Wavell Room
Image default
Short Read

Operational Art Reborn – Part Two

“I was raised on Russian military doctrine, and I still think that the science of war is all located in Russia.”
General Valerri Zaluzhny, Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces

The first article outlined the theory and history of operational art, arguing that Russia failed to demonstrate proficiency in this vital component of conventional warfighting during its operations in Ukraine. This article will argue, perhaps unsurprisingly, that Ukraine has performed much more impressively. A firm grasp of the temporal element of operational art has characterised Ukrainian campaign design. Ukrainian commanders have demonstrated patience, generally sound timing for executing operational decisions and masterful sequencing to ensure that actions far removed in space achieve compounding effects upon their enemy. Of course, the Ukrainians are not without fault. Russia is too often portrayed as a bumbling colossus, but the two-dimensional characterisation of Ukraine as infallibly cunning, agile and adaptable also requires some qualification. That Ukraine’s errors are much harder to see, especially above the tactical level, speaks to the relative effectiveness of their influence operations and operational security. Perhaps the most consequential was the initial disposition of ground forces at the outset of the invasion.  

Initial disposition of forces

While a detailed understanding of Ukrainian defensive plans eluded western observers in the lead-up to the invasion, it has become apparent in hindsight that Ukraine misjudged the true scope of the Russian plan. Despite western warnings, Ukraine appears to have downplayed the possibility that Putin would seek to subjugate the entire country and instead assessed that the primary objective was to complete the conquest of the Donbas. Ironically, Ukraine discounted Russian forces set to attack Kyiv from Belarus as a diversionary force due to their poor readiness. Consequently, Ukraine kept most of its most able manoeuvre brigades in the Donbas, thereby playing into Russia’s hands. This initial misreading of the Russian scheme of manoeuvre and the resulting disposition of forces at the outset has heavily shaped the course of the conflict since. 

The night before the invasion commenced, Ukraine recognised this shortcoming and ordered a redeployment, leading to meeting engagements between Russian columns and Ukrainian forces rushing to occupy unprepared positions. The poor preparation on the northern axis is perhaps exemplified by the desperate defence of Antonov Airport by an initially small force of reservists despite the Ukrainian command having received prior warning from CIA Director William Burns that it would be the target of a Russian air assault. For all the focus on and myth-making around Kyiv, perhaps the successful defence of Chernihiv by Ukraine’s 1st Tank Brigade had the most significant effect at the operational level. The tactical success of this formation and those territorial defence units that supported it achieved operational results by denying the Russians a third axis of advance on Kyiv. Crucially, in conjunction with the continued resistance of Sumy, it also rendered the long approach march on Kyiv from Sumy Oblast logistically untenable over the longer term. This success enabled the Ukrainian command to focus its forces on the defence of Irpin on the north-western outskirts of Kyiv. Considering these examples, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that close-run tactical success by individual formations and smaller units staved off the Russian coup de main on the capital. Unfortunately, the same was not true in the south. 

Kyiv-Chernihiv-Sumy axes, 06 March 2022, demonstrating the operational impact of 1st     Tank Brigades dogged defence of Chernihiv

Here, Ukraine gifted the invaders a relatively favourable correlation of forces, enabling a rapid breakout from Crimea. Given its strategic importance, the decision not to pre-position more troops to defend the line of the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast is notable. This observation is tempered by the requirement to deter or even protect against the threat of an amphibious operation further west in the vicinity of Odessa. Nonetheless, the specific failures to destroy the Antonovsky Bridge with an explosive reserve demolition even after temporarily reclaiming it in a counter-attack and the fall of the crossing point at Nova Kakhovka without a fight are particularly troubling. While the Russians were eventually expelled from the right bank of the Dnipro in November, the effort came at a significant cost when they may have been blocked at a significant geographic barrier in the first instance. Any peace settlement that had seen Russia retain this foothold would have threatened future Ukrainian sovereignty and access to the Black Sea. Even allowing for an approach of accepting penetration on some axes to encourage the Russians to over-extend themselves a more robust plan to leverage the Dnipro should have been expected from the outset.


Russian breakout from Crimea demonstrating seizure of crossing points over the Dnipro and impending encirclement of Mariupol, 28 February 2022

Embracing attrition in the Donbas

For all the flaws in Ukraine’s initial defensive plan, they proved sufficient to weather the storm. With Russia’s change in focus to the Donbas, Ukraine was finally able to fight the war it had been preparing for since 2015. Throughout March, while the eyes of the international community remained focused on Kyiv, the desperate see-sawing battle in and around Izyum brought vital weeks of delay and slowed the Russian attempt to envelop the Donbas from the north to a crawl. Far to the south, the heroic defence of Mariupol tied down another significant group of forces. In some ways, the Mariupol garrison served a function not dissimilar to the surrounded 6th Army in Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-43, whose continued refusal to surrender without any hope of relief at least enabled Army Group B to withdraw from the Caucasus. 

As the Russians committed, forces redeployed from the Kyiv and Sumy directions piecemeal, an exceedingly well-timed counter-offensive in Kharkiv Oblast in early May largely succeeded in pushing Russian tube artillery out of range of the city. More importantly, from an operational perspective, it forced the Russians to reconsider their flank security on the Izyum axis, where they had massed significant forces in preparation for a renewed attempt to envelop Slovyansk and Kramatorsk from the northwest. These developments effectively forced the Russians to abandon the wide envelopment of the Donbas. These events may help to explain the timing for President Zelensky’s authorisation for the defenders of the Azovstahl Plant in Mariupol permission to surrender in early May, a full two to three weeks before they did so. Even as these events unfolded, the Russians prepared to achieve a shallower envelopment, specifically of the Ukrainian salient around Severodonetsk-Lysychansk. 

Kharkiv & Donbas fronts, 13 May 2022, demonstrating Russia’s attempt to advance south from Izyum and Ukrainian counterattack in the environs of Kharkiv (course of the Siversky Donets River in purple).

The defeat of the multiple assault river crossings, most famously with the destruction of significant portions of a brigade at Bilohorivka in early May, also denied a shallower double envelopment of the Severodonetsk-Lysychansk salient by protecting its northern flank along the middle Siverski-Donets River. Having thus defeated or delayed increasingly less ambitious Russian attempts at enveloping a well-fortified area, Ukraine forced their impatient enemy to conform to their design for battle. For all this success in shaping their foe, the AFU remained in the fight of its life. Thanks to artillery and electronic warfare overmatch, the Russians achieved a grinding advance against the southern flank of the Severodonetsk-Lysychansk following the capture of Popasna.  Although the Russians achieved tactical victories, notably culminating in the eventual capture of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, these proved pyrrhic given their out-of-proportion cost in men, equipment and munitions. The attrition inflicted during late spring and summer sapped Russian strength and set conditions for Ukraine’s counter-offensives in Kherson and Kharkiv Oblasts from August onwards. Crucially, Ukraine avoided any repeat of Mariupol by executing numerous well-timed withdrawals in locations such as Lyman, Severodonetsk, Zolote and Lysychansk. 

A masterclass of sequencing

Initially, as the Russians neared the point of culmination in the Donbas, the AFU contemplated a broad offensive across the entire southern front in Zaporizhia and Kherson. Wargaming and analysis with American and British counterparts quickly determined that the plan was overly ambitious and needed to be reduced in scope. That the Ukrainians were willing to do so is demonstrative of a more realistic appreciation for the means at their disposal and sits in stark contrast to Russia’s recent winter-spring offensive. Consequently, the first use of the strategic initiative by the Ukrainians took the form of a long series of shaping and interdiction operations in preparation for the much-anticipated manoeuvre phase of the Kherson Offensive commanded by General Kovalchuk. Crucial to the Ukrainian plan of bisecting the Russian-held west bank with a drive to the Dnipro, this included securing a small bridgehead over the Inhulets River near Lozove. The actual manoeuvre, when it came, occurred falteringly. The attempted expansion of the small Lozove bridgehead over the Inhulets River and fixing attacks against the oblast borders in the directions of Mykolaiv and Kriviy Rih stalled reasonably quickly.

In contrast, the later Balakliya Offensive in Kharkiv Oblast forced a breakthrough and rapidly unhinged a Russian defence that had diverted considerable forces to the defence of Kherson. The offensive rapidly seized the vital rail hubs of Izyum and Kupyansk before pre-empting any Russian attempt to use the north-south line of the Oskil River on which to reform a coherent front. One of the hallmarks of Soviet operational art during the later years of the Eastern Front was the deliberate planning for offensives to conclude with the seizure of a bridgehead over the final river line, thus setting the conditions for the next offensive. Breakout from these bridgeheads, culminating in the battle for Lyman that followed, were more hard-fought engagements nonetheless characterised by a Ukrainian ability to avoid enemy strongpoints and inflict severe attrition on Russian forces that came perilously close to being encircled. 

Balakliya-Kupiansk Offensive, 09 September 2022, the Oskil River can be seen running south from Kupyansk into the Oskil Resevoir

With hindsight, the initial Ukrainian push in Kherson during August was almost certainly an abortive attack with genuinely ambitious aims in its own right, rather than just a  deliberate shaping action. As General Syrsky, the original mastermind of the Balakliya-Kupiansk Offensive commented “in the history of wars, there have been many cases when an attack on a diversionary axis — that is, on a secondary axis — turns into the main axis”. Nonetheless, exactly how opportunistic the Balakliya-Kupiansk offensive is of less consequence than examining the sequence in which they occurred and the resulting cascade of self-defeating decisions it forced upon the invaders. Since wresting the initiative from the Russians, this facet of Ukrainian planning has been remarkably effective. Here, comparison with a historical example from the same region, though at a much grander scale, from almost eighty years ago, reinforces the point.

By June of 1944, a weakened Wehrmacht faced an increasingly mechanised Red Army and anticipated a major Soviet offensive at some point along the Eastern Front. Soviet deception operations, referred to in doctrine as maskirovka, convinced German intelligence that the initial blow of the campaign would fall against Army Group North Ukraine. Consequently, the Germans rushed most of their armoured reserves and reinforcements to this portion of the front. However, the weakened Army Group Centre in Belarus was the actual target of the Soviet attack. After the near destruction of Army Group Centre during Operation Bagration drew all available German reserves north, the sequel operation Lvov-Sandomierz fell against Army Group North Ukraine. Parallels are readily apparent in the linked relationship between the Kherson Offensive and the Balakliya-Kupiansk Offensive. Viewed holistically, the AFU used interior lines and deception operations to wrongfoot their enemy.

By November, sustained pressure in Kherson Oblast finally prompted another relatively well-executed Russian retrograde operation to abandon the right bank of the Dnipro. The destruction of bridges and interdiction of Russian logistics across the Dnipro River using long-range fires achieved disruption. It may have gradually choked units at the front of ammunition and supplies. This is an archetypal example of the indirect approach. It leveraged long-range fires and precision that Mick Ryan has termed ‘corrosion’ to achieve operational and strategic goals at lower cost. For this approach to succeed, attritional fighting was equally important to achieve a high rate of consumption to ensure that Russian stockpiles dwindled over a sustained timeframe, with the prospect of a winter freeze of the Dnipro likely to disrupt Russian ferry operations heavily. Despite the obvious political and humanitarian benefits of allowing Russia to begin withdrawing without a gruelling urban fight for the city of Kherson, the failure to destroy sizeable Russian units through aggressive manoeuvre in the final days of the campaign was a notable missed opportunity.

Kherson offensive, 5 October 2022, the triangular salient resulting from the initial Ukrainian attempt to bisect the Russian grouping around Bezemenne and Davydiv Brid

Winter and the double-edged sword of Bakhmut

Having landed two successive blows, the AFU proved unable to land a third during early winter when the potential to breach the line running Svatove to Kremmina and unhinge the defence of northern Luhansk appeared tantalisingly close. Given the increasingly evident Russian preparations for a winter offensive by January, the decision to abandon the offensive was ultimately wise. General Zaluzhny demonstrated a keen understanding of the longer-term implications, saying “may the soldiers in the trenches forgive me, now it is more important to focus on accumulating resources for more protracted and heavy fighting that may begin next year”. In electing to receive Russia’s offensive, Ukraine’s primary aim was to inflict as much attrition as possible while preserving its force for future operations. 

On most axes, the Russians suffered significant attrition and made marginal, if any, gains, essentially validating this approach. At Bakhmut, the situation was more complex. The Russian capture of Soledar allowed incremental advances on the city’s northern flank that threatened ground lines of communication and wrested control of tactically significant heights. At this point,p the beneficial attritional exchange gained from defending Bakhmut no longer held true. Leaked documents reveal that General Budanov, the Chairman of Ukraine’s Main Intelligence Directorate, described the Ukrainian position in the city as ‘catastrophic’ during the same period. The commitment of reserves succeeded in salvaging the situation and drawing out the battle at the tactical level. Still, this likely came at the cost of using resources earmarked for the counteroffensive. Russia’s eventual capture appears pyrrhic and devoid of any strategic meaning. The same seems true for Ukraine after the beginning of March when a withdrawal to more defensible ground and prepared positions to the west appeared militarily advisable. This argument can fairly be criticised for ignoring the alleged political benefits of denying a Russian victory in Bakhmut.

Indeed, the drawn-out fighting in Bakhmut appears to have been instrumental to the Wagner insurrection of late June. This argument is counterfactual, however. Basing the development of military plans on some hoped-for and self-flagellating political collapse amongst the enemy is notoriously tricky. Linking tactical and operational operations to such a strategic end state is a potentially fraught endeavour. The Battle of Verdun, where General Falkenhayn hoped to bleed the French Army white and break their national will, is a crucial example. Instead, the German High Command became so enraptured with their objective that they persisted through a mutually destructive bloodbath well beyond the point it could reap any operational or strategic dividend. Given Bakhmut’s lack of strategic value, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Ukraine repeated this folly to some, more limited, extent. In the words of one battalion commander fighting in Bakhmut, “here, we are using up too much of the offensive potential that we’ll need for a breakthrough once Ukraine’s black earth dries up”.

Accounting for Ukrainian success by way of conclusion

Though strong after their initial misstep in force deployment, Ukrainian performance has not been perfect. Fortunately, in warfare everything is relative. Ukraine has held a clear advantage in the moral and intellectual components of fighting power almost without interruption. One facet of this trend has been their markedly superior application of operational art. One reason for this asymmetrical performance is the political nature of the two systems and the resulting impact on managing command appointments. The Putin regime appears to have fallen into a classic pattern apparent in some, though not all, dictatorships, rewarding political loyalty at the expense of competence. Russia has adopted something of a revolving door policy, removing commanders who are viewed negatively in the information space for a time before reappointment to similar frontline commands. 

In contrast, General Zaluzhny had personally removed ten underperforming generals as of December 2022. General Kovalchuk, the original commander of the Kherson Counteroffensive, was quietly replaced in August by another officer for advancing too cautiously. As Ukraine’s situation around Bakhmut deteriorated in February, President Zelensky also removed General Eduard Moskalyov as the commander of the JFO in a single-line communique. Zelensky and Zaluzhny’s subtle approach closely follows the advice of Thomas Ricks in his excellent expose of American generalship about the dangers of failing to remove lacklustre commanders for fear of negative political optics. Throughout a protracted conflict, the results of these contrasting policies should be obvious to anyone familiar with Darwin’s theory of evolution.     

In the final telling, the Ukrainian military’s adept campaign planning likely owes more to the successful application of operational art enabled by significant western intelligence support. The famed theorist of manoeuvre warfare, Richard Simpkin, was deeply impressed by Soviet military thought but doubted their ability to employ it in practice for reasons such as low standards of training and officer education. Interestingly, General Zaluzhny has hinted that he believes Ukraine’s success has come from synthesising the western style of mission command at the tactical level with the Soviet military science on which its senior officers were raised. This synthesis has not been without its issues, but such cultural struggles are common occurrences for rapidly expanding armies in wartime. It is therefore worth considering if western military assistance to Ukraine and the resulting synthesis of western emphasis on empowering junior commanders may be slowly, falteringly allowing Ukraine to unlock the potential offered by operational art. 

Postscript: Counteroffensive Disclaimer

This article has deliberately omitted analysis of the ongoing counter-offensive. Some commentators have claimed that the first phase of the counteroffensive has already failed. Another more optimistic viewpoint is that the AFU is deliberately proceeding cautiously to inflict lopsided attrition on the enemy before introducing the breakthrough force to the decisive point(s). Others can point to predictions made well in advance that due to increased Russian field fortifications and force density, this offensive was far more likely to resemble the Kherson Offensive than the Balakliya-Kupiansk Offensive. As always, the importance of current events will reveal themselves only in hindsight.

Chris Hughes

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.

Related posts

#ChoosetoChallenge2022 Update

The Wavell Room Team

Fighting for Advantage: Joint Asymmetries in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War

Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Jennings

Army Recruiting: right message, wrong platform.