What can Ukraine do to drive Russia out? This is the second in a three-part series (find Part I here) that lays out a plan through which Kyiv can build the offensive capacity that would be necessary to drive Russia from its territory. In war, the only guarantee is that people will be killed, and thus even if Ukraine creates a new, modern, capable offensive force, there is no promise at all that Kyiv will successfully defeat Russian forces. What is certain, however, is that without generating a mobile mechanized ground force, any talk of defeating Russia is empty rhetoric.
As Time reported on Saturday, despite the well-known losses and failures suffered by the Russian invaders since the war started, “Ukraine is in far worse shape (militarily) than is commonly believed.” Moscow still has close to 150,000 troops on Ukrainian soil and relentlessly launches missile attacks throughout the country, even as it prosecutes a plodding offensive in the Donbas. The Ukrainian military is fully engaged in an existential fight in the Donbas and smaller (but fierce) fights in Kharkiv and the Kherson/Mykolaiv region.
Western supplies of weapons, tanks, and artillery pieces to Kyiv alone don’t translate into offensive capacity. To properly and effectively use that growing arsenal, Ukraine will have to build a sizable offensive force. Presently, virtually the entirety of their active force is decisively engaged in defensive battles throughout the country. Clearly, Kyiv cannot simultaneously have its forces defend at the same time it creates an offensive strike force.
As explained in Part I, it will realistically take 12-to-18 months to create an offensive force of sufficient strength and size to have a realistic hope of driving Russia from the Ukrainian territory it currently holds. That means Ukraine’s existing formations must prevent a Russian breakthrough that would threaten other cities (or Kyiv, in a future worst-case scenario).
It is tempting to suggest that Russia’s poor performance in the war from the outset will remain poor throughout. History suggests Russia may well learn from its mistakes and eventually start to make major progress (after suffering the loss of over 2 million troops by the end of 1941, Soviet leadership finally corrected some of their mistakes and eventually crushed the Germans, driving them all the way back to – and defeating them in – Berlin).
Whether that happens or not, however, Ukraine must begin now to ensure it has the time to create the offensive capacity necessary to launch a nationwide offensive. Part III of this series will describe how that force can be created, but for that to happen, the current Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) must ensure they are able to ensure Russian forces do not advance far enough to put the capitol at risk before the offensive power is ready to unleash.
Prepare Troops to Conduct Fighting Withdrawal
It is only natural in war to want to defend every inch of territory, requiring the enemy to pay in blood for each advance. If Ukrainian defenders cede ground to the Russians, the thought goes, it will make their future attacks more effective, as they will have gained ground without having to pay for it first. While that mentality has its place in war, and sometimes can result in great success (see the American 101st Airborne Division in World War II’s Battle of the Bulge), there are times when it is necessary to give ground in one place to strengthen positions elsewhere.
If UAF troops adhere to the “never give an inch” of territory anywhere, at any time, they will be at greater risk of eventually having their lines in the Donbas penetrated by a large enough Russian battle force and surrounded. The Russian troops will then be in a position to reprise their tactics that successfully captured the city of Mariupol, cutting off the defender’s ability to escape or get resupplied with food, water, fuel, and ammunition – without which any army will eventually lose the ability to resist.
To prevent that outcome, Ukrainian troops need to begin immediately preparing their troops to conduct large-scale withdrawals from their current positions to other locations further to the rear from which they will be in a better position (more on that below) to prevent Russian encirclement. The key word in this maneuver is “fighting” withdrawal. The intent is not merely to leave one position and drive to the next, but to move in such a way that the enemy is made to pay a price all along the route, the end of which sees the Ukrainian defenders establish themselves behind a new, well-prepared line of defense.
Fighting withdrawals are very complex maneuvers and operations few commanders or troops spend much time practicing. But doing it well is vital to ensuring their defense continues to hold and that the enemy isn’t able to break through – and continues paying a price in blood while the friendly troops reposition to more defensible terrain.
Preparation of Fallback Position
Before any retrograde operation might be contemplated, however, it is important to prepare the fallback position ahead of time. The UAF would be wise to begin, immediately, planning and resourcing the creation of a new line of defense 30 or more kilometers to the West of their rear-most defensive positions in the Donbas. This line would need to be built on terrain that gives significant benefit to the defenders, such as a river valley or ridgeline.
Kyiv would send conscripts, new recruits, or civilian volunteers to the site selected as the new defensive line to begin constructing defensive works, hardened bunkers, key trench lines, and other fortifications that friendly units would fall into. These positions would be built in depth, mutually reinforcing each other. This force should also build protected firing positions for artillery batteries five to 10 kilometers behind the front of the line.
In the two or three kilometers before the initial fortifications, the engineers should emplace anti-personnel and anti-tank minefields that include ingress and egress routes known only to the defenders, so the repositioning units from the Donbas line would be able to safely transit them. After occupying the new positions, the lanes in the minefields would be close and would impose severe casualties on the Russians if they try to penetrate them.
Ideally, Ukraine would bring in fresh howitzers delivered from NATO countries and have them pre-sited, along with considerable stocks of ammunition, so the UAF artillerymen could simply fall into the new positions and be ready to fire almost immediately. Likewise, Kyiv would pre-position considerable stocks of food, water, fuel, ammunition, and other war stocks necessary to sustain combat operations for weeks or months.
Execute the Move
The UAF troops would only move to the new defensive line if the Kyiv force commander concluded that the Russians would surround them if the Ukrainians remained in place. While it sounds heroic and brave to suggest the UAF troops fight to the last, such a move would put at risk the entire country’s ability for security.
If Moscow’s troops were to succeed in surrounding and destroying, for example, the northern shoulder of the Donbas, the remainder of the center and southern shoulder Ukrainian troops would be at significant risk of likewise being surrounded and cut off. If Kyiv is to ever hope to produce a sufficiently strong offensive capacity to drive Russia out of its country, it is crucial they avoid encirclement and the viability of their main Donbas force.
However, if that moment arrives, the Ukrainian force commander will give the order for part of his formation to begin redeployment to the pre-arranged new defensive line. He will have already designated exact locations where each sub-unit would position itself in the new line and rehearsals will have been done down to the small unit level. The support units would be the first to displace, while frontline combat units begin to attack the Russians with artillery, direct fire, and lay down smoke to conceal the movement.
Then a coordinated maneuver, unit by unit, would begin to reposition, covering withdrawal with smoke or artillery attacks (designed to obscure Russian observation of the movement) so that each unit’s redeployment has protection of another unit’s direct fire. The units will then conduct a leap-frog type movement from the Donbas front all the way to the new line, so that no UAF troops are ever without supporting fire from another Ukrainian unit.
Once all the units have been repositioned to the new line, they will begin a non-stop process of improving their positions, creating overhead cover to shield their positions from drones or overhead observations, and making themselves generally less vulnerable to Russian artillery and rocket fire. Once this new line is fully occupied, the Ukrainians will be in position to hold out, potentially for months.
To guard against the possibility that this line is also breached in the future, the command in Kyiv will begin almost immediately selecting and then preparing another fallback position 30 to 50km further to the west.
The objective of the Ukraine’s command authorities in the next year isn’t the defeat of the Russian attackers, but the preservation of as much combat power as possible to ensure Russia can’t militarily defeat the UAF while Kyiv works to build the capacity in the western part of the country that in a year to 18 months could be capable of starting a large-scale offensive that may indeed be strong enough to drive Russia out of Ukraine.
These maneuvers will only be used if the Donbas line is in danger of being breached. If the Russians are never able to sufficiently threaten the Ukrainian lines, then there will never be a need to conduct a fighting withdrawal. But it should be a priority for Kyiv to prepare such a position now, because if Russia does later put the line at risk of compromise, it will be too late to form adequate fallback positions. Kyiv’s top priority must be in guaranteeing that no matter how the fight in Donbas goes, they have sufficient time to build an offensive force – which Part III of this series will explore.
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