Geopolitics

636 Days and Counting – Which way the wind Blows now?
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 22 Nov , 2023

The Ukrainian counter offensive – mixed bag

Deeply immersed in the Israel-Hamas duel of death destruction and catastrophe that is increasingly showing the ominous signs of spilling over as a larger West Asia war, the erstwhile media blitzkrieg of 24×7 war coverage of the Ukraine war seems to have lost a little bit both on the decibels as well as on eyeballs. Not that the war has gone muted; in fact, far from it.

This brief work attempts to pull the reader’s attention to the battlefields of Ukraine and give a sense of what is happening there;636 days and counting.

THE COUNTEROFFENSIVE AND MORE

In the words of Gen ValeryZaluzhny Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, the counter offensive has reached a stalemate and any breakthrough in 2023 is unlikely.[1] What breakthrough? Following points are made to answer this poser[2]

  • It was in Jun 2023 that Ukraine launched themuch debated counteroffensive. It was to be launched earlier (Feb/March) but got delayed due to delay in weapon supplies from the West and the US.
  • As per open source, Ukraine committed some 12 Brigades each comprising of 5 to 6K personnel (three of these got trained in Ukraine and the balance nine in US). These were equipped as Assault Brigades, Mechanised Brigades, Marine Brigades and Airmobile Brigadesbesides territorial defence forces, and members of the volunteer Army.[3]
  • Besides a sizeable boots-on-ground, the main arsenal for the counteroffensive included the MIM 404 Patriot Ballistic Missile defence system, M142 high mobility rocket systems, Bradley and Stryker Infantry Fighting Vehicles, Challenger and Leopard  main battle tanks, Storm shadow long range air launched cruise missiles and more.
  • The artillery was also well represented in the weapon pack.These besides HIMARS (high mobility artillery rocket systems) included an array of multi-barrel rocket launchers (MBRLs) such as BM 21, M 270,  Adel Tree etc.[4]

  • The grand aim of the counter offensive was to launch a blitzkrieg type of operation piercing through multiple axes and attempting to reach Sea of Azov and capture Mariupol. This would have achieved two aims; 1. Cut the Russian defences in two halves torn across the middle and 2. Cut off the land bridge to Crimea. (see map above)
  • The two halves so sheared could be decimated in subsequent phases of operations. With Mariupol taken, Russian supply lines to Crimea could be strained. Gains in this direction could be further consolidated by capturing such areas to the North.
  • Pursuant to the above plan, the counteroffensive attempted to pierce the Russian defences along three thrust lines 1. The one in the South along Orikhiv –heading into Zeporizhzhia, 2. Somewhere in the middle along Velyka and heading towards the border between Zeporizhzhia—Donestsk and 3. In the North along Bakhmutheading towards east Donestsk.
  • Cut to Russia, and get back in the time to Oct/Nov 2022. After executing devastating strikes by artillery drones and missiles, mainly targeting the Ukraine’s power and energy grid, the Russian forces moved back over nearly frozen front lines to take up defensive positions. This presumably achieved two aims; 1. Leave much of the Ukrainian front lines in a dark and cold winter and 2. Dig in for a probable counter offensive. Many scholars have opined that Russians had an inkling of such a counter offensive way back in Nov 2022.
  • The ‘dig-in’ was solid as Russians actually built three lines of defences with a front line roughly across Kupiansk, Kreminna, Bakhmut, Robotyne. These were typical WWII defences complete with trenches, landmines, heavy weapons and boots-on-ground. Mention is made of the truck based ISDM Zemledeliye mobile mine laying system. This system based on an 8×8 KamAZ vehicle that can lay mines quickly over large areas. This system was reportedly used to fortify and strengthen the Russian defensive positions.[5] Russian defences featured miles of trenches filled with explosives and trip-wired booby-trapped mines that lay in wait for the attackers.
  • While the Kamov attack helicopters (AHs) and the Russian front-line strike aircrafts ( SUs, MiGs)  may have taken disproportionatecasualties in the early months of war ( Feb -Jun 2022) by sticking their neck out in the still contested Ukrainian skies where MANPADS ruled the Tactical Battle Area (TBA), the same was no more the case over their own defended areas. Here the Russian Fighter Jets (SU 35s , Mig 29s and more) , AHs ( KA52s, Mi24 and more) and Kamikaze Drones ( lancet, Shahed etc.) proved heavy on the Ukrainian Soviet era jets( SU 24M, SU 25, Mig 29, SU 27etc,) providing close support to the counter offensive[6]
  • Another new dimension started to play up in favour of the Russians.It was their electronic warfare (EW) equipment. It is well known that the Russians have a very strong EW muscle spanning the entire soft-kill spectrum. These mainly include radar jammers (IRS 257 Krashuka -4, frequency range -8.5 GHZ-10.6GHZ and 13.4-17.7 GHZ in X/Ku/S bandsandKrashuka 2 radar jammers, frequency range  3-3.7 GHZ  optimized  for drone incapacitation), VHF and UHF communication jammers (RB341V Leer-3 and R 93 4B), satellite communication jammers ( RH 330Zh Zhitel etc.), Long range HF communication Jammer ( Murmansk-BN),  Airborne fire control radar jammers (SPN 2,3,40, anti-drone jammers (Repellent 1) etc.[7]
  • In the early stages of these war (roughly Feb –Jul/Aug 2022) the above systems didn’t play upmuch in reducing the air threat punch or dissipating the drone kills by the likes of Bayractar TB2 or the Kamikaze Switchblade and Aerovidka drones. Experts have opined that the three main reasons for suboptimal performance were; 1. Theabove EW resources which were supposed to be centralized at the Brigade level were dissipated to Battalions operating on adjacent axes that were mutually interfering where full scale operation by all EW elements would have stymied own forces on parallel axes; 2. The resilience, redundancy and the ruggedness of the Ukrainian ground to air communications and 3.Overall paucity in the quantum of EW wquipment available at the frontline.
  • The situation changed completely as the EW resources could now be deployed incentralized nodes along the defended lines. These started to show effect in registering soft kills.
  • According to an open source report the Russian EW troops are technically competent. They have been effectively interfering with the GPS guided weapons such as HIMARS, SCALP-EG cruise missiles, Storm Shadow Cruise missiles, M982 155mm Excalibur artillery shells and drones.[8]
  • Talking of drones, right from early days of the war Ukraine selected this low-cost (mostly DIY) machines to play up in a big way to score disproportionate kills and thwart a full scale offensive by a 10:1 stronger adversary. The significant successes claimed by the likes ofBayractar TB 2 and switchblade drones over the advancing mechanized columns of the Russian military emboldened them to bet on this dimension of the air threat vehicles. Open sources reported about the creation of a ‘Drone Army’ spearheaded by no less that the Dy PM of Ukraine.[9] Going ahead, these little monsters claimed kills in the successful strikes on the Russian Black sea Fleet on 29th Oct 2022[10] and from Dec 2022 onwards, the frequency of drone strikes in the Russian mainland increased exponentially – ‘taking the war to the doorsteps of Kremlin’ ( Belgorod, Oryo, Moscow!) [11],[12]
  • Most of the later generation Ukrainian drones were the First Person View (FPV) drones. Thesemachines are guided all the way to their targets by remaining in the view of the controller[13].

The above activity and continued successes therefrom got a check in the counteroffensive phase on following two counts:-

    • Come Feb 2023, there was a substantial surge in Russian anti- drone efforts. Not only their EW systems were coming into their assigned form, but also, there were a large insertion of hand held anti-drone guns in the frontline These included the LPD-820 and LPD-801 anti-drone guns. These weapons were capable of detecting drones up to 1 km and covering a frequency range from 2.4GHZ to 5.8 GHZ. Another weapon was the PARS-S Stepashka anti drone gun having a range of a range of 1.5 km. These weapons started to take good number of hits on the Drone Army vehicles. That continued into the counteroffensive phase. One of the Ukrainian’s drone force commander is on record to have expressed his apprehension in the use of GPS guided drones which according to him were getting downed within minutes of being airborne. This was alsodue to the EW muscle of the Russians now exerting its form.

Lancet drone strike on advancing Ukranian tank  column

  • In an eye-for-an-eye response, Russian forces invested hugely into bringing on the battlefront a huge number of small and Kamikaze drones that struck armour and mechanized columns spearheading the counteroffensive, (a la Feb 2022 in reverse mode!). With the Russian range and depth of supplies and logistics far outstripping Ukraine’s, the early advantage of the Drone Army got somewhat stymied during the counteroffensive.[14]
  • It is interesting to see how the ‘Jun ‘23 scenario’kind of mirrored something like ‘Feb ‘22’. While in Feb, it were the unwieldy and long stretched out Russian thrust lines composed of hundreds of tanks and BMPs attempting a kind of blitzkrieg towards the Keiv/Kharkiv in multiple thrust lines thrown open at the mercy of stingers, javelins, Bayracters, HIMARS and more, while in Jun ‘23, it were Ukrainian mechanized thrust lines attempting to break open a well-fortified multi-layered defence lines. What was the result? The Ukrainian forces lost   awhopping 20% of all, their western equipment in first two weeks of the offensive.[15]
  • When the outer crust proved to be too hard to crack open Ukrainian forces resorted to small sized special forces operations in the rear of Russian defensive positions besides continuing relentless drone attacks on Russian supply lines.
  • As of Sep 2023, the counteroffensive managed to retake some 370sq km of territory wresting back less than 50% of all that the Russians had captured in all of 2023. These gains amounted to re-capturing some 14 villages mainly in the Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia region.[16]
  • The blood-soaked battle of Bakhmut which resulted in heavy casualties on both sides was largely spearheaded by the Wagnar Group mercenaries. This actually gave time to the Russians to dig deep across the chosen lines of defences.[17]
  • Russians are known to be ‘solid defenders’ whether it was ‘freezing out’ and ‘exhausting out’ Hitler’s 6th Army which on 02 Feb 1943 capitulated after five months of fighting and running out of food and ammunition in the ‘Battle of Stalingrad’[18], or standing firm against the Ukrainian counter offensive, not allowing them a cake-walk… the history seemed to be coming a full circle.

WHERE IT STANDS NOW? WHICH WAY IT IS POISED?

Here is briefcapture of various things as they stand today

  • The counter offensive continues to make gains albeit slowly and in small measures. These are backed with attacks by drones (mostly FPV), missiles and MBRLs on the supply lines, ammunition depots and rear of the Russian defences. That said, the Russian defences remain pretty un-cracked as of now and the grand aim of the counteroffensive to make a blitzkrieg to reach the Sea of Azov is not likely in any foreseeable future.
  • Even after taking a great amount beating in the initial phases of war, the Russian air power seems to be intact though the skies remain very much contested even now and neither side claims even a ‘favourable air situation’ leave aside air supremacy–the unrealised dream of President Putin on 24 Feb 2022.
  • This observation is corroborated with the type of air strikes being undertaken to thwart the counteroffensive thrustsby the Russian front line strike aircrafts (SU 34, SU 35S and SU 24) and AHs (Kamovs and Mi 28NM, Mi8NP2 and Mi8AMTSh-VN special operations helicopter). These machines are not only helping the ground forces to slow down and even blunt the speed of counteroffensive (case in point – failed armour thrust at Mala Tokmachka in Jun ‘23) but also, are providing air cover for Russian tactical withdrawals where forced by the war (case in point – covering the fleeing Russian troops in a surprise counter offensive on Kharkiv (Sep 2023).[19]
  • The Russian air power is acting as a fast-response artillery, with air threat vehicles popping up for small durations and hurling a volley of S8 (80mm) and S-13 (122mm) unguided rockets at the advancing mechanized targets. The AHs are seen to be firing the single/twin railed guided anti-tank missiles (305 LMUR). Some standoff weaponry has also been employed such as the 231Ib Izdeliye missile with a 130 lb warhead (very strong in its class) and a standoff range of 8.7 Km. The other weapons being used to take out armour and mechanized targets include 9M120 Atakaradio-controlled missile (range 3.7 km) and 9K121 Vikhr laser beam-riding missile ( range 6-7.5 km). Some Kamikaze drones (Lancet3), as well as, few ISTAR machines are also seen in operation (Orlan 10 etc.)
  • The mechanized columns in the counter offensive are facing the same twin issues as were faced by their adversaries during the early days of war. What are these?
    • The spearheading forces are getting out of the air defence cover of their medium and heavy air defence systems  (which are leap-frogging behind tactically (one fire unit always deployed) and throwing forward their air defence protection umbrella. The real problem is, that while the teeth of these weapons (radar-guided interceptor missiles) can reach long ranges, their associated fire control and missile guidance radars can only catch the low-flying attacking aircrafts and AHs once these come comparatively closer, by that time the air threat vehicles have already crossed their weapon release points, doing the damage.
    • While for Russia it was the case of the lack of tactical deployments and sub-optimal utilization of their short/very range air defenceweapons, for Ukraine it is the real shortage of the critical short range air defence weapons that can accompany the armour columns[20]. Such weapons have two signatures. Firstly theseare configured on wheels/tracks so that can keep pace with the tanks and mechanized elements and secondly these can carry out surveillance and fire on move thus providing mobile one-on-one air defence cover thus not letting any harm come in the way of advancing armour thrust lines.

Ukraine did receive MIM 104 Patriot missiles from US way back in Apr 2023, but these weapons do not fit the bill of mobile mechanized cover to advancing mechanized columnsspearheading the counteroffensive.

Russia took a severe beating from the air punch (mainly drones and missiles) in the initial days of war. Why? Two primary reasons; 1. Its air defence forces were typically short of tailor-made anti-drone arsenal and; 2. Surprisingly, its deadly air defence weapons not moving tactically in support of armourcollums but ‘packed up’ and moving as ‘convoy serials’ (sic). Air defence is critical to preservation of war effort and hence is a harbinger of victory. This truism has been realized at great costs by both the warring nations at different points in time.

SOME REFLECTIONS

Without going into the question  whether the term  ‘stalemate’   defines the current state of the counteroffensive or not[21], it the sense of the author that the current state can be best described by another term ,’mixed bag’  for that will mean the following:-

  • The counteroffensive has delivered successes and failures on both side of the fence. In that, for the Ukrainians, while the ‘dash to the Sea of Azov’has not happened, 370 sq km of territory constituting 14 settlementsin the general area of Zaporizhzhia and Donesk (and counting) is not less significant,[22]
  • The real gains for Ukraine actually came up in Crimea. Staring with its first drone strike on the Black Sea Fleet at Sevastapol on 29 Oct 2022 that managed to damage the minesweeper Ivan Golubets and probably four other Russian warships including the flagship Admiral Makarov, Ukrainian drones and missiles have achieved some significant successes in the Crimean region and in the Black Sea. Case in point is the attack on 22 Sep 2023, wherein, using the Storm Shadow cruise missiles, it managed to hit the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet. Storm Shadow is a low-observable air launched cruise missile, speed 0.95 Mach, range 550km, Franco-British 1994 design made now by MBDA and given to Ukraine by France in militaryaid. Another weapon used in this attack was a new type of a sea drone.
  • This new drone was actually an unmanned surface vessel (USV) a kind of drone boat with explosive (reported 1000 lbs) capable of achieving a catastrophic collision with their targets at sea. USVs are reported to have stealth feature and an under-water operation capability upto 20 m. Such drones (named Marichka) reportedly have a range of 1000 km (uncorroborated) [23]
  • Some open sources have reported that as the winter gets more and more severe, the Ukrainian push forward may be halted leading to a pull back to regroup and replenish to strike stronger.[24] 
  • As of this moment the counteroffensive grinds slow; defying the statement that it is ‘halted’ but more akin to a stage that is described by the word ‘stalemate’.
  • There have been marginal gains for Ukraine at places, heavy fighting in few important cities while Russian forces remain dug up and holding in their yet strong defensive positions. Some latest developments:- 
    • Ukraine has claimed that its forces have gained a foothold on the eastern side of the Dnipro River. This is the largest river in Ukraine that had till date separated the Ukrainian and Russian Forces ever since the latter withdrew from Kherson in the South.
    • Once a strong foothold gets established at Dnipro, Ukrainian forces will enable to transport their armour and air defence equipment across, which will bring them closer to attempting a breakthrough to Crimea. Obviously this claim is not acknowledged by Russia, who have stated that the enemy has been trapped in the villages on the Eastern bank of the river where heavy fighting ensues[25]
    • On the other hand Russian forces have been concentrating their effort in the eastern front in the area of Bakhmut and Donetsk. Bakhmut has seen some of the bloodiest duels but is now in Russian control for a few months. Fighting around this area continues as there are reports of Ukrainians making some gains in the villages of Kupyansk and Andriivka[26].

Though this vertical is not the agenda of this work but a close reading of the report titled US security Cooperation with Ukraine released by the US State Deptt on 03 Nov 2023 gives a detailed account of the range and depth of aid provided by US to Ukraine. This comprehensive package includes  air defence weapons, artillery firepower and CRAM systems, tanks and armoured personal carriers, aircrafts and unmanned aerial systems, anti armour and small arms, coastal defence systems, patrol boats, landmines, SATCOM equipment, EW equipment , imagery systems, CBR protective gear, medical supplies, field equipment, training support and more.[27] As of Sep 2023, this amounts to a staggering 76.8 Billion and counting(military 46.6 Bn+ Financial 26.4 Bn+ Humanitarian 3.9Bn.)[28]. Another 200 Mn has been promised in Oct 2023[29].

However it is not all hunky-dory as it may sound. Reports in US indicate waning of public support for assistance to Ukraine amid stresses on economy and high levels of Govt borrowings to keep the Govt running[30]. There are also reports of donor fatigue setting in many of the 45 countries currently supporting Ukraine. Gaza is also a driver. (not processed further due to space constraints).

That is where it is now. A slow grind is expected to churn the course as a cold and chilly winter tightens its grip.

Endnotes

[1] “2023 Ukrainian counteroffensive,” at ww.en.m.wikipedia.org. Accessed on 06 Nov 2023.

[2] “Explained: is Ukraine’s counteroffensive working?” at www.thehindu.com. Accessed n 12 Nov 2023.

[3] ibid

[4] Alongside modern western arm Ukraine uses custom built mini grads,” at www.reuters.com. Accessed on 14 Nov 2023.

[5] “ISDM Zemledeliyembile mine laying system,” at www.army recognition.com, Accessed on 16 Nov 2023.

[6] 2 ibid

[7]Khmeimim to Moscow- is there some pattern?” at www.vifindia.org. Accessed on 16 Nov 2023

[8] “Russia’s electronic   warriors  are switching to ‘much more subtle operationsaround the frontlines in Ukraine,” www.businessinsider.com. Accessed on 17 Nov 2023.

[9] Ukraine is building a n advanced rmy of drones..” at www.apnews.com Accessed on 17 Nov 2023.

[10]2022 Drone attack on Sevatopol naval Base,” at www.en.m.wikipedia.org. Accessed on 20 Sep 2022.

[11]“Russia says Ukraine fired drones in three regions,” at www.nytimes.vom.Accessed on 18 Nov 2023.

[12]“What do we know about drone attacks in Russia,” at www.bbc.com. Accessed on 18 Nov 2023.

[13] “Angry drones of Ukraine ..” at www,molfar.com. Accessed on 18 Nov 2023.

[14] “Some Ukraine drone pilots fear early advantage over Russia lost,” at www.reuters.com. Accessed on 18Nov 2023.

[15] 2 ibid

[16] 1 ibid

[17] “Fighting through hell..”at www.apnews.com. Accessed on 19 Nov 2023.

[18] “Battle of Stalingrad,” at www.en.m.wikipedia.org. Accessed on 19 Nov 2023.

[19] “Snart bombs, military defence and nationalsecurity,” at www.19fortyfive.com. Accessed on 19 Nov 2023.

[20] “Military briefing: Ukraine pleads for missiles as air defence stocks run low,” at www.ft.com. Accessed on 18 Nov 2023.

[21] “War with Russia has reached stalemate.<” at www.statecraft.co.in. Accessed on 19 Nov 2023.

[22] “2023 counteroffensive,” at www.en.m.wikipedia.org. Accessed on 19 Nov 2023.

[23] “Marichka: unveiling the potential of Ukraine’s underwater drone, at www.ukrainianworldcongress.org. Accessed on 20 Nov 2023.

[24] “Ukrainian counteroffensive is over..” at www.telegraph.co.uk . Accessed on 20 Nov 2023.

[25] “Ukraine in maps: tracking the war with Russia=” at www.bbc.com. Accessed on 20 Nov 2023.

[26] ibid

[27] “US Security Cooperation with Ukraine,” at www.state.gov. Accessed on 20 Nov 2023.

[28] “How much Aid has the US sent to Ukraine?” at www.sfr.org.Accessed on 20 Nov 2023.

[29] “Additional US military assistance for Ukraine,” at www.state.gov. Accessed on 20 Nov 2023.

[30] “American public support for assistance toUkraine has waned,” at www.global affairs.org. Accessed on 20 Nov 2023.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen (Dr) VK Saxena (Retd.)

former Director General Army Air Defence. Currently Distinguished Fellow VIF and Visiting Fellow CLAWS.

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