In Ukraine fierce fighting continues, Russian conscripts still dying trying to capture Avdiivka as further south Ukraine’s forces cross the Dnipro River in larger numbers. Near Orikhiv, Ukraine made sudden advances in recent days, and the question must be asked – Is the Dnipro crossing drawing Russian forces away from the Orikhiv Axis? Meanwhile, Ukraine continues to destroy Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and threatened to attack Russian oil and gas infra-structure if Russia attacks their power grid this winter. Activity, that is taking place against an increasing realisation that America’s support for Ukraine may wane and that international media attention is now focussed on events in Gaza.
Last week, the European Union re-stated its commitment to Ukraine. The union is probably responding to these factors and demonstrating to Russia that regardless of American support Europe is still behind Ukraine. An especially important statement as Ukraine’s bid to join the European Union progresses. Although, a recent investigation by Washington Post and Germany’s Der Spiegel alleging that Ukrainian special forces operatives were responsible for the Nordstream pipeline attack in September 2022 may create new diplomatic problems for Ukraine.
Recent weeks have highlighted the direct link between Ukraine’s tactical situation and the strategic battle being fought for resources and diplomatic support. Ukraine needs to maintain the flow of ammunition, equipment and money coming to it from its international supporters. When the land campaign is not in their favour and the prospect of a long, slow war of attrition looms pragmatists start calling for negotiated settlements. A basic consideration of this war is that Russia has a considerable size advantage, or in non-military terms Russia can sustain losing about six soldiers for each Ukrainian soldier lost. This means that if it retains the political will to keep mobilising its young men, it can win the war simply by feeding manpower into the meatgrinder until it overwhelms Ukraine.
This hard mathematics means that Ukraine must fight smarter, destroying Russia’s will to fight rather than trying to attrit them. Essentially, this means that it must capture sufficient ground that Putin’s supporters risk such political embarrassment that they either remove him or force him to negotiate. Last year’s Kherson and Kharkiv Offensives were good examples of what can be achieved using sophisticated tactics. The cost of any war is enormous and Ukraine’s international supporters are unlikely to continue supporting the war if there is no end in sight. That ‘end’ could be Ukrainian victory and complete withdrawal of Russian forces or it may be a negotiated peace settlement that stops the fighting and the economic drain. Clearly, Ukraine does not want the latter, so needs to keep demonstrating to its supporters that there is a chance it can beat Russia.
Unfortunately, Ukraine’s summer offensive has not met expectations so inevitably there is discussion amongst its supporters. Already, in the United States there is debate about support for the war. Sentiments that are likely to spread supported by Russian information operations (the modern military term for propaganda). This situation makes the next few weeks of the land battle vital for Ukraine. October was relatively mild and the rasputitsa or mud season is later than predicted, a boon for Ukraine because it means that it has more time before the weather changes and autumn rain slows down operations, the countryside becoming waterlogged limiting vehicle movement to well-formed roads.
And, both sides have been busy, Russia attacking in small numbers along the whole front-line but making no ground. A situation that could be described as ‘going through the motions,’ as each day there are approximately 30-50 minor attacks recorded along the frontline. Aggressive patrolling at platoon strength (about 30 soldiers) or lower is standard military practice designed to dominate ground, gather intelligence and keep the enemy off-balance. This activity tells us that the Russian’s are comfortable in defence and managing a normal tempo of operations. Russia’s main effort is clearly at Avdiivka, where large human wave assaults and artillery barrages continue relentlessly as they try to capture the city. So far, unsuccessfully.
Russian losses at Avdiivka may be high but the battle makes sense operationally. Avdiivka is uncomfortably close to the capital of Donetsk Oblast (approx. 10km) and sits within a salient about 10km deep and 6km wide. By taking Avdiivka, Russia shortens its local frontline from approx. 26km to 6km and removes a Ukrainian base near a major city. It appears to be an operation designed to create conditions on the ground that are suitable for negotiation. After Avdiivka is captured, Russia will possess not only a land corridor to Crimea but a well-fortified border with Ukraine that can be easily defended.
Ukraine is busy too and this week the land campaign included continued pressure on Bakhmut and further development of operations in the south. Ukraine now has a foothold on the east bank of the Dnipro River. Looking at the map below it easy to see the potential relationship between this operation and Ukraine’s effort on the Orikhiv Axis. The Ukrainian force is not large, but is being consistently resupplied and is well-supported by artillery on the west bank.
Further, Russian sources report the force has very good air defences and anti-drone electronic warfare. It is likely that the raiding along this stretch of river over the last four months was an opportunity for Ukraine to develop and install a network of electronic warfare equipment that is now being used to jam Russian drones. Information that indicates a level of investment and planning in the operation that hints at a larger plan.
In only 24 hours on 10 November, Ukraine made sudden and unexpected progress on the Orikhiv Axis advancing about two kilometres east towards Verbove and a similar distance on the other side of the salient heading towards Kopani,. The large advance east caused a stir among analysts because it was made against two elite Russian airborne units; 247th Guards Air Assault Regiment and 108th Air Assault Regiment. Both units brought from fighting near Bakhmut to strengthen the defences. The sudden and large gains made by Ukraine are interesting and inevitably raise questions about the area’s defences. Are Russian forces getting weaker on the Orikhiv Axis because some are being diverted from duties there to defend the Dnipro? This seems probable especially since from 11 November film of Ukrainian troops and vehicles crossing the river has become more common. Specifically, there is confirmed footage of Ukrainian crossings being undertaken during daylight, indicating Ukraine’s control of potential observation positions and ability to prevent drone observation and air strikes against the forces crossing the river.
The bridgehead is also slowly expanding, specifically Ukraine is making progress in two areas; Krnky and Oleshky, over a frontage of about 30km. (See the map below) The frontage and the transfer of even small numbers of armoured vehicles across the river will be causing Russian planners a great deal of concern. The footage that is available is also interesting because the crossing points are prepared, well-marked and supported by guides. This is important because the great weakness of any amphibious vehicle is getting it out of the water, river banks are often steep or slippery stopping even highly mobile military vehicles crawling out of the water. Successful crossings require preparation and this involves planning. Looking at the video’s circulating it appears Ukraine has been thinking carefully about the crossing and has put effort into preparing for it.
In summary, the land campaign still has plenty of opportunity for a sudden and rapid change. Specifically, the sudden Ukrainian advances on the Orikhiv Axis may indicate a large change in the campaign. Russian airborne units suddenly retreating two kilometres is not normal.
A lesson from this war is that land campaigns tend to capture the public imagination and that Ukraine’s success is judged mostly by its progress on land. At sea though Ukraine has been very successful and is winning the battle for the Black Sea. Ukraine’s drones driving Russia’s Black Sea Fleet east and denying them access to the western side of the sea. This week the loss of a brand new Karakurt-class corvette struck on 4 November was confirmed and on 11 November two small landing ships were destroyed. Essentially, the Black Sea Fleet has been removed from the battle, a very significant strategic win for Ukraine because it allows for safe grain shipments from Odessa. In recent weeks, the number of merchant ships docking in Odessa and Ukraine’s Black Sea ports has increased. Strategically, this is vitally important because it mitigates the risk of losing international support if the land campaign is unsuccessful. If Ukraine can trade with the world, then it can subsidise its war effort and needs less support from the international community.
Another strategic battle is coming this winter, and this week Ukraine took steps to prepare for it. In recent weeks, Russian drone and cruise missile strikes have reduced. Most analysts believe that this is an indication that Russia is holding these weapons in reserve for strikes on Ukraine’s power grid during the winter. Russia needs lots of drones and cruise missiles because the best way to beat Ukraine’s air defences is to swamp them with both decoys and real weapons systems. Ukraine’s response is to threaten Russia’s oil and gas infrastructure. This is a clever strategy because it targets Russia’s economic ability to pay for the war rather than civilians. Additionally, Russia’s oil and gas infrastructure is spread across the nation making it hard to defend.
In conclusion, my observations of the last week’s activity are that although the land battle runs the risk of slipping into a long and bloody stalemate there are indicators that this situation may change. Ukraine’s position on the Dnipro has not been effectively challenged and very recent Ukrainian advances on the Orikhiv Axis could indicate that this operation is drawing forces south, creating opportunities for a break through. Further, the weather has not yet deteriorated meaning that if Ukraine does breakthrough there could be an opportunity for large and sudden gains on this axis. Ukraine appears to be mitigating strategic risk implicit in the land campaign by focussing on controlling the Black Sea, and making sure its grain has a path to market so it can finance the war regardless of international support.
The European Union seems to be more pro-active and re-iterating its support for Ukraine as domestic politicking undermines American support. Russia is a direct threat to Europe, so it is in the best interests of NATO and the European Union to support Ukraine. Hopefully, in coming weeks some of the issues with European aid will be addressed and the ammunition and other support promised will be delivered. The potential cost for Europe of Putin’s regime ‘winning’ in Ukraine is enormous, an empowered and belligerent Russia would require careful long-term management and probably a return to Cold War style military deterrence.
Next week keep watching the Dnipro crossing, this week’s movement of armoured vehicles across the river, sometimes in daylight, demonstrates a surprising level of local security and may indicate larger plans for the area. The Russian mil-blogger community is highly exercised by the crossing and that Russian forces have not defeated the bridgehead. If Ukrainian light mechanised forces cross the river, it will not take much to see a repeat of the September 2022 Kharkiv Offensive. Fast moving columns enveloping and forcing the withdrawal of Russian forces. And; any victory that gains ground and provides hope that Russia can be defeated and pushed out of Ukraine will change the narrative about the war and encourage greater commitment by international supporters.
Ben Morgan is a bored Gen Xer and TDBs military blogger