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Ukraine’s Big ‘Million Man’ Offensive Against Russia Is a Mistake

HIMARS
Marines with Romeo Battery, 5th Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 7, fire rockets from a M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) on Camp Leatherneck, Helmand province, Afghanistan, June 1, 2013. Marines with 5/11 are deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Anthony L. Ortiz / Released)

In mid-July, Ukrainian Defense Minister Aleksei Reznikov boasted that President Volodymyr Zelensky had ordered him to form a “million man” army to liberate southern Ukraine. A senior aide to the head of the Ukrainian region of Kherson said on Sunday that “the Kherson region will definitely be liberated by September, and all the occupiers’ plans will fail.” Given recent Western reporting, such claims have encouraged many that the war is about to turn against Russia. Careful consideration of combat fundamentals, however, should temper too much optimism just yet.

Zelensky has for some time been focusing his efforts on retaking Kherson, saying on Sunday that his forces continue a relentless “step-by-step” progress towards retaking the Russian-occupied southern region. Last week Russian forces endured accurate rocket fire from the U.S.-provided HIMARs launchers, seriously damaging the Antonivsky Bridge over the Dnipro River. The loss of that bridge could severely hamper Putin’s forces from continuing to fight in Kherson. British Intelligence this week reported even more bad news for Russia.

Richard Moore, chief of Britain’s MI6 intelligence service, said that Russia’s offensive would soon “run out of steam” and were headed to an “epic fail,” adding that Russian forces had lost at least 15,000 killed during the first five months of war. The HIMARs provided to Ukraine by the U.S. have reportedly destroyed 50 Russian ammunition dumps, further degrading Putin’s ability to sustain operations in Ukraine.

U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, flatly declared last week that despite everything Russia had done, they have “failed to achieve their strategic and operational objectives.” Given this flood of bad news for Putin in the Western press, one might believe that truly a Ukrainian offensive could recapture the region by September. Unfortunately for Kyiv, however, these reports are only part of the story and omit rather critical elements in assessing the likely effectiveness or failure of the proposed offensive. When all the key factors are considered, things look much less rosy for Kyiv.

First of all, it is crucial to understand that wars and battles are not primarily won and lost based on numbers of platforms, such as tanks, artillery pieces, and personnel carriers, but on the quality of the troops and their level of training. On June 15, David Arakhamia, one of Zelensky’s closest advisors and Ukraine’s lead negotiator with Russia, said that Ukrainian troops were suffering up to 1,000 total casualties per day in the Donbas fight. A large percentage of these losses have been among the most experienced and trained troops, leaving increasing proportions of the fighting force in the hands of inexperienced troops.

Yet concurrent with the loss of their most effective fighters, Ukraine has also been bleeding equipment. On the same day Arakhamia admitted the Ukrainian Armed Forces lose up to 1,000 troops per day, Brig. Gen. Volodymyr Karpenko, the Land Forces Command logistics commander, told National Defense Magazine that “we have lost approximately 50%,” of the military kit they had at the start of the war, saying “1,300 infantry fighting vehicles have been lost, 400 tanks, (and) 700 artillery systems.”

As someone who has fought in large tank battles and spent years participating in large-scale mechanized war games in Europe, I cannot stress how difficult a task it is for an army to mount an offensive operation when it has lost a sizeable portion of its experienced leaders, is filled with large numbers of raw recruits, and have a patchwork of limited armored vehicles and ammunition. The task in trying to successfully pull off an offensive to drive Russia from Kherson facing Ukraine may well be beyond what is reasonably possible for any military to accomplish.

Many rightfully point out that yes, Ukraine has taken serious losses, but as I have often pointed out, so too have the Russians. Yet even when considering the comparative losses of each side, the task for Ukraine is still monumental. Part of the reason are found in the fundamentals of combat.

The defensive is the inherently stronger form of war and the easiest to perform. Ukraine has acquitted itself beyond what many – myself included – thought they would be capable of at the war’s outset. The grit and tenacity shown by Kyiv’s troops, however, is not sufficient to overcome the factors weighing heavily against them and in Russia’s favor. For example, if Ukraine did somehow muster a force of sufficient size, equipment, and supplies to mount a credible offensive in Kherson, they would have to leave the security inherent in the defense and expose themselves to the risks of the offense, as Russia has done thus far.

There is a much lower requirement for training and performance in the defensive, as the prime requirement is to hold a position and repulse an attacker. In the offense, however, there is a critical requirement to closely coordinate actions of a unit’s right and left flank companions, artillery support from behind the lines, logistics to support the move forward, and most critically, the knowledge of how to conduct complex maneuvers to unseat the opponent. These are not actions that troops with limited or no training at the platoon, company, and battalion level can be expected to pull off.

When the side with inadequate experience and training also has severe equipment shortfalls, the task of conducting an offensive against an opponent that has far more resources, more men from which to pull as replacements (Russia had more than half a million more active troops at the outset of the war than Ukraine), and even with everything the West has given Kyiv, Russia still has enduring advantages in air power, rockets, and artillery.

The danger in shooting for a miracle and trying the offensive anyway is that Ukraine would risk suffering even more casualties, losing more irreplaceable equipment, and in the end potentially suffering the loss of even more territory than they had at the beginning of the battle. All Russia would have to do is absorb the blows, yield only when required to avoid encirclement, and then when the Ukrainian side had expended its striking power, launch a counter-offensive to drive the weakened troops further west.

Virtually the only way Ukraine could succeed in an offensive against Russia in Kherson region at this time would be if they pulled a page out of the Soviet playbook from July 1943. In the Battle of Kursk, for example, the USSR was willing to throw over two million men into the meat grinder against the German Wehrmaht in a massive tank battle. The Soviet Union sacrificed 800,000 troops lost, but inflicted upwards of 200,000 casualties on the Germans in the process.

But the Red Army had more men than the Germans and Hitler’s troops were never able to recover from the loss of so many men and tanks, but especially they never replaced the experienced troops. From that point on, the Soviet army drove Germany all the way back to Berlin.  Unless Ukraine is willing to sacrifice upwards of a million men – something the Russians may not be able to match, regardless of how many planes, tanks, and rockets they have – Zelensky’s forces have no valid shot at driving Russia out of Kherson.

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.

Written By

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 @DanielLDavis1.

23 Comments

23 Comments

  1. WAYNE

    July 29, 2022 at 8:29 pm

    How many Germans invaded Ukraine in ww2?
    Where are all the Russian soldiers hiding?
    Why aren’t they visible in Ukraine?
    What are the Russians waiting for?
    The Russians have confirmed lost 900 tanks, 1500 afv’s
    Are the Russians willing to lose men for how long?
    Are they prepared for the long haul of insurgency?
    What is the end game?

  2. Walker

    July 29, 2022 at 8:37 pm

    You sure you aren’t getting a paycheck from the Russian government? Seriously though, Davis is the most pessimistic of the writers on 1945. Has he just not been paying attention? Ukraine basically has Kherson blockaded. They have done this through Russian hubris. Taking the city is a different thing. We can compare this with the way Russia took Mariupol steel plant. Russia has two choices, rebuild the supply chain, or surrender Kherson. Ukraine held the steel plant for months. But I wouldn’t expect Russia to do the same. They don’t have the will power or the morale to sustain it. Once completely surrounded and know they won’t be liberated, they will throw down their weapons. They don’t want to be there and they don’t want to battle both Ukrainian soldiers and partisans.

  3. Dan

    July 29, 2022 at 10:45 pm

    The area around Kherson is a bit of a special situation. The Russian supply lines were long to begin with and now the bridges are damaged and major logistic hubs are under himars attack. Ukraine probably gets very good satellite and signal intelligence from nato assets and together with sympathetic local Kherson population (89% Ukrainian) their situational awareness is probably better. They might keep grinding the isolated Kherson russian troops with himars for weeks before any direct attack. Ukraine will at some point need to make a good effort to eject the russians from the west bank of the river.

    In the east the Ukrainians will keep up the fighting retreat which ensures that the devastation stays in Donbass which Ukraine might lose in the end.

  4. pagar

    July 30, 2022 at 3:10 am

    The boasts by zelenkly and his neo-nazi gang are the very weapon to bury their fascist dreams on the soil of ukraine.

    The people of donbass now have no reason whatsoever to trust zelensky, the rabid russophobic hitler-like character now favored by biden and NATO.

    Zelensky, his neo-nazi fiends, biden and stoltenberg are the same type of characters that once hung out in hitlet’s underground bunker in berlin.

  5. marcjf

    July 30, 2022 at 3:14 am

    I’m sure some other commentator will point out that the author is mistaken, and that the UAF supermen will storm Kherson in the next few days, before pivoting north and rolling up the entire front, destroying the hapless Russian forces and then winter in Moscow.Personally I think this scenario is a little far fetched, but I have been reading around and it seems to be the consensus.

  6. Jacksonian Libertarian

    July 30, 2022 at 4:53 am

    Davis refuses to acknowledge the “mature precision strike regime” and the thousands of smoking armored vehicles the regime has placed on Ukrainian roads.

    A sniper is trained for years, firing thousands of rounds, and practicing stealth so he can sneak up to within 1,000m and kill an enemy.

    A missileman is trained for 30 mins, and has a 95% probability of destroying the tank he can barely see up to 4.75km away.

    Combat Power rule of thumb: 1 smart weapon = 500 dumb weapons

    A 1 million man army led by the veteran survivors, and armed with smart weapons. Is a powerful force against the exhausted Russian invaders armed with dumb weapons and having reached their Clausewitzian “Culminating Point”.

  7. aldol11

    July 30, 2022 at 5:23 am

    The Russian puppet is back
    i thought that they might have fired him

  8. Paddy Manning

    July 30, 2022 at 8:15 am

    Russia has traditionally not some much fought enemies as drowned them in Russian blood. That’s not a strategy Ukraine will want to emulate and Daniel Davis makes a great argument for caution, that the Russians can all to easily emulate Ukraine’s successful tactics in response. Those writing that the Russians would meekly surrender have little knowledge of Russian endurance or the fears the soldiers have for their future in Russia if they surrende.
    It would be very interesting to read Davis on alternatives for the Ukrainian forces. Avoiding a meat grinder may not be enough to deafeat the Russians and a Russian defeat is a necessity

  9. richard

    July 30, 2022 at 11:26 am

    ok paddy, name a single western military power that has defeated russia (not won a battle here and there) BUT summarily defeated russia in the last 200 hundred years?

    1. napoleon was destroyed in his attempt
    2 the german army (41-45) unarguably much larger on the russian front than on the western one was smashed by russia
    3. NATO…….is clown car show compared to either #1 or #2 and i doubt the russian mod gives them a seconds thought

    so tell us paddy who do you think has the stones to do what napoleon ann hitler could not?

  10. Begemot

    July 30, 2022 at 12:37 pm

    Who won the Crimean War? Did Russia win the Russo-Japanese War of 1905?

    I agree: Russia is a formidable adversary and suggest that Montgomery’s first rule of war should be heeded: “Rule 1, on page 1 of the book of war, is: ‘Do not march on Moscow’”.

  11. David Chang

    July 30, 2022 at 2:26 pm

    God bless people in the world.

    I read the history documents of Vietnam war again since four months ago.

    I read the speech of Eisenhower which is at Seattle, August 4, 1953.

    I read the speech of Kennedy which is at Washington D.C., June 1, 1956.

    I read the speech of Trump which is at U.N. headquarters Tuesday, September 24, 2019.

    I read the Karl Marx socialism war declaration of Putin which is published in February 21, 2022.

    I read Force Design 2030.

    Putin is smart, he mix facts and lies by materialist dialectics, but elders who write the documents of nuclear weapons and foreign policy remind these lies.

    Putin said:
    “In the mid-1980s, the increasing socioeconomic problems and the apparent crisis of the planned economy aggravated the ethnic issue, which essentially was not based on any expectations or unfulfilled dreams of the Soviet peoples but primarily the growing appetites of the local elites.

    However, instead of analysing the situation, taking appropriate measures, first of all in the economy, and gradually transforming the political system and government in a well-considered and balanced manner, the Communist Party leadership only engaged in open doubletalk about the revival of the Leninist principle of national self-determination.

    Moreover, in the course of power struggle within the Communist Party itself, each of the opposing sides, in a bid to expand its support base, started to thoughtlessly incite and encourage nationalist sentiments, manipulating them and promising their potential supporters whatever they wished. Against the backdrop of the superficial and populist rhetoric about democracy and a bright future based either on a market or a planned economy, but amid a true impoverishment of people and widespread shortages, no one among the powers that be was thinking about the inevitable tragic consequences for the country.

    Next, they entirely embarked on the track beaten at the inception of the USSR and pandering to the ambitions of the nationalist elites nurtured within their own party ranks. But in so doing, they forgot that the CPSU no longer had – thank God – the tools for retaining power and the country itself, tools such as state terror and a Stalinist-type dictatorship, and that the notorious guiding role of the party was disappearing without a trace, like a morning mist, right before their eyes.”

    Can we stop Putin to preach the theology of liberation if we don’t obey Ten Commandments?

    God bless America.

  12. straw walker

    July 30, 2022 at 7:03 pm

    The writer is missing a small point.
    The Ukraine offense is not fighting the entire Russian army.. it’s fighting a much smaller force that is isolated with limited ability to reinforce and resupply and retreat. The 3 R’s of war.
    This is not the German’s WW2 war that screeched across the whole of eastern Europe, but a fight for the Southern front furthest from the front Russia has been attempting to exploit

  13. Shea

    July 30, 2022 at 9:28 pm

    Valid opinion, good points, true statements, reasonable questions;
    I notice you did not mention:
    1) Moral, as you noted “military fundamentals” which Ukraine wind
    2) The 5th column/Freedom Fighters element–which could eat at the Russian liver while Ukraine pumels the Russian face.
    3) The ‘Potential’ impact of Cyber War as part of the offensive which could plausibly undermine Russian Defense/Ukraine Offensive.
    4) as noted by another commentor: Russian Supply Lines in Kherson Specifically.
    UKRAINE HAS A VERY TOUGH TASK
    5) The Timing of Now is because if they Play Defense past September–AN OFFENSIVE IS DOOMED (most likely) it is a gamble–a calculated one
    You’re criticism is not off-base, but I did not read a realistic alternative proposed. If they continue a Defensive engagement, then they play to Stalemate Best Case, Russian Wins that Long-Term.

  14. Zibi

    July 31, 2022 at 4:27 am

    Thus, the Himars missile deliveries to Ukraine were delayed by 90 days, during which the Ukrainians unnecessarily lost 50,000 experienced professional soldiers and the cities of Lisichansk and Severodonetsk.

  15. Dan Farrand

    July 31, 2022 at 3:59 pm

    Western estimates of Russian losses are little more than wishful thinking and propaganda. Russian losses (including DPR, LPR, Volunteers, National Guard) probably number 10,000 dead – but who knows.

    The demographic possibility of Ukraine raising a million man army are 0. Ukraine has already passed their manpower peak with a military establishment of perhaps 600,000 (and now declining steeply). In fact, the balance of forces is now slowly tipping in favor of the Russians.

    HIMARS are not decisive in any way. Effective as battlefield weapons yes (when manned by American operators ). Imposing a cost of the Russians and on inconvenient Ukrainian POW’s – probably. Decisive in terms of any particular battle or the war ? No.

    The war will end with a Russian victory from which Russia will emerge stronger than when they started both militarily and economically.

  16. Ivan Kumerich

    August 1, 2022 at 5:48 am

    You say Ukraine has lost 50% of its original weaponry! According to Russian MOD stats and the reaction Internationally by Zelensky plus reports from Ukrainian commanders losses of tanks armoured vehicles artillery aircraft including Drones and helicopters is at 90%.

  17. Ivan Kumerich

    August 1, 2022 at 5:59 am

    Dan a like from me on your post with one clarification on the possible 600,000 Ukrainian military! Not so Ukraine started with a total of 250,000 which included nearly 100,000 armed policing units and militia.
    Hence why Russia went in with 45,000 in the first wave and 500 tanks. Another 80,000 were in reserve and brought in as the battle front developed a big part of that reserve rotate to keep troops fresh and rebriefed on new threats and tasks.

  18. Neil Ross Hutchings

    August 2, 2022 at 8:38 am

    “Winter is coming.” I don’t know for sure, but I doubt neither side will want to wage an offensive campaign during the winter months and will be looking to set up defensive lines in the coming months. The Kherson area seems defensible for the Russian army, assuming the counter-offensive by Ukraine fails. Where Russia intends to stop its offensive in the east remains a mystery to me. There must be a strategic reason why Russian forces haven’t advanced further north along the left bank of the Dneiper.

  19. renics nikoros

    August 3, 2022 at 1:49 pm

    (The Soviet Union sacrificed 800,000 troops lost, but inflicted upwards of 200,000 casualties on the Germans in the process) Absolute propaganda nonsense! If he referred to the archives of the USSR Ministry of Defense, then the matter is different. But he refers to an article that shows a fictional story of the Battle of Kursk by the Americans. The military archives of the Great Patriotic War are still closed, so there is nothing to invent gag.

  20. George Kovachev

    August 5, 2022 at 12:32 am

    Being a former Lt.Col from the US Army notwithstanding, it seems that the author has precisely zero idea how the russian military (not the soviet red army of the yore, but the modern russian army) conducts its wars. But that’s ok – having ignoramuses like the esteemed author here advising the decision-makers in U.S. is good for the russians. Generally the americans perceive the velvet gloves the russian prefer to use as weakness – I guess they’ve probably forgotten Theodore Roosevelt’s advise: speak softly and carry a big stick. Vladimir Vladimirovitch, as a rule, does speak softly, and has the biggest stick around 😉

  21. Urban Fox

    August 5, 2022 at 10:44 am

    In answer to a post above, the Russians pretty well won the land war & lost the naval war to Japan but the Tsarist government lost it’s nerve when Japan was going bankrupt and accepted US medation. It was a very odd and unhappy outcome for both sides…

    Also as others have stated, the HIMARS isn’t a wonderwaffen & the VSU dosnt have nearly enough to do more than harry the Russians.

    Beyond that Ukeraine’s manpower situation is worse than most people assume. In addition to men who’ve died or fled the country. The Russian controlled regions are mobilising pro-Russian militias in addition to the Donbass forces.

    If you add those forces together with troops raised from Crimea, there might soon be as many ”Ukrainians” from territory Kiev claims as it’s own fighting for the Kremlin as the VSU can put in the field as combat troops.

    That is not the mathematics of victory by any stretch…

  22. Gerald

    August 5, 2022 at 1:19 pm

    Its not a mistake it is a fantasy.

    Current Ukrainian losses are running at around the 200,000 mark. 180 to 191K dead and irrevocably wounded with around 10 to 15000 ‘missing’ (even zelensky admits to 7200 missing so I think we can double that) Figures are taken from own calculations but also captured or hacked Ukrainian documents (the 191K figure is a Ukrianian armed forces figure)
    Ukraine is on its 4th mobilisation in 6 months. All men between 16 and 60 – there is a motion in the RADA to extend that to 70 years of age. Women between 18 – 60 to start being mobilised from October 1st. There is no million man army available for Ukraine.
    I’d say Russian losses are running not even 10% of this. DPR and LPR losses will be fairly heavy but even so I doubt they are over 5000 total. (Donbass troops are counted seperately from RF forces, both parties publish daily figures of KIA)
    On the subject of Soviet losses you need to reference Krivosheev’s publications meticulously derived from all available Russian Defense Ministry WW II archives. You’ll find that the Wermachts losses are 430,000 AT kURSK whilst Red Army sustained 112,529 KIAS and MIAs, Sanitary (wounded) – 317,361 for total of 429,890. Russians had about 1.2 million at their disposal for Kursk they did not lose over 80% of their forces but less than 40%.

  23. David

    August 6, 2022 at 1:27 pm

    Most of the UA supporters on this site seem to believe Russia has lost an enormous amount of equipment, so the UA can get an easy win in the South. The argument is that the Russians are spent.
    The UA supporters seem to ignore any reports about the UA having enormous loses on a far smaller military base. Some of these reports are from the UA ministers seeking aid from NATO, so there should be some element of reliability.

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