Note: This is part one of a three-part series. You can read Part II here. As Russia’s war in Ukraine grinds into its third month, the reality is dawning on all parties that a quick victory is not in the cards. Russia’s forces are conducting holding operations in the Kherson front to the south, while Ukrainian troops push back on Russian positions in the Kharkiv front to the north. But the most important theater continues to be the Battle of Donbas in the east.
Up to this point, Ukraine has fought a purely defensive effort. They have done so with more success than any, including myself, expected. British intelligence reported on Sunday that up to one-third of the Russian forces that entered Ukraine have been destroyed. Ukrainian troops thwarted and then repulsed a Russian drive on Kyiv. They have mostly held the line in the Battle of Donbas so far, inflicting egregious losses on the Russian Army.
An army on the defensive, however, cannot win back territory. It has to transition to the offense.
How to Win the War
If Kyiv has hopes of eventually winning the war, it will need to make some significant changes in its approach to the fighting in the near term. It will also need to develop a new plan for the longer term. Kyiv must continue to hold in the Donbas while simultaneously starting the process of building an offensive force with the capacity to push Russian troops from its soil.
As I have written many times in these pages – both before the war started and since it began – I assess the most logical course of action for Kyiv is to make the best deal it can with Moscow and end the war through negotiations. That is the best way to stop the fighting, end the killing of thousands of Ukrainian citizens, and halt the destruction of still more Ukrainian cities.
Yes, that would result in the likely loss of the Donbas, but it would prevent tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands more Ukrainians from being killed, allowing the rebuilding of the country to begin. Negotiations would prevent Putin from escalating the war, thus precluding an even worse outcome for Kyiv later.
But as both Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said following the May 9 Victory Day commemorations, many Ukrainians would rather continue fighting. No matter how long it takes or how much risk they incur, Ukraine would like to win back all of the territory Russia has occupied.
Attempting to retake all lost territory by force of arms will certainly impose a high cost on Ukraine, and there is no guarantee of eventual success. If the people of Ukraine decide they are willing to take on this burden, however, there is a path to ultimate victory.
What the Kyiv leadership can’t do is continue with its current strategy of purely defensive operations, hoping that someday the tide turns. They must have a rational, well thought out, fully resourced plan, and they need to start carrying out that plan quickly. Even with recent Russian losses in the Donbas, time is not on Ukraine’s side.
What follows is the first part of a recommendation for a three-part plan. Ukraine could first blunt Russia’s advance into the Donbas. Then, Kyiv could create additional defensive lines to ensure Russia cannot break through the Donbas and put Kyiv at risk again. Finally, the Ukrainians could create a new national offensive strike force of 100,000 troops. This force could eventually launch a counteroffensive to drive Russia from Ukrainian soil.
This three-part plan is based on solid military, geographic, and historical fundamentals. If fully resourced, it offers a reasonable chance of success. While there is obviously no guarantee of victory, what I can just about guarantee is that Kyiv’s exclusively defensive focus will never defeat Russia.
Kyiv needs to have a sober understanding up front that this is a long-term solution. It will take at least a year to field a viable offensive force from the moment a decision is made to assemble one – more likely, it will take 18 months.. First, however, it is vital that the Ukrainian Armed Forces stop Russia in the Donbas, or at a minimum, impose such losses on Russia in the Donbas that they have to pause for months to rebuild strength before continuing the war. Part I explains how.
Part I: Strengthening the Donbas
Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. His forces advanced along four axes, one of which attempted to seize the capital of Kyiv. In a show of force, Russia sent numerous armored columns racing in from the north, hoping to force the Ukrainian government to flee. The Ukrainian defenders, however, were having none of that. They put up fierce resistance, blunting Moscow’s drive in Kyiv’s outskirts and inflicting horrific losses on the invaders’ armored forces.
Belatedly recognizing the futility of an under-resourced attack on Kyiv, Russia withdrew its armored forces in the north and redirected them to Putin’s new priority – taking the Donbas. On April 19, Russian troops began their attack, hitting the Ukrainian defenders at key areas along the 300-mile Donbas front with heavy artillery, rocket, and air attacks. Nearly one month later, Ukrainian troops have continued to roughly hold the line against the Russian onslaught. Russia’s gains have been limited to a smattering of towns and settlements on the perimeter of the Donbas. But time is not on Ukraine’s side.
The Russians have adjusted their tactics and prioritized firepower over maneuver, subjecting the Ukrainian lines at key locations with near round-the-clock bombardments. The objective of their attack appears to be the destruction of the approximately 40,000 Ukrainian defenders. To accomplish that objective, Russia appears to have chosen three primary points of attack: a northern shoulder centered on the Severodonetsk/Lysychansk area; the center, based around Avdiivka; and a southern shoulder centered on Uglidar. The northern shoulder is clearly Russia’s priority.
While Russian progress has been far slower than expected, Putin’s troops are nevertheless making methodically making progress, putting thousands of Ukrainian defenders in the northern shoulder at risk of encirclement. Without question, Ukrainian troops have performed well above average, fighting with a courage and fearlessness rarely seen. But bombs don’t care how brave a soldier is. Bombs just kill whatever they land on. Even the bravest of troops can stand only so much bombardment before succumbing to its effects.
Some hope that enough heavy weaponry from the West will arrive at the frontlines in time to change the balance of power there, but even the sum total of all howitzers and tanks, and even assuming 100% of these reach the front, is unlikely to stop the Russian advance. If nothing changes this dynamic, Ukrainian forces in the northern shoulder will eventually be cut off and slowly destroyed – putting the remainder of Ukrainian lines in the Donbas at risk.
There are options at the Ukrainian command’s disposal which could alter the current dynamics and strengthen the northern shoulder.
First, Ukraine could form an armored strike force from its current assets to launch a daring raid. This operation would aim to seriously gouge Russian support forces manning the northern shoulder, with the intent of destroying their enemy’s fuel, food, and ammunition supplies, along with its communications gear and headquarters elements. The operation is high-risk, as the raid force could itself suffer greatly, but it also comes with very high potential rewards: Without communications or fuel and ammunition, tanks don’t fire and howitzers can’t launch shells.
Surprise is essential, so operational security would be key. The raid force itself would comprise tanks and armored fighting vehicles. It would be large enough to inflict desired effects on the target, but small enough to limit the risk to Ukrainian troops and to make entry and exfiltration manageable.
Ukrainian intelligence and advance scouts would seek out a seam between the Russian forces devoted to the northern shoulder and the center. They would identify the terrain most suitable for penetration of the Russian lines and, crucially, close enough to an identified logistics or command and control hub. Meanwhile, Ukrainian commanders would position as many artillery and mortar assets as they can afford to use in locations where they can range a corridor to protect the raid force once it enters enemy territory. These assets would provide covering fire to the raid team’s left and right, destroying any mobile reserves the Russians might throw at the raiders.
At the planned start time, Ukrainian howitzers would open fire on the entry point. Then the raid force would blast through Russia’s lines, strictly following their rehearsed path, and destroy every resupply truck, ammunition carrier, supply depot, command and control vehicle, and whatever artillery or armor they find. They would immediately return via a pre-planned exit point. This, too, would be covered by friendly artillery and mortar fire.
The Ukrainian raiders would suffer losses in the attempt, as is always the case in combat, but the potential damage done to Russia’s fighting strength could be devastating, imposing severe delays on Russia’s offensive. Not only would this raid have the practical impact of destroying large quantities of desperately needed fuel and ammunition, but it would also deprive Russia of the transportation assets needed to bring replacement supplies. Finally, it would force Russia to increase its local security across the entire front, guarding against any future raids. This would pull Russian troops away from the frontline fighting.
Mobile Counterattack Forces
Ukraine could also create at least two mobile counterattack forces positioned in the most critical parts of the Donbas – likely in the northern shoulder area. Ukrainian manning levels are already at critical stages in the northern shoulder, so it would be hard, if not impossible, to spare a meaningful number of troops. But the service these forces could perform is essential to the continued viability of the Ukrainian side of the line. The Ukrainian command, therefore, might consider taking risks elsewhere in the theater in order to commit the necessary manpower to such a force.
The two areas that are most available are the Kharkiv and Kherson fronts. In both of those areas, the Russians have employed an economy-of-force mission. There are enough Russian troops to hold Ukrainian units in place, but not enough to conduct any offensive actions. Ukraine could exploit this limitation by engaging in economy-of-force missions of their own, releasing at least one mobile armored unit per front.
These two counterattack groups would include task forces composed of an appropriate mix of tanks and armored infantry fighting vehicles, and positioned near the rear area of the most vulnerable parts of the Ukrainian lines. The task forces would conduct thorough reconnaissance throughout the depth of their battlespace, select likely places in their own lines where Russian armor might force a breakthrough, and then conduct exercises that physically rehearse movement to areas where attacks might occur.
The task forces would be positioned far enough from the front lines that they could flex to multiple locations where a breakthrough might occur and be prepared to maneuver to the flank or rear of a Russian incursion to cut it off and destroy it.
Any Russian penetration will be designed to cut the Ukrainian battle force at a given area into smaller parts. This would allow other Russian troops to attack and destroy each part in turn. Ukrainian mobile counterattack forces are necessary to destroy those incursions before they can open a beachhead in the lines.
It is essential that Ukrainian defenders destroy any Russian incursion within hours. The longer a breach in the Ukrainian lines lasts, the greater the risk that the penetration becomes permanent. Once a beachhead has been established, it is very difficult to reverse. Without dedicated mobile counterattack forces, this is virtually impossible to prevent.
Having the capacity to foil Russian attempts to carve Ukrainian defenses into bite-sized pieces can delay Russia’s Donbas attack by weeks or months, raising the cost dramatically for Putin. It may not be enough, however, to entirely prevent any breach of the Donbas front lines: With enough shelling and rocket fire, even the best defenses can eventually buckle.
To ensure the command authorities in Kyiv have the 12 to 18 months needed to create the offensive force mentioned above, it is necessary to build depth to Ukraine’s current defenses, beyond the Donbas, to ensure the Russian Army doesn’t drive too deeply into the Ukrainian interior. Part II will examine how and where to build those fortifications.
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