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Fortress Crimea: Defense Wins Championships

Fortress Crimea: Defense Wins Championships

By Todd Davis

Paul “Bear” Bryant, the legendary football coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide said,

“Offense sells tickets. Defense wins championships.”

The implication is that sleek offensive weapons look great and draw gasps and cheers from the crowd. However, when you’re in the mud and trenches and need to win, you must stop the other side. The defense is what will carry the day. Coach Bryant was talking about football but his maxim can equally be applied to war in both a historical context and the current conflict between NATO and Russia.

Historical Advantage of the Defensive Position

Throughout military history, the defensive position has had an intrinsic advantage. From prehistory when one faction of raiders attacked a group of defenders positioned on a hill the defenders held an edge. Running up a hill takes energy, you are more fatigued by the time you meet your opponent, the defenders have gravity on their side and the inertia of a countercharge downhill can be devastating. Military theory has evolved around this simple concept over the ages making that hill, or fortifications meant to replicate the advantage a hill gives, harder and harder to take. Defense in prepared positions was such an advantage that Generals required a 3:1 ratio of attackers to defenders to achieve success. 

Constantinople is the most famous example of an impenetrable defensive position. The great chain of the Golden Horn and the walls of the city defied would-be invaders turning back Huns, Goths, Norse, Sassanids, and Saracens for over a thousand years. Smaller versions of these fortifications sprang up across Medieval Europe like wildflowers in the form of castles whose towers and ramparts protected the demesne from robbers and raiders. Taking a castle was a difficult, time-consuming endeavor that only a well-supplied and motivated army could accomplish. The castle walls almost always outlasted the defenders’ will. 

Advancements in gunpowder and cannon design eventually made castles obsolete, mainly because these early siege guns were too large to be mounted on castle walls so the defenders could attack the fortress with impunity. Cannons may have led to making castles obsolete but miniaturization of the cannon design over the next few hundred years once again gave rise to fortresses equipped with their own cannons, presenting a formidable problem for attackers. 

Forts and Fortifications

Sebastien Vauban, the military engineer of Louis XIV developed the Star Fort specifically designed to resist the effects of siege guns. 18th-century warfare was dominated by forts. Small professional armies moved from fort to fort digging a series of elaborate trenches to reduce these forts that were situated at vital positions. The most famous example of this for Americans was the siege of Fort William Henry portrayed in The Last of the Mohicans. 

The importance of forts continued even into the Napoleonic Era, an epoch of military history known for its grand battles and spectacular cavalry charges. Spain, with its rugged terrain, provided fertile ground for numerous sieges; Cadez, Valencia, Ciudad Rodrigo, and Badajoz. Following Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia in 1812 the French army no longer had the offensive capabilities it previously possessed. This, in part, led to a series of sieges at Metz, Danzig, and Mainz before the Emperor’s first abdication. 

Forts would cover the American Western frontier throughout the 19th century. Forts Laramie, Reno, and Fetterman conjure up images of outposts built on panoramic landscapes where cavalry patrols protected caravan routes of pioneers moving west. 

The Maginot Line

You don’t have to be a military buff to know about the Maginot Line. Almost everyone in Europe and America learned about the Maginot Line, a series of defensive fortifications built by France along the border with Germany and Italy, in primary school. Even outside of school, the Maginot Line is a popular reference to be mocked and derided, a symbol of scorn applied to the French and their inability to understand modern warfare. But here is the thing, the Maginot Line worked. It did stop Germany from advancing across it. And while Germany was able to invade France where there was no line, that wasn’t the fault of the line, it was the fault of diplomacy and Belgium’s false sense of neutrality. Had Belgium allowed France to extend the Maginot Line through Belgian territory to the sea as France intended, then Germany would have been compelled to assault the line. Whether or not the Germans would have breached the Maginot Line then is subjective but it is certain that it would have taken a lot longer and the French surrender would not have occurred in 1940. 

We know the Maginot Line could have worked because the German Siegfried Line did work. The Siegfried Line was built by the Germans opposite the Maginot Line stretching 400 miles from the Netherlands, Belgium, and France down to Switzerland. From August 1944 through March 1945 the line held back American and British forces who had overwhelming superiority in men, artillery, air power, tanks, and morale. All told, the Allies suffered 140,000 casualties attacking the Siegfried Line, while having every advantage one could possibly have in warfare, except the defensive position that was manned by the decimated remains of second-rate German garrison divisions. The Battle of Hurtgen Forest one of the most brutal fights of the entire war for the Americans, took place here. 

False Lessons of WW2 and Iraq

Nike had a commercial in the 90s featuring Atlanta Braves pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine and Hollywood star Heather Locklear that spawned the famous phrase chicks dig the long ball. Like sports, writers, media, historians, and analysts of military campaigns also dig the long ball. The military version of this is Big Arrow offensive. Maps of famous WW2 battles will feature sweeping red arrows surrounding vital cities and army groups resulting in the capture of hundreds of thousands of men. Mobile warfare. Air supremacy and interdiction. Airland battle. Combined arms offensives. These are the operational theories designed to surround and avoid static defensive fortifications that have entranced every generation of generals since the Wehrmacht invaded Poland in 1939.   

Big arrow offensives from WW2 seemed to have even greater relevance in modern warfare when the American army blitzed through Iraq in 2003. American armored spearheads moved at astonishing speed through the Iraqi army creating the perception that the combined might of NATO air power with mobile warfare had synergized into the perfect, unbeatable war machine. 

The trouble with coming to such a conclusion is that the United States coalition was not fighting a peer adversary. Iraq had no significant air power and, more importantly, no air defense system. Further, much of the war was fought in the desert, a terrain conducive to sweeping armored operations as previously seen in North Africa between the British and Germans in WW2. 

Big arrow offensives in WW2 may have gotten all the headlines, but the majority of the war was fought in brutal static positions that leveled entire cities. Caen, Monte Cassino, Stalingrad, Velikiye Luki, Budapest, Berlin. The number of battles like this is nearly endless. Attritional affairs fought in suffocating nearness. Deadly kill zones are dominated by snipers, landmines, artillery, and defensive emplacements. Military strategists forgot about all these battles and focused on the Germans blitzing through France or the Soviets destroying Army Group Center in Operation Bagration. The fact that the Iraq War was so lopsided was used as further proof of the theory that the offense now held an insurmountable advantage over the defense and little if any thought was put into the factors that led to such a decisive victory in Iraq. More importantly, could that series of factors be replicated against a major power like Russia or China?

Surovikin Line

Following the Russian withdrawal from Kherson, rivers and difficult terrain secured the flanks of Federation forces. Operationally this means that on a front that spanned thousands of miles, Russia was able to force Ukraine to defend Bakhmut, a key city and logistical hub in the Donbass. Bakhmut, and Ukraine’s obsession with holding it, became one of the great traps in military history. The battle served two purposes for Russia. First, it held the AFU in place subjecting it to severe attrition in precisely the type of battle Russia wanted to fight. Second, while the bulk of Ukraine’s military was focused on Bakhmut, it allowed Russia to fortify the newly annexed Zaporozhye Oblast. 

Russia knew Ukraine wanted to take Melitopol and sever the land bridge and rail lines connecting Crimea to mainland Russia mainly because Ukraine kept telling everyone that it wanted to take Melitopol. Russia created the so-called Surovikin Line to thwart this goal. 

A Russian defensive line consists of three parts:

  • Linear anti-tank ditch
  • Dragon’s Teeth anti-tank obstacles
  • Manned strong points that are irregular in shape. Continuous trench complexes link these strong points. These strong points will be camouflaged as best as possible taking advantage of topical features.

In front of the tank ditch and between all three lines would be minefields. Massive minefields. None of this is particularly innovative or new. This is the type of defensive network you would have seen in WW2. You can still see dragon’s teeth from the Siegfried Line in some historical sites in Germany. The innovative part is where Russia has added modern elements that have made this classic defensive fortified line truly formidable. 

Russian minefields are like zombies. They are endless. Always returning. In the past, an army would set up a minefield and the opposing force would need to clear a path through the mined area. Mines can now be remotely deployed by air or by artillery. Russia constantly deploys new mines into the belts. No matter how many mines Ukraine clears, more are deployed at night on a daily basis. 

Drones also play an important role in the enhancement of this static defense. Observation drones keep command points updated on any intrusion Ukraine has made into the defensive belt and appropriate resources are directed to the area. Lethal Lancet drones are sent to engage vehicles and personnel trapped in mine belts. 

Overlooking all this on the ground are Russian Aerospace forces that have total supremacy of the tactical battlefield. Any appreciable concentration of Ukrainian formations would be subject to air interdiction. Every part of the line and the gray zone outside the line has been mapped and ranged in by artillery observers. Russia, with its numerical superiority in artillery, can direct offensive or counter-battery fire anywhere along the line that is needed in a quick and accurate manner.

If all this sounds horrible and impossible to break through, that is how it was designed to function. Russia has at least three belts of these triple lines, 100 km in front of Melitopol and every other strategic strongpoint in Zaporozhye. Further, Russia has made significant military innovations in the construction of these fortifications. The Federation has trench-digging machinery that can excavate 600 meters of trench an hour. NATO does not have the Russian technology or proficiency to accomplish this because it focuses so much on an offensive doctrine. NATO’s defensive theory is backward, even primitive compared to Russian defenses. And so, even as Ukraine was trying to assault the first line of defense, Russia was already building more lines. 

Politicians Making Military Decisions

Ukraine, against the wishes of its American military advisors, turned Bakhmut into a symbol of political will. Much like Hitler’s obsession with Stalingrad compelled him to try and hold the city long after it was unfeasible to do so, Zelensky clung to Bakhmut feeding more and more men and equipment into the doomed city. Political obsession and the desire to control the war’s narrative were making military decisions. This was in direct contrast to what Russia had done at Kherson where it abandoned the city, taking a prestige hit in the public eye but saving its army and improving its strategic position. All those soldiers that would have been tied up in Kherson were now available for the defense of Zaporozhye. 

After the Russian victory at Bakhmut, Ukraine had to demonstrate that it could still win the war. Or at least continue giving the impression that it could win the war. NATO supplied Ukraine with large numbers of tanks, armored fighting vehicles, artillery, and ammunition over the winter and spring of 2023. The directive from Washington and Brussels was that Ukraine must attack, attack, attack. Another political decision when it would have been far more prudent for Ukraine to adopt a defensive posture.

Near the frontlines, as the mud hardened and campaign season approached, Ukraine was reluctant to begin what was being promoted and hyped as the Spring Offensive. It could see the strength of the Russian lines. Reasonable voices expressed concern that even with force concentration, it would be extremely difficult to achieve a 3:1 advantage at any point of attack. Despite everything that NATO had sent, Russia still had more artillery. A lot more. Going into the maw of these guns dug in behind heavily protected lines was daunting. For some, the prospect looked suicidal.   

The problem with having your army funded and supplied by foreign powers is that your autonomy is subject to those bankrolling the endeavor. In no uncertain terms, Ukraine was told it must attack. NATO weapons had been cajoled and pulled from reluctant alliance members from Lisbon to Leipzig. An attack was expected. If further aid was to come, an attack was demanded. 

Crimea is the Goal     

One of the principal tenets of Blitzkrieg and the big arrow offensive that follows is operational surprise. Hitting your opponent where they least expect it, forcing a schwerpunkt with your best forces against the opponent’s worst. Ukraine achieved none of this first by telegraphing, loudly, where and when it was going to attack, even going so far as producing a 3-minute music video promoting the offensive (because again, they have to win the media war if not the actual war) prior to attacking Zaporozhye. Ukraine would be coming at the Russians exactly where the Russians wanted and were waiting for them to attack.

Crimea, via Melitopol, was Ukraine’s stated goal. Western analysts and former generals posing as military experts confidently stated that Ukraine would be in Crimea by the end of the summer. Bear in mind that the Crimean peninsula is fantastically difficult to take, enjoying tremendous defensive advantages. Great Britain and France tried to take it the Crimean War 1853-56 then proceeded to get bogged down in such a logistical nightmare that Florence Nightingale became synonymous with nursing care after dealing with so many sick and wounded British and French soldiers. During WW2, Crimea was taken by Germany only through the remarkable efforts of Erich von Manstein, arguably the premier strategist in the Wehrmacht.

Ukraine doesn’t have a Manstein and was never going to take Crimea. It was never going to take Melitopol. In fact, Ukraine never even got to the first Russian defensive line. Impenetrable minefields dragged down and immobilized Ukrainian brigades like iron quicksand. All the meticulous planning and defensive preparations backed up with air supremacy and an overwhelming advantage in artillery stopped the offensive before it could ever get going. 

You Shall Not Pass

Begun on June 4th, the Ukrainian attack went nowhere. Progress was so bad that at the NATO Vilnius summit on July 11th, the media couldn’t even propagandize a Ukraine win because it had not taken a single city. Zelensky, in his military fatigues, was notably shunned by the Armani-attired NATO luminaries. You can’t parade around like a warrior if you don’t deliver wins. The lack of Ukrainian progress was destroying the myth of victory that NATO was trying to germinate. Promises of F-16 fighters being sent to Ukraine were cooled.

On July 27th, the Battle of Robotyne, a small village in the gray zone, began. The gray zone, or crumpled zone according to the Russians, is an area between the opposing lines. Neither Ukraine nor Russia has control of the area. Ukraine had been shocked to find this gray zone extensively mined and a village like Robotyne, which they had expected to reach in two days, had taken them six weeks to enter. 

Throughout August harsh urban combat took place around this village. Several times Ukraine would announce it had taken Robotyne although even today fighting still continues there. Whether or not Ukraine has or hasn’t taken Robotyne isn’t really the point. This is an insignificant settlement with a pre-war population of 500 and remains the farthest Ukraine has been able to get. The AFU is stuck there in a pocket constantly under fire from Russian guns. Ukrainians are unable and increasingly unwilling to advance any further. 

The Cost

NATO trained and equipped twelve brigades of Ukrainians for this offensive, approximately 60,000 men. These brigades were designed to fulfill both a shock role in breaking through the Russian defensive lines and then to exploit the penetration by making deep, big arrow, armored thrusts to encircle Federation defensive positions on their drive toward the Crimea. 

Former CIA agent Larry Johnson said on Judging Freedom that 9 of these 12 brigades have ceased to exist as operational units. The AFU suffered debilitating losses in tanks, AFVs, and equipment attempting to breach the gray zone. Midway through the summer, Ukraine abandoned NATO training and tactics because they were not working, and they no longer had the armored support to effectively coordinate with infantry assaults. Almost all AFU probes in Zaporozhye are now made by dispersed infantry, a tactic that worked for Ukraine in 2022, but has lost its effectiveness as Russia has adapted to the modern battlefield. 

Many high-profile items sent by NATO; Leopards, Bradleys, and other mobile assets delivered to Ukraine for this operation have been destroyed. AFU casualties are notoriously difficult to pinpoint as they have become a source of intense propaganda and obfuscation. Armies take the most losses when routing from an enemy or when attacked prepared defensive positions. Sources vary widely on the scale of Ukrainian losses in the summer offensive ranging from 20,000 to 75,000. 

Meanwhile, Russian losses have shrunk to their lowest point since the beginning of the war.Mediazona, a source run by Russians hostile to Vladimir Putin in conjunction with the BBC, who no one would call sympathetic toward the Federation, lists Russian losses at 4,274 from 4 June 2023 to 19 September 2023.

And while 4,272 deaths is not a trivial number, over four months this represents a stabilization point for the Russian army, especially when compared with the losses sustained by the AFU and the strategic victory Russia has achieved in defeating the Ukrainian summer offensive. 

Defensive Theory in Modern War

Russia and NATO are fighting the first modern war between peer adversaries. Based on the decisive success obtained by the Russians through the use of triplicate lines backed up by air power, drone warfare, and artillery concentration, it appears that the defensive position again holds supremacy over offensive operations on the battlefield. 

Air power, once thought to be the powerful panacea to the problem posed by static defense is now more useful as an asset enhancing the defensive position. Modern first-generation air defense systems have made it far too costly for an air force to eradicate a defensive line, a theory that NATO built its offensive operational doctrine upon. 

NATO believed it did not need the type of weapons and manpower that would be necessary to create a 3:1 attacker ratio over defenders because air power would do the heavy lifting. As such, NATO weapons and doctrine were designed to be agile, light, and exceedingly mobile. None of these choices are effective when facing a powerful, entrenched enemy and the results are clear following Ukraine’s defeat this summer. 

How effective Ukraine can construct and man its own defensive lines when the Russian army, now holding the strategic initiative, moves over to the offensive will determine the extent of Russian victory in the war. 


Todd Davis

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