In the history of warfare, major wars can often be characterized as “offensive wars” and “defensive wars,” where either the attacker or the defender have a significant advantage.
Offensive wars can see rapid results and major exchanges of territory in short periods of time, as offensive tactics, technologies, or organization can nullify the advantages of defensive fortifications or terrain to the point where short decisive field battles determine the swings of fortune for vast areas of terrain.
Alexander’s campaigns, the Napeolonic battlefield, World War II are examples where field fortifications, while still important, took on a distinctly secondary role in strategic and operational movements.
Defensive wars are different. Fortifications themselves can become as important and famous as entire armies, because of the important the influence that they exert on strategic thinking. The French fortress-city of Orleans during the Hundred Years War, Hill 203 of the Russo-Japanese War, Verdun of World War I.
The pendulum of offensive and defensive balance swings constantly throughout history, and at different times, new advances and innovations have brought the importance of fortifications in and out of vogue.
There is now strong evidence that the Russo-Ukrainian War is a defensive war.
On October 11th, 2023, Russia launched a large scale multi-battalion offensive both north and south of Avdiivka, a town northwest of the major city of Donetsk.
As Russian forces have been attempting to do since even before the full scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia is aiming to encircle Avdiivka from the north and south. Russia committed numerous armored forces towards this effort for the past three days.
Intense Russian artillery, rocket and armored attacks were thrown at heavily fortified Ukrainian positions. Even Russian sources agree that Russian losses have been significant, with a flood of videos showing burning wreckages of Russian armored vehicles. According to the visually verified count maintained by open source intelligence analyst Andrew Perpetua, Russia has lost at least 31 tanks and 54 armored infantry vehicles over the last several days. Ukraine claims to have destroyed over 200 Russian armored vehicles.
While Russia appeared to make some early gains particularly on the northern flank, Ukrainian counterattacks appear to have recovered most of Russian gains, in particular the “pile of mining waste” captured by Russian forces on the first day. By October 13th, Russian gains appear to have amounted a single treeline north of Avdiivka, advancing about 200 meters.
Even Russian sources agree the fighting has devolved into “battles for forester’s huts“.
An advance of 200 meters in 3 days amounts to around 65 meters per day, which would be a comparative blitzkrieg compared to what the Russian Army accomplished at Bakhmut.
Russia secured the key town of Popasna, east of Bakhmut on May 22nd, 2022. Russian troops captured Pokrovske, just east of Bakhmut by July 27, 2022. Russia was just 5 kilometers from the eastern edge of Bakhmut, and needed to advance just 14km to fully capture Bakhmut.
Russia would not declare the capture of the city until May 20th, 2023. It was 293 days later. Russia averaged just 48 meters per day to cover those 14 kilometers.
Ukraine’s advances in its offensive towards Tokmak has been significantly faster, but not by a huge margin. Ukraine faced a formidable array of defenses against what has been called the largest fortifications constructed in Europe since WWII.
Ukraine made slow but steady progress, breaching a portion of the first line around Robotyne in late June, liberating Robotyne on August 27 before fully breaching a portion of the second line of defense west of Verbove by Sept. 21.
Since then, Ukraine has unleashed a fierce barrage at Russian positions, setting off a firestorm on Russian-held territory greater than anything NASA FIRMS satellite data has detected in the war thus far. FIRMS was designed to track forest fires, but it it has become a handy tool to track war fires as well. The graph below tracks the intensity of war-related fires in Ukraine. Red is for fires in Russian-held territory, thus a result of Ukrainian artillery, and blue is fires on Ukrainian-held territory. As you can see, the ferocity of Ukraine’s fires today far outpace anything Russia delivered at any time in the war, including the very beginning when it enjoyed unchallenged artillery superiority.
Despite this intense barrage of artillery fires, Ukraine has made only some minor territorial gains towards Kopani west of Robotyne. Attacks appear to be more of a probing nature, as no major losses of Ukrainian armored assets en masse have been noted on public tracking OSINT sources like Oryx (which means that Russia doesn’t have such video to disseminate).
Russia blunted Ukrainian progress by moving the 76th Guards Air Assault Division from the Eastern Front to the Robotyne area in early September. The 76th GAAD is one of Russia’s few remaining elite pre-war units, with its original and well trained forces still mostly intact.
In early October, Russia successfully managed to rotate out exhausted elements of the 291st and 71st Motor Rifle Regiments, as well as significant elements of the 42nd Motorized Rifle Division. American think tank ISW assessed that heavy losses had rendered many of these units combat ineffective, and thus required rest and reconstituting with replacement troops. In their place, Russia rotated in fresh VDV troops from the 7th and 76th Airborne Divisions.
This operational rotation was both good news and bad news for Ukraine. On the one hand, the rotation demonstrated that Ukraine was dealing significant losses upon the Russian defenders in the advance toward Tokmak. Unfortunately, it also meant that Russia still had reserves to plug any gaps, something that some analysts had come to doubt.
As such, Ukraine’s advances have slowed.
With fresh Russian reinforcements bolstering the front, Ukrainian is using its artillery firepower advantage to degrade those fresh and stronger Russian units. It takes time to weaken their armored and artillery assets before any attempts at larger scale assaults can proceed.
Still, Ukraine’s pace toward Tokmak is currently averaging around 90 meters/day, almost twice as fast as the Russian advance towards Bakhmut (48 meters/day). Still, while Ukraine’s pace of advance matches that of the allies in WWI, it’s clear that changing battlefield trends and technologies are reshaping what is possible, and how quickly it can be done.
Popular analyst Tatarigami_UA who writes on the platform X, formerly known as Twitter and known as a Ukrainian intelligence officer, provided a detailed analysis of how drones have transformed the effect of minefields. (Those without an X account can read the full thread here on Threadreader)
In particular, Tatarigami_UA notes:
In previous wars, it was easier to approach the enemy at close proximity without being easily detected. However, the element of surprise has diminished significantly due to the constant presence of drones, which easily detect any approaching mine-clearing vehicles.
Essentially, an attacker trying to assault an area defended by a minefield could count on the enemy being unable to keep 100% or even large portions of the minefield under surveillance at any given time. A combat engineering team could clear mines unmolested before coming under counterattack.
Today, drones can keep most of front line under constant surveillance, making any attack dramatically more difficult. We haven’t just seen it around Robotyne, but we’re seeing it right now in Avdiivka.
So what can we expect going forwards?
First, artillery is king in static defensive wars.
The Russo-Japanese War and World War I were predominantly artillery wars, as dominant defensive structures must be weakened before any advance. Artillery is supreme in Ukraine, with 80% of all combat losses resulting from indirect fires, and a near absence of tank-on-tank engagements.
A key factor is training. Any barely trained soldiers can hold an assault rifle in a trench and present a formidable obstacle. Coordinating groups of soldiers assaulting enemy positions, however, requires well-trained infantry supported by armored vehicles like Tanks, IFVs and artillery. The alternative is the horrific losses experiences by Wagner mercenaries during their Bakhmut campaign. Neither side can sustain those kinds of losses anymore.
Ukraine has a pipeline delivering trained soldiers at a constant and expanding rate.
By contrast, Russia has no adequate training structure for its mobilized and conscripted forces. Russia never developed a professional core of non-commissioned officers that perform key training duties in Western armies. Russia’s low-level officer corps has been heavily attrited, and Russia cannot spare thousands of officers it needs to staff the training centers necessary for a large-scale mobilization—or even to train adequate replacements.
Russian units have tried to compensate by intermixing “disposable” infantry that conduct near-suicidal probing attacks accompanied by massive artillery bombardments, before elite assault units attack and identified weak spots.
While this helped somewhat preserve Russia’s few remaining elite units, it has led to horrific casualties—and doesn’t entirely shield the dwindling supply of Russian elite troops for which there are no replacements.
This lack of training manifest in many ways, like the lead armored vehicle in an assault column at the Battle of Avdiivka falling off a bridge.
A Russian mortar crew trying to load a mortar round upside down.
Or Russian artillery laying down devastating barrages on their own troops.
Ill-trained conscripts can bolster Russian defenses, but Russian offensive power will continue to dwindle.
The utter inability of Russian forces to make any advances at all around Avdiivka shows the precipitous decline in Russian offensive power. These advantages may not translate to immediate large-scale gains like during Ukraine’s September 2022 Kharkiv Counteroffensive. But piece by piece, Ukraine is building up and demonstrating its advantages. For example, HIMARS rocket artillery launchers for the first time deployed close enough to the front line to target Russian train logistics south of Tokmak.
As destruction of Russian material and logistics continues apace, Ukraine will continue to press its advantages in the Southern Theater. So long as the West continues to commit to long term aid for Ukraine, Ukraine’s small advantages will gradually widen into larger ones.