The Pendulums of War: Three Phases, Three Fighting Fronts

By Michael Clarke, 8 July 2022

The war in Ukraine will be determined by a series of pendulum swings as military advantage shifts according to whether we are looking at the next two months, the next six months, or in a year’s time.  Michael Clarke looks at the dynamics of the conflict now that Russia has occupied the whole of the Luhansk oblast.

For the Ukrainians, Lysychansk has gone. And with it the whole of the Luhansk oblast in the Donbas region. Ukrainian forces are slowly losing ground, as was always anticipated. But they may be about to spring a strategic surprise on Russian forces with strong advances in the south west of the country around Kherson. If the Donbas is set against the situation in the Mykolaiv and Kherson oblasts, then the overall balance of military advantage between the two sides must currently be rated as ‘even’. But that is an immediate judgement – a static snapshot – in the midst of some big swings of the military pendulum back and forth.

As in most major wars, the story of it becomes fragmented the longer it lasts. In this case there are meaningful distinctions to be drawn between a two month, a six month and a ‘one-year onwards’ perspective.

The Two Months Perspective

In the most immediate future Russian forces have achieved some real tactical success in the Donbas and are determined to push on. With the final capture of Lysychansk, President Putin congratulated his forces in occupying the whole of Luhansk, whilst instructing them to continue with their mission in the rest of the Donbas. 

In the face of this momentum Ukrainian forces will be hard put to hang on, defending as much of their territory as possible, while weapons and ammunition stocks are running perilously low. 

So far, Ukraine appears to have received around 1,100 items of major heavy equipment (such as main battle tanks, artillery pieces, attack helicopters and aircraft) from western donor nations, in addition to the multiple thousands of smaller items (light anti-tank and anti-aircraft systems and so on, that were so prevalent in the early stages of the war). This is about half the number of heavy weapons that have so far been pledged. But even these donations have reached the point where they raise two particular problems for Ukrainian forces. Firstly, their inventory of heavy weapons is now very diverse and the logistical problems of providing ammunition and maintenance for such a hybrid clutch of weapon systems is putting real strain on Ukraine’s supply and maintenance. Secondly, Ukrainian forces have almost run out of old Soviet-era ammunition, particularly in artillery shells and rockets, before they have received sufficient stocks of higher quality western ammunition for their new, western, weapons. The US-supplied M-142 HIMARs Multiple Launch Rocket System, for example, has proved highly effective, but stocks of rockets are low. Similarly, smart shells for the French Caesar or the German Pzh 2000 tracked howitzers are very limited. So far, the Ukrainians have been successful in protecting and concealing their relatively few western launchers and precision artillery pieces, but that can change quickly when absolute numbers are so low, and the shortage of ammunition for them has reached a point that can only be described as a ‘crisis’.  

Ukrainian forces have found that their ‘dynamic defence’ tactics, so effective in the battles around Kiev and for the northern cities, are less relevant to the battles of the Donbas where sheer concentration of forces and equipment has been paramount. If the Ukrainians are to withstand much more of this relentless Russian pressure, or eventually move into a strategic offensive posture, then their tactics will have to evolve a good deal. They cannot afford to bombard their own cities in expelling Russian troops from them, or otherwise cause great civilian suffering. They will have to concentrate their forces, as they are trying across the Kherson oblast, to cut Russian lines of communication in order to isolate Russian troops inside cities and force a withdrawal, possibly also under sabotage pressure from Ukrainian partisan groups inside the conurbations. To do this, senior Ukrainian commanders will have to embrace a quite different ‘operational art’ and will not be able to rely on much of the soviet-era thinking they will have absorbed as young officers, still less on the brutal tactics of their present Russian enemy. 

Russian forces have shown that, at last and at least in some respects, they are learning from their earlier mistakes. Russia’s forces in the south now appear to be under their third commander since March. Evidently, Chief of the General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov was initially in command until he appears to have been wounded and/or replaced by General Aleksandr Dvornikov. But around two weeks ago, the hard-drinking Dvornikov – sole commander of the operation – was replaced by two separate commanders; General Alexander Lapin, in command of the central front in Ukraine, and General Sergei Surovikov, in charge of the southern front, including the Donbas.

It is possibly under Surovikov’s influence that Russian forces in Lysychansk appear for the first time to have exercised some elements of manoeuvre warfare – integrating infantry, armour, artillery and air operations in such a way as to cross the Siverski Donets river in force south of Lysychansk and moving quickly north to surround Ukrainian forces in the city. Ukrainian forces were in strong defensive positions in Lysychansk, but had to give them up and withdraw as the pocket was closed more quickly and efficiently than they might have anticipated. Russian troops have recently paraded an array of over thirty armoured vehicles, apparently new and not in any way battle-scared, that they captured in Lysychansk – evidence, it seems, of a rapid Ukrainian withdrawal without time to destroy valuable, new, western equipment that had to be abandoned as they pulled out.

So, in this immediate period, Ukraine has little choice but to try to hang on while the Russian steamroller moves westwards across the remainder of the Donbas. With the capture of Severodonetsk and now Lysychansk the conflict on this front will concentrate on a more decisive battle. Ukrainian forces are withdrawing towards Slavyansk and Kramatorsk, the two final strategic prizes if Russia is to occupy the whole of the Donetsk Oblast. Russian forces currently occupy about 50% of it.

Slavyansk and Kramatorsk are both heavily defended. Ukrainian forces have been preparing their perimeters around both cities for some time and are expected to make a powerful defensive stand where most of the terrain also favours defenders. At present, Seversk, Soledar and Bakhmut are the focus of Ukrainian delaying tactics as they fall back on Slavyansk and Kramatorsk. Russian forces are within easy artillery range of Slavyansk, having pushed slowly southwards from Lyman, and the city has come under powerful artillery barrages as Russian forces begin the next stage of their offensive. Russian ground troops are not expected to be capable of assaulting Slavyansk immediately, however, as they take what the Kremlin describes as an ‘operational pause’. 

Meanwhile, the news from the two other fronts is more mixed for Kremlin strategists. In Kharkiv the Russians were pushed even further back after they withdrew from their attempts to surround the city. But there has been no decisive movement for either side north east of the city in recent weeks. Ukrainian forces have pushed up near to the Russian border and are within easy rocket range of Belgorod which is a hub city for Russian military supplies being sent south. But it is difficult to see that Ukrainian forces can make much more progress in this sector, beyond keeping Russian forces out of artillery range of Kharkiv city.

On the Kherson front in the south west, however, Ukrainian forces began a 70 km offensive to the north-west of Kherson, crossing the Inhulets River in force, to threaten Russian communication lines north and east of Kherson, whilst simultaneously advancing on the city from the west, moving from reinforced bases in Mykolaiv oblast. Russian forces appear to have been thinned out across most of the south to concentrate troops and equipment in the Donbas offensive (it appears that some 45 Battalion Tactical Groups have spent almost three months attacking Severodonetsk and Lysychansk). Ukrainian forces have been taking advantage of this thinning out in their attempt to re-take Kherson. This would be a major strategy victory for Kiev, but the task of re-taking such a big city – albeit one waiting to be ‘liberated’ – should not be underestimated. Nevertheless, Ukrainian forces have been shelling Russian positions at Kherson airport north-west of the city and while its main forces are still over 10km from the city, Ukrainian snipers and reconnaissance units are reported to be within sight of the western outskirts. It is to be expected that there will be a major uptick in fighting across this front over the coming two weeks.   

The Six Months Perspective 

Over a six-month time frame the military pendulum can be expected to swing back in favour of Ukraine, if its forces can hang on until then and concede as little territory as possible – since defending territory, hard as that is, is generally easier than liberating it. On current trends, given only the commitments so far made by western military donors, Ukrainian forces should reach their peak equipment stocks towards the end of October. This might represent an optimum moment for Kiev to try to launch a strategic counter-offensive, if other events have gone its way. It appears to be axiomatic that Ukraine will need still more western military help before the end of the year and the three western summits last month – the European Union summit, the G7 summit and the NATO Madrid summit – all indicate that this will probably happen. For now, the western consensus to help Ukraine with its immediate military needs seems to be strengthening rather than weakening.

Meantime, using better and more precise western long-range weapons, Ukrainian forces have conducted a series of strikes on Russian ammunition stockpiles both in Luhansk and Donetsk and within Russia itself around Belgorod. In the nine days up to 7th July Ukrainian artillery hit no fewer than 11 Russian ammunition stores; two in Kherson, two in Zaporizhzhia, one in Kharkiv and six in the Donbas. Given Russia’s centralised military structures, its weapons stockpiles are very difficult to disperse and hence vulnerable to the accurate weapons Ukraine is now acquiring. Russian forces have conducted a few successful counter-strikes against corresponding Ukrainian ammunition stockpiles, but those dumps are well dispersed and Ukrainian forces much more agile in using them. With much less accurate artillery, Russia has not been notably successful in this new ‘battle to target logistics’ that both sides have now begun to conduct with renewed vigour.  

Russia appears to have exhausted most of its stocks of modern precision missiles and smart artillery shells. It has vast reserve stocks of dumb bombs and shells, as well as older T-72 and T-62 main battle tanks. But if General Surovikin has been able to create some combined armed manoeuvre capability within Russian forces around Lysychansk, it only seems to apply to a small part of the modernised forces under his command. The limitations on how well Russian forces can now practice manoeuvre warfare in the Donbas may be constrained by lack of precise weapons and command systems, leaving Russian forces with only traditional, massive artillery barrages at their main points of attack.

Meanwhile, Russia is still very short of troops over all three battle fronts. The 2022 round of conscription, which began in April, is due to conclude by July 15th. But information from various Russian provinces indicates that less than 35% of required manpower quotas have been met so far. The Kremlin has very little chance of getting the planned 134,500 new conscripts into the system. Almost certainly, the conscription period will simply be extended, or even left open as a permanent conscription process. But Russia’s training establishments cannot be expanded rapidly to process a much greater numbers of conscripts, even if the Kremlin dramatically increases conscript numbers in subsequent intakes. Indeed, there is growing evidence that recruits are being immediately integrated – mashed – into trainer units, along with their normal training vehicles and equipment, and sent into operations. In other words, Russia seems to be reducing its central training establishment, in order to use them as core assets to send fresh recruits into operations more immediately.  

And the Kremlin is offering big incentives for volunteers to come forward as contracted soldiers. In a country where the average wage is 104,000 rubles a month (around $1,650) a volunteer tank battalion is being raised in Nizhny Novgorod which offers new recruits 200,000 rubles (about $3,200) on enlistment, and 250,000 rubles (around $4,000) per month in salary. Contracts can be as short as 6 months and recruits will be guaranteed combat veteran status plus other benefits. This seems to represent the tip of a desperate drive for manpower to see Russia through the next few months when its conscription model has evidently failed.

Into Next Year

Ultimately, when wars turn into ‘major wars’, as this one has – for the survival of Ukraine as against the survival of the Putin regime in Russia – the military victors are more likely to be those who can mobilise and sustain the long-term resources necessary to fight it. Ukraine has fully-mobilised to fight this war, while Russia, ten times bigger than Ukraine, so far has not. For the Kremlin it is still a ‘special military operation’.

In this respect, the swing of the military pendulum after the end of this year will come down to a fundamental equation that can be stated very simply. Will Ukraine’s western backers be prepared to increase their own military production levels quite considerably, not just to supply Ukraine with a lot more, but also to replenish and increase their own military stocks now they have run them down for Kiev’s benefit? Will they keep Ukraine in the war, in other words, against a Russia that has a much deeper well into which it might dip? And, on the other side of the equation, will the Kremlin have the willpower and find ways of mobilising its much greater resources for an operation that shows all the signs of becoming an open-ended conflict for Russia?

Already, Russia appears to be in the process of ‘crypto-mobilisation’. The law is being amended to allow the government to direct Russian industry into armaments production, repair and maintenance. ‘Stealthy conscription’ is underway that will eventually begin to impact the youth of Moscow and St Petersburg who have so far remained largely untouched by it. President Putin’s latest statements appear designed to soften up the Russian public for a long struggle – ‘against NATO’ in his words, more than it is a struggle only over Ukraine. Russia’s problems with military manpower and weapons production will not be solved in a matter of months, but it has considerable reserves of old equipment and ammunition and the government may be prepared simply to pay young men very high salaries to take their chances, half-trained at best, on the battle-front. Russia can get through the next few months with old equipment and tired troops and then gear up for an even bigger effort next year. Whether President Putin can politically sustain these sorts of sacrifices among his domestic constituents will be a matter of dispute. But he may well have to try.

Meanwhile, for the western countries, turning the strong pro-Kiev consensus into military hardware on the battlefields has been relatively easy up to now; we have given the Ukrainians some of what we keep in our inventories and shored up our own NATO defences in the meantime. But that will certainly not be enough if the long-term pendulum swing begins to take effect. From here on in it gets much harder and quite a bit more dangerous for us all. 

Banner photographer: PO Phot Dave Jenkins Copyright: UK MOD © Crown copyright 2021