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In Ukraine, Russia is Beginning to Compound Advantages

By stretching Ukrainian forces along a wide front, Russia is overcoming the limitations of its undertrained army.

Unrelenting bombardment: a Russian tank fires at Ukrainian troops from a position near the border in the Belgorod region

Russia has now started the early phases of its anticipated summer offensive with renewed attacks on Kharkiv. Over the past few days, Russian troops crossed the Ukrainian border, occupying a number of villages. Ukraine has spent several months fortifying Kharkiv, but storming the city is not how Russia intends to fight. The Russian target this summer is the Ukrainian army, and against this target it has started to compound its advantages.

The Long Front

The Russian forces attacking Ukraine have now expanded to 510,000 troops. This means that Russia has established significant numerical superiority over the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU). Heavy losses among Russia’s officer corps and more capable units earlier in the war have reduced its capacity to conduct large-scale offensive ground manoeuvre. The Russians have been limited to conducting platoon and company attacks, rather than brigade or divisional operations, meaning that they rarely decisively overmatch Ukrainian defenders at any one location. With such overall numerical superiority, however, Russia has begun to turn this limitation to its advantage.

The front in Ukraine spans almost 1,200 km. Along Ukraine’s northern border, near Chernihiv, Russian sabotage groups continually probe Ukrainian positions. A large group of forces near Belgorod, meanwhile, has long threatened to push towards Sumy or Kharkiv, and has made its presence felt with fire. The main focus of Russian efforts has been in Donbas, but in the south Russian troops have also been skirmishing along the Zaporizhzhia front and have even conducted amphibious raids across the Dnipro. They have met with little success, but the breadth of their attacks has fixed Ukrainian troops on the line of contact and forced the AFU to spread out its artillery, expending munitions to break up successive Russian attacks. This dynamic has prevailed for the last four months.

Having stretched the Ukrainians out, the contours of the Russian summer offensive are easy to discern. First, there will be the push against Kharkiv. Ukraine must commit troops to defend its second largest city, and given the size of the Russian group of forces in the area, this will draw in reserves of critical materiel, from air defences to artillery. Second, Russia will apply pressure on the other end of the line, initially threatening to reverse Ukraine’s gains from its 2023 offensive, and secondly putting at risk the city of Zaporizhzhia. Ukraine should be able to blunt this attack, but this will require the commitment of reserve units.

The persistence of Russia’s long-range strike campaign means that not only is the front being stretched laterally, but it is also being extended in its depth

Once Ukraine commits its reserves in these directions, the main effort will see the expansion of the Russian push in Donbas. This axis is already making slow but steady progress. The objective is clear: to cut Ukrainian supply lines connecting Kostiantynivka and Kramatorsk. The Russians hope that once Ukraine loses these roads that give the AFU localised interior lines, they will be able to push north and south, stranding Ukrainian artillery on one axis or the other. Russia’s aim is not to achieve a grand breakthrough, but rather to convince Ukraine that it can keep up an inexorable advance, kilometre by kilometre, along the front.

Death from Above

Compounding the challenge for the Ukrainian military is the deterioration of its air defences. The depletion of Ukrainian tactical surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems has already allowed the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) to make their presence felt, delivering hundreds of UMPK glide bombs against Ukrainian positions each month. As the VKS can push closer in against a diminished air threat, the accuracy and therefore the lethality of these strikes will increase. Able to strike behind Ukrainian lines, the Russians are using them to bombard and thereby depopulate Ukrainian towns. This fixes the AFU forwards, defending positions for as long as possible even as the tactical situation deteriorates.

The diminishing Ukrainian SAM coverage has had another pernicious consequence, however. Prior to the full-scale invasion, Russian forces had long envisaged a reconnaissance strike complex allowing their troops to accurately detect and destroy targets behind the front lines. For much of the war so far, this aspiration has been curtailed by robust Ukrainian air defences. Now, however, Ukraine is having to save its SAMs to deter Russian jets. The result is that Orlan-10 UAVs are now roaming far and wide over the front lines. They are routinely flying over both Kharkiv and Zapporizhzhia.

The growing density of Russian UAVs deep over Ukrainian positions is enabling Russia to set up dynamic strikes with operational tactical missile complexes like the 9M723 quasi-ballistic missile, or with long-range multiple launch rocket systems like the Tornado-S. In recent days Russia managed to strike a Ukrainian Buk air defence system and catch two Ukrainian helicopters on the ground while they refuelled. There have been other notable strikes of a kind that Russia has long aspired to but rarely successfully executed.

As SAM coverage shrinks, the Ukrainian military will face a very hard trade-off. It can continue to group air defences around critical national infrastructure such as power stations, or it can move them forwards to protect the front. The persistence of Russia’s long-range strike campaign means that not only is the front being stretched laterally, but it is also being extended in its depth.

Stabilising the Front

The quicker that both SAMs and artillery ammunition reach Ukraine, the more slowly the AFU will be forced to cede ground. In the immediate fight, there is a direct correlation between the speed of supply from Ukraine’s international partners of artillery ammunition and air defence interceptors and the speed of deterioration at the front. So long as the AFU lacks sufficient means to blunt Russian attacks along its front, Russia will be able to force Ukraine to commit reserves and then exploit the axes left with insufficient troops and equipment. In other words, so long as Ukraine lacks materiel, Russia will begin to compound its advantages.

if Ukraine’s allies engage now to replenish Ukrainian munitions stockpiles, help to establish a robust training pipeline, and make the necessary industrial investments, then Russia’s summer offensive can be blunted

In the medium term, however, turning the present dynamic around is up to Ukraine and cannot be resolved by its international partners. Unless the AFU expands in size then it will continue to be overstretched. The AFU must not only replace losses in its existing units, but also raise enough units to manage their rotation on and off the line. This allows troops to be trained as well as the recovery of reserves. Mobilising personnel for these new units and ensuring that there is a training pipeline for them is a task that only the AFU can initiate.

There is, nonetheless, an area where the support of Ukraine’s partners is critical. If Ukrainian forces lack enough key enablers – artillery, air defences, electronic warfare complexes, and engineering vehicles - then the brigades that own the limited assets available will be fixed on the front. They cannot rotate away with their equipment. Battalions beneath the brigades may be moved on and off the line, but formations will be fixed and therefore unable to train or be dynamically redeployed. Ensuring, therefore, that the AFU can equip and train brigade staffs with the enablers necessary to fight as a brigade means that additionally mobilised personnel can be put to best use. This is an area where commitment from Ukraine’s partners will be crucial.

The outlook in Ukraine is bleak. However, if Ukraine’s allies engage now to replenish Ukrainian munitions stockpiles, help to establish a robust training pipeline, and make the industrial investments to sustain the effort, then Russia’s summer offensive can be blunted, and Ukraine will receive the breathing space it needs to regain the initiative.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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