In a massive two-part article published on Dec. 4, the Washington Post took a deep dive into Ukraine’s grossly underachieving summer counteroffensive. The Kyiv Post take on that neither completely agrees nor disagrees.
From our perspective, the Washington Post identifies plenty of important issues, for the most part quite accurately. (We’ve placed a bullet list at the bottom of this article.)
But to us here in Kyiv, one shortfall, far more significant than any of the others, leaped out at us: Combat team training in the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU).
From our point of view, of the contributing causes to Ukraine’s failed counteroffensive, by a significant margin the most serious was decision-makers at the top making assumptions about what the AFU could and could not do without actually doing the hard work of understanding the situation in the field, and the critical need the AFU soldiers had for serious and extensive training.
A common narrative in the wake of the counteroffensive is that had NATO attempted the counteroffensive the AFU tried, NATO would have never considered it because of lack of air support.
What that narrative misses, and the Washington Post points out as one of nearly a dozen contributing factors, is that the advocates of the AFU offensive neglected the absolutely critical necessity that a combat formation of more than 100 and less than 1,500 men all be practiced, and for months, as a single unit before being committed to a major attack against a competent opponent.
The practice the AFU did not get in the run-up to the offensive was on the level of the “tactical unit” of multiple companies, a few battalions, or a single brigade headquarters controlling a complex attack, where dozens of small teams of battlefield specialists – among them infantry, artillery, armor, anti-tank, ground reconnaissance, drone reconnaissance, communications, fuel logistics, ammunition logistics, food logistics, maintenance, casualty evacuation. Such specialist teams must execute their job on the battlefield at the right time, to an expectable standard, quite often under threat of death or dismemberment.
Without serious, stressful practice ahead of time, most people attempting such operations as part of a combat team will fail.
At least as important, the junior leaders in charge of groups of 10 to 30 men – the corporals, sergeants and lieutenants – need at least that much time to establish authority, prove to their soldiers they know their jobs and their orders won’t be suicidal and, if one is honest, for the military system to weed out the bad ones.
Real combat is the best training
There is only one real way to weld a group of several hundred men and their leaders into an effective combat team: put them into combat, hopefully not so intense, so that the unit gains experience faster than it loses soldiers. Given support, a company, battalion or brigade exposed to combat will come to perform effectively. This has been the case in European wars for at least the last half millennium.
The AFU offers examples: the 3rd Assault Brigade, the 12th National Guard Brigade, the 68th Mountain Infantry Brigade, the 92nd Mechanized Infantry Brigade, and others, are formations that have fought for almost two years through both victories and defeats. Thanks to luck and good leadership, they now count themselves among the AFU’s most reliable units.
In the case of the summer offensive, instead of using seasoned formations, the AFU chose to raise new units for the big counteroffensive, putting together formations of, as in one case cited by the Washington Post, 70 percent volunteers and former civilians, and 30 percent combat veterans. Responsibility for such a choice must go to AFU commander Valery Zaluzhny and his staff, unless President Volodymyr Zelensky set conditions making it unavoidable.
Although this may have been good starting material, without combat experience as a unit, formations raised for the summer offensive could not have been considered reliable for conventional war operations in any professional military. The NATO standard for readying a professional, long-service unit for possible combat is four to six months of intense training. The Ukrainians didn’t get anything close to that.
Ukrainians got a crash course
The unit tapped as the spearhead of the summer offensive, the 47th Mechanized Infantry is a formation long tracked by Kyiv Post. In Germany it saw its soldiers go to firing ranges and conduct small unit drills, while officers and senior enlisted practiced things like operations planning and logistics sustainment in tabletop exercises with US observers nearby.
One former US officer participating in the training as an advisor told Kyiv Post the AFU officers were smart and good planners, but they lacked experience organizing logistics and flexible artillery fires. He said that it was unfortunate large-scale training with hundreds of vehicles and battalions of men practicing war 24/7 for days at a time over a maneuver area similar to major US Army unit training at Fort Irwin (Mojave desert) or Fort Chaffee (upwoods Arkansas) wasn’t available to the AFU.
The 47th Brigade was formed in early 2023. It started receiving its tanks and infantry fighting vehicles in February. It only began training with most of its personnel and equipment in March, and in a limited way. It was thrown into full-on conventional war in early June, as a completely unseasoned fighting formation.
An AFU analogy heard more than once by Kyiv Post reporters points out that the difference in performance between a pickup team of football players on the beach, and the same athletes once practiced for several months together under a coaching staff with clear goals and enough resources to train field execution, is massive – and that football isn’t played under artillery and small arms fire.
The grunts’ perspective
In reports in Ukrainian media, and in some cases in personal accounts to Kyiv Post staff, the report from the battlefield over and over was the same: Ukrainian soldiers were being ordered to drive out into the open where they got pounded by Russian artillery. Combat units would sometimes come apart under punishing fire or sometimes hold together, and then get shot to pieces.
According to those accounts, from the perspective of the Ukrainian soldier, there weren’t enough artillery shells to suppress the Russian artillery. When a key leader got killed or wounded, the unit wouldn’t know what to do because no one had trained that scenario, no one had a plan for artillery-dropped mines. If Russian attack helicopters showed up, anti-aircraft sections weren’t on hand. Infantry would debus for a firefight and run out ammunition in minutes, warm food couldn’t come forward.
Moreover, it was absolutely clear to anyone with a radio, on the front line, that the mid-level AFU bosses in the headquarters wanted only to report gains of ground to their bosses further back, and that rapid destruction of the enemy didn’t even seem like much of priority to anyone not actually being shot at.
The aggressive confidence of seasoned Ukrainian combat units, in those accounts, is absent.
The blame game
Now, some Ukrainian soldiers have told us, they are being blamed for the counteroffensive’s failure by the important people in Washington and Kyiv, because those important people weren’t honest enough to admit to themselves, or the voters paying their salaries, that throwing partially trained units into combat against a competent and entrenched enemy was hoped-based planning.
Those important people prefer protecting their reputations and finding scapegoats, to admitting Ukrainian soldiers were killed and wounded, at times performing great acts of heroism, trying to execute a plan only seasoned, highly trained combat units could reasonably execute, those soldiers say.
The overwhelmingly dominant factor in Ukrainian’s failed summer counteroffensive, in the Kyiv Post view, was that decision-makers both in Ukraine and the US, didn’t pay sufficient attention to the Ukrainians. By this, Kyiv Post means not the small clique of colonels and generals authorized by the AFU to speak with Pentagon officials, but the lieutenants, sergeants and privates actually doing the fighting.
In the 47th Brigade the senior enlisted soldier in the unit quit and accepted a demotion, at the time accusing the brigade leadership, headed by a standout colonel named Oleksandr Sak, for failing to listen to junior soldiers trying to pass information about “the real situation” – up the chain of command.
The AFU leadership fired Sak in September. After a rest, in November, the unit was transferred to the Avdiivka sector. They are fighting better there.
The Washington Post’s main points and reasons for failure:
- After due deliberation Washington saw a mid-April launch for the AFU offensive as reasonable.
- As the launch day approached, the AFU dragged its feet, without good reason, on actually kicking off the attacks.
- The US elite felt the AFU had sufficient tools and training to overcome Russian defenses in a frontal attack.
- US officials validated that confidence with table-top and wargaming sessions with Ukrainian military leaders, which turned out to be insufficiently realistic.
- US planners assumed heavy losses inflicted on Russian forces would lead to a greater collapse of Russian defenses, when in fact Russian soldiers turned out to be resilient and able to accept severe casualties.
- Implicit in the US optimism was that a ground offensive using “Western” tactics and equipment would succeed, without air superiority.
- Pentagon failure to acknowledge the AFU would have insufficient ammunition to develop massive artillery fires necessary to make an offensive successful, was a key omission.
- US military and political leaders were as a result over-optimistic about AFU offensive capacity, and US intelligence, which was more pessimistic, probably should have been believed.
- There was pressure on the AFU to launch the offensive, notwithstanding the fact that internal White House briefings in April considered the offensive unlikely to deliver big results.
- AFU poor maintenance was one reason some Western weapons failed
- AFU leadership’s unwillingness to stick to days and days of frontal assaults
- AFU failure to conduct sufficient ground reconnaissance
- AFU selection of three axes instead of a single thrust point for the offensive
- Poor AFU troops skills at breaching fortifications
- Poor AFU small-unit leadership
The analysis comes amid signs of growing cracks in Western support for Ukraine after Kyiv's highly anticipated counteroffensive failed to yield a breakthrough and the world's attention pivoted to the Israel-Hamas war.
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