The month has been characterised by two key trends, the first is Russia’s offensive activity in the north-east and the second is Ukraine’s air and maritime offensive in the south-west. Both sides frantically trying to develop offensive operations and ‘regain the initiative.’ It is a delicate balance, and although there is limited movement there is lots happening; Ukraine holding Russia’s offensive in check while developing their own operations near Crimea.
Ground fighting in the east
Russia’s plan to re-take the initiative is based on a wide-ranging series of ground attacks launched from Luhansk and Donetsk. The main vectors of attack are around Kupiansk, Kremina and Avdiivka and seem to be focussed on two objectives, advancing toward Kharkiv (a major city) and securing the borders of Belgorod Oblast. The offensive started in October as Ukraine’s 2023 offensive culminated. After absorbing Ukraine’s attacks, the Russian’s transitioned from the defensive phase of war to offensive operations. Soviet / Russian doctrine emphasises offensive action, and that any defensive operation’s objective is to set the conditions for a transfer to renewed offensive. In simple terms, to use the advantages of fighting from strong defensive positions to wear down and attrit the enemy so that they are weakened before you start attacking again. Russia’s activity in recent months is consistent with how we; and Ukrainian commanders would expect the campaign to develop.
Essentially, Ukraine’s key operational issue over recent months was to manage Russia’s transition from defence to offence. A Russian counter-attack was inevitable and Ukraine needed to retain sufficient combat power at the end of its offensive to absorb it, and prevent the attack from forcing them into an uncontrolled retreat. A withdrawal or a retreat is the hardest phase of war to manage because it is easy for the side moving back to lose control, or to panic creating opportunities for the attacker.
Poor Russian training meets superior Ukrainian combined arms tactics
The fact that Russia has not been able to take Avdiivka, or create breakthroughs elsewhere despite throwing enormous resources at these operations demonstrates that when Ukraine’s offensive stopped, its ground forces were far from exhausted. Now, Ukraine is using a variety of defensive tactics that are simple but effective.
First, Ukraine is laying minefields that canalize advancing Russian armoured columns into pre-planned killing areas. This tactic is simple and every army use it. However, in Ukraine it is brutally effective against the Russians because they have a low level of training. Russian armour advances in columns or lines that are easy to control but also easy to target. Essentially, Russian tank and armoured vehicle crew lack the training to fight in dispersed swarms and must follow the vehicle in front to navigate through complex terrain; or channels in a minefield. This predictability makes them vulnerable to pre-planned attacks. Sometimes the defenders use lethal guided anti-tank missiles. At other times precision guided artillery shells accurate enough to hit individual tanks or even concentrated artillery fire. Lots of unguided shells fired into a small area, a tactic the Soviet’s called a ‘fire sack,’ will destroy armoured vehilces.
Often the defenders integrate these attacks with anti-drone electronic warfare, using powerful transmitters to jam the radio controls on Russian drones allowing Ukrainian armour or drones to engage without worrying about enemy drones. Ukrainian tanks zipping out of their ‘hides’ (secure hidden areas) to engage any Russian vehicles not destroyed by artillery or drones. The combination of these techniques and tactics demonstrates the new face of combined arms combat. Drones, electronic warfare, precision-strike weapons, conventional artillery and armour all working together in an integrated manner. Russian soldier’s poor training increases the effectiveness of this way of fighting, so the attackers are suffering significant attrition.
Further evidence of the poor performance of Russia’s troops on the frontline is provided by their inability to advance even with vastly more artillery ammunition. Even though Ukraine is forced to conserve every round, Russia has not been able to turn this significant advantage into progress on the ground. Russia’s larger numbers of shells mean that Ukraine’s ability to conduct counter-battery fire (targeting enemy artillery) is very limited, allowing Russia freedom to choose how its artillery is used. Instead of using it innovatively to counter Ukraine’s defensive tactics Russia continues to use massive bombardments of towns and villages. An easy but not very effective tactic.
Russian losses are significant
Recent footage of American supplied M2 Bradley armoured fighting vehicles destroying a Russian T90 tank, provided a brief insight into the superior training of Ukraine’s soldiers. The T90 is Russia’s most modern main battle tank, heavily armoured and carrying a 125mm gun. The M2 Bradley entered service in 1981, it is armed with a 25mm cannon. The film shows Ukrainian Bradleys out manoeuvre, panic and destroy one of Russia’s most modern tanks; an unexpected outcome. This and the other videos circulating on social media are only indicators of the different levels of competence, but when combined with Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) about Russia’s huge losses they help confirm a trend. That ‘on the ground,’ when the forces meet; Russia is losing tactical battles. Its force remaining functional operationally only because the nation is operating on a war footing, recruiting every young man possible while roughly 40% of GDP is estimated to be used building, repairing or refurbishing military equipment.
Forbes magazine writing on 30 January 2024 stated that “In their own winter offensive, the Russians are losing nearly three times as much heavy equipment as the Ukrainians are losing—and likely at least three times as many people. And so far, the Russians are, in exchange for their heavy—but historically typical—losses, gaining less ground than the Ukrainians gained at lower cost last summer.” An example from OSINT collated by Oryx and widely reported, confirms that on 20 January 2024, Russia lost 21 tanks and 38 other armoured vehicles, enormous losses in one day when one considers the expense of modern tanks. For instance, the German Bundeswehr can currently muster about 300 Leopards and the UK Army about 150 Challender 2s. In late-January 2024 Oryx estimated Russia has lost 1769 tanks.
Ukraine’s emerging campaign strategy
While Russia pushes on the ground in the north-east, Ukraine’s focus appears to be the south-west, specifically the area around Kherson and Crimea. In this column, two weeks ago we discussed Ukraine’s operations targeting Crimea’s air defences and its offensive use of Patriot missile systems to snipe key Russian aircraft, including key airborne early warning and command aircraft. (See ‘Russian air offensive failing, NATO aid increasing and US aid impasse edging closer to resolution’)
This area appears to remain a focus for Ukraine and during the night of 31 January 2024, a Russian Tarnatul Class corvette Ivanonets was sunk. Ukraine states that the ship was sunk by submarine drones and the attack is notable because the ship was in a sheltered and well-defended location.
This attack was also coordinated with a large air operation using 20 air launched missiles to attack Crimean targets, including Belbek Air Base near Sevastopol. As usual the effectiveness of the attack is disputed, Russia claiming 17 of the missiles were shot down and Ukraine claiming greater success. The key observation from this operation is not whether the attack was spectacularly successful but rather that Ukraine is able to mount an attack of this size and scale. Ukraine being able to successfully launch 20 missiles from aeroplanes, over the Black Sea, against targets in Crimea indicates that Russian air defence in the area is compromised. In the articles ‘Lessons from 2023 and what to expect in 2024’ and ‘Russian air offensive failing, NATO aid increasing and US aid impasse edging closer to resolution’ we assessed that Ukraine is specifically targeting Russian air defence networks in and around Crimea. This operation supports this assessment and indicates that Ukraine is successfully compromising Crimea’s defences. Crimea is obviously a strategic target. Last year’s offensive failed to isolate it by severing its land connection with Russia and now it appears that Ukraine is stripping away the area’s air defence. Ukraine’s investment in these operations raises the question – What next?
Sinking Ivanovets, and other Black Sea Fleet warships may be a clue. Along with sinking Russian amphibious warfare ships that carry supplies to their troops in occupied areas, Ukraine is also targeting warships with an anti-ship capability and that provide intelligence. Since May last year, two missile armed corvettes, a patrol boat, an attack submarine and a signals intelligence ship have been sunk. All vessels that contribute to Crimea’s air defence network and that could be used to attack vessels involved in amphibious landings on the peninsula. Combined with what we know about Ukraine’s previous activity; attacking radar stations, airbases and air defence missiles sites it is safe to bet that Ukraine believes that Crimea provides an opportunity to break the deadlock in the land campaign.
Additionally, Ukrainian forces retain a foothold on the east side of the Dnipro River, Ukrainian sources reporting the bridgehead has expanded but the Institute for the Study of War’s 1 February 2024 update reporting simply that “Positional fighting continued in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast, including near Krynky, on February 1.” A foothold that Ukraine may be seeking to exploit in the future perhaps with an amphibious operation in south-east Kherson or on Crimea itself. Another less aggressive option could be degrading Russian air defence and aviation capabilities that are based in Crimea but cover southern Kherson and the Dnipro River. Setting the conditions for a larger crossing of the river.
Russia’s offensives in the north-east are not making progress. Even after mobilising its defence industry and with much greater amounts of artillery ammunition Russia’s progress is either non-existent or painfully slow. Each step forwards costing vast amounts of manpower and material. Ukraine, on the other hand is currently holding the line and inflicting attrition of Russia. Concurrently, it continues to develop operations in the south-east using air and sea power to weaken Russia’s air defence networks and its hold on air and sea power near Crimea and Kherson.
Russia desperately needs to make progress because the campaign is evolving quickly now Europe realises that it cannot rely on the US. Last week, the European Union committed to 50 billion euros of aid to keep Ukraine fighting. Last month, it committed 100 million euros to mobilising Europe’s defence industry to support Ukraine. The US may be distracted, but Europe is standing firm. Soon F-16 fighter jets will be active in the skies over Ukraine and European artillery ammunition will start arriving in large quantities. By mid-2024, Ukraine will be in much stronger position, and Russia knows this, so in coming months will be throwing everything it can at achieving break-through in the north-east. Ukraine is holding on, and is clearly developing the conditions for future operations in Kherson or Crimea.
Ben Morgan is a bored Gen Xer, a former Officer in NZDF and TDBs Military Blogger – his work is on substack