By Todd Davis
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed here are those of the authors. View more opinion on ScoonTV.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has pushed his proverbial chips into the pot, launching a much-anticipated counterattack in a longshot attempt to take the Russian-held city of Kherson. The attack on Kherson is the latest in a series of questionable tactical decisions made by Zelenskyy that have resulted in a series of defeats for the Ukrainian army. Unlike his order to reinforce the doomed cauldron at Severodonetsk, this battle might not be of Zelenskyy’s choosing.
Frustrated by Russian advances and desperate to shore up support for an increasingly unpopular conflict in the West, the battle for Kherson may have been forced upon Zelenskyy by British and American influencers, two nations without whose help Ukraine would not be able to continue fighting.
After nearly half a year of conflict, the operational capacity of the Ukrainian Army has badly degraded. Fighting attritional battles while facing superior Russian artillery led to frightful casualties. The exact number is suppressed, although at one point Zelenskyy himself admitted to more than 300 a day in the Donbas. This is in addition to the accompanying loss of large and small caliber guns, armored fighting vehicles (AFVs), tanks, and ammunition lost or destroyed in the face of the Russian advance.
Most of the original Ukrainian army battle groups have either been rendered combat ineffective or are fighting at drastically reduced strength. Zelenskyy has issued a series of decrees and drafts to replenish the manpower in its armed forces. Ukraine is on at least its fifth wave of conscription and while they are not yet scraping the bottom of the barrel among those eligible for combat duty, the current composition of their army resembles an organized militia more than the well-equipped professional army they started with.
NATO, in particular the two most hawkish members of the alliance, Great Britain and the United States, have sent an escalating series of aid packages to Ukraine to address the deficiencies within their combat capabilities. These included at first former Warsaw Pact weapons and ammunition held in stockpiles by alliance members such as Poland. Later, they included direct monetary aid. But finally, Ukraine started receiving a hodgepodge of Western equipment from numerous NATO nations.
The conflict in Ukraine is being decided by artillery, and they’re being badly outgunned by the Russians. So, Ukraine’s most pressing need is guns that can answer the firepower facing them. However, NATO artillery doesn’t use the same shells as Warsaw Pact artillery creating a nightmare logistical problem for Ukrainian forces. Not only do they have to coordinate shells for separate calibers within the same battery, but they are completely reliant on the delivery of Western shells from NATO supply chains.
In order to address some of these problems, the United States recently sent twelve M142 HIMARS rocket artillery systems to Ukraine. HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems) have been much covered in the media. They’ve been billed almost as a super weapon that can single-handedly decide the conflict in Ukraine’s favor. That, of course, is fanciful at best. Taken from a cynical perspective, the statements could even be quantified as propaganda for both Lockheed Martin, the parent company that makes HIMARS, and public support for Western intervention.
The technology behind the HIMARS is nothing new. In fact, Russia invented a mobile rocket firing vehicle during the second World War when it introduced the Katyusha BM-13 against the Germans. Nicknamed “Stalin’s Organs” due to the loud, frightening sound they made when fired, the Katyusha proved to be highly effective as both a psychological and anti-personnel weapon. Technology has advanced immeasurably since 1942, but the concept remains the same to such a degree that the United States doesn’t use the HIMARS as part of its standard military doctrine. There are only around 400 HIMARS systems in the entire US arsenal.
Nevertheless, the media has labeled HIMARS as game-winners and their audience expects to see some wins. Even people following and believing every word of the mainstream Western coverage of the war are confronted with the uncomfortable reality that Ukraine keeps retreating in the Donbas.
It has become increasingly difficult to spin these reverses into tactical redeployments. Russia has conducted a grinding, attritional advance in the Donbas, the main theater of operations between the two sides, that has steadily taken town after town culminating recently in the liberation of Lysychansk. Taking Lysychansk has restored the original borders to the breakaway Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). There is now an operational pause by Russian Federation forces in the region as they prepare to restore the borders of the other 2014 breakaway nation, the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR).
Ukraine has been defending the Donbas by fortifying cities and using them as fortresses, a strategy employed by the German Wehrmacht in World War Two. These “Festungs” would be used as strongholds attempting to slow down and break up the Soviet advance. Ukraine has tried a similar tactic against the Russians. While it has been successful in preventing any rapid Russian advance, the toll has been high. Since cities are stationary targets, Ukraine has no mobility and can only stand behind fortifications and defenses and take the full brunt of Russian artillery.
Many of these defenses have been built up since 2014 when armed conflict erupted between Ukraine and the breakaway LPR and DPR republics. Currently, the Ukrainian Army holds a strong defensive position in the Kramatorsk-Bakhmut-Konstantinovka line. Leaving these entrenched positions would be military malpractice. Further, after months of intense artillery bombardment not seen since the 1940s, the Ukrainian army is not capable of launching an offensive in the Donbas. And yet, an offensive is what NATO, Great Britain, and the United States need.
Initially, support for Ukraine among Western populations was extremely high. A well-orchestrated social media campaign accompanied by stories from the region, high on hyperbole but low on facts, swung public opinion heavily on the side of Ukraine. Zelenskyy himself has become an international superstar strutting across the world stage issuing demands from world governments in his trademark khaki t-shirt and fatigues. A trained actor, he is playing the role of post-modern Churchill at an Oscar level. However, as the fighting continues to favor the Russians and the Western World feels the impact of economic sanctions caused by the conflict, support has eroded and the NATO governments are experiencing political instability.
Boris Johnson, Zelenskyy’s greatest supporter, was ousted as Prime Minister of Great Britain, and while his undying support for Ukraine wasn’t the primary reason, it certainly was one. Mario Draghi, the pro-hawk leader of Italy, resigned amid a popular backlash that centers around a less active role in Ukraine. French President Emmanuel Macron lost his majority in the French Assembly after the Far-Right and Far-Left, united in their opposition to globalism and involvement in Ukraine, made historic gains.
In the United States, inflation is soaring, gas prices have reached record highs because of the Russian oil embargo, President Biden is extremely unpopular, and Americans are turning against the war, in particular the seemingly blank check to Ukraine while shortages remain of virtually everything in the country. Germany is facing a catastrophic energy crisis this fall and winter and is at the mercy of Vladimir Putin and Nord Stream One. Perhaps the most shocking development in the conflict between NATO and Russia is that NATO decided to wage economic war against the Russians, and it’s losing.
Victory is needed. Somewhere. Anywhere. Western corporate media can hide casualties, they can lie about the causes of the conflict, and they can talk about how Ukraine is actually winning all they like but people aren’t stupid. People can read maps. Constant retreat doesn’t look like victory. The West has heard promises for months now about the coming Ukrainian counter-offensive that will throw back the Russians and reclaim all lost territories, even sweeping into Crimea and taking back the rightful Ukrainian land seized by Putin in 2014. Talk emerged in early July from the Ukrainian Defense Minister about a million-man army armed with NATO weapons that would retake southern Ukraine.
These claims strain the credulity of even the most ardent Ukraine supporter and have begun sounding like ludicrous proclamations issued from Hitler’s bunker in 1945. Zelenskyy, increasingly and possibly now completely dependent on NATO arms to continue fighting, has almost certainly felt pressure from London and Washington to do something that can be spun as a win. The Donbas is out, and an invasion into western Russia near Belgorod isn’t palatable either from a strategic or publicity perspective. That leaves only the South, and Kherson.
Kherson was the first major Ukrainian city taken in the current military operation and the only one occupied without serious fighting. Located on the Dnieper River, Kherson is a major port and economic center. Seized early on, Ukraine has made several half-hearted attempts to retake the city that predictably ended in failure. Russia has had months to fortify the area and this fall intends to hold a public referendum officially integrating Kherson into the Federation. Preventing this would be a major military and diplomatic victory for Ukraine, Zelenskyy, and NATO.
The realities of war, however, make Kherson a difficult target for Ukraine. Unlike the Donbas, which features rugged, rough terrain, the topography around Kherson is rolling fields. Ideal tank country – but Ukraine has very few tanks left. An attack can only be launched over open ground under the sight of Russian guns, missiles, and aircraft. Russia holds air superiority in the region, so any attack will be observed and countered.
Further, Ukraine has telegraphed its intentions to attack Kherson. Every media outlet has predicted this for weeks. The Russians know exactly where Ukraine will attack, depriving their forces of any chance for surprise. Looking back again to World War Two, we are reminded of the Kursk salient where, in 1943, the Germans attacked the Soviets despite both sides knowing where the attack would come from. Germany was decisively defeated at Kursk because attacking an entrenched defensive position when the enemy knows you are coming is almost never successful in modern warfare.
Ukraine will be forced to send its soldiers forward, in trucks, while being under fire most of the time. In an attempt to mitigate these disadvantages, Ukraine tried to sever the logistical lifeline to Kherson. The city is supplied by three main bridges. The two major ones, the Antonovsky Bridge over the Dnieper and the rail bridge crossing a dam at the hydroelectric plant in Kakhovka, were targeted by HIMARS for two days. A Ukrainian counter-attack and a chance for HIMARS to be the decisive factor in winning the battle was a script designed for a war movie.
But life is rarely a movie. Like most bridges built under the Soviets, those in Kherson were hardened to be resistant to attack. Despite media claims that Kherson was cut off, these bridges did not come close to being destroyed. HIMARS rockets did virtually nothing to the rail bridge.
The Antonovsky Bridge was marked with potholes that were filled by Russian engineers within hours. Could a sustained two-week barrage from HIMARS bring down the Antonovsky Bridge? That is possible. However, Ukraine only had two days of fire before the Russians brought in anti-ballistic assets that intercepted HIMARS rockets and effectively stopped the threat to these logistical lifelines. The first stage of the Ukrainian counter-offensive failed.
Despite Kherson not being cut off from supplies, Ukraine has launched its counter-offensive because it has to do something for NATO to justify its investment. This being war, unexpected things can happen. Ukraine could break through despite the long odds. They could, through a series of unforeseen events, retake Kherson. This would extend the war indefinitely and give the West something to hold up as an achievement and justification for further investment. Most of all, it would prove that Ukraine can win a battle. If you can win a battle, you can win the whole affair, given enough time and support.
Those are the stakes. He might not be facing good odds, but at this point, they are the only odds Zelenskyy has.
The fog of war prevents us from seeing exactly how many men Ukraine has committed to this attack. We don’t know the current combat capabilities of the attacking force. Most importantly, we don’t know what kind of reserves Zelenskyy has or how long this attack can be pressed in the face of mounting casualties.
As of now, all Ukrainian thrusts have been repelled. On July 25th, Ukrainian forces attempted to force a crossing of the Inhulets river around Andriyivka in northern Kherson and were repulsed after taking heavy casualties. Infantry, largely unsupported by tanks or AFVs, trying to force a decisive result on a fortified position is bound to suffer enormous losses. Zelenskyy is taking a wild gambit here, a gamble that portends how weak of a hand he is holding. The entire operation feels like a desperate throw of the dice, like the Germans in 1944 going into the Ardennes hoping to accomplish something, anything.
In reality, the losses the Germans suffered in the Battle of the Bulge could not be replaced and ended up only weakening the defenses on the Rhine. Zelenskyy’s attack on Kherson could have similar consequences.