The frontlines in Ukraine remained stable last week, both sides appearing concentrating on their own separate areas of interest. Ukraine, reinforcing and expanding its foothold on the east bank of the Dnipro River. Russia, continuing to attack Avdiivka. The campaign appearing to slow down, Ukraine’s offensive culminating and Russia settling into defence, ready for winter. It is likely that soldiers on both sides are worn out, tired and hopeful that winter will bring a lull in combat. However, Russia is currently being forced to make a decision that could be the most important one they make this year!
Currently, Russia remains focused on Avdiivka but elsewhere along the frontline is maintaining continuous aggressive patrolling, Russian forces making about 50-60 small attacks per day along the frontline. A feature of this war is that these small actions, probably platoon sized fighting patrols (20-30 soldiers) are recorded publicly, giving bloggers lots to talk about but indicating only that Russian forces are doing what any defending army should be doing, patrolling aggressively and dominating the local area. This activity indicates that in defence the Russian forces are confident and well-prepared, executing these small operations on a regular basis.
The main effort is clearly Avdiivka, and this week Russia continued to attack this town making limited progress and sacrificing many lives. As we have discussed this battle makes sense for Russia at this point in the war, taking the city brings Russia military advantages; pushing Ukraine’s artillery out of range of Donetsk City and shortening the Donetsk Oblast’s border making it easier to defend. Additionally, the road networks Avdiivka dominates provide a ‘jumping off’ point for future offensive operations. On a political level, taking Avdiivka provides a military victory that Vladimir Putin can use in the upcoming presidential election.
Potentially, Russia’s focus on Avdiivka provides information about Russia’s assessment of the campaign and its current strategy. The Russians appear to be confident that they can hold the line near Orikhiv and Bakhmut. Evidenced by how they are they are settling into a programme of aggressive patrolling and focussing their combat power on Avdiivka, probably aiming to capture it before winter. The plan is likely to settle gently into the new season, wait and then reassess the situation. This plan allows Russia’s domestic presidential elections to play out. Early next year, a decision can be made about whether the electorate will tolerate larger mobilisations, if it will there is time to prepare resources for offensive action next summer. If not, Russia can ‘lock down’ the current frontline and defend. Russia will hold the land bridge to Crimea and can wait for Ukraine’s support to reduce; or for international pressure to compel Ukraine to accept a negotiated peace.
However, the ‘fly in the ointment’ is Ukraine’s force on the east bank of the Dnipro River. This group has been in situ for about a month and has not been thrown back across the river or bombed into extinction. Instead, it is slowly expanding and developing its position creating the possibility of a larger crossing. Consensus amongst commentators is that Ukraine’s forces now hold Krynky village 30km north of Kherson City and about 2km east of the Dnipro River and are also attacking further south near Oleshky, Poima, Pishchanivka, and Pidstepne villages. The frontage of the crossing between Oleshky and Krynky is approximately 30km and some reports indicate that in some places Ukrainian troops hold territory 4km from the river. On 17 November the Institute for the Study of War reported that “Ukrainian officials stated that Ukrainian forces have established bridgeheads on the east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast and are conducting ground operations aimed at pushing Russian forces out of artillery range of the west (right) bank of the Dnipro River.” An important statement because in military jargon a bridgehead specifically refers to holding ground that allows following forces to cross and provides a base for future operations.
Ukraine’s soldiers on the east bank are well-supported by friendly artillery firing from higher ground on the west bank and are also reported to have very good electronic warfare capability that is limiting Russian drone activity. Last week there were reports of armoured vehicles crossing the river and it certainly looks like the Ukrainians are putting a significant effort into developing their foothold. On 16 November, reports started to circulate in the mil-blogger community that Ukraine has allocated a force of three brigades or approximately 6-9,000 soldiers to this operation. However, Ukraine remains tight-lipped about details and the Ukrainian General Staff is coy about its objectives stating that the operation’s focus is to push Russian artillery out of range of Kherson city. Another interesting statement because Ukraine holds high-ground on the river’s west bank that allows them to dominate the artillery battle forcing Russia’s guns away from the river without the need to cross.
The situation is strange, Ukraine’s objectives are unclear and initially Russia’s military seemed strangely disconnected from the threat posed by Ukraine’s Dnipro crossing; or did not have the resources to deal with it. The situation became stranger and more unpredictable when on 13 November, Russian media outlets TASS and RIA Novosti announced a Russian withdrawal from the area stating that “Having assessed the situation, the command of the Dnipro group decided to move the troops to more advantageous positions east of the Dnipro.” The articles were quickly retracted, Russian sources claiming that they were part of a Ukrainian mis-information operation.
The media releases came from official sources so are likely to be real releases, written ahead of time somewhere deep within the bowels of the Russian military and circulated by accident. Most likely, they tell us that Russia is considering the problem and waiting to see how the situation develops. The tactical dilemma that Russia faces is that the area Ukraine occupies on the west bank of the river is higher than the east bank so Ukraine has good observation positions and its artillery can dominate the local area. Additionally, the east bank is very flat and therefore hard to defend. It is approximately 20-30km east of the Dnipro River before the defenders would find ground suitable for a strong defence line. Therefore, Russia is exposed to the risk that if sufficient Ukrainian forces cross the river, they can make sudden and rapid progress supported by accurate artillery fire.
Russia has limited options to mitigate this risk, it can either:
- Contain the crossing; or
- Destroy the crossing.
Both are potentially good options, containing the crossing probably means trading ground for time and making a sudden withdrawal to more easily defended ground. Creating a strong defensive cordon within which the Ukrainian follow-on force can be trapped and slowly destroyed. Destroying the crossing means rapidly concentrating combat power in the area and attacking the Ukrainians on the east bank before a larger force can cross the river. The aim being to prevent a lodgement and the crossing of larger follow-on forces.
Russia’s dilemma is that either tactic can be successful, but you cannot do both. If you choose to contain the crossing, then forces need to be held back preparing the defensive cordon so are not available to attack the bridgehead. Likewise, if you choose to attack – Who will prepare the defensive cordon? In my opinion the Russians are busy weighing up these options, and have started contingency planning. This probably explains the media release, an overzealous or poorly informed staff officer releasing a statement drafted during contingency planning by accident.
Evidence that Russia may be planning to take the first course of action is found in the Institute for the Study of War’s 17 November update in which Ukrainian military analyst Kostyantyn Mashovets assessment was reported “Mashovets claimed on November 12 that the Russian command in the Kherson direction has refused to commit additional forces of the 70th Motorized Rifle Division (of the newly formed 18th Combined Arms Army) and 7th Air Assault (VDV) Division beyond elements of single regiments and battalions to the frontline, opting instead to maintain the remainder of these formations in near rear areas and secondary echelons of defense.” It is always easier to eject a smaller force, something Russia has not done either because it is choosing not to or because it cannot.
In Russian headquarters there must be teams of staff officers ‘doing the maths’ and trying to figure out whether it is better to pull troops away from the Orikhiv Axis or Avdiivka and immediately overwhelm the force on the east bank; or whether it is better to use less troops further back to dig-in outside the range of Ukrainian artillery. A tough decision, especially when there is a third factor to consider, that perhaps Ukraine has culminated and the Dnipro operation is just a bluff. The staff officers will also be considering the political situation, if they advocate for pulling troops away from Avdiivka or from defence on the Orikhiv Axis and either operation is compromised there will be repercussions.
Putting ourselves into those staff officer’s shoes, we can try to understand their reasoning. Most commentators do not believe Ukraine has the capability to cross the Dnipro in large enough numbers to advance to Crimea. Further, fighting close to the Dnipro under Ukrainian observation will be costly either on attack or defence because of Ukraine’s local artillery dominance. In this situation the conservative approach is to trade ground for time and use reserves withdrawn from other sectors to develop a defensive cordon just outside Ukraine’s artillery range.
In summary, although the mainstream media are talking about a stalemate there is still plenty going on in the land campaign. The Ukrainians now have a month-old foothold on the east bank of the Dnipro River and Russia looks to be taking a conservative approach, cordoning the Ukrainian’s crossing rather than trying to destroy it. Likely, appreciating that there is little chance of the crossing threatening Crimea before the winter and taking a low-risk approach that allows resources to remain at work in Avdiiivka and near Orikhiv.
However, this decision is not without risk. If Ukraine has more reserves than expected and they can gain the initiative on the east bank, they have about 20-30kms of flat and hard to defend ground in front of them. Further, Russia may simply be ‘kicking the can down the road,’ Ukraine using the reprieve to strengthen their bridgehead and prepare a base for future operations in Kherson. Hence, Russia’s decision potentially has some large and unpredictable consequences.
Ben Morgan is a bored Gen Xer and TDBs military blogger