Winter is coming in Ukraine and both Kyiv and Moscow have good reason to think carefully about when it will arrive and how it will make a difference to their military fortunes on the ground. Following his article on this subject in the Sunday Times on 4 September, Michael Clarke offers some of the detail that went into the analysis it contained.
Russian forces have effectively dug in all across the Ukrainian front of 2,400 km. Their forces move around far more carefully than a couple of months ago. The grinding offensive in the Donbas is paused for now, there is stalemate in the Zaporizhzhia oblast, further west, and Russian forces are now facing the long-awaited Ukrainian counter-offensive in the Kherson oblast, west of the Dnieper river. The war is moving on.
Ukraine’s Kherson Offensive
Some weeks ago, Ukrainian forces crossed the northern part of the Inhulets river to the north-east of Kherson city – where the river bends sharply eastwards – extending the total battle front across the west and north of the Kherson oblast to some 160 km. Russian forces attempted some local counter-offensives against these new bridgeheads but reportedly attacked only in company strength and made no useful gains. Now, Russia’s 49th Combined Arms Army (CAA), augmented by elements of the 35th CAA from Eastern Military District face a concerted, multi-front Ukrainian attack in a broad arc from the south-west to the north-east of the cities of Kherson and Nova Kakhovka. The offensive has been building and preparing for weeks with attacks on Russia’s rear area forces and logistics.
In anticipation of the attack, Russia’s original 13 Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs) in Kherson, amounting to a maximum of around 10,000 troops, appear to have been augmented by another 12-17 BTGs, mainly from the 35th CAA. Most of these BTGs are reportedly under-strength, but nevertheless give Russia a reported total of 25-30 BTGs in the area. This would equate (if the smaller number of under-strength BTGs are deployed) to a minimum of 12,500 available troops and a maximum (30 BTGs at full strength) of around 24,000 troops. In addition, Russian forces in the area are believed still to have superior numbers of tanks and armoured vehicles.
Early reports of the offensive suggest that the 109th Regiment of the self-proclaimed ‘Donestsk People’s Republic’, augmented by Russian VDV airborne units, in the first defensive line, were immediately pushed back and that Ukrainian armoured units were engaging the more dense second line of Russian defences. Ukrainian forces are also reported to have penetrated narrowly, but deeply, towards the south-west of Kherson city, near to the coast at Tomnya Balka, only 14 km from the city. If confirmed (and sustained) that would represent an important Ukrainian advance, manoeuvring towards a position where Russian forces in the city could eventually be surrounded on three sides. Ukrainian forces have attacked directly the Chornobaevka military airfield just outside Kherson; 2-3 kilometers north-east of Kherson international airport. Directly to the west of the city, the ‘forward edge of the battle area’ is less than 20 kilometers from the suburbs. Meanwhile, anti-Russian partisan activity inside the city has increased markedly with local firefights and explosions increasingly reported.
In the north of this arc of attack, heavy fighting was reported around the village of Velyka Kostromka which Russian sources now confirm as lost to the Ukrainians. Control of this area gives access to the main highway running south east along the west bank of the Dnieper river to Nova Kakhovka – an important objective. Nova Kakhovka contains a major hydro-electric plant and its dam provides water to Crimea.
More to the point, it indicates that Ukraine seems to be going for an envelopment strategy in the area. They have a long way to go, but if Ukrainian forces can close in on Kherson city and simultaneously drive south east down the left bank of the Dnieper, they can threaten to encircle the 20,000 or so Russian troops west of the Dnieper. They have already cut off access via the main bridges over the M-14 and the P-47 highways that link eastern and western sides of the wide Dnieper river. Russian forces are already using ferries and pontoon bridges – as well as some helicopter supplies – to keep in touch with their forces west of the river, but all crossing points are vulnerable and being constantly attacked. If Ukraine can credibly threaten Russian forces west of the Dnieper with encirclement, they can confront them with the choice of either trying to reinforce its 49th CAA – difficult and potentially murderous with most access over the river already down – or else abandoning most of their equipment and withdrawing from Kherson and Nova Kakhovka before the net closes.
If successful, this strategy would be a bigger version of exactly what happened to the Ukrainians in Severodonetsk and Lysychansk in early July. Ukrainian forces withdrew from Severodonetsk and took up good defensive positions at Lysychansk on the other side of the Siversky Donets river. But Russian forces moved quickly (for once) threatening to surround them from the south and the Ukrainians were compelled to withdraw westwards rather than fight a losing battle of encirclement.
The Ukrainians will not have this battle all their own way, of course. Though Russian forces have displayed very little ability to conduct genuine manoeuvre warfare so far, the more static requirement to defend existing position in Kherson against a manoeuvrist Ukrainian attack may be within the capabilities of their present forces. It is not clear that Ukraine has assembled the 3:1 overall superiority in numbers for this offensive that would normally be required. Independent analysis estimates that Ukraine must deploy a minimum of six armoured and rifle brigades (involving 24-30,000 troops) to dislodge Russian forces defending the city itself. The ‘3:1 ratio’ rule should not be taken too literally, but Ukrainian forces will probably be assuming that they can engineer a local superiority in numbers in those places where it matters, using artillery and rocket fires to restrict the movement of local Russian reinforcements.
The outcome of this offensive will depend largely on the ability of Ukrainian forces to sustain it. Kyiv probably has both minimum and maximum expectations. A minimal expectation would deem the operation successful if it sucks significant Russian forces away from the Donbas – which it manifestly has to date. On the other hand, some western analysts argue that Kyiv has already missed its opportunity to grab Kherson back and is likely to get bogged down with the onset of winter. Anything less than the definitive re-capture of Kherson city and then pushing Russian forces about 35 kilometers east of it – that is, out of Russian artillery range – will, they argue, be seen as military failure.
A maximum expectation is that Kyiv might be able to recover all of its territory west of the Dnieper, right down to the coast. That would certainly safeguard Mykolaiv and Odesa for the foreseeable future. From a military perspective, it would offer Kyiv a number of other possibilities. If Ukraine could then either further develop its own Neptune anti-ship missiles or receive more Harpoon missiles, and in conjunction with US HARM anti-defence radar missiles, and possibly US ATACM ground-based missiles (unacknowledged but believed already to be Ukraine’s possession) then from Kherson, Ukraine could threaten all Russian forces in Crimea, making Sevastopol an untenable naval base and effectively expelling Russia’s Black Sea Fleet from the Black Sea west of Crimea.
Most importantly, success across the Kherson oblast would have a major political impact in western expectations for the future of this war. It would show that Ukraine can progress from ‘losing slowly everywhere’ to ‘winning big somewhere’. It would demonstrate quite dramatically that with western support Ukraine can liberate its own territory and provide real hope that Putin’s imperialist adventure does not somehow have to be appeased. It would offer the prospect – so far somewhat abstract – that Russian aggression can be made to fail and pay a price.
Russia’s Stalled Donbas Offensive
The Russian offensive in the Donbas has moved forward very slowly since Russian forces took Severodonetsk and Lysychansk in early July. The next westward objectives of Siversk and Bakhmut are still not under Russian control, despite Kremlin claims that they are. Russian forces are close to the northern boundaries of the key city of Slavyansk but have made no further progress in the last month, and Kramatorsk, the other key city south of Slavyansk, is not under immediate threat. Slavyansk, in particular, has great symbolic value both to Russia and the separatists, while Kramatorsk is a regional communications hub.
Fighting continues in the area of Enerhodar in Zaporizhzhia, further west from the Donbas, which contains the biggest nuclear plant in Europe. The plant sits on the southern bank of the Dnieper river (where the river adopts an east-west orientation within its generally north-south flow), held by Russia, while Ukrainian forces still occupy Nikopol and Marhanets on the northern side. Russia’s use of the nuclear plant complex as a base for its weapons and equipment is extensively confirmed, though outgoing Russian missile and artillery fire from the plant is not confirmed.
There is great international concern. At the UN on 26 August even China issued a thinly-veiled attack on any party manipulating the existence of the plant for military purposes. The Zaporizhzhia plant houses 6 well-protected nuclear reactors though only 2 are now normally operational and at 80% capacity. But the complex electrical supply and cooling systems for the reactors are vulnerable to artillery and rocket damage, and the possibility of a melt-down similar to the Fukushima disaster of 2011 is still regarded as unacceptably high. (Though not similar to Chernobyl in 1986, given key differences in the Zaporizhzhia design.) So far, IAEA inspectors have been highly restricted in their access to the plant, though the team is now on-site, and appears to be uncovering evidence, which the Russians are unable to hide, that at least some of the shelling of the Russian-held plant has come from the Russian side itself.
Overall, the likelihood is that the Kremlin is conducting a review of operations in the Donbas and Zaporizhzhia, with a view to launching a second major offensive – possibly during the late winter when the ground will again be hard, but more plausibly in the early spring of next year.
Mobilization and Crypto-Mobilization
Both sides in this war know it will go deep into next year. That’s why they’re looking towards the winter; Russia because it needs time to regroup for a new offensive and Ukraine because it needs to make a success of its current offensive before the weather bogs it down.
Personnel losses suggest a total of around 20,000 Russian troops ‘killed in action’ as against 9,000 KIA cases that Kyiv admits to. This suggests total casualty figures of around 80,000 for Russia and 36-40,000 Ukrainians. Both numbers are credible and reflect for the Ukrainians how their losses have mounted in fighting in the Donbas. Their Kherson offensive will be brutal for them, too. In equipment terms, visually confirmed losses put Russian losses at over 5,400 pieces of significant equipment. Similarly verified Ukrainian losses are about a quarter of that. ‘Visually confirmed’ equipment losses are necessarily an understatement. British officials assume the real numbers to be up to 50% higher.
Both sides are involved in longer-term mobilization. Ukraine’s standing army at the beginning of the war was around 125,000 but it now claims to be training an army of 700,000 – a plausible figure, given the 300,000+ experienced reservists Ukraine had at the outset of the war who had already served in the 8-year Donbas war that preceded Russia’s invasion in February. Ukraine also has 600,000 other reservists among its 900,000 reserve total.
Russia, on the other hand, with an official figure of 1.1 million in its armed forces has a problem with the credibility of the numbers. Most external analysts can only find 850,000-900,000 in that 1.1m figure. And within its ‘active’ total of 850,000+ armed forces personnel, Russia’s regular ground-force army is 280,000, including conscripts. External analysts assess maybe 200,000 of that number to be ‘combat effective’. Army numbers do not include naval infantry or paramilitary forces that might also be used in operations like Ukraine. The Rosgvardia force of internal troops, for example – responsible only to Putin and intended for domestic order duties – is over 400,000 strong and untrained for real battlefield combat.
Given the political difficulties President Putin would have in declaring this ‘special military operation’ an outright war and introducing national mobilization, Putin needs time for the current ‘crypto-mobilisation’ campaign to have an effect. A number of activities demonstrate the difficulties Russia now faces, given that Putin appears determined to take the conflict into next year and, if necessary, well beyond.
Putin’s presidential decree of 25th August authorizing an increase of 137,000 in armed forces numbers will take time to make a difference, either through a new round of conscription or another recruitment drive. It is not clear how this uplift in personnel might be distributed between the different services, but the assumption must be that most will be taken into the badly stretched ground forces. Young men are now offered a one-off bonus payment and almost three times the average monthly salary (four times in Moscow and St Petersburg) to join up for as little as six months. There are anecdotal accounts that some recruits are being sent to Ukraine with just a couple of weeks of basic training. But the assumption must be that Moscow will try to compress the normal 5-month basic training schedule. Even so, new recruits are unlikely to be seen in any numbers in Ukraine until next year. Then, too, Russia’s training pipeline is very inflexible and there is no sign, currently, that it has been expanded to accommodate a much greater throughput of recruits. Indeed, Russia’s training establishments seem to have been raided already for instructors and equipment being sent immediately to the war itself, such has been the shortfall of officers, NCOs and key items of equipment.
A new volunteer 3rd Army Corps (3AC) is in training and being held back, presumably for a new offensive. It has been equipped with some of the best T-80 and T-90 battle tanks and the latest armoured fighting vehicles – which implies offensive action. So far, however, it seems to have few elements of tracked artillery or organic air defence attached to it. Nor do its troops seem to be obvious front-line personnel. It is predominantly manned by newly-volunteered contract soldiers, but there is little evidence of a hard core of NCOs (critical to battlefield effectiveness) among its ranks. Its officers are predominantly drawn from local officials and older officers serving with veterans’ associations. It is not yet clear whether 3AC will deploy as a single corps of 30-40,000 troops and equipment, or be deployed ad hoc in other combined arms units already engaged.
Russia is reported to be running low on precision missiles and having difficulty, given international sanctions and lack of foreign components, in increasing manufacturing levels for them. It is reported to have only 45% of its original Iskandar stocks and only 20% of its original Kalibur missiles. Ukraine claims to have destroyed a number of Russia’s key S-300 and S-400 anti-missile defence systems. This claim is given plausibility by the widely reported transfer of Russia S-300 air defences from its Syria operations into the Black Sea for, presumably, immediate coverage against Ukrainian aircraft and missile attacks.
In July the Kremlin legislated to require Russian companies to divert their high-tech components and production into armaments. As a country with a vigorous retail sector, there are many opportunities to divert the microchips in consumer durables into war production. But the state already accounts for over 40% of the national economy. Getting the more limited commercial sector to divert production and components towards new armaments will take time, even without the attendant corruption.
If Putin wants a big, second offensive to get the operation back on track next year, he needs the winter to prepare properly for it. It will be a long haul in Ukraine whatever happens now.
The fighting itself might not continue for a long time – the intensity is such that it is difficult to image it being sustained for more than a matter of ‘several months’. But the struggle of which the fighting is now part must be expected to last for many years. This is already the second Russia-Ukrainian war since 2014. There will probably be a shaky ceasefire at some point before there is a third, then another shaky ceasefire, and so on, until underlying political conditions – not just individuals – change some time further into the future.
Ukraine’s mobilization, therefore, is less a matter of immediate numbers but more of long-term economic sustainability. Whoever leads it, Russia is a very big country that has huge resources which can potentially be mobilized. Real wars, like this one, are more likely to be won by those able and prepared to mobilise the resources necessary to fight them.
In contrast to Russia’s crypto-mobilization, Ukraine believes it is fighting for its existence and is therefore already fully mobilized. It is also completely dependent on western military aid and financial support to stay in the war. And that will continue to be the case as this conflict most likely becomes an on/off war punctuated by shaky ceasefires. Ukraine’s economy is contracting by 30% this year. The Central Bank in Kyiv is printing money to cover 40% of its necessary government and war expenditure and being granted or loaned another 20% by its western backers. Kyiv is only capable of raising about 40% of its current governmental and war expenditure. As the war goes into next year, Ukraine’s ‘total mobilization’ may become economically unsustainable without considerable increases in external support from the west and the domestic management of a harsh degree of fiscal tightening from its Central Bank.
In effect, both sides have a different sort of mobilization problem. That will become ever more clear as the military situation in Kherson and the Donbas play themselves out over the winter.
Michael Clarke is co-author of Tipping Point: Britain, Brexit and Security in the 2020s, London, I.B. Tauris, 2019 and Britain’s Persuaders: Soft Power in a Hard World, London, I.B. Taurus, 2021. He is the former Director General of the Royal United Services Institute and Visiting Professor of War Studies at King’s College London. Twitter: @MikeClarke2020s
Banner photographer: PO Phot Dave Jenkins Copyright: UK MOD © Crown copyright 2021