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In conversation with Peter Roberts as part of a RUSI podcast series, The Western Way of War, in December 2020, I claimed that ‘Manoeuvre was dead’. It was an unprepared provocation, issued in the course of a discussion, intended to underscore an important point, rather than a deeply considered thesis. Yet, the claim was serious. In the twentieth century, land forces saw manoeuvre as the key to tactical and operational success. Manoeuvre is an advance at scale to a position of advantage in the enemy’s rear or flank. It allows an attacking force to gain a position from which it can inflict insupportable damage on its enemy. Manoeuvre has recurrently proved decisive not only at the tactical but, perhaps more significantly, at the operational level.
In the urban battles of the twenty-first century, by contrast, the opportunity for genuine manoeuvre has evaporated. In these fights, although a small unit might employ oblique avenues of advance, it was very difficult for a large force to infiltrate into the enemy’s flank or rear. As Aleppo, Mosul and Marawi showed, once determined urban defenders had fortified themselves into key positions in a city, attacking forces had to breach, clear and seize each fortified position in turn – or suffer heavy casualties. The siege was back. In a recent RUSI journal article on urban siege warfare, Amos Fox used my phrase about the death of manoeuvre as the title of his piece.
On 29 August 2022, the Ukraine Army launched a counter-attack against Kherson. A week later came the major thrust, east of Kharkiv. Five brigades sliced through Russian lines, thinly held by de-moralised troops. Some Russians surrendered but most fled. In two days, Ukrainian forces reached the Oskil River and seized eastern Krupyansk. A few days later, Izyum itself fell as Russian troops from 1st Motorised Rifle Regiment of the 2nd Guards Motor Rifle Division abandoned the town en masse. Ukraine had seized back over 1000 square kilometres of territory – more than Russia had taken since the initial invasion in February and early March. Commentators were amazed by the speed of the advance, comparing it to the Israeli counter-attack across the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur War.
The Kharkiv counter-offensive has proved to be a turning point in the Ukraine War. It has disturbed Moscow which has responded by announcing mass mobilization, threatening nuclear retaliation, and instituting a series of referendum to create a political fait accompli on the ground.
The counter-offensive also raises a pertinent question in terms of land warfare. Might the Kharkiv counter-offensive demonstrate that manoeuvre actually remains as effective as ever in land warfare? In short, does the counter-offensive show that urban theorists like myself, or Amos Fox, are wrong? Whatever our claims, manoeuvre warfare, in fact, remains alive. The British Army should train for manoeuvre as they have for a century and more. The questions of whether manoeuvre is still possible on a contemporary battlefield and whether it is still an optimal operational concept are of profound relevance to current debates about British Army and, indeed, NATO land doctrine.
Against the bald claim that manoeuvre is dead, the Kharkiv counter-offensive plainly shows that there are possibilities for manoeuvre on the twenty-first century battlefield. Forces can still advance rapidly into the enemy’s flank and rear, generating shock. So, manoeuvre in the field is not completely dead.
Yet, saying that manoeuvre is sometimes possible today, is not the same as claiming that it should remain a guiding principle of land warfare. To understand the place of manoeuvre in contemporary warfare, it is necessary to consider the wider operational conditions which facilitated the Ukrainian counter-offensive.
These wider conditions suggest that manoeuvrists should be cautious.
Throughout the preceding seven months of the Ukraine War, manoeuvre had not been a prime factor. The Russian army tried to take Kyiv by a coup de main operation in February and March: it was an operational – even strategic – manoeuvre. They seized Hostomel Airport and tried to assault Kyiv from the north. The attack was repulsed; an aircraft carrying perhaps 200 paratroopers was destroyed in flight and the Russians suffered heavy losses in the battle north of the capital.
From that moment, the Russian Army was committed to the slow reduction of Ukrainian defences, centred on urban fortresses. Although its performance was typically very poor, the Russian Army was compelled to reduce each of these fortresses in turn. Attritional positional fights followed in Kharkiv, Mariupol and Severodonetsk. The Russians eventually learnt that the best way to attack Ukrainian defensive urban position was through massive use of, often indiscriminate, firepower. 80 per cent of Severodonetsk was destroyed in this way in the battles there in June.
In each case, the close battles over these urban areas involved positional operations, not manoeuvre. Ukrainian and Russian forces fought for specific objectives in urban areas. A more capable force, like the US Army, would doubtless have seized these towns much more quickly. But it is unclear if even the US Army would have been able to avoid positional fighting supported with vast firepower; for instance, during the Battle of Mosul, the Coalition was forced to clear the city building by building. Even though it was supported with prodigious western firepower, whenever the Iraqi attempted ambitious manoeuvres, they failed.
The Russian Army was forced to adopt a positional approach as it seized towns. In defence, the Ukrainian Army also prioritised position. It anchored its defence in urban areas from which it struck the Russian Army in the deep with air and drone strikes, and special forces raids, as they advanced. The Battle of Rubizhne in March 2022 was a good example of this. As the Russian mechanised brigade approached the town, it was struck with a devastating Ukrainian rocket and artillery barrage; 200 soldiers were reported killed.
It is not just that most of the fighting in Ukraine has been positional urban warfare. These urban fights created the operational possibility for the counter-offensive. They fixed the Russians and wore their forces down. Russian divisions were concentrated in the Slovyansk pocket fighting for a series of towns; combat densities east of Kharkiv were low. Indeed, the Russians were still attacking Bakhmut and other towns in the Sloviansk pocket, when the Kharkiv Counter-Offensive started; they continue to do so. Precisely because they have been committed to so much close urban fighting, the Russian forces in the Donbas were vulnerable to the counter-offensive. The Kharviv counter-offensive seems to show that in order to execute a manoeuvre in the field, it is actually necessary to fix the enemy from defensive positions in urban areas.
The Ukrainian manoeuvre has been possible only because the Russians have been severely attrited in a series of urban battles. By extension, the counter-offensive has been as successful as it has only because Russian forces, in their turn, have so woefully neglected the importance of urban defence. The Ukrainian advance succeeded because Russian forces failed to hold vital urban areas. In stark contrast to the Ukrainian army, the Russians ceded Krupyansk and, even more disastrously, Izyum, with ease. Had the Russians held these towns and fought for smaller ones, the Ukrainian manoeuvre would have been much more difficult – maybe impossible. The Ukrainians might themselves have been vulnerable to the deep counter-strikes which they had meted out to the Russians. Indeed, had the Russian held Izyum, the Ukrainian advance to Krupyansk, creating an exposed salient, might have become risky, rather than a victory parade.
The Russians did not hold key urban positions east of Kharkiv. Consequently, the Ukrainian Army was able to advance to and manoeuvre rapidly into urban areas, which they seized with almost no opposition. The Ukrainian success makes it appear that it is possible, even easy, to seize a town by rapid manoeuvre. In exceptional situations this may be the case; as the seizure of Baghdad in 2003 by the US, Mosul by ISIS In 2014, and Susha by Azerbaijan Sepcial Forces in 2021 show.
However, the opportunities for urban manoeuvre dissolve once a defender refuses to yield and decides to fight for key urban terrain. Once an attacker arrives on an urban objective, which the enemy is determined to hold, the advancing force will be forced to fight a pitched battle for it. This battle will rarely be resolved by a manoeuvre. Siege conditions prevail. Defences must be reduced; defenders incapacitated. Limited bite-and-hold operations are most likely to preserve casualties and, ultimately, to be successful.
It seems very likely that if the counter-offensive continues, Ukrainian forces will themselves face this reality. Perhaps, Russian forces will entirely collapse and Ukrainian forces will be spared slow urban operations of this kind. Yet, it is far more likely that at some point in the coming months, the Ukrainians will have to seize an important urban objective, held in force by the Russians: Kherson, Svotove, even Luhansk itself? At this point, it will be difficult to reproduce the startling manoeuvre that they have just executed so brilliantly.
What does the Kharkiv Counter-Offensive show, then? Commanders should certainly exploit the possibilities of manoeuvre in the field when they can. In attack, they should advance decisively up to and into urban objectives; psychological operations and firepower demonstrations can increase the chances that cities will fall without a major fight. However, manoeuvres are best anchored in solid urban defensive positions, strong enough to repel the enemy, and which act as decisive logistical and command nodes. Moreover, even when a force is able to manoeuvre to an urban area, if an enemy decides to fight for it, then, systematic positional operations are likely to prove most effective – and least costly – course of action.
Manoeuvre may not be entirely dead, but British Army doctrine might re-interpret the place of manoeuvre in contemporary land operations, subordinating it to positional urban operations.
Anthony King is the professor of war studies at Warwick University. In 2019, he completed a trilogy on western military transformation, The Transformation of Europe's Armed Forces (Cambridge University Press, 2011), The Combat Soldier (Oxford University Press, 2013), and Command (Cambridge University Press, 2019). His most recent book, Urban Warfare in the Twenty-First Century was published by Polity in July. He has advised the British Army and Royal Marines for nearly two decades.