The ZSU Offensives in Kharkiv and Kherson, some comparisons

September 17, 2022

Thanks to Nikolay Marinov, who asked me what I thought the chances of taking Kherson soon are — I decided to write a slightly expanded version of my answer.

The first thing to understand that the geography in the two regions is very different. In the north (Kharkiv-Izyum) the terrain allows smaller units to hide quite effectively and thereby avoid both detection and destruction. In the south, the open terrain makes this practically impossible, and the numerous canals crisscrossing the land further complicate any attack. In short, the north favors offense while the south favors defense.

The operation in the north was classic Blitzkrieg of the type you learn about in theory classes, not the type practiced by the Russians. Unlike the VSRF, whose initial attempt to conquer Ukraine (and, really, its entire way of war, apparently) consisted on relying on massive artillery barrages and punching through with enormous iron fists of tanks and assorted armored vehicles — a strategy that treats individual soldiers as expendable cogs in a vast machine — ZSU relied on relatively small but very mobile units tearing through defenses, and then continuing into enemy territory without stopping to invest towns and villages on the way. These lighting strikes were not thoroughly prepped by artillery and often did not have much of air or artillery support once on the way. The field commanders had a lot of leeway to decide which way to go and were left with the task to seize the initiative and improvise. In the meantime, all units were connected with reliable communications, and so officers up the chain of command were always aware where the units were and could coordinate their advances, and when necessary correct them.

As I have written before, the rapid penetration behind enemy lines (in some places up to 25km per day, an astonishing rate) sowed confusion among the Russians, who were neither adequately prepared for defense nor had reliable communications among them. Panic spread as rumors about ZSU units coming from all directions with massive superiority in numbers (in reality, the total number of forces ZSU committed to the offensive seem very similar to what VSRF had deployed in the region), and with seemingly endless supply of smart weapons (which are, in fact, very limited) caused some Russian units to break and run and some to withdraw in good order thinking they are facing encirclement, in both cases often abandoning quite a lot of their equipment (but, apparently, still taking much of their artillery with them). As parts of the front crumbled, other units became dangerously exposed, and so had to retreat, and in the end it seems the High Command decided that it’s safest to abandon the entire area west of Oskil River, with some units crossing back into Russia while others stopping to form defenses of Luhansk along Oskil and — the second, and more important, line — Svatove. I do not think the Russians believe they can hold Lyman but every day ZSU spends surrounding and storming that city is a day the VSRF forces can use to improve their defenses to the east. This suggests that Moscow has decided that its best bet before the winter there is to dig in and hold the gains in Luhansk and Donetsk.

The topography of Kherson does not permit the type of attack ZSU launched in the north. Since there is no place for smaller units to hide, the element of surprise and confusion would be lost, and the units themselves will be quickly eliminated without the air cover or artillery support. Correspondingly, ZSU’s tactic there is a more methodical creeping advance that relies on infantry inching forward, holding positions, then bringing up artillery support in order to soften the next enemy defense line, and then repeating the process. It’s very intense and very costly — we do not know what casualties ZSU is suffering on the Kherson front, but I bet they are not negligible — but it works. The fact that ZSU now has the entire right bank of the Dnipro under fire control really helps them. The destruction of weapons and ammo depots, of enemy command centers, and now partisan activity targeting collaborators — all of this is making it extraordinarily difficult for the Russians to mount an effective defense through counter-attacks. As their supplies dwindle, their morale will just worsen. ZSU appears relentless there in the way VSRF appeared in the north in the spring and early summer. They just keep coming and coming until you are forced to withdraw. If you are a Russian soldier huddled in a trench, with your retreat across the Dnipro River cut off, with your supplies dwindling with no reinforcements in sight, with locals increasingly willing to slit your throat or firebomb you when you venture out for bread, and your morale will be at least sapped. Add to this the news about the massive defeat in the north — especially the stories about commanders abandoning their soldiers (stories that the Ukrainians take great care to disseminate) — and your morale is likely to tank. Thoughts of surrender will not be far behind. If you also know that your commanders lied to their superiors about the number of people in your unit (as, apparently, they have done with some regularity — bringing numbers closer to reality whenever necessary by inventing massive losses in a recent Ukrainian attack), or about the work they have done building defenses (which, apparently, is also a thing!), then you can easily come to feel abandoned, and so become an easy target of Ukrainian “surrender and live” calls.

It is for these reasons that I think that it will not be easy to repeat the lighting advance of the Kharkiv-Izyum operation in Kherson, where victory will be achieved through more methodical means. I say “will” rather than “maybe” because I do not see where the Russians will find the means to reverse their losses before fall/winter come in force.

In fact, and supremely ironically, the Russians might suffer additional defeats by General Winter, who is always thought to work for them. (That’s a myth, by the way, in 1939-40, the Russians froze by the thousands while the Finns skied circles around them apparently inured to weather effects.) From accounts I have seen, the Russians are woefully unprepared for a winter campaign — they were having trouble even in early spring this year. The ZSU, on the other hand, does not seem to have this problem.

This will, of course, affect operations in the north (liberation of Luhansk and Donetsk), where ZSU will be meeting with increasingly tougher resistance because these are areas the Russians have held for 8 years, which they (presumably) spent preparing to defend. On the other hand, it could well be that the Russians, in their arrogance, never really believed the Ukrainians would dare attack them. If they also believed that it’s just a matter of time before they attack Ukraine — which they would, doubtless, defeat in 3-4 days! — then perhaps some commanders also acquired fancy houses and cars while the defensive works they built exist only in beautifully written reports. As always with VSRF, corruption is one of the main ally of the Ukrainians.

I am not really sure that the people of ORDLO who have chosen to stay through 8 years of Russian-led rule are ready to die gloriously for their banana “republics.” Judging by the scores of videos that are now coming daily out of these areas, the authorities are scrounging the land for men to throw into the army. You can see people being forced to go with recruiters right off the streets. And if I understand the process, they are given minimal training of a week or two, issued a weapon (they often have to buy other things or rely on donations), and thrown into the firestorm. These tend to be worse than useless militarily, yet do something the authorities must. Especially if Moscow suddenly abandons them, as they might the ones in Kherson and Zaporizhzhie.

It seems to me — but I am no specialist in the art of war — that the best thing ZSU can do now is what they are doing; that is, continue offensive operations and not let the enemy catch their breath. The Russians are demoralized, their high command does not have fresh ideas, and the initiative seems to be almost entirely on the Ukrainian side. General Zaluzhnyi is taking great risks, that’s for sure, but so far his calculated gambles have paid off. With the Western (mostly American) supply becoming steady and more predictable, they can plan more long-term, and afford to attack more ferociously when needed.

In the end, the Russians have placed their faith in the numbers of their machines while the Ukrainians have placed theirs in their soldiers — better-trained by the day, highly motivated, protected by superiors and used as sparingly as possible, and armed with increasingly sophisticated weapons. I cannot see the Russian way of war winning this one.

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