The Gerasimov Offensive isn’t “coming” — it’s here

January 30, 2023

(This entry collects, and expands upon, several FB posts I made over the past few days.)

Ever since the news about the appointment of Gerasimov, the Chief of Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, to command the Russian forces in Ukraine, everybody has been expecting a large offensive by VSRF. I do not have enough information if this is also a result of internal rebalancing — with the military putting Kadyrov and Prigozhin on leash, or Putin countering Wagner Chief’s apparent growth in popularity and perhaps budding political ambitions, or Putin letting people who know what they are doing (the General Staff) do war things instead of amateurs like him or the bevy on non-entities he installed at the Ministry of Defense (Shoigu and his deputies). The possibilities are just endless, and they are not even mutually exclusive. But one thing was clear, and that was Gerasimov must now own the war.

From this point on, speculation was rife about the timing and locations of the offensive operations, with all sorts of plausible and fantastic stories being told, some of them including amphibious assaults on Odessa (not possible without control of adjacent territory, which VSRF now even lost the possibility to control after withdrawing from Kherson), an attack on Kyiv (unclear what it could accomplish since the city is more or less impregnable to anything the Russians have mustered in Belarus or can muster there without exposing other sectors of the front), and so on. But the thing that many people seemed to agree on was that the offensive was going to commence in February or March.

I believe the Gerasimov Offensive is already underway, and that it started more than 2 weeks ago when the Russians suddenly became active on the entire front from Zaporizhzhia to Luhansk. For some reason, even the respected Institute of War Studies is still talking about the offense in future tense as if they expect Putin to go on TV an announce it, and concurrently for VSRF to launch all its forces in Ukraine in easily identifiable thrusts they way they did in February last year.

I do not think it will play out like that again. Instead, the offensive would have to start with precisely the sort of operations the Russians have been conducting for the past couple of weeks, ranging from nearly suicidal assaults on positions they consider key (and which therefore must be taken at any cost), determined but somewhat less crazy attacks on positions where ZSU needs to be pushed back or perhaps where they can hope for a breakthrough, and a bunch of secondary attacks ranging from diversionary in nature to reconnaissance with fire. Of course, readers will recognize Bakhmut/Soledar in the first category, Vuhledar and Kreminna/Svatove in the second, and the multiple Zaporizhzhian villages that changed hands several times recently in the third category.

This leads me to believe that the awaited Gerasimov Offensive has begun.

The Situation on the front

Let’s start the post, as usual, with a brief situational update. Russian milbloggers have been breathlessly reporting that the Russian army has gone on the offensive (in that, we agree!), and has been taking one Ukrainian town after another. This is not quite right. Here’s what’s going on.

It has been more than a week since the Russians took Soledar, and they have been unable to make much progress either east or south, toward Bakhmut. The situation around Bakhmut is critical nevertheless. The Russians are attempting to encircle the town, and there are massive casualties on both sides. After Wagner suffered tremendous losses there, VSRF has sent in reinforcements from the regular troops.

The losses Russia has suffered at Bakhmut/Soledar are absolutely stunning, and even conservative estimates put them at more than 10,000 killed and wounded (some estimates for total Russian casualties in January go up to 20,000). Regional hospitals are full of wounded Wagnerites, and one of the reasons to focus on Soledar was their failure to take Bakhmut. If the ZSU defenders are at risk of encirclement, they will fall back, likely toward prepared defenses at Chasiv Yar.

Russian attempts to take or encircle Avdiivka continue to be unsuccessful.

The Russian counter-attacks to push ZSU away from Svatove-Kreminna have been largely unsuccessful, and have cost them dearly. They managed to move ZSU away from the connecting road but not across the Zherebets River. The Russians have thrown in so many people in this direction that many of them are sitting idle with nothing to do. (There’s an optimal number of troops per distance of front, and exceeding this usually leads to degradation of performance.)

The Russians have renewed the assault on Vuhledar, and are storming the suburbs, which they reached about a week ago. Despite earlier claims, ZSU managed to stop them and is currently defending the city, which is not easy to take because it sits on a plain, which gives the advantage to the defenders who can use the built-up city to hide and protect themselves while the attackers must advance in the open. Reportedly, the first offensive a couple of weeks ago eventually had to be aborted despite initial successes because the monstrous casualties the Russians were taking eventually caused some of the troops to refuse further orders to attack.

In other places around Zaporizhzhie Oblast, the Russians are conducting reconnaissance with fire and are training mobiki by pushing into villages but then retreating when they meet resistance.

The Russians seem to be in a hurry, and it is because they need a strategic breakthrough very soon. Of course, such a breakthrough is necessary for any of the more ambitious plans to become feasible, so it is inherent in the nature of the undertaking. But the timing is urgent because it must happen before ZSU can receive and integrate the new Western armaments that were recently promised. Once the new tanks, IFVs, and artillery become operational, the conquering task of VSRF would be impossible no matter how many people Russia mobilizes to throw onto the battlefield. The timing is also urgent because the Kremlin might hope that fresh conquests by VSRF would shake Western confidence in Ukraine’s ability to win, embolden the voices — like Mearsheimer & Co — who have always asserted that it is impossible to defeat Russia, which could splinter the Western coalition of Ukraine supporters and deliver victory to the Russians. Finally, the timing is also urgent because for all the over-the-top Z-propaganda, all evidence coming out of Russia suggests that support for the SMO is slipping, and that the propagandists’ efforts to turn it into a “Great Patriotic War” are not bearing any fruit. Part of this slippage is due to disappointment with the results so far, to increasing fear that one might get mobilized to fight (and die) in Ukraine, to confusion about the goals of the SMO because the Kremlin keeps inventing new ones, to rising worry about the cost of living, which continues to increase despite Putin’s claims to the contrary. The Kremlin might be hoping that some big successes on the battlefield will shore up sagging morale domestically. Since selling Soledar as the new Stalingrad utterly failed to carry the media waves (probably because even the propagandists realized just how nonsensical it was), VSRF needs something big, or at least something the Ukrainians really seems to have wanted to defend “to the last man” (or, failing that, something that could be sold as such). Capturing Bakhmut would be a big deal, but even that might not be enough — coming out to the administrative borders of Donetsk, on the other hand, would definitely qualify. But for this, Bakhmut has to be taken first, and this has — so far — proven easier said than done.

So what is the deal with these Western tanks? Are they really so important?

Why the Western tanks matter

The story seems very simple: Western MBTs exceed in quality Russian MBTs (certainly T-72, but also their main competitor, the T-90, and of the vaunted T-14, there’s just not enough to make any difference whatsoever). Therefore, the story goes, with Western tanks, Ukraine can defeat the Russian tanks and voila! success.

Except this is not even close to how it works or why the MBTs are important.

Now, it is true that our tanks are better in almost everything (except fuel consumption), but that’s because the Russian tanks were designed to be cheap so that they can be produced in large numbers and (relatively) light so they can be transported more easily. For what they are supposed to do, the Russian tanks are pretty good. However, the Western MBTs have superior armor that Russian tanks cannot penetrate at 2km (this accounts for most of the extra weight), superior projectiles that can pierce Russian armor at further distance, far more advanced optics, sensors, and computers that improve detection and targeting dramatically, and thermal sights that allow nighttime operation. One-on-one, a Western MBT can probably destroy any Russian tank, and the Abrams M1 is designed to be able to destroy several Russian tanks at once without additional support. In these sorts of comparisons, the Western tanks are just superior.

But this is hardly relevant because this war does not involve large tank-on-tank battles. Instead, the main danger to tanks comes from infantry or helicopters with anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM).

We all know about the Javelins by now, the Ukrainians having used them with such devastating effect against the Russians, but we have other types of fire-and-forget ATGMs that are also quite effective, and the Russians really only have the Kornet that comes close, but does not match, ATGMs in this class. Fire-and-forget systems allow the operator to acquire the target — preferably through passive means so the enemy does not detect it — launch the missile, and let the onboard computer guide it to its destination, with the operator immediately getting away from the launch point, which the enemy might be able to detect by the illumination and smoke. The Kornet requires a tripod to launch (it can be mounted on vehicles too) while the Javelin, which weighs about 50 lbs, can be shoulder-launched. It also requires line-of-sight to be maintained until the missile hits the targets, which can take anywhere between 10 seconds and a minute. In other words, with assembly, firing, and disassembly of the Kornet, the crew remains vulnerable for a considerable amounts of time. Still, the Kornet is a pretty capable weapon, with a proven track record. (I am not sure why the Russians never produced 3rd gen ATGMs — they were certainly developing them — but they do not have anything in serial production.)

The helicopters, on the other hand, have been somewhat less useful — for both sides — because of fairly efficient air defenses. Both sides have been reduced to “spray and pray” techniques, which involve flying “close enough” to the targets, then firing at them, and immediately reversing course, hoping that something is going to hit somewhere close enough to the target, and that nothing will come flying back to take out your own aircraft. It’s incredibly wasteful and inefficient. Still, when they can get through, helicopters can be a real danger to tanks. (Planes can, in principle, destroy any tank but the Russians were never able to establish air dominance and it’s incredibly dangerous to fly expensive jets anywhere near the battlefield these days. Exchanging a very expensive plane for a much cheaper tank does not seem to be a good deal.)

All of that means that the Russians do have capabilities that can counter tanks, and that they could be sufficiently formidable to render MBTs much less useful than tank characteristics would suggest.

In the end, however, it all depends on how the MBTs are used in operations.

Just to give you an idea, the US deployed 1,772 Abrams M1A1 series MBTs during Desert Storm. Only 9 were destroyed — seven by friendly fire, and two intentionally to prevent capture. Another 14 were damaged, and a total of 20 personnel were wounded, with none killed. In contrast, during the Yemeni War, the Saudis have lost quite a few Abrams M1 MBTs to Houthi rebels who have no tanks, no helicopters, and no aircraft — all because they do not use the tanks properly (with enough infantry support, air cover, etc.); in other words, it’s because they lack training and did not deploy their support assets to make use of the tanks. Most, maybe all, of the MBT losses they suffered would not have happened had American forces operated the tanks.

So the question is not so much about the Western MBTs themselves (in fact, the heavily upgraded T-55s Ukraine has been getting are quite formidable tanks too), but rather it is about what comes with them.

The decision by the UK, US, and Germany to provide Western MBTs to Ukraine after months of dragging their feet signifies that the West has crossed an important self-imposed line and moved from thinking how to prevent Ukraine’s defeat toward thinking how to secure Ukraine’s victory. This shift is absolutely critical, and the Russians picked up on the implications immediately (in fact, much faster than most Western commentators, who still do not sufficiently emphasize this): the propagandists immediately started talking about it, they were clearly in shock, and vented their anger in a stream of ever-more-bloodthirsty imagery linking Germans with Nazis, and promising all sorts of vengeance on Europe for this betrayal. For people who have spent the last 11 months breezily blabbing how Russia is fighting NATO or “the collective West,” this bunch sure appeared shell-shocked by the coming introduction of Western MBTs into the war.

This is because they understand the symbolic value of this decision but, perhaps more importantly, they understand its strategic implications — as I explained above, the MBTs, on their own, are useless; they are only of value as part of combined arms warfare (CAW); that is, when infantry, artillery, air defenses, electronic warfare systems, all work together to achieve the stated operational goals. The MBTs are not coming in isolation, they are delivered along with lots of necessary support for their effective use in CAW:

  • lots and lots of Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFVs, like Bradley & Marder, and AFVs like Stryker): these are actually even more effective tank-killers than the MBTs themselves since they are very maneuverable and have powerful 120mm guns that can also bust bunkers; they also carry infantry and can be used to neutralize enemy infantry, making sure that there is no ATGM operator close by to threaten the MBTs — the moment these deliveries were announced, it was clear that the MBTs would follow;
  • armored recovery vehicles (ARV, like M88A2 Hercules): although we are all fond of seeing Ukrainian farmers towing captured Russian tanks with tractors, recovering damaged tanks from the battlefield is crucial, and these vehicles can make it possible to restore many of them after being disabled right in the field; Germany is sending 17 Bergenpanzer ARVs now, which indicates Leopard 2 deliveries as well (perhaps as many as 300 if one goes by how many the ARV is supposed to handle);
  • armored engineer vehicles (AEV, like Dachs 2A1): these remove anti-tank obstacles (like the concrete pyramids of the infamous “Wagner Line” in Donbas), disable minefields, and fill in anti-tank ditches;
  • self-propelled anti-aircraft guns (SPAAG like Gepard): these can shoot down enemy drones and helicopters.

The numbers the West has committed to right now are not overwhelming, but the trend is clear, and I expect more deliveries in the future. Moreover, Ukraine is being given equipment that unequivocally helps with offensive operations. While the 31 Abrams M1 the USA has promised are not expected to show up in Ukraine for months, the deliveries of the German-made Leopards must start very soon. These were always intended to be the first step, and now it appears that commitments have been made to deliver over 300. Is that a lot?

Well, it depends: are these the only MBTs Ukraine is getting (nope, as I mentioned, the upgraded T-55s are almost as good), and on how wide a front you are going to be using them. Clearly, if you disperse these tanks on a 1,000-mile front, they are not going to make any difference, but concentrated in a few narrow sectors, they could be crucial.

Finally, the absolutely critical element that can make all of this either decisive in the war or the equivalent to a very expensive pile of scrap metal: training and ability to conduct CAW.

The US Congress authorized millions of dollars to train Ukrainians on all necessary equipment (which includes aircraft, by the way), and the US has already begun to train ZSU in CAW at the Grafenwoehr base in Bavaria. Germany has authorized Poland to train Ukrainians on Leopards, and since the US already has facilities to support the Abrams tanks it has contracted to deliver to Poland there, Ukrainians will be able to train on these MBTs as well. Ukrainian pilots have been training on simulators to fly Western aircraft, in anticipation of eventual deliveries (which I consider inevitable despite Biden ruling out F-16s today). The Ukrainians are motivated and have now amassed a lot of experience. They have also been training by NATO standards for years already. They are quite capable of implementing CAW in ways that the Russians can only dream of.

But Russia is so large and can…

All of this, of course, must take into account what Russia can bring to bear on the front as well.

Numbers. Large numbers. This is what everyone gets fixated on, and for a good reason — the raw numbers are quite stunning.

Russia started the war with about 3,300 operational MBTs, but has lost about 70% of these (many were captured by ZSU and are now in use by the Ukrainians). Still, its reserve of T-72, T-80, T-90, T-64, and T-62 tanks is estimated to be around 15,000. However, as I have explained in previous posts, it is also estimated that no more than 20% of these are usable. This means, it can probably scrape together another 3,000 tanks at most, and probably fewer because it would have to cannibalize some of them for parts. Restoration and repair can take weeks or months, which is why the Russians have been getting tanks from Belarus instead. But this source is also running dry. In other words, VSRF does not have a bottomless reservoir of MBTs, and they are getting to be of progressively worse quality than the one they fielded at the start of the war. (British intelligence assesses that the fabled T-14 Armata is quite rare — only very few were produced — and is so unreliable that units refuse to use it.)

A similar story can be told with personnel. Russia has lots of people, and it can mobilize a lot. But, since it’s also a huge country, it must commit a lot of personnel to internal and external security that has nothing to do with the war in Ukraine. It has been reducing the number of soldiers deployed at some borders — ironically, the safest one is probably with soon-to-be-NATO member Finland — but it cannot afford to denude other places (like the Caucasus, for instance). Upkeep is expensive but order must be maintained. Even the Wagner PMC has something like 20,000 veteran mercenaries in Africa who are either refusing to go to Ukraine or, more likely, are kept there to prop up various friendly regimes and guard resource extraction. There is a good reason the Kremlin has been trying to use convicts, and it is not because they make good soldiers. The more pressure the government exerts on the population by mobilizing regular people, the more of a problem continuing the SMO is going to be. This is why the government is even hiding the fact that the so-called “partial” mobilization is still ongoing.

We must also consider the quality of these mobiki. Of course, when the Russians threw in thousands of these without much of any training, they died in horrifying numbers. The ones that survived can now be considered “trained by combat” and they are joined by men with a couple of months of training. The mobiki are not nearly as useless anymore as they had been a few months ago. Their training might be adequate for defensive operations (where you basically dig in and try to hold a line) but it is definitely not enough for offensive operations, which are far more complicated and require a lot of coordination. This is where the Russian shortage of trained officers is debilitating — they lost a great many of them last year, and these losses are not easily made up as it takes years to train officers properly.

In contrast, ZSU started the mobilization immediately, and has continued put people in uniform on a rolling basis, which has allowed it to train vast numbers of people for many months. The Russians, desperate as they are to throw mobiki into the war, do not have that luxury because they are losing people at such a fast rate. If they ease up on the pressure, ZSU might counter-attack immediately, and so they have to keep it up, which means a constant demand for more men. (This is another reason why Ukraine cannot possibly agree to any ceasefire.)

Morale in ZSU remains very high despite Russians trying to create an illusion that is is collapsing. (There were several videos with what appeared to be forcible mobilizations by ZSU but these are very rare, and in at least the case that Russians actively spread online, the involved commissars have been disciplined for exceeding their authority.) The Hungarian government also spread fake news about ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine being pressed into service, which provoked a vehement denial by said ethnic Hungarians themselves. The fact remains that Ukrainians are defending their homeland, with the backing of the entire global West and sympathies beyond, while the Russians have no idea what they are dying for, with the Kremlin recently providing yet another handful of confusing reasons for the war (to prevent Anglo-Saxon bases in Sea of Azov, according to Lavrov, or, as Putin said, the reasons are a state secret).

Of course, mention must be made about artillery — still the queen of the battlefield, and the cause of the vast majority of ZSU losses. I have discussed numbers, production, and future capacity in my previous posts, so now I just want to mention that the West is ramping up production to supply Ukraine with sufficient quantities of 155mm ammunition, among others. The intensity of use by the Russians has steadily decreased. With the intense bombardment of Bakhmut/Soledar and Vuhledar over the past several weeks, they fire about 15,000 per day, which is quite a lot, but which is half of what they used a few months ago, and half again of what they used earlier in the war during similarly intense operations. Given the ferocity of their push on these sectors, it is unlikely that the Russians are sparing ammunition there — in other words, the “shell hunger” is real. The Ukrainians have been firing about 5,000 per day, and with increased Western deliveries, they can reach parity as well as hope to attain superiority in specific sectors of the front.

In other words, despite the numbers that seemingly favor the Russians, many of the advantages are offset by serious disabilities inherent in the nature of Putin’s regime, in the kleptocratic organization of the army, and in the fact that Russia is fighting alone.

International isolation

The fundamental, and ultimately fatal, problem for Russia in this war is its near total international isolation. Russia has no friends — no, not China, and not India, and not North Korea — it has only unhappy neutrals and actively hostile opponents. The hostile opponents comprise more than 60% of the world economy, while Russia’s share is 2%. Even if the unhappy neutrals were to lend Russia their full support, it would still be 26%, and they are not going to.

The Soviet Union was never, ever, in such international isolation. It always had more or less reliable partners and friends, and it was much larger and stronger than Russia to begin with.

The international isolation of Russia is only deepening. Russia is now banned from UEFA and FIFA soccer competitions, bobsleigh, rock climbing, and biathlon, among others. International sports federations are not going to stage any competitions in Russia. Among them: volleyball, F-1, skating, and chess. The ministers of sports of 25 EU countries signed a declaration calling for the expulsion of Russia from all international sports federations. The flag, anthem, colors or any other symbols of Russia will not be permitted at any international competitions. The Olympic Committee just decided that athletes from Russia (and Belarus) who wish to participate in 2024 would have to do so as neutrals, without state symbols, that they will have to submit to anti-doping regulations, must not have ever made public statements supporting the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and will have to condemn the invasion. (In other words, no athletes who currently live in Russia will be able to participate.)

The only countries that seem to have helped Russia with military equipment are Iran (confirmed) and North Korea (unconfirmed). Both deny it.

The situation with Iran just got more complicated. Two days ago, multiple military targets in Iran were attacked by drones. So far, nobody has claimed responsibility, and Tehran has not publicly accused anyone either. The most likely culprit is, as usual, Israel. The Israelis have been watching with increasing concern the deepening military cooperation between Russia and Iran. Hard-pressed to get drones and missiles from Tehran, Moscow was ready to pay extraordinary prices — not in rubles, which are basically useless outside Russia — and not even in dollars or gold, but in military equipment and know-how. The Russians have transferred fighter jets to Iran, suspected of having transferred anti-missile defense systems, and rumored to have agreed to provide technical expertise and help for Iran’s nuclear program. All of this is of critical importance to Israel, where recently Netanyahu won reelection as PM. His stated goal, of course, is the destruction of Iran as a nuclear power, so there is also a domestic reason for such an attack, especially in the wake of the terrorist attack on the synagogue in Jerusalem.

The targets hit (and it appears that the damage is extensive despite the denials of the Iranian government) are probably meant as a warning to Tehran, an attempt to deter them from continuing their policies in the region. If this leads to suspension (or any other limitations) of deliveries to Russia, it could also have an impact on the war in Ukraine.

I cannot venture beyond these speculations because at this point we do not have enough details for more conclusive interpretations.

And finally, a word on Western planes

They will go to Ukraine. I don’t care that Biden denied it today. It is inherent in the logic of committing to Ukraine liberating its territories. Planes will be needed for successful offensive operations, and Ukraine’s planes are inferior to the ones the Russians use because they use the semi-automated tracking system and have half the range of the Russians. In other words, a Ukrainian pilot must detect the enemy warplane, target it, and maintain lock on the target for the duration of the missile flight, all of this while being well within the engagement envelope of the Russian opponent. The Russians can detect them, fire their missiles (and forget about them since they have fully automated tracking), and disappear well before the Ukrainian pilots has even gotten close enough to fire his missiles. It’s essentially a suicide mission to engage in this sort of combat.

This deficiency has to be rectified, which means Western planes.

If the West is committed to Ukrainian victory — and I think it has signaled so with the MBT commitments — then Western aircraft will go to Ukraine.

And so will long-range missiles.

The question is, how much will politics (wrangling hesitant allies) delay these inevitable deliveries? And how badly will it affect ZSU’s plans for new offensives? And will the Russians be able to achieve some serious breakthroughs before all of this happens?

4 thoughts on “The Gerasimov Offensive isn’t “coming” — it’s here

  1. You allude to something I’ve been wondering about the past year–are the ethnic minorities (Hungarians, Romanians, etc.) not participating actively in the military defense effort?


      1. Good. I see—it was just Orban fake news.

        The Transcarpathia region is interesting. At one time the Party of Regions did very well there, the only part of western Ukraine where that was true. When we were there our guide (from Lviv) had to speak Russian because hardly anyone in the region spoke Ukrainian. That was 2005. I am sure much has changed.


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