The fog of war Military analyst Rob Lee on Ukraine’s push to liberate Kherson and Russia’s manpower problem
Ukraine’s long-awaited counteroffensive to recover territories in the southern Kherson region is now underway, but the situation at the front remains under wraps. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry has barred journalists from reporting in front-line areas and has urged the press “not to question the actions of the command and not to serve as additional tools in the hands of Russian propaganda.” (Russian state media claimed that the counteroffensive had failed before it had even begun.) In this context, one of the only ways to assess the situation on the ground is to sift through and verify bits and pieces of open-source information. Military analyst Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), has been meticulously gathering operational data ever since Russia began its full-scale invasion in February. Meduza sat down with Rob Lee to talk about Ukraine’s push to liberate the Kherson region from Russian occupation.
Is the Ukrainian army ready for a full-scale offensive right now?
It’s a little hard to get a lot of information with the Ukrainian military. I think because there are few crossing points across the [Dnipro] River, they’re in a good position to do an offensive in Kherson, because it's tougher for the Russian military to resupply. They've set up some ferries and pontoon bridges, but those can be targeted. And they can't move across as many supplies and artillery rounds, and things of that nature.
So Kherson is a good place to do an offensive for that reason, but do they [Ukrainian forces] have enough numbers to do a very fast offensive? It’s really hard to tell. It's not clear if they have the kind of equipment like tanks, armored vehicles. It's not clear how many professional units they have. A lot of the units [Ukraine has] now are reservists or volunteers. They're not as well trained, and for offensive operations, you really want well trained units that can do things because it’s more difficult.
It's also not clear if they have enough forces to conduct an offensive in Kherson to overwhelm Russian forces. I think they're going to have some success. Will they be able to take back all of Kherson? I don't know. But I think they will be able to at least take back some towns and have some success.
What might be a realistic goal for this new Ukrainian offensive? Is freeing the whole right bank of the Dnipro with one strike realistic? Or should we expect long struggles and small offensives from one village to another village?
I think it's going to be slower. Unlike the beginning of the war, where Ukraine had a lot of well trained units with new equipment, every unit is not full of soldiers. They have to have reservists, a lot of the equipment isn’t in top condition — that makes it more difficult to do a very fast offensive. So it's more likely we'll see Ukraine do a kind of grinding offensive where they take back towns, but it takes time — [and] it might require a lot of artillery.
What they [the Ukrainian side] can achieve depends on the timeline we're talking about. In the short term, I don't think we’re going to see Russian forces pushed across the Dnipro right away or anything along those lines. But if we're talking about months down the line, a lot of this comes down to how sustainable is the war for Russia militarily? Do they have enough volunteers? Can they raise enough forces going forward to keep supplying units to defend these areas?
There’s an assumption that the Ukrainian command is trying to force the Russians to pull back their troops from the right bank of the Dnipro River just by severing their supply lines. Do you agree?
I think Ukraine wants to make the position of Russian forces west of the Dnipro unsustainable. Basically what they're trying to do is make it more costly for Russia to try and hold Kherson. They target the bridges, they try to target the ferries; they’re trying to target anything within HIMARS range, any kind of stationary targets of command and control, ammunition depots. That makes it more difficult to resupply the Russian units fighting in Kherson.
Now that they’re doing something of an offensive and they’re increasing, potentially, the amount of artillery that Ukraine is using, that will put Russian forces in a tougher position, because they might be outgunned. Which is the opposite of what happened in the Donbas. So we're in a position now where, in Kherson, Ukraine probably has an advantage in terms of artillery. They can probably fire more rounds every day than Russia can and they have better, more accurate, long-range fires than Russia has. And they could probably use armor more effectively there than Russia can, because it’s harder for them to move things.
I think there are a couple of different strategies that Ukraine could be pursuing. One is that they're trying to take back terrain and that's the objective in the near future. Take back Kherson, make some kind of territorial gains. The other one is to fight this as an attritional war, where every day you try to make it more costly and unsustainable for Russia. Doing these attacks on Crimea and attacks elsewhere behind the front lines [could be part of this strategy]. It makes it more difficult for Russia to defend everywhere. We’re also seeing what looks like partisan efforts to target officials in Russian-occupied areas. That also makes it more difficult for Russia to stay in this war, because not only do they have to defend the front line, but they have to administer what's behind it.
If the Ukrainians reach the bank of the Dnipro, I think it's safe to say that the situation would resemble more of a stalemate than anything else. What are the stakes for Ukraine in such an operation?
If [the Ukrainians] take back the Dnipro, one, it’s an achievement and two, maybe it helps gain momentum [and] maintain Western support, if you can show that Ukraine is succeeding. Obviously morale will be a big part of that. Both helping out Ukrainian morale and hurting Russian morale.
You’re right that it will be more defensible if they reach the river. It will be hard for Ukraine to push past and do an offensive there. But even if they reach the river, Ukraine can keep doing attacks behind Russian lines.
Why start with Kherson instead of the Donbas region or Zaporizhzhia, where, if they were successful, they could have reached the borders of Crimea?
First off, it’s not fully clear what we’re seeing in Kherson yet — maybe it’s just Kherson, maybe they’re doing things elsewhere. I think it’ll probably be easier to take back Kherson than it would be to take back those other areas. Kherson is the easiest place to take terrain and so if things are going to become more attritional, and there will be more of a stalemate in the future, maybe it makes sense to take that terrain now.
Some experts from Russia believe that by having started this offensive, the Ukrainian army has lost the protection of its air defense (that “they’ve come out from under their umbrella,” so to speak) and that this will allow Russian aviation to strike the Ukrainians at full strength. Do you think this is true?
I'm not sure if that's true. Ukraine has different types of air defenses on the ground. Some are long-range systems, medium- or short-range systems. So as the Ukrainians move forward, it’s very likely that the short-range system will come with them.
Both the Ukrainians and the Russians showed an inability to conduct offensive operations in recent months. Why do you think this is happening? It would seem that a low density of forces on the battlefield and relatively simple topography creates an opportunity for maneuver warfare, but we don’t see that. Are there any reasons for that?
I think it's attrition. Both sides have taken heavy casualties, the professional units have taken heavy casualties. The war is increasingly being fought with reservist units or volunteer units. You can train someone to defend pretty quickly, but it takes more time to train a unit to do offensive operations.
What is known about the reserves created by the Ukrainian command? Is it true that most of the units created after the start of the war haven’t even gone into battle yet?
I honestly don’t know. There have been media reports saying that reserve units have been deployed to different [front] lines, they’ve fought in the Donbas or fought elsewhere. But I don’t know the scope or other details.
Can we estimate how many new units Ukraine will need for a more decisive offensive?
It depends on the Russian forces and it’s not fully clear what the two sides have. But ideally, if you’re doing an offensive, you want a numerical advantage. You want to have more forces and you want to have an advantage in artillery and other kinds of capabilities.
What about the reserves created by the Russian command? Is there any real confirmation that this new 3rd Army Corps, created in Mulino from volunteers, really exists? And if it does exist, how many troops are there?
It does exist. It appears it's already being deployed to Ukraine. It’s not clear if it’s in Ukraine now, but it appears it started to be moved from Nizhny Novgorod a week or so ago, and we’re seeing equipment move through Rostov and elsewhere.
In terms of the numbers, it seems that the battalions they were raising in the different regions weren’t able to get as many volunteers as they wanted to. So likely we’re seeing a lot of battalions that are smaller than they wanted them to be. I don’t know the total figure for the size of the corps, but what’s interesting is that we’ve seen some pretty new equipment for it. We’ve seen T-80BVM tanks, which are some of Russia’s most modern tanks; we’ve seen AK-12s, a newer rifle; BMP-3s, which are a better infantry fighting vehicle. So we’re seeing a lot of pretty good equipment for this corps, considering what Russian forces in Ukraine are fighting with.
But the [issue] is, they're recruiting volunteers. Some of these volunteers are 50 years old or older. They only did three weeks or a month of training — that's not a lot of training. You can't really become that proficient that quickly and it takes time to master new, very modern equipment.
There are [also] big questions about leadership. All the good Russian officers are probably fighting in Ukraine or refuse to fight. Who is leading these units? It’s probably not very high quality [leadership], so there’s going to be a lot of issues there I think.
By your estimation, what’s the maximum number of volunteers Russia could recruit on short-term contracts? Will it be enough to fight a protracted war?
It’ll probably be the size of a division, but it’s hard to give a very good estimate. The problem is that many of these guys are signing [three-month or] six-month contracts. So if they discover that the war is not what they thought it would be, if it’s not being managed well — [and] fighting in winter is worse than during the summertime — when their contracts end in November, December, January, or February, will they decide to keep fighting? Or will they decide to return home? I think a lot of them will say I’ve fought, I’ve done my part, and I’m not going to do this again.
I think there’s a real risk that the way Russia is raising volunteer units may not be sustainable. The new army corps is an interesting thing. This was a more deliberate attempt at creating units. They actually did some training and gave them some [good] equipment. But what happens after this? Will they be able to do this again? I think it will be difficult in 2023 for Russia to keep fighting the way it’s been fighting because manpower will become a bigger issue.
Why did the Russian military command decide to create these new companies instead of restoring the combat capability of formations created before the war?
This was strange to me as well. One thing that’s notable is that there are cases where volunteer battalions are being raised to serve with a brigade or regiment already fighting in Ukraine. For example, there’s the “Tigr” Battalion, which is volunteers from Vladivostok who deployed to Ukraine and they’re serving as part of the 155th Naval Infantry Brigade (which is based in Vladivostok). That makes more sense to me, because you have brigade leadership; you have the command and control structure to bring in a new battalion and maintain that battalion.
The creation of this army corps [from scratch] is bizarre. Why not deploy battalions to existing units, [where] you’ve got existing regiments and brigades to lead them? Maybe they’ll ultimately do that, I’m not sure. But making this corps seems to signal that they want to use this organization as an organic unit. That, again, is very bizarre to me, but it might indicate that the Russian leadership is not content with the leadership of other units that are currently fighting in Ukraine.
Why do you think the Kremlin still hasn’t declared mobilization in one form or another?
I think the Kremlin thinks that as long as they can fight this war with only volunteers, the political blowback at home will be reduced. And I think they’re right: there were obviously protests at the beginning [of the war], but there’s not really significant domestic backlash right now, because if people don’t want to fight, they don’t have to fight. So volunteer mobilization makes sense.
At the same time, they don’t have [enough] manpower. The war started with this overly ambitious goal: to do regime change, to occupy a lot of the Ukraine. They never had the forces necessary for that mission. It was always too ambitious of a goal to achieve. And they’re in a situation where even defending what they have now, the parts of Ukraine that they’ve taken, requires a large force to keep fighting there. This will be a problem for them.
Which side — the Ukrainians or the Russians — can grow its forces faster in the present circumstances?
I think the Ukrainians. They mobilize a lot of people, more than the Russians [have been able to recruit through “covert mobilization”]. The question is, how well trained are a lot of those mobilized people and how well equipped are they? I don’t know.
On the Russian side, they were able to recruit enough people in the spring to maintain momentum in their offensive. Obviously, the offensive was costly, there were a lot of casualties. And going forward I’m not sure how well they can do.
Does the same go for weapons?
Russia has a lot of stockpiled equipment. But they’re pulling out old, [Soviet] T-62 tanks. Which [begs] the question of how many T-72 [tanks] do they have in storage that are in good shape if they’re pulling out T-62s?
I think they have enough to, to equip a lot of these units, these volunteer battalions. It appears they're getting enough equipment. But there will probably be equipment shortfalls. The one issue is that they don't have that many precision-guided munitions and they fire a lot of them. I don't know what the production rate is, but it's probably not that fast. This means the big advantage Russia had at the beginning of the war, where it had Kalibr cruise missiles, air-launched cruise missiles, all of these systems that could strike targets deep in Ukraine (when Ukraine couldn't do that) — they used a lot of them. Now, they do still launch Kalibrs and other missiles every once in a while, but not nearly as often as they were early on in the war.
Considering everything you’ve just said, is there a possibility for a radical shift in the balance of power?
Probably not in the near future. I think Ukraine will make some gains in Kherson; it’s possible Russia will make some gains in the Donbas, although they’re struggling at the moment. But I don’t think we’re going to see a huge breakthrough. I don’t think we’re going to see a massive offensive from either side. I think it’s going to be more attritional and so that means it will take time.