Photo by Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Schrödinger’s summer offensive

The Ukrainian offensive is not what it appears

On the morning of 6 June 1944, Rommel’s men had a rude awakening in Northern France. The sky was black with aircraft, the sea dark with ships. The invasion had begun. “Aha, but which invasion?” asked the wise men in Berlin. Normandy was certainly experiencing an invasion, but was it the invasion? We now know that the Allies had invested much time and many resources into a strategic deception campaign to persuade Hitler that the invasion would arrive off Calais in weeks to come. German Reserves were directed away from Normandy, and the Eisenhower-Montgomery School of Modern Warfare was able to breathe a huge sigh of relief.

Events in Ukraine are not dissimilar. All through this year there have been media mutterings about the “coming spring offensive” or “the stalemate of the summer counter-offensive”. In reality, all along the front, Kyiv has been probing Putin’s defences. The Kremlin has abandoned all pretence of an offensive. Protected by pyramidal concrete obstacles (“dragon’s teeth”, of the kind used so effectively to defend Rommel’s Atlantic Wall and Hitler’s Siegfried Line), untold mileages of deep anti-tank ditches, acres of minefields, never mind the kilometres of razor wire and the conscripts lurking behind them, Russia has gone over to the defensive.

Moscow is resorting to lobbing missiles and attack drones at Ukrainian cities, in retaliation for attacks on Russian government buildings, the Kerch bridge or shipping in the Black Sea, in a demonstration of how impotent Ukraine’s opponent really is. Both sides are developing expertise in airborne, seaborne and sub-sea drone assaults that will permanently affect future warfare on this planet. Calling off their offensive is why the Wagner Group and the Chechen forces, the Waffen-SS attack-dogs of Moscow’s armies, have been withdrawn. Well equipped and encouraged to use rape, torture and looting as their tools of terror, these beserkers are only of value in spearheading attacks. They have no value in a defensive war, fighting to hold territory and operating alongside Russian troops who loathe them.

It is obvious to all but the Man in the Kremlin that the campaign of Sergei Shoigu (his defence minister since 2012) and his surly chief of defence staff, General Valery Gerasimov (also in power since 2012), has broken down. With it has evaporated the need for Wagner in Ukraine. Instead, Wagner’s killers and criminals lurk in Belarus. This makes perfect sense, given Putin’s ultimate aim of reabsorbing Belarus back into the Russian Empire. Alexandr Lukashenko, the Minsk strongman since 1994, has the appearance of not being well, and he is hugely unpopular. With no succession plan, he and his country are vulnerable to a Russian takeover. Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner’s boss, is sure to help his old boss facilitate any such regime change. Ironically crusading to “de-Nazify Ukraine”, the private military company was originally founded by Dmitry Utkin, a former Russian soldier who adorned himself with multiple Nazi tattoos — hence its most Germanic of names.

Prigozhin, by the way, is still fiercely loyal to his old mate from St Petersburg, and his well-rehearsed 23–24 June coup that wasn’t a coup was more the result of a spat with Gerasimov and Shoigu than a takeover bid. In fact, Wagner remains busy elsewhere. There are large numbers of Prigozhin’s mercenaries deployed as “advisors” and “observers” in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic and Mali, and they are certainly circling Niger after the recent coup. Apart from undermining UN and Western initiatives in those countries, Putin is paid for offering these states “security” in diamonds, gold, oil and uranium, of which Prigozhin takes a cut. Or it may be the other way around.

At most, the Kremlin has gained a Pyrrhic victory

There is no doubt that President Volodymyr Zelensky is anxious to use his new military arsenal, such as the German-built Leopard-2A6A, British Challenger 2, and American M1-A1Abrahms tanks and M2 Bradley tracked infantry fighting vehicles. There is equal pressure from his NATO allies, conscious of their electorates, for Kyiv to demonstrate the effectiveness of their modern weaponry. Although it is a compelling argument to observe that by devoting around 5 per cent of their collective defence budgets, the West is writing down up to 50 per cent of Russia’s army in Ukraine, the strife should not be seen as NATO product placement for a war movie.

The conflict is not dissimilar to the 1936–39 Spanish Civil War in the involvement of outside actors. Back in the 1930s, powers external to the fighting — chiefly Communist Russia, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy — used that campaign as a laboratory to test new weapon systems and doctrines. Widely used in 1939–45, notions of modern air-to-ground operations, tank tactics and strategic bombing all grew out of the war in Spain. Today, apart from the flood of Western weapons bound for Kyiv, Russia is deploying suicide drones imported from Iran and receiving Chinese-made hi-tech products, such as parts for anti-aircraft missile radars, in exchange for oil and liquid petroleum gas. Moscow–Beijing trade has increased by 43 per cent. The sale of semiconductors and drones to Moscow is a way of avoiding Western sanctions, and it exploits the grey area between military and civilian use.

Russia now has given up all notion of success through a fast-moving offensive of the kind it envisioned in February 2022. Instead, Vladimir Putin’s strategy now seems two-fold. First, there is a hope that Donald Trump will return to the White House in November 2024, with his transactional view of international relations. Far-right Republican isolationists have long suggested that Ukraine is “not America’s war” whilst many of the Grand Old Party, assessing widespread corruption in Kyiv (there is actually far less now than I witnessed in the pre-Zelensky era), believe that US blank cheques of military aid to Kyiv should be diluted or cease. In short, the Kremlin is hoping for Western “donor fatigue”.

Second, Putin hopes to wear Ukraine down through attrition. This explains the Stalingrad-like lengthy battle for northern Donetsk town of Bakhmut. I was looking for the settlement of 70,000 when it first became a news item, and I couldn’t find it. Eventually I realised it was labelled “Artemovsk”, still used by some in Moscow and its old Soviet moniker, before reverting back to its historic title in Ukraine’s “de-Communisation” drive of 2016. The dual names are an indication of the disjointed culture of these borderlands.

As the Germans found to their cost at Verdun in 1916, if one side sets out to wear down its rival through causing excessive casualties, it runs the risk of suffering similar or greater losses itself. This was, no doubt, the calculation of Ukraine’s commander-in-chief General Valerii Zaluzhnyi in choosing to defend Bakhmut. So it has proved. Russian losses of men and materiel around Bakhmut have far exceeded those of their opponents. Some analysts calculate 20,000 killed and 80,000 wounded.

At most, the Kremlin has gained a Pyrrhic victory, a term named after the Greek King Pyrrhus. After battling the Romans at Asculum in 297 BC, he observed, “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.” In other words, Russia’s triumph — if victory it is — was won at such a cost that it has lost all its worth. Meanwhile, the urban area known as Artemivsk or Bakhmut has been a front-line city for over a year. Even Wagner has conceded that Ukraine still holds some of the ruins, with around 15,000 souls still doggedly in residence.

That brings us back to Ukraine’s so-called offensive. It is and it isn’t a major campaign. We are witnessing Schrödinger’s Summer Offensive. To date, Ukraine has been testing Russia’s defences all along the front in eastern Ukraine. Some of these have been minor probes, whilst others have involved substantial combined armour and infantry attacks. They have been supported by artillery strikes, which have suffered losses of Western-supplied equipment. Faced with dense Russian minefields, the Ukrainians have been forced to stop, dismount and clear the mine by hand to create lanes for their armour.

Both sides are learning fast. The Ukrainians have downsized to deploying small infantry units, often at night, to pick their way through the minefields. Progress is slow, at walking speed, with frequent halts and withdrawals. The Russians have learned to replant their minefields remotely by drone or cluster-munition artillery. Panicky journalists report NATO-supplied hardware destroyed in “stalled attacks”. Actually, this matters little — partly because wise soldiers, unlike journalists, factor losses into their plans. More importantly, Ukraine is able to recover each tank and armoured vehicle damaged and repurpose them in Polish workshops for further combat. Russia, because of poor logistics and the fact that they remain under fire in hostile terrain, cannot. Similarly, few Ukrainians (operating on their home territory) have been taken prisoner, whereas many Russians have been captured or have deserted.

Ukraine is three times the size of Great Britain

Many journalists have no experience of the sheer size of Ukraine. I have on my wall a 1:1,250,000 scale map of Ukraine, pinned up on 24 February last year. It is replete with highlighter marks and arrows. Despite its huge scale, it still measures four feet by three feet — an indication of the sheer size of Europe’s second largest country. Ukraine is three times the size of Great Britain. Tracking the successes and failures of both antagonists is rather like trying to monitor the 1944 Normandy campaign on a day-to-day basis. The loss of one farm or taking of one village cannot indicate the final outcome. Twenty tanks destroyed or damaged is not a major military setback for either side.

Over 18–20 July 1944 in Operation Goodwood, the British lost an estimated 300–500 tanks in three days of combat, yet they won in the end. It took up to eight weeks for the Allies to claw their way through 20 miles of hedgerow country after the D-Day landings. The history of modern war suggests both sides in the Ukrainian bloodlands will experience unexpected successes and gut-wrenching defeats before the final outcome. The first casualty of conflict is usually wishful thinking, as the combatants contesting the same terrain in the German–Soviet war of 1941–44 discovered.

As the war grinds on, increasing calls to pressure Ukraine into a negotiated settlement are not only unwise, but unhelpful. They suggest a fundamental misreading of Russia’s intentions. Putin has made clear his aim to erase Ukrainian national identity: Russia is fighting to conquer, whilst Ukraine fights for freedom. If Russia stops fighting, the war will end, but if Ukraine stops fighting, it will cease to exist. Any artificial end-state would be as if a nuclear-armed and powerful Mexico had invaded the south of the United States and acquired Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. It is not going to happen.

The reality of Schrödinger’s Summer Offensive is that Kyiv has been probing for Russian weaknesses since the spring. Most of the new combat brigades, trained and equipped in NATO countries over the past few months, have yet to be deployed. It will take time to find a weak spot, where General Gerasimov’s defences can be penetrated by Zelensky’s fresh troops — somewhere Russian reserves and air support can be kept at bay by long range Ukrainian artillery, missiles and mobile air defence. These include British Brimstone missiles with a range of 40 miles, the US-supplied M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) that can reach out to 50 miles, and Storm Shadow cruise, which is capable of striking a target 150 miles distant.

The world’s media has largely been in error for mistaking this (in military terminology) “shaping of the battle space” for the real counter-offensive. That will happen when Zelensky and Zaluzhnyi decide the time is right. They will not tell us, though. In interpreting the Russia–Ukraine war, outside observers are faced with the double problem of Kyiv’s wise “Loose Lips Sink Ships” reticence to discuss its losses or operations, whilst guessing at Russian fortunes. With the latter, we are trying to assemble a complete jigsaw with only five per cent of the pieces. Those irregular shapes are mostly sourced from Russian television and social media bloggers, which are highly unreliable. Occasionally we catch significant glimpses, such as the removal of General Ivan Popov, commander of Russia’s 58th Combined Arms Army, who was sacked in June for complaining about Moscow’s mismanagement of the war.

Once an army launches a major operation, it does not announce what it is doing. That would be an invitation for its opponent to direct all his reserves to the threatened break-through. Echoing Britain’s “Careless Talk Costs Lives” campaign of 1940, Kyiv will keep us guessing. We must let it plan its counterstroke in its own time. It must not strike before it is ready, or be inflamed by the need to settle scores. Aided by a strategic deception plan of D-Day proportions, Ukraine will attack with cold, hard military logic to destroy its adversaries.

The NATO summit in Vilnius did not offer Kyiv a clear path to membership, but it guaranteed arms supplies well into next year, so President Zelensky has breathing space. The controversial delivery of US cluster munitions, widely criticised for the lingering threat they pose to civilians, will allow his military leaders to eliminate Russian ammunition depots and logistics hubs far behind the lines and destroy minefields. It is said that in war, “you need three things: good morale, good logistics and good leaders”. Ukraine has all three. Russia has none of the above. Yet, Kyiv still lacks two of the prerequisites any NATO general would take for granted: complete air superiority and overwhelming artillery firepower — controlled, coordinated and intermeshed. Although Russia lacks these, too, this deficiency in Ukraine’s arsenal illustrates why the West must still do more.

Just as in June 1944, the most we will be permitted to know of an attack is that President Zelensky has launched a counter-offensive. Whether it is the counter-offensive, we will only find out afterwards. Meanwhile, his army must “Keep Calm and Carry On”.

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