Key point from the author: “Russia doesn’t have the luxury of keeping its defensive lines short, unless it chooses to relinquish the ground behind them. And if Ukrainian forces can starve their opponent of firepower by interrupting its supplies, they could collapse the line altogether.”
Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, the military architect of German unification and one of history’s most famed soldiers, would instantly grasp the state of affairs in this summer of Ukrainian discontent. After Kiev and its Western backers hyped the prospects for the spring counteroffensive against Russia, the counteroffensive has posted fitful progress to date. Moltke would ascribe the disappointing results to the fact that the Ukrainian military confronts a foe waging the strongest form of warfare.
Strategic offense coupled with tactical defense.
Moltke lays out the logic succinctly: “The tactical defense is the stronger [form of war], the strategic offensive the more effective form—and the only one that leads to the goal.” In other words, the contender that seizes or occupies some object or parcel of territory, then defends it tactically, primes itself for strategic and ultimately political success. In colloquial terms: grab something and hold it, and dare your enemy to come and take it back while fighting at a daunting disadvantage. For the German sage, in short, waging offense through defense blazes a path to triumph.
Advantage: Russia. Last year the Russian Army went on the strategic offensive, seizing ground coveted by the leadership in Moscow. After a startling series of reverses in the east last fall the army spent months preparing dense, elaborate defenses-in-depth to make it difficult and costly if not impossible for Ukrainian forces to recover lost turf in Ukraine’s eastern and southern reaches. That’s the tactical-defense component of Russia’s scheme. Mission accomplished: this summer has seen a tough slog for Ukrainian warriors.
So would Moltke counsel despair for Ukraine? Does his logic mean the defender—the occupant of the contested real estate, in this case Russia—always wins?
Well, no. Little is fated amid the maelstrom of war. Pursuing Moltkean methods does bias the outcome in Russia’s favor, but in the annals of military history many defenders have been dispossessed of geographic space. Dislodging an entrenched defender simply takes some extra doing by a well-resourced, inventive, spirited attacker. Take an example close to home: the Southern Confederacy during the American Civil War. The Union wanted to not just vanquish the Confederacy but eradicate its political existence as an independent nation, much as Russia hoped to topple the Ukrainian political regime and install one subservient to Moscow.
That meant conquering the Southern foe and unseating its government.
The Confederates accomplished their strategically offensive goal by banding together to secede from the Union. Secession left them holding the disputed country from an interior position while Union forces ranged around the continental and maritime periphery. Southern generals proved shifty. They were adept at moving around the defensive perimeter on interior lines to counter Union offensives that were uncoordinated with one another in space or time. Only when meddlesome President Abraham Lincoln urged his generals to concentrate in time, striking around the Confederate periphery, in force, at the same time, did Union forces manage to punch through Confederate defenses.
Lincoln reasoned that Confederate field commanders could never blunt every one among a series of assaults that descended at different locations along the perimeter simultaneously. Union armies would score a breakthrough into the Confederate backfield somewhere along the line. And so it turned out, albeit not without years of grueling combat and hundreds of thousands of deaths. The Union Navy worked with the Army to wrest control of Southern rivers from the Confederacy, enabling U.S. forces to move around at will. Ultimately General George Tecumseh Sherman was able to march to the sea through Georgia, demolishing much of the South’s warmaking potential while disheartening the populace.
So all is not lost for Ukraine despite this summer’s disappointing results. Victory isn’t foreordained for the combatant that couples strategic offense with tactical defense. War isn’t that pat.
How do you overcome the advantages that go to the tactical defender? Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, the British chief of defense staff, describes Ukraine’s strategy as “starve, stretch, and strike.” Starve means lashing out at Russian logistics hubs and “lines of communication,” meaning transportation routes that convey ammunition and stores to occupied territories and troops manning the frontlines. Deprive people of what they need to live and fight and you enfeeble Russia’s grasp on Ukrainian land. Starvation tactics also give Ukraine an indirect way to get at occupied Crimea. If Ukrainian forces manage to advance far enough toward the Sea of Azov to the south, they will bring the supply line connecting Crimea with Russia under rocket artillery fire.
Sever that supply line and Russian commanders to the west will find themselves thrust onto the horns of a dilemma. They can choose between evacuating the peninsula and western Azov coast and preparing the army and civilian inhabitants for wintertime privation.
Stretch means taking advantage of Russia’s distended defensive lines. Moltke’s great predecessor, Carl von Clausewitz, warns caustically against what he calls “cordon warfare.” A cordon is a line, and a line is made up of infinitely many points in series. It’s hard to be stronger than the foe at infinitely many points on the battleground. Trying to hold all points along an extended line thins out the defenders while allowing the attackers to mass superior combat power somewhere along the frontier to break through. If forced into cordon warfare Clausewitz advises commanders to keep the lines short and provide ample fire support in case the enemy threatens to puncture the line. Russia doesn’t have the luxury of keeping its defensive lines short, unless it chooses to relinquish the ground behind them. And if Ukrainian forces can starve their opponent of firepower by interrupting its supplies, they could collapse the line altogether.
If the starve and stretch phases work, Ukraine will generate an opportunity to strike deep into Russian-hold territory. So is Ukraine poised for victory? It remains to be seen. The American Civil War suggests that the offense, no matter how savvy, still needs the weight of numbers and capability to crash through into the enemy backfield and win the war. The denouement of World War I, which has come up often in commentary on the Russo-Ukraine war, likewise shows that mass is imperative. It took American manpower arriving on the battlefield in 1918 to enable the Allies to prevail. Starve and stretch all you like, but you need manpower and firepower to make good on any tactical success.
The odds still favor Russia, both by Moltkean logic and by virtue of Russia’s massive demographic, economic, and military preponderance over Ukraine. But combatants are human, and human beings are nothing if not fallible. The strong have been known to squander their advantages, setting conditions for the weak to win. Past performance suggests that Russia could follow the same path to ignominy.
Now is no time to go wobbly.
About the Author
Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and a Distinguished Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation & Future Warfare, Marine Corps University. The views voiced here are his alone.