An article in the German news site Die Welt asserted that the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU), Valery Zaluzhny, had not been in favor of the overhyped all-out armored summer counteroffensive that many wanted, but 2024 may be quite different from current expectations.
The media site goes as far as to say he was forced into it by the politicians – partly his own but mainly from the Western nations that wanted an immediate return on the investment in arms and ammunition they had provided.
Nico Lange former chief of staff to Germany’s Minister of Defense and now a senior fellow at the Munich Security Conference confirms that view: “[Ukraine’s] commander-in-chief was never in favor of launching the offensive, as he did not see a chance for success without sufficient air support, and only agreed to it for political reasons.”
Zaluzhny’s reticence was well-founded as the first few armor-led assaults were hammered as they tried to break through the well-prepared, three-layer defenses of the Russian forces’ “Surovikin line.”
While losses of Western armor were nowhere near the levels claimed by the Kremlin, Zaluzhny and his commander on the ground Oleksandr Syrsky quickly realized the losses would soon be unsustainable if they persisted with this method of operation.
Within a matter of days, the AFU changed its strategy. Instead of using mechanized units, commanders ordered small assault units to attack on foot and only deploying armor where it could engage Russian armored units from a position of dominance. This allowed the AFU to minimize losses in men and equipment and allowed more time for Ukraine and their western partners to train and build up weapons supplies.
The resulting rates of advance did not meet the expectations of many US and European politicians and, especially, the media who have been quick to brand the counteroffensive a failure, and stalemate – in effect suggesting Kyiv has already lost and should sue for peace.
This overlooks the fact, that according to analysis by the Dutch open-source portal Oryx, around 95 percent of all weapons systems delivered to Ukraine have not yet been deployed and are still available.
An article in another German publication, Bild citing unnamed military officers says that the priority of the AFU strategy is simply to achieve the maximum destruction of the Russian military with minimal losses for Ukraine.
One Ukrainian officer is quoted as saying: “Our goal is to achieve the maximum positive destruction rate. If the ratio is 10 to 1 in our favor, we will continue an offensive, if 1 to 1, we will retreat.”
Another soldier also confirmed the view that “there is now no pressure, we are simply aiming for maximum losses to the enemy. Positions don’t matter, the main thing is that the majority of Ukrainians remain alive.”
While this “holding action” is unlikely to result in political and military collapse in the short term, it hopes to impact Putin’s need to achieve some sort of breakthrough of his own in the run-up to the March presidential election.
Not only will the AFU strategy minimize that likelihood but will ensure Ukraine has time to plan an enhanced counteroffensive for 2024. In addition to the weapons Kyiv has already received it gave a weapons wish list to the US on Dec. 6 which, according to Reuters, included additional air defense systems, fighter aircraft, Apache attack helicopters, Abrams tanks, drones, and ammunition.
The requests indicated, according to Die Welt, that Ukraine is planning “the counteroffensive General Zaluzhny likely had in mind from the very beginning.” With the provision of superior air support this would facilitate the sort of all-arms, mobile armored warfare that Ukraine’s NATO supporters envisaged all along.
Although the US Congress is still blocking the continued large scale assistance levels identified by President Biden Ukraine received weapons and equipment including ammunition for HIMARS and 155mm artillery in early December, $175 million, shells and Congress a further $300 million for 2024 on Dec. 14 and separately the Senate extended its current session, in order to further consider the president’s request for $61 billion aid for Kyiv.
There is also focus on the establishing of an, albeit tenuous, bridgehead on the left bank of the Dnipro in the Kherson region which the AFU appears to be expanding. It is 60 kilometers from there to the Crimean Peninsula which in recent months has become the focus for attacks by drones, special forces and partisans that have already caused the Russian Black Sea Fleet to withdraw.
According to an unnamed military adviser the foothold could become a launching point towards the peninsula, with support of the air support requested by Ukraine. According to him, efforts to further regain occupied territory will once more become a priority as Russian losses continue at current (or higher) levels and “game-changing weapons” such as the US ATACMS, the German Taurus cruise missile, as well as F-16 or other fighters and attack helicopters appear.
The apprehension of the fragility of Ukraine’s position is being overstated. According to Die Welt there are 600,000 troops deployed on the 1,000-kilometer frontline which have changed little with gains and losses being measured only in 10s or 100s of meters. The Russians continue to deploy “meat grinder” frontal attacks, particularly in eastern Ukraine, suffering horrendous manpower and equipment losses.
The AFU is “no longer trying to hold their positions, as they did in Bakhmut,” Lange told DieWelt, “Instead they want to slow the Russian forces down and wear them down in the process.”
In October and again in his “direct line” broadcast on Thursday, President Putin claimed that the ratio of losses among his and Ukraine’s forces were heavily in Moscow’s favor. This is heavily contradicted by a recently declassified US intelligence report which indicates Russia has lost more almost 90 percent of the manpower it originally deployed on its full-scale invasion along with a concomitant loss in tanks and heavy equipment.
The Ukrainian strategy of attrition combined with modest gains may yet prove to be the right one with the likelihood that, given at least some of the tools they asked for a week ago, a decisive counteroffensive may be on the horizon.
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