Ukraine’s counteroffensive strategy may be to first bleed Russian forces rather than “blitzkrieg” them out of the occupied territory. 

Evidence of a Ukrainian military strategy of attrition against Russian forces has emerged in comments by a senior Ukrainian leader reflected in comments by a number of international military experts. Kyiv Post’s own analysis of equipment loss figures and recent satellite imagery of Russian fortifications adds to that conclusion.

Yesterday in Kyiv, Oleksiy Danilov, the Secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council (NSDC), said that Ukrainian forces are performing their main task which is to destroy Russian manpower, equipment, fuel depots, artillery, and air defenses as a “war of destruction is equal to a war of kilometers.”

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“More destroyed means more liberated,” Danilov tweeted. “The more effective the former, the more the latter. We are acting calmly, wisely, step by step.”

Meanwhile in London, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, the head of the United Kingdom's armed forces and chief military adviser to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, told a British Parliamentary hearing that “Kyiv's strategy to ‘starve, stretch and strike’ is gradually eroding Russia's defenses.”

“The question is: how do you take a front line that is more than a thousand kilometers long and turn it into more of a problem for Russia than for Ukraine?" Radakin said. "That is why you are seeing multiple axes being probed and feints by Ukraine."

ISW Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, July 15, 2024
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ISW Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, July 15, 2024

Latest from the Institute for the Study of War.

The observations were immediately picked up by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), one of the most respected independent analysts of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

“Danilov’s assessment underlines the prioritization of Ukraine’s ongoing campaign to attrit Russian manpower and assets over attempting to conduct massive sweeping mechanized maneuvers to regain large swaths of territory rapidly,” ISW said in its influential daily report.

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“Ukrainian forces appear to be focusing on creating an asymmetrical attrition gradient that conserves Ukrainian manpower at the cost of a slower rate of territorial gains, while gradually wearing down Russian manpower and equipment,” ISW added.

One of the war’s closest expert observers, Mick Ryan, a retired Australian general and internationally acclaimed strategist who has spent time on the ground with Ukrainian commanders, similarly wrote earlier this week that Ukraine has adopted a “broad front strategy”.

“The Ukrainians are steadily building pressure across a broad front against the Russians. They seek the optimum location to penetrate the Surovikin Line — a defensive barrier constructed under General Surovikin's guidance,” Ryan said in an article for ABC.

“For Ukraine, the design for their current offensives probably takes this into account … [to] isolate and defeat different elements of the Russian defensive forces. This involves the tough business of close combat, killing and combined-arms obstacle breaching. While difficult, when Ukraine does achieve a penetration, the Russians are in trouble,” Ryan added.

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The emerging view that Ukraine is primarily seeing to “attrit” – and thereby demoralise, split and penetrate – Russian forces is confirmed by data on equipment losses during the first month of Ukraine’s summer offensive.

Using data on visually confirmed equipment losses gathered by open-source intelligence organization Oryx, Kyiv Post earlier this week found that Russia has lost 45 percent more units of military equipment than Ukraine during June.

Kyiv Post also identified that in June:

·      Ukraine’s total losses of AFVs (armored fighting vehicles), tanks, trucks, artillery pieces, and special equipment was 217 units compared with Russia’s 315.

·      Russia lost 96.9 percent more tanks than Ukraine; Ukraine lost 32 tanks in the period, while Russia lost 63.

·      Russia lost four times more artillery pieces than Ukraine; Ukraine’s losses were 10 units, Russia’s was 46.

"Russia has lost nearly half the combat effectiveness of its army," Radakin said in his testimony, according to the Financial Times.

A classified US military assessment, leaked earlier this year, suggested that as many as 43,000 Russian soldiers had been killed and another 180,000 wounded since February 2022. When Russia invaded last year, it was assessed to have over 400,000 soldiers under contract, PBS reported.

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Given experts’ views about attrition and its correlation to the so-called Surovikin Line, Kyiv Post evaluated the current Ukrainian position compared to the rings of Russian fortifications and defense along the war’s eastern and southern fronts.

The maps below, based on satellite imagery compiled by independent analyst Brady Africk, shows the extent of the defensive lines constructed on Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory in the Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions (Image 1). 

It includes the current key battlegrounds (red ovals) that the Ukrainian offensive has opened up at Velyka Novosilka, stretching south, and Orikhiv, stretching south and west.

All eight villages and more than 100 kilometers which have been liberated by Ukrainian troops since the beginning of June are north of the fortified lines of Russian defense.

Current reported Ukrainian assaults at Robotyne and Luhove in western Zaporizhzhia, marked with blue stars on image 2, may be the first instances of Ukrainian forces initiating a concerted move against more substantial Russian defenses consisting of extensive trench systems, tank traps, obstacles, and concrete fortifications reinforced by minefields.

The fact that Ukrainian forces have not generally assaulted these more extensively entrenched Russian lines underscores the experts’ arguments. 

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Ryan wrote, that as a result of Ukrainian strategy, “the Russians appear to be ‘defending forward.’”

“This means they are deploying large numbers of their combat forces in the forward security zones of their defensive layouts. This is a high-risk strategy because if they have over-committed their forces forward, any Ukrainian penetration will expose the relatively less-well-defended main defensive positions,” Ryan said.

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