penetrate the enemy’s line to sufficient depth to inflict a defeat. Instead, both sides are locked in an attritional battle forced to try and smash holes in each other’s line using artillery’s destructive firepower rather than manoeuvre. General Zaluzhny’s comments are frank and highlight the tactical issues that Ukraine is facing in the land campaign.
Additionally, this week provided evidence that Ukraine’s people and its leader Volodymyr Zelensky are tired. Expressing his frustration when interviewed last week by Time journalist Simon Shuster, Zelensky observed that internationally “Exhaustion with the war rolls along like a wave. You see it in the United States, in Europe. And we see that as soon as they start to get a little tired, it becomes like a show to them: ‘I can’t watch this rerun for the 10th time.’” A statement that captures the difficulty he faces in the information battle, trying to influence international public opinion. How can he ensure that Ukraine remains relevant? Especially, when his supporter’s investment is not paying dividends and other issues like Gaza are diverting international attention. At home, he is under pressure as Ukrainian families start to protest about the dangers and long terms of service their members face fighting this war.
Strategic factors are also impacting on Ukraine’s position. In the United States, domestic political tensions are affecting the flow of aid. A situation that may get worse, a recent Gallup poll finding that 41% of Americans think the United States is providing to much support. A significant increase from 29% in June. 2024 is an election year and this trend will weigh heavily on American politicians.
Meanwhile, South Korean military intelligence informs us that North Korea has already shipped one million artillery rounds to Ukraine. A huge amount, considering Europe has managed only about a third of this number, constrained by European Union requirements to source ammunition supplied to Ukraine from within Europe. An economic decision with dire consequences for Ukraine because instead of being able to simply buy ammunition from stockpiles in the Middle East, Latin America or from manufacturers like South Korea supplies must be sourced or produced in Europe, slowing down delivery time.
In summary, Ukraine is in a tough situation. But, is it as tough as the general says?
Interpreting his statements and assessing Ukraine’s actual position requires taking a step back and closely analysing both the land campaign and the strategic information battle. Generals do not give interviews unless they want too! We have discussed the land campaign in some detail in recent weeks and General Zaluzhny’s observations of the situation in the ‘centre’ appear to be accurate. The Economist article acknowledges the situation and appears to be aiming to reset the Ukraine’s discussion with its supporters. The general preparing Ukraine’s supporters for a long war and encouraging them to look forward rather than backwards.
The statements need to be seen in this context, the general admitting that the offensive has not delivered to expectations and trying to reset expectations. The frank and honest assessments are designed to acknowledge the situation and provide a basis for future discussion. Ukraine needs to maintain its relationships with its supporters and the basis of any relationship is trust, and honesty builds trust. The article also looks forward providing information about the support Ukraine needs to break the deadlock including:
- Fighter aircraft.
- More electronic warfare capability, especially anti-drone systems.
- Counter battery capabilities. Like more artillery locating radars and loitering drones able to spot artillery and attack it.
- Minefield breaching equipment.
- Opportunities to train Ukrainian forces in other countries, safe from Russian attack.
In summary, General Zaluzhny’s aim appears to be getting this support and he knows that he has a better chance if he is frank and honest about the fact that the offensive has not met expectations.
Currently, the situation is tough but Ukraine is far from being defeated, activities this week providing evidence that Ukraine is still in the fight. For instance, Ukraine continued to attack Bakhmut and has attacked and gained ground on the Orikihiv Axis. Likewise, Ukraine has defeated large Russian attacks at Avdiivka and Vuledhar as well as many small attacks across the frontline. Counting losses is difficult but based on Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) we can be reasonably certain that Ukraine retains significant combat power. Also, Ukraine has crossed the Dnipro River and may be able to produce unexpected results possibly taking advantage of Russia’s operational focus on Avdiivka to turn the southern flank. The general’s statement is also probably designed to condition international expectations, so that if the operation fails it is not a surprise but if on the other hand the operation is successful, its impact on international supporters is increased.
Ukraine has a foothold on the east bank of the Dnipro River between Kyrnky in the north and the Atonivsky road and rail bridges in the south, threatening the E57 and T2206 motorways that supply eastern Kherson about 80km from Crimea. Russian sources report that Ukrainian forces are attacking at Oleshky, Krynky and Pischnanivka a village about 5km east of the river. So far, Russia has been unable to push the Ukrainians off the east bank and there are (unsubstantiated) Russian reports Ukraine is massing forces on the west bank.
In my opinion, this operation is very high risk. However, I have been proven wrong before and a crossing may use different tactics to historical operations. The area that the crossing is threatening is relatively lightly defended so it is possible that Ukraine is looking at an operation like the Kharkiv Offensive in September 2022. Pushing very mobile light forces across the river supported by long-range rocket artillery to create havoc in the Russian rear, forcing units to withdraw east and south. This could either create a secure area for a larger force to cross or may force Russian forces to be redeployed from near Orikhiv increasing the chances of a break through on that axis.
The land campaign may be slipping into a period of stalemate, both sides tired and unable to press achieve momentum. A situation General Zaluzhny is warning his supporters about and preparing them to manage. However, in the next few weeks Ukraine still has an opportunity to create an opportunity for manoeuvre on the banks of the Dnipro. So, keep watching as the last act of 2023’s summer offensive plays out on the banks of the Dnipro River.
Ben Morgan is a bored Gen Xer and TDBs military blogger