Commentary on the Ukraine war feels bipolar.
Russia is running out of missiles; Russia is lobbing missiles en masse to pummel sites in Ukraine.
Russia is tottering and about to implode; a wily Russia is using the war to exhaust NATO arms stockpiles, defeating the Atlantic Alliance without direct fighting. And then there’s the impending Ukrainian spring counteroffensive.
For weeks we’ve been told an onslaught is at hand.
Several thoughts come to mind. Look at the question through the lens of surprise. Surprise is a principle of war, although the greats of the strategic canon differ on its efficacy. For the ancient Chinese warrior-scribe Sun Tzu, deception and surprise constitute the essence of effective and efficient warmaking. They dislocate a foe’s efforts, making it a straightforward matter for the field general with an astute sense of timing to strike—breaking the foe’s back like a hawk felling its prey.
Carl von Clausewitz, the sage of Prussia, is less sanguine than his Asian forbear about such oblique measures. He pronounces strategic surprise—the proverbial bolt from the blue that stuns an enemy—desirable but unrealistic in modern warfare. By contrast, he deems efforts to spring a tactical surprise worthwhile, but he sees them as indecisive. Clausewitz tenders the verdict that such stratagems are seldom “outstandingly successful.”
To the extent they have the classics on their mind, Ukrainian political and military chieftains seem to be in Clausewitzian mode rather than hewing to Sun Tzu. If Kiev is contemplating a strategic surprise, it has handled things in the clumsiest manner possible. It has done little to pooh-pooh the notion that an offensive is coming. It’s the most open of open secrets. In fact, Ukrainian leaders have used the upcoming offensive as leverage to keep Western armaments and supplies flowing.
However, tactical surprise remains in the Ukrainian panoply. Three basic options suggest themselves. One, the Ukrainian Army could feint in a place or two before mounting a general push all along the fighting front, in hopes of collapsing Russian lines altogether or scoring a breakthrough somewhere along the perimeter. That it would try an all-out frontal assault seems doubtful unless the Russian Army and its auxiliaries are really staggering to the extent some reportage suggests.
This would be a high-risk, high-reward gambit. And it might well come as a tactical surprise as a result.
Or two, the Ukrainian Army could attempt multiple strikes along the line concurrently, concentrating its efforts in time even as it disperses them in space. Such an approach would be inherently deceptive. The logic for dispersing effort among simultaneous offensives rather than assembling a massive counterpunch is that it would cast Russian defenders onto the horns of a dilemma. Multiple blows would deny Russian commanders the option of moving forces around on interior lines to meet attacks one at a time, as they could were Ukrainian efforts uncoordinated.
In theory, with multiple opportunities, the Ukrainian offense would break through someplace along the frontier. Commanders could then shift forces around to take advantage of the breach. In theory. This was President Abraham Lincoln’s notion of how to puncture the Confederate defense perimeter during the American Civil War. And it worked. But Lincoln’s Union Army had superior resources to work with. It could launch assaults in force at more than one place along the line. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia marched into Pennsylvania during the Gettysburg campaign of 1863. That it could have staged a second simultaneous campaign of any heft strains credulity.
Concentrating tactical offensives in time might likewise elude the Ukrainian Army’s grasp.
Or three, Ukrainian commanders could amass forces at a single point somewhere along the line, masking troop movements to disguise where the blow would fall. Mathematicians define a line as infinitely many points arrayed in a continuous row. It verges on impossible for a defender to make itself stronger than an attacker at infinitely many points in physical space; even a weaker attacker can gather forces somewhere along the line and punch through.
That’s why Clausewitz is a confirmed skeptic of what he calls “cordon-warfare,” meaning relying on distended lines to keep an antagonist out of geographic space the defender wishes to hold. Clausewitz counsels commanders to keep the lines short, to turn terrain to advantage as best they can, and to arrange fire support as lavishly as possible to shore up weak spots where a breakthrough could occur.
A targeted breakthrough seems like a better approach for Ukraine than a general push relying on massed forces, while the jury is out on multiple simultaneous offensives. On the whole, mass is not Ukraine’s ally in the conflict. But it could be on the Ukrainian Army’s side locally, helping the attackers overpower Russian defenders at a particular place for a finite time. The question is whether the Ukrainian Army has the manpower and weaponry to exploit a breakthrough into the Russian backfield, rolling up Russian defenders while seizing and holding ground.
This is a perennial dilemma bedeviling field commanders. The German Army staged a series of gigantic offensives during the spring of 1918, aiming to break the deadlock on the Western Front before Americans landed in large numbers to fight alongside the Allies. Germans did get past the trenches, unleashing an array of inventive arms and tactics. In the end, though, they lacked the resources to score the knockout blow German generals meant to land.
Ukraine could find itself confronting a similar predicament. A century ago the English soldier B. H. Liddell Hart urged an army that broke through an enemy “defense in depth”—a fair description of prepared Russian defenses in eastern and southern Ukraine—to make itself into an “expanding torrent,” widening the breach while pouring through into the enemy backfield to sow mayhem.
If successful Liddell Hart’s tactics could derange the defenders’ efforts, making way for a decisive battlefield triumph. But here again, it takes masses of infantrymen and mobile soldiery supported by artillery and air power to comprise a torrent. Ukrainian commanders may doubt they have sufficient manpower or fire support to essay such an enterprise. And they may be right.
In the end the question of a spring offensive comes down to Clausewitzian dynamics. Clausewitz charted the typical rhythm for an attack by one contestant on another. At the outset the attacker would enjoy a battlefield advantage by virtue of taking the initiative, capitalizing on surprise to the extent it could, and so forth. But that advantage would narrow as the attacker plunged deeper and deeper onto enemy home turf. For instance, the attacker would be operating on longer and more tenuous supply lines that it would have to detach soldiers to guard—weakening the army’s offensive punch. The defender would have the incentives that go with facing a mortal threat.
At some point, Clausewitz postulates, the balance of forces reaches a crossover point beyond which the balance flips. The attacker is now inferior in combat power while operating deep within the defender’s territory. That’s the “culminating point of the attack,” the optimal time for the erstwhile defender to make itself the attacker and go on the counteroffensive. This is the time of extreme peril for the invader.
For Russia in this case.
Have Russian forces overshot their culminating point? It’s really, really hard for those of us watching far from the combat theater to know whether the battlefield balance has come to favor Ukraine. Heck, the combatants themselves may not know for sure where they stand. Hence the bipolar reporting from the battle front.
That it’s springtime in the Black Sea is not enough reason to go on the march. Military reality—not the passing of the seasons—has to prevail in Ukrainian decisionmaking circles. And maybe it is prevailing.
Let martial prudence reign.
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Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation & Future Warfare, Marine Corps University. The views voiced here are his alone. Holmes is a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor.