Streetwise Professor

June 17, 2023

A Near Run Thing On the Steppes

Filed under: History,Military,Russia,Ukraine — cpirrong @ 3:30 pm

So the long-awaited Ukrainian counteroffensive has begun. How’s it going? Who knows?

Initial reports indicate that the Ukrainians have made advances measured in kilometers, but not tens of kilometers, in several areas along the long front. They have suffered losses in armor and of course personnel, but how much is hard to gauge. The Russians have crowed about inflicting large material losses, but showing the same damaged Leopard tank from several angles rather dilutes their boasts.

Regardless, this is hardly Guderian racing to the Channel coast, Patton rampaging from Normandy to Paris to Metz, or the USMC breaching Iraqi prepared defenses and reaching Kuwait City long ahead of schedule. But does that mean anything? Again, who knows?

For one thing, the above are exceptions rather than rules when it comes to offensives, so one should not benchmark Ukraine’s efforts against them. For another, it is still unknown whether this represents the main Ukrainian effort, or is instead probing attacks, or feints, or shaping operations, or initial grinding assaults intended to gnaw through prepared Russian defenses thereby opening gaps through which the main Ukrainian assault forces can pour into the Russian rear areas.

In preparation for the Ukrainian assault, the Russians have constructed multiple lines of defense, with the approaches heavily–and I mean heavily–mined. (Where’s Princess Diana???) Getting through the minefields is a major challenge, and the necessarily slow pace of doing so subjects the attacker to artillery bombardment and air strikes. So the going can expected to be tough, with high casualties.

One model that comes to mind is El Alamein. Rommel had entrenched along the Egyptian border, and sowed massive minefields. When Montgomery attacked, it was extremely slow going at first, with large casualties in personnel and armor. It took about 10 days for British (mainly ANZAC and South African, actually) infantry to clear pathways through the minefields through which British armor could eventually pass. During the 3 week battle, Montgomery shifted the weight of his advance from the right flank to the left and back again as one flank became bogged down. It was a long, slow process, but once the British had gnawed through the prepared defenses, at high cost, Rommel was forced to withdraw, thus beginning a race westwards through Libya and back to Tunisia.

The Normandy campaign is another. Weeks of bitter combat with Allied forces attempting to break through German lines, measuring progress in yards, if that, eventually resulting in breakout at St. Lo and a precipitous German withdrawal to the Seine and beyond.

Today, the Russians have some advantages the Germans lacked. In particular, they have an edge in the air, whereas the British did in 1942 and the Allies did in 1944: the breakout at St. Lo in Operation Cobra was made possible by a massive air bombardment that wrecked and stunned the already heavily attrited Panzer Lehr division–and also killed a lot of Americans hit by “shorts.” After being an non-factor during offensive operations, Russian attack helos have apparently been effective in the defense against the counter offensive. Russian fixed wing aviation has also made itself felt in contrast to its performance heretofore. Ukraine has no ability to execute the equivalent of a Cobra.

That said, German troops were far better than the Russians are–and maybe even the derided Italians in the desert were better than the mobiks currently absorbing blows.

The Ukrainians have advantages in night fighting capability, and that can be decisive. But it’s hard enough to breach minefields in the day, let alone at night. So the night fighting advantage can’t be decisive until the minefields have been breached and the Ukrainians can close with the Russian defenders–assuming, of course, that the Russians stand if the Ukrainians do make a breach or breaches and start running amok in the Russian rear.

So as of now, uncertainty reigns. Uncertainty regarding the Ukrainian operational plan (e.g., is this their main effort, or a shaping operation?) Uncertainty regarding what is actually transpiring on the battlefield. Uncertainty regarding the combat power and endurance of the contending forces.

The advantage of the offense is that it is only necessary to break through in one place to achieve a decisive victory–provided the attacker has highly mobile reserves to exploit a breakthrough and the defender doesn’t have the mobile reserves (and especially mobile reserves led the by likes of a von Manstein or a Model) to seal the breach. It remains to be seen whether the Ukrainians have the ability to break through, and more importantly, the force to exploit a breach if they do. Several Russian counterattacks have apparently been repulsed quite bloodily (wrecking an entire division in one instance), and based on prior performance and the attrition of the past months I seriously doubt whether they can execute a mobile defense if their lines are breached anywhere–or even if Putin will let them. The necessity of deploying over a very long front extending hundreds of kilometers combined with the pronounced lack of skill at combined arms mobile warfare suggests that a Ukrainian breach anywhere would be devastating to the Russians. But whether Ukraine can achieve that breach before culmination is a very open question.

So I predict that the race between Ukrainian counteroffensive and the Russian defense will be like how Wellington described Waterloo: “the nearest run thing you ever saw.”

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  1. So, um, er, in summary; we don’t know.
    Good to have that cleared up.

    Comment by philip — June 18, 2023 @ 10:06 am

  2. @phillip. Damn sight better than pretending to know when you don’t. Which is all too common.

    Comment by cpirrong — June 18, 2023 @ 1:26 pm

  3. But Germans in Normandy were far from the best soldiers of Wehrmacht.

    Comment by mmt — June 18, 2023 @ 5:10 pm

  4. The UAF offensive is two weeks in and has barely penetrated the RAF screening line, let alone made it to Russia’s first line of prepared defenses. The Russians have artillery and air superiority and are using it highly effectively. Western tanks (e.g. Leopard 2s) and IFVs (Bradleys etc.) burn just as well as all the other armour both sides have been using. Similarly, NATO training hasn’t made a scrap of difference to UAF effectiveness.

    A couple more weeks of this and all of the carefully-husbanded NATO-equipped and -trained UAF brigades will be combat-ineffective, proving what has been obvious since Russia mobilised: Ukraine is hopelessly outgunned and this “counter-offensive” is a fool’s errand.

    Comment by Fyodor — June 18, 2023 @ 7:52 pm

  5. Recently, a video surfaced of a russian soldier pleading with a drone successfully – for his life. 2 russian soldiers near him decided to end it all – one with a grenade to his own head, and the other shooting himself with a rifle. As the soldier who pleaded for his life was following the drone to surrender, he fell to the ground, exhausted, whereupon russians started shooting at him. Turns out he was a 30-year old liquor store manager who was drafted, and he did not want to be in this “war.”

    Apart from russians shooting their own soldiers, here is another recent story – russians pack a tank with 6 tons of explosives and remotely send it at Ukrainian soldiers – but it blows up short of its target after hitting a mine.

    It’s too bad putler wasn’t caught in the explosion.

    As the Ukrainians unleash a wall of fire, the suicide tank hits a mine and slows down.

    A Ukranian soldier then hits it with a rocket blowing the tank up in a massive fireball.

    Despite the tank being halted approtimately 200ft from the Ukranians, it is likely the huge pressure wave from the explosion killed some soldiers.

    Russia has used the tactic at least twice before, althrough this is the first time the explosion has been caught on camera.

    On this occasion, Russian propaganda channel ‘Romanov’ claims that Moscow stuffed the tank with six tonnes of explosives before attempting to blow up Ukrainian soldiers by sending it to Kyiv territory using autopilot.

    However, the ISIS-style tactic backfired when the remotely-controlled suicide bomb blew up on a landmine around 100 metres from the front line.The T-54 was then finished off by a Ukrainian RPG, triggering the massive explosion

    Comment by elmer — June 18, 2023 @ 7:55 pm

  6. @Fyodor: A fool’s errand? You mean the same way that the the counter-offensives at Kherson and Kharkiv were massive failures for the Ukranians… or wait a minute, no, it can’t be… the Russian’s LOST those cities? Impossible! 😛

    Keep trying troll, maybe you can eventually get one person to believe your counter-factual.

    Comment by HibernoFrog — June 19, 2023 @ 2:26 am

  7. @HibernoFrog

    Actually, next to mass murder and ecocide, disinformation is one of Muscovy’s very few very successful products. E.g. not long ago, a certain big EU country’s “Ostpolitik” (which they were proud(!) of) was officially “it’s pure business, nothing personal”, and unofficially (as expressed to Ukraine’s then ambassador) “in 3 days, there won’t be any Ukraine, so why worry?”

    Comment by Ivan — June 19, 2023 @ 4:40 am

  8. Another Wellington quote. The only sight sadder than a battlefield won is a battlefield lost. God save Ukraine.

    Comment by Soyosy1 — June 19, 2023 @ 2:33 pm

  9. In the end wars end. Who will be the winners, who the losers?
    If NATO / Ukraine win, the peace may be ephemeral.
    If Putin wins, he keeps Crimea + Donbas as a minimum, + holds a sword of Damocles over Ukraine.
    But even if Putin wins, he’s not won. Central Asian ex Soviet republics pivot towards China. China demands territory in the Russian Far East, which already has more Chinese in it than Russians, and was annexed during China’s “century of humiliation”.

    I hope I’m wrong but all the scenarios I see are a garden of dragons’ teeth.

    Comment by philip — June 19, 2023 @ 3:12 pm

  10. HibernoFrog, your beliefs are of no consequence to anyone. The facts remain as I stated them. Russia’s losses in Kherson and Kharkov were the trigger for the mobilisation of its reserves and the creation of the defense lines the UAF is failing to penetrate today. Russia now operates at a manpower & firepower advantage over Ukraine and this is evident in the continued & disproportionate attrition of the UAF.

    Comment by Fyodor — June 19, 2023 @ 5:12 pm

  11. @Fyodor: Oh yeah, those barely trained conscripts and refurbished Soviet-era vehicles are going to make a HUGE difference against Ukraine’s partly NATO-trained reserves and hundreds of recent Western vehicles. You realise that your so-called “facts” about Russia’s manpower and firepower advantages, and their more favourable loss rate, were claimed to be the same before the last counter-offensive too?

    I will agree that my beliefs are of no consequence to anyone – what matters are the beliefs of the Ukranians, and they believe they can win. But as the Prof says, we just don’t know yet. Let’s meet back here in a month and see which of us was right…

    Comment by HibernoFrog — June 20, 2023 @ 2:59 am

  12. I have thought, since the Ukes stopped the initial Russian attacks, that this war will likely last about as long as the first Gulf War (Iran-Iraq 1979-89), and for largely the same reasons – troop quality, mostly out of date equipment. The Russians have it worse than Ukraine on these counts, but offsetting these handicaps, they have greater numbers and a murderous dictator in charge – hence a correspondingly lower concern about losses (nil concern, actually). Of course, historically Russia has always relied on quantity to offset poor quality. You can see this as far back as Borodino.

    The Russians certainly have better trolls, but to paraphrase the one above, their trolling is of no consequence.

    Comment by Green as Grass — June 20, 2023 @ 4:45 am

  13. HibernoFrog, every time you opine on this issue all that you do is reveal your ignorance. Get used to disappointment.

    Russia didn’t call up raw conscripts; it selectively mobilised from its pool of reservists, i.e. men who had served previously. There are literally millions more in that pool. They’ve since been training over the past half-year. In contrast, Ukraine has been desperately dragging men off the street and giving them minimal training before pushing them into the front-lines as cannon-fodder. The projection on this issue from the West is truly mind-boggling.

    As for “Soviet-era vehicles”, are you aware of how old the Western vehicles are? The Leopard 2 has been in service since 1979. Bradley IFV? 1981. M1 Abrams? 1980. All of this stuff, on BOTH sides, is decades old and, as we’ve seen in the past fortnight, there’s nothing miraculous about Western Wunderwaffen – they burn just as easily as the other stuff.

    There’s no debating the fact that Russia has an artillery and airpower advantage – even the most deluded Ukrainian propaganda admits this.

    Contra your assertion, what the Ukrainians believe about their chances is similarly irrelevant. Their fate is being decided by the Russian army destroying theirs in the field, and the US neocons pushing them into national suicide. But sure, let’s check back in a month. I’ll give you the opportunity to crow about an unfolding miracle…or admit you’re no more than a propagandised nitwit.

    Comment by Fyodor — June 20, 2023 @ 6:46 pm

  14. The ukronazi Volkssturm under the threat of being shot by their own rear ukronazi-SS troops is getting massacred by the Russian forces.

    The Russians, being the only adults in place, are taking things at a pace to try and prevent a NATO desperation involvement that will end with most human life on Earth.

    NATO is a joke that lacks willpower in this foolish thing, weapons and kit and even personnel that have already being burned to no gain in the ukronazistan killing fields and a difficult to explain situation that they don’t know how to end with clean enough hands that they don’t face too severe consequences at home. The corruptocrats responsible for this are so scared they keep trying to prolong it because they can’t face any possible ending.

    AINO-Venezuerica started this criminal adventure for two reasons.

    First to cover their criminal attack on the remains of the dead Constitutional Republic they murdered in 2020.

    And then for the humongous corruption moneys that are being channeled towards the military-industrial complex and the corresponding bribes and the humongous corruption moneys that are being channeled towards ukronazistan as “aid” that also have the corresponding kickbacks and are divided by Mordor on the Potomac mafias and Kiev mafias.

    Humongous fortunes are being made by corruptocrats while the Dollar commits suicide and the Davoser Great Reset accelerates towards bringing us a 4th Reich that will last a thousand years.

    Comment by FRONT_TOWARD_ENEMY — June 21, 2023 @ 6:04 pm

  15. Oi! chatGBT. Hello– Are you there?

    Right, I paid good money for a well argued case for exterminating the remainder of the Ukes you failed to kill in the 1930s. And instead I get this spittle filled rant about nazis. I want my money back if you can’t do better than this shit.

    BTW prof, congratulations on getting attention from the Kremlin trolls (or gonks).

    Comment by philip — June 22, 2023 @ 2:41 pm

  16. Coup, civil strife in Rasha.

    Fighting between Wagner Group and Russian military now occurring in Voronezh.

    I sure didn’t have this on my Bingo card for 2023.

    Comment by Ex-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — June 24, 2023 @ 2:31 am

  17. Dear X global

    This is the sort of thing that happens in authoritarian governments when the give up state control, even in part, to the monopoly of organized violence. Particularly when they try to move from authoritarians to something like totalitarianism. Not always, but a high probability.

    Comment by Sotosy1 — June 24, 2023 @ 7:16 am

  18. Such fun! Time for an update Craig?

    Comment by David Mercer — June 24, 2023 @ 8:21 am


    Russia is a failing state.

    That’s the key takeaway from the ongoing crisis surrounding would-be strongman, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the tough-talking chief of the Wagner private military company.

    Prigozhin’s coup may or may not succeed. While his victory would spell the end of the Putin regime, the very fact of a systemic crisis is what ultimately matters more.

    Stable regimes don’t face such challenges. Unstable regimes beset by deep-seated contradictions between elites, rulers, and subjects do.

    Vladimir Putin is far weaker than his propagandists in both Russia and the West would have us believe.

    And how could he not be the target of withering scorn and derision?

    He’s driven Russia off a cliff and has no idea of how to bring about a soft landing. Given the disastrous shape of his army, economy, and realm, it would be a downright miracle for no opposition to his self-destructive misrule to have emerged. Ironically, Putin called Prigozhin’s actions “a stab in the back of the country and the people.”

    What Russia’s unhinged leader forgot to add was that the war he initiated was a stab in the front of the country and the people.

    Comment by elmer — June 24, 2023 @ 8:50 am

  20. Kim Zigfeld had a blog called LaRussophobe

    Then she switched over to Dying Russia

    Prigozhin tanks headed for Maskva

    where will Vlad Dracul Putler be hiding?

    Comment by elmer — June 24, 2023 @ 8:55 am

  21. It’s one month later, HibernoFrog. As promised, I’m here and await your catalogue of the many successes of the glorious Ukrainian counter-offensive.

    What did they achieve by spending thousands of lives, hundreds of armoured vehicles and $ billions of Western funding? Are the Bandera boys sunning themselves in Crimea this Summer?

    Comment by Fyodor — July 20, 2023 @ 4:51 pm

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