Ukraine War, Early August 2022, Part 3

Hello everybody!

Focusing on condition of the Ukrainian Armed Forces (ZSU), this feature is to complete my summary on the situation on the battlefields of early August 2022.

Arguably, discussing — and thus criticising — the ZSU is likely to appear at least ‘unfair’ to many: after all, Ukraine is a target of murderous war of extermination, the war was imposed upon it, Ukraine is not only fighting for naked survival, but the obvious ‘underdog’ in this conflict. Thus, there are plenty of sympathies for whatever success its armed forces have achieved. I’ll try to keep myself focused on critique, not on criticism.

Ground Forces: Ukraine

Perhaps surprisingly, logistics and supplies seem not to be primary problem of the ZSU. At least not any more — and this despite the fact that early during the war the Russians have either demolished or at least badly damaged all the major refineries and ‘petrol, oil, lubricants’ (POL) dumps of the country, just for example. Thanks to the Ukrainian Railways (Ukrazaliznytsia, UZ), ammo, armament, fuel and supplies provided by NATO are transported and distributed as quickly and efficiently as possible, and that all the way from western and south-western borders to the battlefields in the East and South. What the management and employees are managing in this regards is amazing — even more so considering that for the first four months they were on the receiving end of regular Russian ballistic- and cruise missile strikes. So much so, over 70 employees of the UZ have been killed by the end of April, and over 170 by now.

Regardless what have they hit and how much damage the Russians caused, AFAIK, there were never any major delays for longer than about 24 hours. If I’m to ask, this is a major achievement, and the entire country owes the UZ a big ‘thank you’.

Ukrainian Railway system was subjected to massive strikes, early during the war. Alone by late April, 70 railway employees have been killed. Nevertheless, the UZ has managed to expand both its passenger- and cargo services — so also on several of narrow gauge railways, where even old steam locomotives were pressed into service.

Once the Western supplies are in the country, Ukrainians have also proved very imaginative in hiding these — which was badly necessary before the VSRF emptied its stocks of ballistic- and cruise missiles. Namely, units assigned new weapons cannot always immediately accept and rush these to operations: often enough, it takes days for arms to reach their destination. In other cases, shipments are distributed to units that first have to undergo training on it. In the meantime, not only weapons, but related ammunition and spares have to be stored somewhere. That’s especially valid for artillery ammunition: this has to be supplied in such quantities that it cannot be spent in a matter of day or two. That in turn means that it has not only to be brought to Ukraine, but also close to the battlefield, and then stored close to the latter, yet still concealed from the Russians. Not an easy task, but apparently one the ZSU is solving quite well, through de-centralisation: it has lots of ‘minor’ ammunition depots behind the frontline, and the Russians have massive problems just with trying to find these.

The Keystone Cops in Moscow went so far in attempt to disturb this distribution of arms and ammunition, that back in May they began targeting de-facto every hangar with agricultural equipment within their reach (of course, at earlier times they were targeting also large depots, factories etc., deeper in Ukraine) — and that with their air-launched precision guided ammunition (PGMs; foremost Kh-59/AS-17s, but Kh-25/AS-10s and Kh-29/AS-14s have been deployed in quite some numbers, too). From what I can say, this effort was exceptionally ineffective. Because Ukrainian air defences remained effective, and the mass of Russian PGMs is relatively short-ranged, every involved striking aircraft required at least one aircraft for electronic warfare in support. Measured by meagre results, that costs the VKS a lot — in fuel, spares, and maintenance.

That said, the biggest problem for the Russians remains the issue of just finding Ukrainian storage sites: in the VSRF, logistics is centralised and everything stored in major storage dumps, which are easy to find (which is why so many of these have been hit by Ukrainian M142 HIMARS and other means, over the last two months). In Ukraine, there used to be similar dumps, but most of these have either been destroyed early during the war (one was even captured by the Russians), or are meanwhile empty. Nowadays, Ukrainian logistics is operating with help of a myriad of small storage sites.

Arguably, the GRU and FSB have it slightly easier ‘further in the west’: they are still maintaining an effective network of informants — inside Ukraine, but inside most of ‘Eastern Flank’ of the NATO, too. These are quite good at monitoring and reporting the movement of NATO-supplied armament — and this starting already at different airports and ports in Poland and Romania. Problem is what happens next: about 99% of times, the Russians are losing the track of shipments shortly after these enter Ukraine, and have no means to find them again (at least not before new arms are deployed in combat). Thus, internal security in Ukraine is functioning reasonably well.

Part of the reason for this is that Ukraine proved quite efficient in countering the Russian cyber-warfare: don’t forget that this war is fought as fiercely in the internet, as it is fought by ‘bullets’ on the frontline. Arguably, the Russians were quite successful early on, but meanwhile Ukrainians and allies (the latter is including a number of ‘unofficial’ nodes, sympathetic of the Ukrainian cause) are clearly outmatching them. Between others, this is why the Kropyva app remains as effective (otherwise, Ukrainians would ‘regularly’ shell their own troops, just for example).

Where Ukrainian logistics is not as good are specific other types of equipment. For example, there are far too few night vision googles, armour plates and ballistic helmets for all of its infantry, and even several of special forces units are still lacking ambulance vehicles. Thus, if anybody wants to help: I recommend donating to those instances that are caring about such provisions.

The word ‘shelling’ is bringing me to the next point: if the essence of the VSRF could be summarised as ‘mechanised force centred on artillery’, then the ZSU of these days could be summarised as ‘infantry force centred on artillery…. If the latter is available’.

Quick check of the tactical situation? Thanks to the Kropyva app, in widespread use aroudn the ZSU, Ukrainian NCOs and officers are in possession of significantly better situational awareness than their opponents.

Primary difference between the VSRF and the ZSU is the situational awareness: the Russians are using their UTCS to coordinate artillery units only; Ukrainians are using the Kropyva app by artillery, but also by infantry, armour and other units. It’s a little bit of a hyperbole, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, thanks to the Kropyva, an average sergeant of the ZSU has approximately the same situational awareness like generals at the HQ OSK South in Rostov-na-Donu (and, definitely more than any Russian officers below the level of that headquarters).

However, that is a twin-edged sword: de-centralised command of the ZSU means that ‘every little Napoleon’ on the battlefield can call an artillery strike. This in turn means that operations of Ukrainian artillery frequently lack coordination: because of the Russian superiority in artillery is resulting in frequent artillery duels, Ukrainian artillery units are usually operating spread over large areas, often in very small detachments (one, two, three pieces maximum); and, if then ‘every sergeant’ calls for artillery support, these detachments are spread even further, often outside the control of their unit commanders, and each is shooting at something else. Unsurprising result is that the coordination is lacking: it happens much too rarely that multiple artillery units are targeting the same concentration of the Russian artillery. Things are not getting better when higher ranks then feel forced to withdraw all artillery of specific units because they need it somewhere else….

Above all, ZSU still has much too little artillery: at most, it is operating about 500–550 tube-pieces and some 200 multiple rocket launchers (against some 2,500 artillery pieces and over 1,000 multiple rocket launchers of the VSRF). This is so not only because of the lack of shells for older, towed Soviet-designed pieces calibres 122mm and 152: it is so because of losses, too. AFAIK, ZSU lost over 100 artillery pieces by now (including about a dozen of M777s, just for example). Good news is that in turn Ukrainians are particularly effective in knocking out their most dangerous opponents — like MSTA-S, 2S5 Giatsint-S, and 2S7 Pion: my estimate is that over 150 were knocked out by now. However, while the Russians might have problems in manufacturing new MSTA-S, they have enough of 2S5s and 2S7s to continue losing them at the same rate for a while longer (even if experiencing growing problems with replacing their crews).

M777 in action. This example (and its crew) even managed to ‘collect some dust’ before going into action.

One way or the other, the ZSU has got so little artillery that actually it can effectively counter that of the VSRF only in two sectors of the frontline: Kherson and southern Zaporizhzhya. As indicated above, there are large parts of the frontline where all the Ukrainian artillery has been withdrawn because of the needs elsewhere. This is a big issue, then sooner or later the Russians always get wind about this, and then Ukrainians are suffering terrible losses. For example, on 1 and 2 August, the Russians targeted a battalion of the 56th Motor holding Pisky by 6,000–7,000 shells, literally pulverising this combat experienced unit. When the (infantry) reserve was sent forward to hold the line, only one soldier is said to have returned alive. Unsurprisingly, one of Russian PMCs (everybody is always talking about Wagner only, even if there are several of them), then managed to take most of the place. To the Ukrainian luck, the Russians lacked both the infantry and mechanised forces necessary to exploit this opportunity: their PMCs and the 11th Regiment (Donetsk) only suffered heavy losses when trying to assault Vodyane and Novoselske, and then to the counterattack of Ukrainian theatre reserve. This is why the VSRF failed to break through and the fighting is still going on in Pisky…

(BTW, the 110th TD Brigade holding part of Avdiivka only narrowly avoided a similar fate, primarily because it had the 25th Airborne in its rear. The latter was thus able to not only counter the Russian artillery, but also to hit the Separatist 100th Regiment when this attempted to attack Krasohorivka, few days later. Even then, my impression is that what actually saved the northern flank of the Avdiivka position on 6 August was that the VSRF was meanwhile forced to withdraw at least one of its artillery brigades from the Donetsk area, and rush it to southern Zaporizhzhya — because of a major crisis there — and then one that was ironically, caused by highly effective Ukrainian artillery.)

This is why NATO’s deliveries of such advanced MRLS’ like M142 HIMARS and M270 MLRS are as important: their fire-power and precision are enabling Ukrainians to hit enough of forward Russian ammunition depots that, in grand total, the intensity of the VSRF’s artillery fire experienced a dramatic decrease over the last month. Moreover, the Russians not only suffered heavy losses in their scarce personnel experienced in running logistics, but were forced into diverting additional efforts into creating of new ammo depots, all so far away from the frontline — outside the range of HIMARS and MLRS — that now they need much more time, many more trucks and drivers, to keep their troops re-supplied.

Problem: even if the number of M140s and M270s meanwhile increased to some 24–25, they are still so few, that Ukraine can’t do more but to effectively interdict the Russian logistics in specific area for two or three days, rarely longer — as would be necessary. This is why the Russians were still able to unleash such a massive barrage on Pisky and then Avdiivka less than two weeks after Ukrainian HIMARS have blown up most of their ammo depots in the Donetsk area. Ukrainians lacked the artillery to re-attack these, and to keep the local railway network under constant pressure at the same time — and this is not to talk about the fact that even such Ukrainian achievements came at the price of troops holding the hottest section of the frontline (the one between Bohorodichne and Bakhmut) remaining undersupported by artillery.

The next problem of the ZSU is the growing shortage of experienced and skilled junior officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs). I would add the shortage of skilled officers at the operational level to that.

Mind: the mass of Ukrainian reserves have been mobilised, resulting in massive increase in the number of troops under arms, creation of new units, and expansion of existing ones. Meanwhile, numerous units have suffered — often — extensive losses. That all requires lots of officers and NCOs, almost as many advisors and instructors, and then it takes time to not only subject troops to their basic training, but to forge operational, combat-effective platoons, companies, battalions, regiments, and brigades from all the troops and their equipment. Unsurprisingly, right now, not only that thousands of additional Ukrainian troops, NCOs, and officers are still undergoing training — some in NATO countries, but most of them in Ukraine — but entire brigades are doing so. Ukrainians also have to re-train a large part of their force: adapt them to new experiences and circumstances on the battlefield, and to convert them to new weaponry.

This is even more important because Ukrainian experiences have shown that up to 95% of losses they suffer are suffered by inexperienced troops: essentially, by troops that never saw any kind of fighting before, and during their first engagement. Anybody having at least one earlier combat experience already has a tenfold better chance of survival.

Because it still has not got enough troops and equipment to properly occupy the entire frontline, and still maintain a useful operational research, this is leaving the GenStab-U with two options:

  • Rush inexperienced troops to act as ‘fire brigades’ and close gaps whenever there is urgency, and suffer severe losses, which are then causing dissent and demoralisation between the troops, or
  • Continue weakening combat-experienced units by re-deploying their elements to where there are emergencies.
Ukrainian troops during a break: the abilities to keep the troops rested, well-trained, and skillfully commanded are as important as the ability to keep them supplied.

Obviously, neither is ideal and results are poor, no matter what. We’ve seen what happens when the ZSU withdrew too many of experienced troops even from a narrow sector of the frontline — in the case of Novoluhanske and Svitlodarsk, for example (there they took away two battalions of the 30th Mech to re-deploy them further north; the Russians found out about this and took Svitlodarsk almost without a fight. Months later, this is what eventually led to the loss of the Vuhlehirske TPP and thus the Russians encroaching Bakhmut. We’ve seen how Ukrainian counteroffensives get struck because of undertrained units — like the 60th Infantry and the 61st Jäger — being rushed into attack before being ready. We’ve seen the Russians smashing an inexperienced and lightly armed TD battalion at Toshkivke, only to cause another to run away as result: Ukrainians had to rush a battalion of one of airborne brigades all the way from Mykolaiv to close the gap, and even once this arrived, all it could do was to keep the corridor south of Lysychansk open for long enough for all the troops further north to withdraw. It works the other way, too: we’ve seen what happened with a battalion of the newly-established 25th Airborne when the Russians advanced south of Dibrovne, almost driving in the back of defenders of Bohorodichne and Sloviansk. It took re-deploying a battalion of the 93rd Mech to counterattack. This was highly effective: it destroyed a full Russian BTG (i.e. about 10–15 MBTs and some 40 APC/IFVs in exchange for a single BMP!), but in turn it the HQ East had no reserve for nearly a week. Moreover, this counterattack had to be stopped short of taking Dovhenke, because there were no troops left to secure what was achieved. Result: the 93rd had to cancel a highly-promising counterattack and to ‘shorten’ the frontline….

This problem — lack of combat-experienced officers and other ranks — plus the problem with there still being numerous ‘old guard’ officers in service (people where not only the age, but poor training from earlier times is dominating the way they command, yet necessary to ‘bolster numbers’) is something for which I do not see any solution in immediate future. Ideally, NATO would supply so much of advanced weaponry, that the ZSU could at least keep the VSRF at bay with a lesser number of well-equipped units. But, this is not happening. What is happening instead is that NATO’s weapons are arriving, but in far too small numbers. This is resulting in constant combat attrition…

This is something that’s going to remain a troublesome issue for several months longer (at least).

In the meantime, the ZSU will have to, finally, find a way to at least stop the practice of ‘thinning out’ its combat-hardened units and replacing these with lightly-armed and under-trained TD units. That is no good idea, and no durable solution — which, of course, is easier said than done.

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Tom Cooper

Tom Cooper

From Austria; specialised in analysis of contemporary warfare; working as author, illustrator, and book-series-editor for Helion & Co.