This report first appeared as a part of Hudson's Re: Ukraine newsletter series. To subscribe, click here.
Below Hudson Senior Fellow Can Kasapoğlu offers a military situational report about the war in Ukraine.
1. Why Is the Ukrainian Counteroffensive Stalling?
To any military analyst assessing the plodding tempo and lack of operational breakthroughs, it is apparent that Ukraine’s counteroffensive has stalled. To anticipate how the conflict might progress, understanding why is important.
The Ukrainian military has been unable to replicate the successes of its fall 2022 Kharkiv offensive, and has instead been waging positional warfare with only incremental gains. Therefore, the conflict remains highly attritional. The Russian advantage in force-to-force and force-to-terrain ratio complicates matters for Kyiv, a problem illustrated by the math of military theory.
Wars cannot be reduced to one single variable, but are instead intricate, multi-variable operations. Land warfare, in particular, is a complex system featuring many interacting parts. Lanchester’s laws—mathematical formulas for calculating the relative odds of success for military forces—help make sense of these interacting parts.
Traditional Lanchester modeling suggests that for an offensive operation to succeed it must maintain a 3:1 ratio against its opposing defensive units. In other words, a defending force can hold off three times its own number of fighters. In a combined arms maneuver operation like Ukraine should follow, however, the kinetic nature of mobile combat can enhance the odds for the offensive belligerent, improving the above ratio to 0.8:1. An assaulting force can improve its odds when it controls where and when to engage the enemy. Under such conditions favoring the offensive, temporary concentrations by a defensive force such as Russia’s would inevitably prove more vulnerable.
But instead of seizing the advantages dictated by the mathematical laws of combat, Ukraine is choosing to conduct frontal assaults against Russian positions. This strategy, married to a static conception of battlefield geometry, is stalling Ukraine’s counteroffensive.
Some analysts argue that Ukraine is fighting this way intentionally in an effort to wear down Russian forces. Yet the Russian military maintains a near-insurmountable numerical advantage. It still conducts conscription drafting and can theoretically resort to a second wave of mobilization. Kyiv, on the other hand, cannot easily generate more manpower. The Ukrainian military also suffers from mounting losses on the battlefield.
Therefore, if it wants to win, Ukraine needs to start waging large-scale maneuver warfare. General Valery Zaluzhny, the Ukrainian chief of staff, recently admitted that Ukraine is hindered in this effort by its lack of even local air superiority over the assault axes. Nonetheless, while waging a large-scale offensive action in the absence of air superiority is like fighting with one hand tied, Ukraine does not have the luxury of continuing attritional frontal assaults. It has to change battlefield dynamics before its numerical disadvantage catches up to it.
As previous editions of this report have conveyed, field intelligence from Ukraine suggests that Russian engineering units have performed well in combat, erecting layered fortifications with skill and efficiency. Securing a deep breakthrough against such robust defenses is difficult for even the most seasoned fighting force.
2. Battlefield Update: Incremental Advances, with a Surprise in Kherson
Over the past weeks, the Ukrainian Armed Forces have continued frontal assaults across the main offensive axes in the Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk oblasts. These assaults have recaptured only villages and small towns. More worrisome, Russia’s defensive lines have bent but not broken.
Moreover, while the overall war zone occupies a wide swath of territory, the active battleground has narrowed to a limited front between 100 kilometers to 150 kilometers wide. Kyiv has used Western aid to generate new combat formations, but Ukrainian advances on the southern axes of assault from Velyka Novosilka and Orikhiv have been limited, with Russian artillery, tactical aviation, and minefields hindering operational progress.
Hudson Institute’s Ukraine Military Situation Report closely monitors Ukraine’s efforts to secure tactical footholds that would expand its assault options in the south. Its best opportunity currently lies around Kherson, where crossing the Dnipro would offer the shortest path into Crimea.
Yet despite current military technology, river crossings remain among the riskiest operations an army can undertake. Flooding caused by the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam only exacerbates this risk, with the waterlogged terrain offering a muddy impediment to Ukraine’s heavy armor. At the time of writing, Ukraine’s activity around Kherson remains bogged down not only by flooding but also by its efforts to prevent the Russian high command from sending reinforcements to Zaporizhzhia.
But Ukraine’s defense technological and industrial base (DTIB) is making interesting modifications to its warfighting arsenal. Open-source intelligence outlets have spotted Western-donated Leopard-2A4 tanks equipped with explosive reactive armor (ERA) bricks. This augmentation offers additional protection to the platform and could be a tactical advantage.
The prospect of the Biden administration transferring ATACMS tactical ballistic missiles to the Ukrainian military serves as another potential game-changer. Hudson Institute experts have previously articulated how ATACMS could improve Kyiv’s chances of military success, equipping the Ukrainian Armed Forces with the critical ability to strike deep within occupied territories. In any operation to liberate the Crimean Peninsula, ATACMS could tip the scales toward Ukraine.
3. Will Wagner Train Belarus’s Armed Forces?
Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko confirmed the presence in his country of Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin. More interesting, Lukashenko hinted that Prigozhin could take part in training the Belarusian Armed Forces.
While the details of the deal that ended the headline-making but short-lived Wagner mutiny remain undisclosed, it seems—at least for now—that Prigozhin will retain control of his pre-war Wagner operations. Wagner’s economic center of gravity has long been in Africa, especially with its transactions in the Sahel region. Training the Belarusian Armed Forces, therefore, would be new turf for the Russian private military company.
The Belarusian military lacks real combat experience. Thus, elite Belarusian combat formations such as the 38th Air Assault Brigade, the 103rd Airborne Brigade, and the 5th SpetsnazBrigade could no doubt benefit from Wagner’s warfighting experience in Ukraine. These units, however, are closely linked to their counterparts in the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.
Wagner’s Belarus exile remains cloaked in secrecy. Only when the shadows lift will we be able to assess its ramifications for Russia, Ukraine, and the conflict at large.