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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat - 19FortyFive

Ukraine’s Big Counteroffensive Seems Inspired by Sun Tzu

2S19 Msta S of the Ukrainian Army. Image Credit: Creative Commons/Ukraine Military.
2S19 Msta S of the Ukrainian Army.

Yesterday the crack Institute for the Study of War (ISW) team had glad tidings in their daily roundup of the latest developments out of Ukraine. Namely, the Ukrainian armed forces have reclaimed some 2,500 square kilometers of ground from Russia, chiefly in the northerly Kharkiv oblast. The accompanying map tells the story visually. Ukrainian forces drove a salient, or wedge, deep into the district and then, through opportunism or design, swept southward toward the city of Izyum, a Russian Army headquarters. As of yesterday, they stood poised to cut Russian supply lines around Izyum. As of this writing, it appears the 20,000 or so Russian troops occupying the city have evacuated it to avoid being encircled and annihilated as a fighting force. Lyman, in the central region of Donetsk, may have fallen as well.

ISW affirms that Ukraine scored a “remarkable operational surprise” in Kharkiv oblast. Russian commanders had withdrawn forces from the region to guard the southern city of Kherson, where Ukraine has also mounted counteroffensive operations. At present Western specialists are debating whether the southerly effort was a feint to siphon Russian forces from the north, or whether Ukrainian commanders meant to make a serious push to regain control of Kherson and sever the land bridge connecting the Crimean Peninsula with eastern Ukraine (and thus Russia).

But both parties to the debate could have it right. Kherson could be a feint—with commanders reserving the option to make it something more should the gods of war smile on Ukrainian arms.

In fact, the counteroffensive has a Sun Tzuian flair to it. The ancient Chinese general exhorted commanders to launch direct, or “orthodox,” attacks in conjunction with indirect, or “unorthodox,” attacks on the enemy host—keeping hostile commanders dizzy with indecision. “Normal” forces should carry out a direct frontal assault while “extraordinary” forces struck at the foe’s flanks, dislocating its efforts at defense. “The force which confronts the enemy is the normal” according to Sun Tzu; “that which goes to his flanks the extraordinary. No commander of an army can wrest the advantage from the enemy without extraordinary forces.”

It turns out diversifying your portfolio is wise strategy, in martial affairs as in investment.

Operational advantage, then, accrues from thrusting enemy commanders onto the horns of a dilemma. They don’t know which is the main line of assault, and thus where to commit the bulk of their manpower and firepower to blunt it. And Sun Tzu advises the general to keep them guessing—compounding their dilemma. “I make the enemy conceive my normal force to be the extraordinary and my extraordinary to be the normal. Moreover, the normal may become the extraordinary and vice versa.” If the extraordinary contingent meets with success on the battleground while the normal contingent encounters fierce resistance, in other words, the field general should redesignate the extraordinary force as the normal force—and apply most of the army’s resources to that more promising line of effort.

And a virtuoso general would shift the effort back again should the shifting fortunes of battle warrant. Etc. In short, Sun Tzu prescribes a highly fluid, deceptive approach to warmaking.

Now apply Chinese logic to Ukraine. Though probably not in Sun Tzuian parlance, Ukrainian commanders may have conceived of the southern contingent as the extraordinary force and the northern one as the normal force. They knew Russia had to defend in the south to preserve overland access to Crimea and that it would transfer assets there to protect that precious real estate. So Ukrainian forces struck out toward Kherson in an indirect move, encouraging Russian commanders to misallocate resources to counter a secondary effort, while essaying a direct assault in the north. Had things gone better than expected in the south and worse in the north, they could have always heeded Sun Tzu’s counsel and rearranged their priorities to operational advantage. The supple approach works—now as in antiquity.

Ukraine Russia

Russian artillery. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

But will it keep working? Now since the onset of the Ukraine war, the real question is whether the Ukrainian Army, outmatched as it is from a material standpoint, can sustain momentum long enough to triumph over a stronger foe. To date, my guess has been No; a battlefield stalemate constitutes the most likely outcome.

Somewhere, though, Sun Tzu is smiling.

Expert Biography: A 1945 Contributing Editor writing in his own capacity, Dr. James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010, and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.” The views voiced here are his alone. Holmes also blogs at the Naval Diplomat

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”



  1. WKon936

    September 10, 2022 at 6:10 pm

    LoL! No, no, no, no. It’s inspired by Air/Land probably because the U.S. war gamed the offensive back at the Pentagon. Air/Land is a late Cold War doctrine to slice up the Soviets if they ever planned on invading West German. Air/Land was used in Gulf War I.

  2. pagar

    September 10, 2022 at 7:10 pm

    Waitaminit, the ancient sage never was a guy who advocated all-out genghisian-type military offensive.

    Soldiers nowadays need to be fed and vehicles need to be refueled unlike in ancient times, when men ate raw food, drank water from streams while horses survived on grass and rough vegetation.

    This so-called grand ukro offensive will peter out soon as the vanguard units exhaust supplies while zelenskiyy prods them forward, expecting them to fight on fresh air and empty magazines.

    While in the halls of Kremlin, commanders track down geolocation whereabouts of zelenskiyy and order a nuke-tipped kinzhal to be cocked & loaded & prepped with the pinpointed GPS coordinates.

    Whoosh, bam, and the grand ukro offensive grinds to a halt.Thanks Biden.

  3. Yrral

    September 10, 2022 at 7:10 pm

    If Russian bearer be that incompetent,why are we continuing to be spend billion,if this was the US fighting Ukraine would of been pacified,this is the most dysfunctional war be in the history,both side are concerned about public relations,than some strategy outcome

  4. aldol11

    September 10, 2022 at 7:28 pm

    no SunTzu stuff.
    you probe on multiple points and follow up on weakness

  5. TheDon

    September 10, 2022 at 7:47 pm

    Hey Xi’ say cheese.
    I wonder if your picture will be a happy one supporting this, starting to have an economic meltdow, no water meaning no energy production, and semi conductor plants moving overseas.
    I hope the chinese people know how well you chose friends like kim and putin.
    You and Putin will be overthrown.

  6. Gary Jacobs

    September 10, 2022 at 9:19 pm

    Pagar – Haha! ‘Peter out due to lack of supplies?’ You need some better sources of info. Geolocated pictures and video indicate Ukraine has captured enough Russian equipment and ammo to have almost an entire new mechanized armored division.

    The Russians left 60 tanks in Izyum alone. I have seen images of at least 10 self propelled howitzers, a bunch IFVs, grad launching vehicles, and at last count they captured over 10,000 grad rockets. That’s before you get to mortors, thermobaric weapons, and so very much more. As well, the liberated people will gladly feed the Ukrainian troops.

    Reports indicate Ukrainian troops are already on the outskirts of Lysychansk, there is a battle ongoing at the Donetsk airport, and then some in the south east. In the northeast, reports have it that Ukrainian troops have made it almost all the way to the border at Velykyi Burluk, which is…excuse me, was, another key Russian logistics hub.

    The biggest problem they have now is what to do with all the POWs, and how to organize all the equipment and ammo they just captured.

    It will be interesting to see if they take an operational pause to shore things up and sort things out before they enter Lysychansk. They also have to decide when to go after Starobilsk, which is the other main rail line / GLOC from Belgorod, Russia to Luhansk.

    Dont be surprised if by the end of the coming week we hear that Ukraine captured over 100 tanks, 25-40 self propelled howitzers, 50+ IFVs, and enough ammo for their Russian made equipment to last into the spring.

    Far from petering out, this much captured equipment may allow them to press their offensive right up to the start of mud season.

    Have a nice day.

  7. Goran

    September 10, 2022 at 11:36 pm

    “Somewhere, though, Sun Tzu is smiling.”

    Cool. What’s Daniel Davis doin’? I can’t wait to read his take on the current situation.

  8. Steve

    September 11, 2022 at 1:11 am

    I think if we send ice cream that will help Ukraine fight harder.

  9. David Chang

    September 11, 2022 at 2:19 am

    God bless people in the world.

    American Enterprise Institute should obey the Ten Commandments.

    Politician should not help socialism parties in Ukraine and East Asia to incite war, even though democratic party have destroyed the soul of our soldier, and after all socialism parties in the world will make another nuclear war rationally, like Truman and Oppenheimer in 1945.

    Officer, Representative, and Judge should not help socialism parties to destroy the world by promoting democracy and progress that Karl Marx say.

    Sun Tzu’s thought of war is not moral, so people in Ukraine and Russia will die, because war is murder, and the difference is just how to stop total war.

    God bless America.

  10. Jiri Novacek

    September 11, 2022 at 2:42 am

    China concluded a treaty with Ukraine in 2013 promising to protect Ukraine in case of nuclear threat. Should Russians use nukes, China has a legal obligation to nuke Russia in return. Interesting….

  11. Enfield

    September 11, 2022 at 5:22 am

    Inflated attempts that sound mighty but reality catches up, again. Brave attempts for sure but their enemy is gigantic and heavy military power with infinite results.

    A superpower that can hold a small European continent in its grip for as long as it wants. Just look at their land mass, it’s impressive.

    Many will be disappointed in the end but the end will come one day and it is no different from 1945. Everyone can have an opinion, that’s fine but that vast land, its people and endless plains will remain.

  12. Frédéric

    September 11, 2022 at 7:30 am

    Air/Land Battle ? Ukraine does not have air superiority and theoretically has inferior firepower.

  13. Tallifer

    September 11, 2022 at 8:58 am

    I predict that the Ukrainians continue to drive east through the undefended north of the Ukraine, then swing south to sweep through Luhansk. The ensuing panic shall cause the Kherson front to crumble and the Ukrainians attacking there will sweep through the Crimea and also through to Mariupol.

  14. Gary Jacobs

    September 11, 2022 at 10:29 am

    Frédéric – Ukraine has used what it has to great effect. Their TB2 drones have become legendary, and their Migs have remained in battle the entire time. There was a brief period where the Russians got better at air defense, but the introduction of HARM missiles for Ukraine changed the game. They have systematically dismantled the Russian air defense network, as well as the radars the Russians use for battlefield awareness. Ukraine has also received tank killer drones like Phoenix Ghost and Switchblade by the hundreds. Other countries like Poland have sent drones as well. Easily over 1000 armed attack drones total. Combine that with their use of commercial drones for targeting, and some that have been modified to drop grenades and the count is really into several thousand drones. They have also made effective use of stinger missile MANPADs and mobile missile defense units like s300 and Tor to shoot down russian helicopters and planes while protecting Ukrainian frontline troops.

    The Russians can still fly if they dare, but the Ukrainians have effectively taken control of the skies.

    As for ‘inferior fire power’, tell that to the Russians on the receiving end of HIMARS strikes. Sometimes quality over quantity makes a major difference. This is one of those times. HIMARS has more range and more accuracy than any MLRS the Russians have. The Russians also had stupid and lazy tactics with huge stockpiles left out in places that Ukraine identified and systematically destroyed.

    It was basically their version of the 1st Gulf War strategy which was a month of an air bombing campaign to degrade air defenses and supplies which demoralized the enemy. Then a lighting advance around an area where the enemy least expected it. Saddam never expected the US military could end around through the desert. US special forces created a show which made Saddam think the real assault would be a Normandy type landing in Kuwait. The Kherson operation isnt just a show, it’s a real offensive. But it did distract the Russians enough to leave the north flank in Kharkiv open for end run around the main Russian effort in the east at Bakhmut and Soledar. Ukraine has now cut one of the main supply lines to 20,000 troops in the Izyum area and are in mop up mode there, and will need to decide where to go next.

    Ukraine is really putting on a master class in combined arms warfare by combining a whole range of systems that have been made available to them.

  15. Froike

    September 11, 2022 at 11:18 am

    I agree with You Gary! If The West keeps supplying Modern Weaponry to Ukraine, Putin is doomed. Incidentally, are you The Gary Jacobs that plays Pedal Steel and Guitar? Just curious. If you are, I’m a big fan.

  16. WKon936

    September 11, 2022 at 2:51 pm

    Com’on James Holmes! Your colleague Robert Farley predicted what would happen right here way back in March!

  17. cobo

    September 11, 2022 at 4:45 pm

    ” extraordinary forces” The Ukrainians are fighting like tigers. They are all extraordinary. It has already been said well above, thank you Gary Jacobs. Great article – “those who dare…”

  18. Yrral

    September 12, 2022 at 1:41 am

    This war is lost cause,when has America won a war,and we had advanced weapon, because this Ukrainain war is a lost cause, American should learn from it pass losses and save the Ukrainlan,some heat from this coming winter, before Putin make Ukraine uninhabitable

  19. Gary Jacobs

    September 12, 2022 at 9:02 am

    Yrral. – Haha. It is a lost cause… FOR RUSSIA. As much as I cant stand the EU, their leaders have largely done a good job of preparing for winter by stocking up on gas, Germany delaying plans to shut nuclear power plants, etc. In the US, gasoline prices have dropped considerably from their peak at the start of Russia’s invasion, and we have our own NatGas from fracking.

    Your dreams of bullying the west into capitulating are pure fantasy. You should get over that asap and rejoin the rest of world with a more clear perspective on what is actually going on, without Putin’s propaganda.

  20. Ron

    September 12, 2022 at 9:22 am

    US war planners might have read Sun Tsu…

  21. Stefan Stackhouse

    September 13, 2022 at 2:24 pm

    Well-crafted defensive plans look great. . . all the way up to the moment when your troops panic and start to run for their lives, leaving all of your carefully placed weaponry behind. Not the first time that it has happened.

  22. Vlad

    September 15, 2022 at 10:05 am

    Putin rejected what he said he wanted before invading, Ukraine agreed to stay out of NATO yet Putin still invaded just shows the poor excuse for a man Putin is a Fiend an Evile little Russia Bastard piece of shitty scum and more than ever needs to desist this earth for the sake of mankind.

  23. jens holm

    September 19, 2022 at 11:03 am

    Sun Tzu? Haha. More like Stalin. Zelensky throws endless waves of conscripts hoping to make a breakthrough somewhere. And they did but only because Russians had 5 times less troops.

  24. pete

    October 7, 2022 at 10:26 am

    largest foreign supplier of arms to Ukraine….Russia.

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