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A Ukrainian sergeant speaks on the radio a few kilometers from the frontline village of Andriivka in the Donetsk region. September 16, 2023.

‘Not one Western general would fight without air superiority’ Evaluating The Washington Post’s analysis of Ukraine’s 2023 offensive

Source: Meduza
A Ukrainian sergeant speaks on the radio a few kilometers from the frontline village of Andriivka in the Donetsk region. September 16, 2023.
A Ukrainian sergeant speaks on the radio a few kilometers from the frontline village of Andriivka in the Donetsk region. September 16, 2023.
Mstyslav Chernov / AP / Scanpix / LETA

In early December 2023, The Washington Post published a major investigation about the preparation that went into Ukraine’s counteroffensive and how it unfolded throughout the summer of 2023. According to The Washington Post, disagreements between Ukraine and the U.S., delays due to arms shortages, and Russia’s willingness to sacrifice more soldiers than expected were to blame for slow military progress on the battlefield. In an episode of Meduza’s Russian-language podcast “What Happened,” military analyst Dmitry Kuznets joined the show’s host Vladislav Gorin to analyze The Washington Post’s investigation and discuss how Ukraine’s offensive played out last year. Meduza is summarizing their conversation in English.

The start of the offensive

Ukraine’s counteroffensive didn’t start off according to plan — if it had, Ukraine would have launched a concentrated strike in the spring of 2023. The Ukrainian army wasn’t at an ideal state of preparedness, but it was ready, according to The Washington Post. So, couldn’t they have just gone ahead and attacked then? This wasn’t possible, explains Dmitry Kuznets. Given what we know from the Pentagon leak in April, he says, the Ukrainian army was still waiting on ammo and equipment. What’s more, while we don’t know the Russian army’s preparedness level at that point in time, we do know that the Ukrainian army had already been losing equipment in minefields to artillery fire during fighting near Robotyne back in March.

According to the leaked documents, Kuznets says, ammo arrived in sufficient amounts in late April. This means it wasn’t until May that there was some level of preparedness for a Ukrainian offensive. But The Washington Post’s Ukrainian sources said there was still a delay since, at that point, Ukraine’s most combat-ready and experienced troops were caught up fighting Wagner Group in the battle for Bakhmut, where they suffered heavy losses. Ukraine’s newer units, predominantly consisting of mobilized soldiers who had never been to war, had far less experience. This begs the question, says Kuznets, should Ukraine’s Armed Forces (AFU) have continued fighting for Bakhmut, or would they have benefited from concentrating their forces to the South?

A Ukrainian soldier carries an empty cluster cartridge from a MLRS BM-27 Uragan missile while walking along a bridge that was destroyed near the city of Bakhmut. March 8, 2023.
Sergey Sestak / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Forces spread thin

While The Washington Post’s analysis said the West fulfilled all its promises to Ukraine, they also blamed the Ukrainian command for insisting that troops shouldn’t be concentrated and instead moved in several different directions (Melitopol, Bakhmut, and Zaporizhzhia). Agreeing with AFU Commander-in-Chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi, Kuznets underscored the difficulty of concentrating and coordinating a large number of troops while being targeted by Russian artillery and drone strikes. “There are no realistic arguments in favor of continuing these battles for Bakhmut under unfavorable geographic and other military conditions,” explained Kuznets. “It was probably a political decision — that the Bakhmut fortress should stand.”

Besides Bakhmut, troops were mostly sent into just one other direction, says Kuznets: to southern Ukraine (from Velyka Novosilka in the direction of Melitopol and Berdiansk and from Orikhiv in Zaporizhzhia to Tokmak and Melitopol):

Maybe this wasn’t the best form for the operation, but there was a logic to it. Carry out strikes far away from Russia’s main attack. Now, of course, it’s easy to say that it would’ve been better to focus on Orikhiv and stick to a narrower section of the front.

And that’s what ended up happening. Kuznets says significant forces were deployed near Orikhiv. When the operation’s form was revised, the reserves were brought into battle, which was originally intended to expand a breakthrough — though this breakthrough never materialized. They then moved the Russian troops and took the village of Robotyne (on the way from Orikhiv to Tokmak), though they soon realized that it was impossible to act on the narrow part of the front because of Russian artillery attacks. In the following months, as Ukrainian troops tried to move toward Tokmak, it was a struggle to expand control on the flanks. These attempts were ultimately unsuccessful as Russian reserves were redeployed to repel that offensive.

“It makes sense to discuss if this offensive on Bakhmut was necessary at the same time as an offensive to the south,” explains Kuznets. “But there’s no reason to discuss whether there’s a formula for concentrating troops under impossible conditions.”

Meduza’s updated combat map

New year, same pattern Ukraine is holding its own as Russia continues pushing along the entire front — but it desperately needs ammo

Meduza’s updated combat map

New year, same pattern Ukraine is holding its own as Russia continues pushing along the entire front — but it desperately needs ammo

From large concentration of forces to smaller-scale fighting

The Washington Post argues that Zaluzhnyi, perhaps under pressure from the West, did concentrate the attack, but that it actually benefited Russia as it ran through minefields which were targeted by artillery fire. Zaluzhnyi also faced blame for changing tactics, attacking less intensely in small groups. In the best case scenario, explains Kuznets, a company or battalion can be coordinated, but any larger concentration remains impossible when under artillery and drone fire.

While maneuverability is key for the AFU to achieve the command advantage, they never had the chance to switch to this approach, since they were never able to break through the front and prevent the arrival of Russian reserves — which requires air superiority to carry out.

In the summer, until the arrival of the Russian reserves, there was an equal balance of firepower and a slight advantage for Ukraine in the direction of the main strike. But even with that slight firepower advantage, the AFU weren’t able to achieve a breakthrough.

In October, Russia was carrying out large armored strikes in Avdiivka, sustaining major losses and achieving few successes. Though the situation in Avdiivka began optimistically with large masses of troops, as we see with every offensive, it ended up breaking into smaller groups, notes Kuznets. This isn’t because Zaluzhnyi preferred this approach or because the Russian command wanted to fight with small infantry units, Kuznets explains, but because the logic of warfare dictates such a transition.

A soldier in the frontline city of Avdiivka after shelling. October 17, 2023.
Ozge Elif Kizil / Anadolu / Getty Images

Maneuver operation without air superiority

One article from a U.S. outlet said the Ukrainian army was in the right condition to carry out a maneuver operation involving all branches of the military, but without airpower — which was criticized by most Western military experts. “We’ve received proof that […] without air superiority — which Ukraine requires to carry out strikes to greater depth — maneuver operations remain impossible,” says Kuznets. “This was all already speculated, but now we see proof of it.”

If the West, together with Ukraine, plans to wait out an impending Russian offensive (which has now begun, says Kuznets, on all fronts from Russia’s border with the Kharkiv region down to Dnipro) then they need to take into account that this is not realistic without aviation. “That’s what we need to talk about,” explains Kuznets. “Not one Western general would have gone to fight without air superiority.”

As for the Russian side, it isn’t capable of identifying targets deep in the AFU’s rear in order to cut off the supply of troops and reserve transfers. This doesn’t just apply to its air defense system but with the number of planes and how they are used. “The numbers advantage is there for Russia, but for air superiority it is not enough,” explains Kuznets. “That’s where the problems come from.”

Life on the front lines

Between the enemy and a pit One Russian soldier talks about life on the front lines in Ukraine

Life on the front lines

Between the enemy and a pit One Russian soldier talks about life on the front lines in Ukraine

Future course of the war

If Ukraine can’t gain air superiority and conduct large-scale offensive operations, has the war reached a stalemate, like Zaluzhnyi told The Economist? Kuznets explains:

It seems that way, yes. The timing is hard to say; it depends on a lot of unknowns and variables. If we’re talking about the Ukrainian-Western coalition then, we don’t fully understand what’s happening from a political point of view.

In terms of the value of The Washington Post article, the very fact that it appeared is alarming. If the Washington Post’s sources are contributing to this article, which, as I said, I think is just a collection of justifications, it raises the question, what exactly are they justifying? It’s unlikely to be their actions during the spring-planned summer offensive. Maybe it’s more likely to be something happening in the future.

And in the case of Russia, Kuznets says we have already seen several instances of the Russian command and the Russian authorities miscalculating their resources. “There are also all sorts of bottlenecks, starting with the fact that the mobilized have been at the front for a year,” explains Kuznets. “That’s hardly good for their morale, fighting ability and so on.” The fact that they weren’t replaced by volunteers that were supposedly hired by the hundreds of thousands means it’s uncertain how many resources and how much ammo the Russian side possesses.

“There are a bunch of unknowns that don’t let us predict the future course of this war. All we see so far is that the sides, one by one, are approaching offensives that are supposed to decide the course of the war,” reflects Kuznets. “Well, it turns out that the last year hasn’t been so good for either side.”

Within the Western coalition, there may be a great deal of opposition to a new major offensive, which would undoubtedly require a huge amount of resources, though as of yet [December 5, 2023], there hasn’t been discussion of expanding production in the West. That, however, doesn’t signal that there will be a complete withdrawal of aid, explains Kuznets.

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Original podcast by Vladislav Gorin; analysis by Dmitry Kuznets. Adapted translation for Meduza in English by Sasha Slobodov

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