Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version
“Sergei Shoigu [Minister of Defence] and Valery Gerasimov [Chief of the General Staff] are one step away from an unthinkable achievement—the strategic defeat of the Russian Armed Forces by a deliberately weaker enemy.”
Russian milblogger, September 2022
Russia’s failure to militarily defeat Ukraine demands an explanation. This could be attributed to the political leadership of the Russian Federation, the cultural meme of a dictator meddling at the tactical level comes from a movie we have all seen before. Nonetheless, the institutional heirs to the traditions of deep battle and the operational manoeuvre group should have been expected to demonstrate a greater degree of acumen and cunning. For all the focus on technology, the disparity in campaign planning and generalship is of great utility to explaining the course of the conflict since the Kremlin escalated its long-running attempt to subjugate Ukraine. This article, the first of two, examines the course of the conflict through the lens of operational art to critique the Russian campaign to date.
Operational art is the coordination and sequencing of tactical actions, logistics and command to execute activities in space and time such that they are mutually supporting. Historically operational art grew from the recognition that the line between manoeuvre and combat was becoming blurred as warfare grew in scale and that seeking a single decisive battle against an industrialised nation-state able to absorb withering losses of workforce and material was unlikely to be successful. The ability to plan, sustain and conduct a successive sequence of blows against an enemy army from which it could not hope to recover offered the best path to victory. Operational art seeks to ensure that local tactical actions contribute to broader strategic goals.
For the West, at least since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, most engagements were fought below the battalion level, arguably affording Western armies the luxury of losing focus on this art. The enemy lacked the means to contest the air, sea, or space domains, nor could they seriously disrupt force flow or strategic logistics. Meanwhile, for Russia, and to a degree China, the use of methods variously termed Hybrid War, New Generation Warfare, Gray Zone Operations and Liminal Warfare focused on achieving political goals at lower cost by hindering an enemy’s ability to escalate. Senior officers on both sides of the democratic and authoritarian divide have become increasingly attuned to the political consequences of tactical actions because of these trends. The extent to which such considerations have affected promotion at the expense of officers more adept at manoeuvring large formations is open to conjecture. Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine demonstrates anew that operational art is crucial in high-intensity conventional war.
The heart of Kyiv at war
Campaign design for problem gamblers
The original sin of the invasion was disregarding the most basic in military science, let alone the art, by pursuing maximalist political aims with an invasion force that was far too small. Despite the received wisdom that a ratio of three attackers to one defender is required, during the invasion of Iraq in 2003 the Coalition was roughly at parity with the Iraqi military in terms of workforce. However, Coalition troops numbered seven soldiers per thousand inhabitants and faced a protracted and intense insurgency. Had they been successful, Russian forces in Ukraine would have numbered just four soldiers per thousand inhabitants. Such a statistic has significant implications for conflict termination and insurgency in the alternate reality where Zelensky fled and Kyiv fell. The flawed assumption that an invasion emphasising speed could overwhelm a half-hearted Ukrainian response and lead to a rapid political and moral collapse was less damaging than the apparent failure to consider what would occur if the Ukrainian population and armed forces chose to stand and fight.
Further compounding this risk was the decision to invade just before the traditional muddy season, or Rasputitsa, which would deny tank units the critical advantage of cross-country movement and increase their vulnerability by restricting them to roads. The plan bore a striking resemblance to Operation Danube, the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia that suppressed the Prague Spring of 1968. In that instance, armour driving in administrative columns converged on Prague from multiple axes and was preceded by the seizure of crucial airfields, achieving the required moral collapse from defenders possessing a rough parity of combat power. The invasion of Ukraine, like that of Czechoslovakia before it, thus constituted an enormous gamble with insufficient forces committed in the event of intense and sustained combat. Instead, the 5th Service of the Federal Security Service conducted (FSB)considerable planning effort, including details on filtration camps, which politicians to co-opt and which to liquidate. The lack of planning emphasis afforded to the conventional phase of operations contrasted with the American failure in Iraq. In that case combat operations had been planned in exquisite detail, leading to a successful invasion, while the follow-on tasks of stabilisation and governance were comparatively neglected.
The comparison with Iraq highlights one of the chief reasons things never got that far: a failure to sequence the air campaign with ground manoeuvre. Both US interventions in Iraq saw the devastating use of airpower for long periods to set the conditions for decisive ground manoeuvre. Instead, the overriding desire for a quick conclusion encouraged the Russian military to attempt these actions simultaneously, greatly complicating the deconfliction required between air defence and aircraft. Similar comments can be made concerning deconfliction issues between electronic warfare and their own command and control architecture. In any event, the Russian sortie rate proved underwhelming. Many missile strikes targeted the Ukrainian air force, air defence and radars that had already dispersed, demonstrating a sluggish targeting cycle. The ability to support ground manoeuvre was further hampered by a lack of unity of command, with each military district effectively fighting its own campaign across a series of axes of advance that in no way mutually supported. Poor communications further inhibited the ability of Russian commanders to understand and direct a rapidly unravelling plan.
The opening days of the invasion saw both sides experiencing significant surprise. Surprise for the Russians was partly self-imposed, with forces at the tactical level having minimal notice. The tenacity and scale of Ukrainian resistance also unfolded as a shock. The Ukrainians, on their part, were surprised when the enemy’s main effort fell against Kyiv from the north rather than in the Donbas and deployed their forces accordingly. Perversely the poor level of preparation amongst Russian forces in Belarus played a significant part in this assessment. General Oleksandr Syrskiy, the officer charged with the defence of the capital, initially had minimal resources available to contest this thrust handing the Russians a massive local superiority. The Russians only achieved their early objectives in the South, primarily due to the paucity of Ukrainian forces to contest the breakout from Crimea.
A Russian T-72 takes the hard road to Kyiv
How to willingly squander the initiative
Ironically enough, if the initial invasion quickly degenerated into a farce and culminated short of Kyiv, the subsequent withdrawal demonstrated improved planning, command and control. Despite pressure from Ukrainian forces, the Russians used air strikes to target Ukrainian fuel storage, disrupting the logistics required for any attempt at pursuit. Russian forces also made good use of pre-placed minefields, artillery and rear guards to ensure the majority of their troops withdrew out of contact. A wasteful period followed, spent trying to extinguish Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol when time was running out before Ukrainian mobilisation and the arrival of large quantities of western heavy equipment would begin to bear fruit. Instead of resourcing the apparent main effort of encircling and destroying the bulk of the pre-war Ukrainian Army in the Donbas, weeks and precious combat power were frittered away trying to hasten the already assured destruction of the Azovstahl garrison.
The 58th Combined Arms Army missed an obvious opportunity to contain the doomed pocket in Mariupol with a subordinate grouping of forces, while the bulk of its forces turned north to pressure the Ukrainian flank in Donetsk Oblast from the south. A window of opportunity existed in late March and early April for such an effort to occur in concert with the attempted envelopment from Izyum in the north. Achieving such a wide envelopment may have been beyond the offensive capacity of the invaders even then, but it would have at least constituted an attempt to coordinate tactical actions in space and time towards the strategic endstate.
Map of Eastern Ukraine on 6 April 2022, following the capture of Izyum (author cropping & emphasis added)
Having forgone a wide encirclement, the Russian command next sought the capture of Severodonesk and Lysychask. Initially, the plan appears to have settled on a relatively shallow double envelopment incorporating an advance north from Popasna and a second coming south across the Siverskyi Donets River. The latter approach ultimately exposed the force to unnecessary risk, requiring a river assault crossing. A single thrust from Popasna to pinch off the Ukrainian salient that extended eastwards to Severodonesk and Lysychansk would have been more than sufficient. This was the approach the Russians fell back on anyway following the catastrophic destruction of a significant portion of a brigade near Bilohorivka during an attempted river crossing in early May.
As events unfolded, the Popasna advance hardly appears to have been resourced as a genuine main effort. Frontal assaults occurred against Severodonetsk throughout when the defence of that city would have proven untenable had the Ukrainian salient been pressured in greater strength on its flanks. This allowed the Ukrainians to inflict considerable attrition upon the Russians and their proxy forces before extricating themselves in relatively good order. Largely exhausted after these actions, an oddly transparent ‘operational pause’ was announced by the Russian Ministry of Defence in an almost a carte blanche announcement that Russia was handing the strategic initiative to Zelensky.
Map of Siversky Donets region on 5 June 2022 demonstrating frontal attacks on Severdonetsk (author cropping added)
The Russian Army responded to the obvious prospect of a Ukrainian offensive to reclaim its conquests on the right bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast by reinforcing its grouping of forces in the area. Throughout, Russia continued strategic and operationally pointless frontal assaults against Bakhmut in the Donbas. These decisions were apparently made without regard for Russia’s enormous exterior lines of communication or with serious mitigation for the prospect of the grouping of forces in Kherson becoming isolated on the far bank of the Dnipro. Again, Russian actions are best explained by political considerations. However, they are scarcely sufficient to convince observers that they had seriously considered alternative courses of action available to their opponent.
As will be discussed in greater detail in Part Two, these decisions played directly into the hands of the Ukrainian Army. Following the shock of the Balakliya (Kharkiv) Counter-offensive, the new commander General Surovkin eventually gained permission to abandon the right bank of the Dnipro altogether in early November, signalling the shift to a more defensive approach. In doing so, the Russians broadly replicated the success at pre-planned withdrawals they had demonstrated on the Kyiv, Sumy and Cherniv axes in March and April. Although shambolic, the use of mobilised personnel succeeded in stabilising the front, especially in Luhansk Oblast, along an initially precarious line running from Kremmina to Svatove. Surovikin’s defensive success, although insufficient to achieve Putin’s continued maximalist goals, at least staved off the prospect of a cascading series of defeats throughout the winter. Unable to win and unwilling to admit defeat, the Russian military then turned its attention to force reconstitution through the winter with an eye towards 2023.
Groundhog Day for Gerasimov
With the Ukrainian advance culminated, the initiative would pass naturally to whoever made the next move. In early January, the Russian MOD appointed General Valery Gerasimov as the Commander of the Special Military Operation, with Surovikin becoming his immediate subordinate and second in command. Anticipation grew amongst the milblogger community, analysts and the media of a large-scale Russian winter offensive in the works. In practice, when it came in late January and early February, the offensive emerged as a gradual escalation across several widely disparate axes rather than the concentrated hammer blow many anticipated. The main axes from north to south have been Kupyansk, Kremmina, Bakhmut/Soledar, Avdiivka, Marinka and Vuledar.
By distributing simultaneous attacks over so broad a front, Gerasimov repeated one of the mistakes of the original invasion and dissipated what meagre combat power had been reconstituted during the winter. Adopting a ‘broad front strategy’ was never likely to achieve operationally significant results in the context of relatively evenly matched adversaries facing off across a well-entrenched frontline that has remained static for many months. The continuation of such disparate and increasingly feeble attacks throughout February was an obvious failure to employ operational art to link tactical actions with a strategic end state. By 19 March, the Institute for the Study of War had assessed that the Russian offensive was nearing its culmination, with the chance of any operationally significant breakthrough appearing vanishingly slim.
As the extent of the failure became apparent, focus should have shifted to a coherent operational plan to defeat a Ukrainian counteroffensive. Instead, costly offensive operations have continued in Bakhmut at the same time that open source intelligence has revealed the construction of extensive field fortifications in Zaporizhia and Kherson oblast, whose efficacy is likely to be doubtful without mobile reserves to contest Ukrainian breaches. Likewise, the marked reduction in strikes against cities and power infrastructure throughout April led to the interpretation that Moscow may be preserving a shrinking stockpile for interdiction strikes against the Dnipro river bridges to disrupt Ukrainian logistics and force flow ahead of any offensive. Instead, this was disproven by another series of senseless strikes, mainly against apartment buildings, on the night of 27/28 April. Any attempt to tie the various tactical actions of forces from across the theatre of operations together into a coherent and joint campaign plan was starkly absent.
What was to be done?
Clear, and it must be said preferable, alternatives existed from a Russian standpoint. Firstly, there was no imperative to undertake an offensive during late winter. The Ukrainians were increasingly well placed to receive the Russian offensive with its attendant expenditure of ammunition and loss of workforce and equipment. In its aftermath, a significant opportunity for a Ukrainian offensive, incorporating western donated armour, appears almost certain. Impatience at the political level is clearly required to explain the suboptimal timing of the Russian offensive. Secondly, even if an offensive was deemed necessary at the political level, a concentrated offensive westward on a single axis from northern Luhansk Oblast was a more promising prospect than the multiple dispersed attacks ultimately undertaken.
By pushing the frontline back to a more defensible line some 30 – 40km to the west, Gerasimov could have used the Oskil River, including the reservoir in its southern reaches, to anchor the defence to a significant geographic barrier. Even the intermediate line of the Zherebets River offered similar defensive advantages. If successful, such an advance would have freed reserves to defeat a Ukrainian offensive later in spring and summer while forcing the Ukrainians to again consider the northern avenue of approach against Solvyansk and Kramatorsk. Lacking this approach, any capture of Bakhmut, which Russians are yet to entirely capture at the time of writing, would be a symbolic and pyrrhic victory given the Ukrainian defensive positions already established further to the west.
The reasons for Russia’s catastrophic performance are multi-causal and will no doubt be the subject of intense study and revision over the coming years and decades. Russia’s consistent failure to practise the barest outlines of operational art during the planning and execution of their ‘Special Military Operation’ must rank among the foremost explanations. Poor campaign planning, a failure to consider contingencies, and an inability to logically sequence and focus actions supporting a clear strategic main effort saw it squander any opportunity it may have had to impose a fait accompli in Ukraine. Squandering time and focus on an informational victory in Mariupol gave Ukraine time to shore up defences in the Donbas following the withdrawal from Kyiv. The decision to reinforce right bank Kherson at the expense of defences elsewhere ignored its concentric frontline’s time and space relationship, allowing Ukraine to use interior lines to seize ground rapidly in the Balakliya Offensive. The lack of any unifying strategic rationale behind the disparate attacks of the recent winter/spring offensive served only to weaken the force ahead of an all too apparent Ukrainian offensive.
In the current era of great power competition and the prospect of large-scale conventional war it brings, these shortcomings are worthy of careful consideration. This undoubtedly warrants a renewed focus on studying operational art and its inculcation amongst the officer corps of all western armies. Part Two of this article will examine the Ukrainian side of the ledger with a particular focus on their use of the strategic initiative from the late summer onwards.
Captain Hughes is an infantry officer in the Australian Army who has served in the 8th/9th Battalion, 1st Battalion and at the Royal Military College Duntroon as an instructor.