Key Point: The cold, hard truth in the war between Russia and Ukraine today is that Kyiv’s last-gasp offensive has failed, and no amount of spin will change the outcome.
As Part 1 of this series examining the past performance and current capacity of the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) detailed, Kyiv’s troops in 2022 achieved some exceptional and major battlefield successes. Hope was high heading into 2023 that these wins would pave the way to ultimate victory in the war. Unfortunately, the Ukrainian senior leadership suffered from a combination of bad decisions, an overestimation of their own capacity, and – sadly – an overestimation of the efficacy of Western military gear.
As early as January 2023, Western media sources began talking about a Ukrainian “spring offensive.” At that time, the Russians had been badly mauled during battles over Ukraine’s Kharkiv and Kherson. Moscow was four months into its partial mobilization of 300,000 troops – but had stumbled badly at the outset in processing the new conscripts – and unconfirmed reports claimed that up to 700,000 young Russian men fled the country to avoid having to fight. Ukrainian morale was sky-high and Russian motivation was in the toilet.
While the quality of the early Russian conscripts was clearly lacking, as early as November the Kremlin plugged more than tens of thousands of them into the gaping holes created by Ukraine’s autumn offensive, which helped stem the tide. By January Putin increased the offensive operations throughout the 1,000km front line to keep pressure on the UAF, with an emphasis on the twin cities of Soledar and Bakhmut. As opposed to the Russian army generally, Putin chose to give that fight to the PMC Wagner Group – and it was here that Ukraine made its first major mistake of 2023.
Double Disaster at Bakhmut for Ukraine and Russia
Bakhmut was a medium-sized town of about 70,000. It had some tactical significance for whoever possessed it, but by itself cannot be considered critical at even an operational level. Ukraine had held the town, but by early March, Wagner reached the eastern outskirts of the city. The military necessity for Ukraine at that time was to withdraw from Bakhmut to the next defended line to the west.
From this new position, Ukraine’s ability to defend would have been stronger and Russia’s task to attack the new Ukrainian lines more difficult because the Ukraine side would have had the high ground and open fields of fire through which Russia would have to advance, making any assault extremely difficult and costly in terms of men and equipment. But by staying in Bakhmut, the task for the Russians was much easier. Now, Russia could move to within literal meters of the Ukrainian positions within Bakhmut without being seen. The Bakhmut defenders were at a disadvantage from that point forward.
However, Zelensky chose to press the fight anyway. For months, senior U.S. leaders warned the Ukrainian president the battle was unwinnable and to move to other defensive positions. Not only did he refuse to withdraw to a superior fighting position, he ordered his men not to give up so much as a single building, forcing them to fight to the death. Month after month, Zelensky sent brigade after brigade to reinforce Bakhmut in an effort to reverse the tide.
Not only was it painfully obvious that military fundamentals made clear there was little rational hope of stopping Wagner’s drive to capture Bakhmut, but many of those brigades Zelensky sent in futile aid to help Bakhmut were also urgently needed in the upcoming spring and summer offensive. Two days after Bakhmut’s fall, Zelensky was still defiant, claiming the city had not fallen. In 2022, Zelensky’s tenacity and unwillingness to compromise resulted in blunting Russia’s invasion and then inflicting two major operational defeats.
But those successes bred hubris that in May 2023 led him to make very costly mistakes with strategic implications: not only did Ukraine spend irreplaceable resources on defending a strategically inconsequential city, but they also lost critically important brigades for their long-shot offensive that was to come. Unfortunately, once the offensive was launched in June, the mistakes continued.
Inadequate and Improper Training Paved the Way to Failure
Over many months prior to the offensive, many Western publications hailed the “advanced training” the Ukrainian Armed Forces were getting from a number of NATO countries. Concurrently, a number of Ukrainian brigades were also outfitted with modern NATO combat vehicles such as the Challenger and Leopard tanks, U.S. artillery systems, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and Strykers. The combination of NATO technology with NATO training was expected to produce a quality offensive capacity that would penetrate Russian defenses and drive a wedge to the Azov coast, splitting the occupying forces in half.
Foreign Affairs, on the day the offensive started, published an analysis titled “Ukraine’s Hidden Advantage: How European Trainers Have Transformed Kyiv’s Army and Changed the War.” And yet as has been painfully observed now after almost three months of the operation, European and NATO training did not transform the UAF. As I argued months before the offensive began, it was nearly impossible for Ukraine to transform itself in a matter of weeks or a few months of training and a hodge-podge of NATO gear. The reasons are fundamental – and are no reflection on the Ukrainian troops, as American soldiers are equally constrained by these fundamentals.
In order to produce an effective field force capable of employing combined arms operations to defeat a major power that has prepared a multi-belt defensive system, you must first have a sizable number of fully manned combat brigades. The battalions and companies of each brigade must be staffed with platoon leaders and sergeants, company commanders, First Sergeants, Sergeants Major, and battalion commanders and operations officers with experience in conducting such operations. These leaders need experience of two to five years at the platoon level, 5 to 7 years at the company, and 15-20 years at the battalion and brigade levels.
Once the units are properly filled with educated and trained leaders, the next requirement is to develop proficiency in the individual soldier to do his skill (tank driver, Bradley gunner, infantry squad member, etc), then train crews to operate armored fighting platforms, then platoons to fight together, then the companies fight together, then battalions together at the brigade, and finally brigades and divisions in the theater army. All of this individual and collective training has to be done to produce a successful, coordinated combined arms operation. Ukraine had none of those prerequisites. It should have been no surprise, therefore, that the much-anticipated offensive ran into a brick wall from the outset.
Tactical Performance in the 2023 Ukraine Summer Offensive
I have previously covered in depth the detailed performance of the Ukrainian army in its offensive but will discuss here the key mistakes that were responsible for their lack of success. The first problem was the Ukrainian military and political leadership ordering the offensive to begin at all. Nearly a month after the start of the operation, Ukrainian commanding general Valery Zaluzhny argued in a Washington Post interview that “it ****** me off” when he hears complaints about the lack of progress.
Yet in the same interview acknowledge that “without being fully supplied (for the offensive), these plans are not feasible at all.” Key among his complaints was the absence of air superiority. NATO, he said, would never launch an offensive operation without air superiority. And he is right. But Zaluzhny had even more fundamentals against him.
Ukraine also suffers from a chronic lack of air defense capacity, inadequate numbers of howitzers and artillery shells, insufficient electronic warfare systems, a dearth of missiles, and perhaps most crucial of all, barely 25 percent of the de-mining capacity needed. Thus, when Ukraine launched its offensive across a broad front on June 5th, it should have surprised no one in Kyiv, Washington, or Brussels that they ran into a Russian buzzsaw.
Russia’s multi-belt defensive system relies heavily on mines to slow or channel Ukrainian troops into kill zones where Russian direct fire and artillery systems have pre-sited guns waiting. The first two weeks saw virtually every armored assault fail, gaining minuscule territory and none of operations value. The New York Times and other outlets claimed the UAF lost a staggering fifth of its entire offensive fleet in the first two weeks. It couldn’t have been any other way.
If Russia has air superiority, strong air defense, an advantage in artillery shells, robust electronic warfare systems – to degrade Ukrainian communications and disable large numbers of UAF drones and missiles – and had six to nine months to prepare elaborate defensive works, it should have been clear beyond question that to send a partially armored force, partially trained, with limited experience conducting large-scale offensive operations, was to send large numbers of their men to certain death.
Since the first few bloody weeks, the Ukrainian side changed tactics to minimize armored vehicles and use of more infantry-centric actions. The UAF have, now in the third month, made halting progress in the Zaporezhia front – taking Staromaiorske, most of Urozhaine, and most of Robotyna – but have lost some ground in the north in the Kupyansk area. But they have lost tens of thousands of men to scratch out those few kilometers. The UAF doesn’t have enough troops or equipment to continue this creeping pace. They will likely run out of men long before they reach even their intermediate objectives.
The cold, hard truth in the war between Russia and Ukraine today is that Ukraine’s last-gasp offensive has failed, and no amount of spin will change the outcome. The UAF failed for entirely predictable reasons, based on enduring combat fundamentals that are not subject to optimism, wishful thinking, or spin. The question, however, is what should the United States do now.
The policy employed by Washington from the beginning of the war has been supporting Ukraine “for as long as it takes.” Whether that was ever a good idea or bad, I’ll leave to debate another time. What is important here is that the policy did not produce an outcome beneficial to either Kyiv or Washington and now must evolve to acknowledge new realities.
No one can claim the United States didn’t give Ukraine every chance to find out if it could succeed on the battlefield, as we provided literally thousands of armored vehicles, millions of shells, missiles, and bombs, and training and intelligence support – along with scores of billions in other aid. But that help did not produce a Ukrainian victory and it is now time to set new policies in light of current realities. The last part of this series will explore what Washington can do now that can mitigate the failures and produce the best outcome possible for the United States and Ukraine.
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.” Davis is also a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor.