At the World Economic Forum in Davos on Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke to the group via video link and defiantly declared that “Ukraine will fight until it reclaims all its territories,” rejecting any suggestion of negotiating with Russia that included forfeiture of Ukrainian land. For there to be any chance for Ukraine to drive Russian troops from its soil, however, Zelensky will have to create an entirely new offensive force, almost entirely from scratch.
While it is a major understatement to suggest that building an offensive force will be a monumentally difficult task, it is, nevertheless, possible.
In Part III of this three-part series, we will examine in some detail what it will take for Kyiv to produce a modern, mechanized formation of sufficient strength to drive Russia from Ukrainian territory. Part I explained that step one was first to ensure that Kyiv had enough time to create this new force by recommending new ways for Ukraine to blunt Russia’s drive in the Donbas.
Part II recommended ways for Ukraine to build additional defensive lines east of the Donbas to ensure Russia could not make a single breakthrough and put Kyiv or other major cities at risk before it had time to complete the offensive force. In this segment, we examine what it will take for Zelensky to produce a force with sufficient striking power that he could have a realistic chance of driving Putin’s army from Ukrainian soil.
What Kind – and How Big – of a Force is Necessary?
The first thing Kyiv would have to do is determine how many new troops it would take to uproot Russian troops from Ukrainian territory. As of this writing, Russia occupies roughly one-fifth of Ukraine, or 125,000 square kilometers. Russia entered Ukraine with as many as 190,000 troops. It is unclear how many are still there, as tens of thousands of Russians are reported to have been killed and wounded thus far, but there are likely still in the range of 150,000 or more occupying parts of Ukrainian territory.
Ideally, Ukraine would need to build a new offensive force of 200,000 to provide overmatch at key points on the battlefield. Finding that many qualified soldiers in a short period of time may prove to be a bridge to far. Nevertheless, if Kyiv has any hopes of driving entrenched Russian troops out of its country, 100,000 is the bare minimum needed.
That pool of soldiers would be needed to form at least 75 battalion tactical groups (BTG), equipped with sufficient numbers of capable tanks, self-propelled artillery pieces, modern air defense systems, reconnaissance and attack drones, and sufficient logistic troops to keep all that gear fueled and operating. Each of these Ukrainian BTG would be composed of approximately 800 troops, totaling 60,000 soldiers. Ukraine would additionally need at least 20,000 general-purpose infantry troops for combat replacements, as well as another 20,000 for logistics, supplies, and maintenance personnel.
Forming the New Units
This 100,000-member force would ultimately be formed into three field armies, each composed of 25 BTGs. Within each field army, the BTGs would be composed of a mixture of tank-heavy groups, infantry-heavy groups, and artillery-heavy groups. They would be modular in concept, so they could be task-organized based on a given mission. For example, in one tactical operation a certain grouping of BTGs may need to fight a battle that requires many foot soldiers, and so would be weighted more heavily with infantry and artillery BTGs and less with tanks. Other fights would prioritize armor and be weighted with fewer infantry BTGs.
To form these field armies and BTGs, however, Kyiv will need to do two things: recruit and train a sufficient number of men and women and simultaneously obtain, from Western sources, the full range of equipment. Both are going to be very challenging and time-consuming.
Though there is a rather sizable list of equipment a modern army needs to conduct combat operations, I’ll restrict my assessment to the more critical items, such as tanks and howitzers. The same process, however, will need to be done on everything else, from boots and socks to body armor and night-vision goggles.
With a major war raging in the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine, time will be the most crucial element of this drive to form and field an offensive capacity. As such, actions that would ordinarily need to be done sequentially will instead have to be both compressed in time and executed simultaneously. Ideally, Kyiv would first identify and field the full range of combat equipment first so as to know what type of training the new recruits will need, not to mention ensuring that the kit fielded to the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) is as compatible across the board. Regrettably, however, Ukraine doesn’t have that luxury.
Instead, while recruitment and initial training of personnel begins (more on that below), Army leaders in Kyiv would need to work with Western partners to identify sufficient numbers of armored vehicles and form fielding and transportation plans immediately. Each BTG would need (depending on whether it was tank-heavy or infantry-heavy) between 10 to 30 tanks and 11 to 33 armored infantry carriers each, along with sufficient numbers of trucks for supply and hauling ammunition and other armored vehicles for command and control, medical evacuation, etc. Each would also need up to eight self-propelled howitzers. Of course, such a large force will have to build the capacity to continually feed, fuel, clothe, and provide resupply of ammunition.
To equip all the BTGs in the three field armies, that would require Ukraine to field (including spares of each category) somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,250 tanks, 2,000 armored vehicles (of varied types), 750 self-propelled howitzers, and close to 1,000 trucks of various sizes and functions (including a robust number of refueling trucks). If Western countries cannot or will not provide equipment to this scale, any hope of Ukraine fielding a force strong enough to repel an entrenched Russian army is stillborn.
I cannot more strongly emphasize that it is essential for Ukraine to receive an equipment set of this magnitude if they are to have a genuine chance of uprooting Russian troops from its territory. As a means of comparison, consider that Russia is reported to have entered this war with 120 BTGs and 190,000 troops; even this proposed force of 75 BTGs and 100,000 will be maximally taxed to successfully drive out all Russian troops.
Identifying, procuring, and then shipping this much gear will be a monumental task – never before attempted at this scale – and will take more time than anyone would like. This process must begin, in earnest, immediately upon a decision being made by Ukraine and its Western partners that such a force will be created.
As hard as it will be for Kyiv to find sufficient kit to equip this offensive force, finding 100,000 soldiers may be even more challenging. Ukraine must recruit and assemble this massive number of people while simultaneously continuing to fight with every soldier currently in its employ to prevent Russian troops from breaking through the defensive lines and threatening the capital. Just getting people to fill the ranks, though, is only one of the tough requirements.
Ukraine also has to find training facilities, produce a cadre of qualified instructors, and house and feed all the personnel while training takes place. This effort will need to be conducted in the far reaches of western Ukraine, as far away from the fighting as possible, to limit the ability of Russian weapons from reaching the training sites and attacking the recruits.
Every recruit will need to be taught basic combat skills but will also need to be trained in specialized abilities, like how to drive a tank, how to be a gunner, fire a howitzer, operate sophisticated communications gear, and other special needs. For a field army to be successful under fire in combat, each individual must be highly trained in their discipline, but then successive levels of units must also be trained to adequate levels.
For example, in a tank-heavy BTG, it isn’t enough merely that soldiers be taught how to drive a tank or fire the main gun. They must also learn how to fight the tank and work as a crew. Then that crew must learn to operate within a tank platoon; the platoon as part of a mechanized company, and companies as a combined arms battalion.
The BTGs then also have to learn how to operate together in larger-scale operations. Every echelon of training takes time. If they do it right, Kyiv will provide at bare minimum 12 full months of training once soldiers have arrived for training and equipment is on station (18 months would be far better). Shortchange any stage of training, try to hasten the process or skip parts to get units into the field faster, and the risk that the unit fails in combat – possibly spectacularly – goes up.
Offensive Force’s Objectives
If all goes well, the UAF will have accomplished all their tasks outlined in Part I and Part II of this series and will eventually have ground the Russian force down to a sufficient level to produce a stalemate and a static line of defense somewhere in eastern Ukraine. If Kyiv was somehow able to build a massive field army of half a million or more, they could consider forming a broad counteroffensive that sought to overwhelm Russia’s defenses across a front of hundreds of miles and try to sweep them from the country.
Since the most likely case is Kyiv’s commander-in-chief will have 100,000, Ukraine will have to focus its efforts in one geographic region and try to create a series of local overmatch. For example, if the line of defense in a year from now is somewhere along the Vorskla River south of Poltava, the UAF would first conduct reconnaissance of the Russian lines to identify the weakest spot in their defenses.
They might then covertly reinforce the defense on the north and south of the designated attack zone to protect their flanks from unexpected Russian counterattack, and then launch a massive attack at a time and place of Ukraine’s choosing, catching Russian troops unprepared. Across a front of perhaps 50 miles, the UAF would attack with two of their field armies abreast.
Each would seek to penetrate the Russian lines to open a lane into the enemy rear areas. Once successful, the third field army could then be used as an exploitation force to flood the breach and destroy Russia’s ability to sustain its entire force in that area before turning to try and encircle the most vulnerable grouping of Russian units. Putin’s troops would then be faced with either trying to hold on to the line – putting them at risk of being surrounded and annihilated – or withdraw further to the east to avoid destruction.
The UAF concept from that point forward would be to isolate individual Russian battlegroups to overwhelm them with superior force and firepower, denying them the benefit of mutually supporting fires; it’s a much less challenging task to destroy the enemy in bite-sized chunks rather than try to eat the elephant at one sitting.
As the Ukrainian counteroffensive continued to push the battlelines east, the UAF troops that were initially manning the defensive line along the Vorskla would advance forward and join the attacking armies, progressively increasing Ukraine’s striking power. Over time, Zelensky’s troops would continue defeating Russian occupiers section by section, bound by bound, until ideally the last Russian trooper had been driven from Ukrainian land. But this plan does not come without significant risk.
One thing must be made crystal clear from the outset: under the very best-case scenario for Ukraine, it would take years to eject Russian troops from all of Ukraine. The cost in lives could run into the hundreds of thousands (above what Ukraine has suffered to date). More cities would be laid to waste. The 100,000 recruits that would have to be generated to begin the offensive would only represent the opening play.
Any mechanized offensive would exact sometimes have egregious casualties on the attackers (as Russia has found out to its pain over the first three months of the war), and thus a continual pipeline of replacement troops would have to be established. In anything other than a best-case scenario, the risks/dangers increase.
UAF troops have performed well above expectations in the opening phase north of Kyiv and so far even in the Donbas. That success was largely driven by the courage and tenacity of the Ukrainian troops, but it was due in no small part to the advantages that accrue to the defenders: congested urban terrain, buildings, and limited fields of visibility in the city fighting, and the benefit of seven years of prepared defensive works in the Donbas. When Ukraine goes on the offensive, they will no longer have the inherent protection of defenses and will be much more vulnerable as they move into the open to attack.
If things go badly, it’s possible the Russians could blunt the counteroffensive and then return to offense themselves (bearing in mind that during the 12 to 18 months Ukraine is training up its counteroffensive force, Russia will surely be training new formations of their own). If Kyiv’s attempt to drive Russia off its land fails, Ukraine will be even more vulnerable to a counter Russian offensive that could result in losing the war outright. There is no guarantee, at all, that if the West provides all this modern equipment and Ukraine produces enough troops for an offensive force, Ukraine will emerge victorious. Zelensky and his people will have to openly acknowledge the risk they take in pressing for ultimate victory.
Many Ukrainians, along with their millions of supporters in the West, understandably want to win this war. They don’t merely want a negotiated settlement, they want to drive every last invader out of their land. The blood spilled and the damage done by Russia is unconscionable. But everyone, from Zelensky on down, need to understand, without emotion, what it will take to form an offensive power strong enough to have a legitimate chance of pushing Russia out, and understand the risk they take in seeking that outcome.
Moreover, as the casualties and destruction mounts throughout Ukraine, there will be the temptation to take shortcuts, to throw every offensive capacity into the lines, as soon as they become available, in an effort to start the counteroffensive immediately. That would be a mistake, possibly a fatal one.
Right now, it is taking every single uniformed trooper Ukraine has to defend against the major Russian offensive in the Donbas and the supporting efforts in the Kharkiv environs to the north and in the Kherson region to the south. They cannot afford to reduce manning in a single front or they will risk Russia making major new gains. The defenders, therefore, must remain fully engaged. But recruiting and training a new force takes painful time.
The HBO miniseries Band of Brothers graphically shows the 101st Airborne Division in its preparation for combat in World War II. The paratroopers had to be individually trained, then as units, and finally as a division before it was ready for combat. From the date of its formation at Fort Bragg, NC in October 1942, it went through 20 total months of training before its first taste of combat at Normandy in June 1944.
The U.S. 106th Infantry Division trained from its inception in March 1943 until it first went into the line in Belgium in December 1944 – and was effectively wiped out in its first action in the Battle of the Bulge. One of the reasons historians gave for the division’s poor performance was that thousands of its troops had been taken and sent to Europe to replace mounting U.S. losses, being replace with inadequately trained soldiers just before deployment. Training a unit to succeed in combat takes time and can’t be cut short.
Everyone, from Zelensky on down, must understand that to drive Russia from Ukraine, it will take thousands of modern combat vehicles to be provided by the West and 100,000 new Ukrainian recruits – and at least a year of preparation. Anything less, any shortcuts taken, likely result in failure and losing the war outright.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis.