The prevailing views in Washington and Moscow are based on outdated assumptions about military strategy.
Aug. 29, 2023 12:36 pm ET
Ukrainian soldiers in Klietz, Germany Aug. 17.PHOTO: ANNEGRET HILSE/REUTERS
Ukraine’s offensive has reached a tipping point. Russia’s military lines will snap, if given enough time. But this requires more military support from the U.S. If Kyiv is to succeed, Washington needs to supply it with critical weapons and supplies, not gratuitous military assessments.
Western media commentary and professional analysis of Ukraine’s efforts is deficient owing to a lack of operational experience. This problem dates to the Cold War. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the U.S. and Russian militaries ended rigorous intellectual analysis of combat, as they both lacked sophisticated adversaries against which to measure themselves. Both militaries began to focus on politics, informational manipulation and integrating technological change to facilitate military force.
Flawed analysis now disrupts the war in Ukraine. In February 2022, both countries had warped visions of the burgeoning conflict. The Russians’ was based on the Soviet pacification campaigns in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan, along with more recent Russian campaigns in Georgia, Syria and Ukraine in 2014. The Americans were convinced of Russia’s military superiority over Ukraine.
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The current view among American military leaders that the Ukrainians should concentrate on a single decisive city in the Zaporizhia oblast, similarly, is nonsense considering the enemy has thick defensive lines and mobile reserves and neither side can gain air control. A breakthrough attempt absent the manipulation of Russian force dispositions would have been disastrous, no matter how many Western exhortations demanded an American-style push.
Ukraine has been executing a progressive campaign of erosion and operational manipulation for the past four months. The country’s fundamental dilemma—and Russia’s greatest advantage—is that its forces can’t achieve operational surprise. Ukraine’s goal is to cut the land bridge between Crimea and Russia proper, thereby isolating the Russian-occupied peninsula and transforming it into a vulnerable island.
Faced with these conditions, Ukraine must manipulate Russian logistics and reserves while applying pressure on the front line to develop an opportunity for a breakthrough. This has led to a campaign that imposes a lateral stretch on Russian lines from the front line to the Russian deep rear through long-range strikes, supply hubs and road-and-rail links. These strikes alone won’t collapse Russian defenses, but they will weaken its front-line forces, allowing Ukraine to make progress at a steady rate and push into Russian trench systems.
Conducting a linear defense is risky. If the enemy breaks through—and one’s units aren’t equipped for mobile counterattacks—then even an inferior adversary can be successful. Russia has based its entire defensive strategy on preventing a Ukrainian breakthrough and any subsequent Russian withdrawal to a new defensive line to consolidate and respond to an enemy breakthrough. Retreating under fire is difficult, particularly with disorganized, exhausted and demoralized forces.
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Russia’s sector commander in the south, the Ukrainian-born Alexander Romanchuk, is well aware of his adversary’s objectives. Yet he knows his force’s limitations. He has prevented a Ukrainian breakthrough by feeding in reserve units, despite heavy casualties from Ukraine’s now-abundant supply of cluster munitions and drone-enabled system of directed artillery fire.
In the last week of August, Mr. Romanchuk finally committed his major remaining reserve, the Seventh Guards Mountain Air Assault Division, splitting the formation to plug two gaps in the east. These areas are crucial defensive positions. If Ukraine can push into Russia’s defensive belt and take the cluster of towns and trenches on which Russia relies on either axis, Mr. Romanchuk will need either to transfer reserves laterally or to rush any remaining troops from the Donbas, Kherson oblast or Crimea. Ukraine can strike these units as they move toward the front, attacking the bridges that link Crimea with southern Ukraine.
After two months of shaping and two months of combat, Ukraine has run Russia out of reserves. Still, Ukraine must take more ground to dislodge Russia from its front-line defenses and compel a reset. Had Ukraine heeded the advice Americans conveyed through the Washington Post and the
, it would have impaled a half-dozen brigades on thick Russian defenses, allowed Russia to concentrate its own reserves, and seen its combat power erased in a few days.
While Ukraine’s approach is strategically sound, its forces need time. The longer Ukraine can maintain its offensive, the greater its chances of compelling a Russian linear reset or unraveling part of the line.
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Ukraine’s greatest weakness is its insufficient quantity of deep-strike implements, artillery pieces and drones. Depending on expenditure rates, Kyiv could run out of Storm Shadow and SCALP-EG cruise missiles by October. It needs additional long-range weapons—such as the Army Tactical Missile Systems and the German Taurus cruise missile—to extend its bombardment for the next six weeks.
More important, Ukraine must maintain its front-line artillery advantage, the result of its drone reconnaissance system that outsmarts Russia’s larger artillery force. If Ukraine can’t maintain its current advantage and destroy several batteries of Russian artillery each week, its infantry will be exposed during the brutal small-unit operations needed to clear defensive positions.
Ammunition is partially the issue, but more critical are artillery barrels and drones. Western-donated pieces are being used up—modern barrels burn out after 1,500 to 3,000 rounds, even with drone-conducted fire correction extending barrel life by improving accuracy. Allied efforts to expand repair facilities in Poland began last year. They will help, but they must be redoubled with new facilities, potentially in Romania and Slovakia. With Chinese drone export controls beginning Sept. 1, Ukraine needs tens of thousands of unmanned aircraft systems a month. North Atlantic Treaty Organization member countries must move quickly to procure them and sustain the offensive.
Support for Ukraine remains strategically sound and practical. F-16s and various long-range weapons are on the table for next year. American and European ammunition manufacturers are finally making up shell shortages that have dogged the Ukrainian military since May 2022.
But a Ukrainian victory isn’t a question of long-term support but short-term transfers. Ukraine must be sustained for the next six weeks to be given a real shot at a breakthrough that will change the trajectory of the war.
Mr. Cropsey is founder and president of the Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy undersecretary of the Navy and is author of “Mayday” and “Seablindness.”