In recent days, one thing has been on the minds of those who have been following the events in Ukraine with the attention that a World Cup deserves. The progress and outcome of the Battle of Kherson. Who will win, who will lose and what will be the consequences of the battle for the southern front? Will the road to Mykolaiv and Odessa be opened or will Russian domination of the Crimean peninsula be threatened? Analysis by Robert C. Castel.
With some generalization, the opinions converge on two points:
- We do not have enough information to say anything meaningful about the current state of the battle.
- The battle of Kherson may have very significant, possibly decisive, consequences for the war as a whole.
I see it a little differently.
There is no doubt that the information available to us is sketchy, contradictory and saturated with propaganda. The same can be said of the other theatres of war, and indeed of the vast majority of the combat scenarios of the Ukrainian war. The fog of Clausewitz is always hanging over the battlefields and no technological-intelligence innovation will be able to dispel it. Why? Because much of the fog is self-generated, a by-product of our own thought processes, subjectivity and prejudices. All this does not mean that we should surrender to intellectual defeatism. Even if we are not able to predict the specific outcome of a battle, we have the means to significantly narrow down the number of theoretically possible outcomes and to rank them in order of probability.
As for the second point of the emerging consensus, I think that if we take the very low-probability extreme outcomes out of the deck, we come to the conclusion that
the Battle of Kherson will not be a turning point in the Russo-Ukrainian war at the strategic level.
Perhaps not even at the operational level.
Having managed to sufficiently annoy the permanent miracle-mongers, I should explain why I think so. To do so, it is essential to consider the Battle of Kherson in the broader, grand strategic context of the war.
What is this war about?
To simplify things to an extreme,
this war is about who controls the real estate between NATO’s eastern borders and the Russian Federation, and to what extent.
Politically, militarily, economically and ideologically.
What are the aims of the warring parties?
Ukraine’s objective is, to use an unpopular expression these days, to preserve its national sovereignty.
Russia’s aim is to extend its control over the aforementioned property as much as possible, both quantitatively and qualitatively.
The difference between the two goals is dramatic.
Ukraine’s objective is inherently rigid and allows very little room to maneuver. In contrast, Russia has many opportunities to extend its control over the disputed territory. A puppet government in Ukraine, a military occupation of Ukraine, an international treaty, a failed state and a frozen conflict are just some of the options here.
In this sense, the conflict is rather asymmetric. What is a forced track for Ukraine is a very wide decision-making space for Russia.
What are the strategies chosen by the opposing sides to achieve their goals?
There is only one strategy for Ukraine in the medium term. Prevent further territorial loss and regain the quasi 20% already lost. All other strategies, e.g., bleeding Russia, the Ukrainian vision of Afghanistan, etc., are without exception great strategies — for Ukraine’s Western allies. But for Ukraine, these strategies, whatever their outcome, mean the destruction of the Ukrainian state, the Ukrainian economy and Ukrainian society.
What I wrote about Russia’s strategy in the first days of the war, the three stages based on the Clausewitz triad, has been proven right. The first stage, neutralizing Ukrainian political and military decision-making, was not successful. Russia is now in the second stage, which is aimed at grinding down the Ukrainian armed forces and the Ukrainian state’s ability to wage war. The imminent third stage will be aimed at breaking the Ukrainian nation and Ukrainian society, including by weaponizing energy during the coming winter.
The current strategy of the second stage, unlike that of the Ukrainians, is not territorial, but is aimed at grinding down the opponent’s living strength and military technology.
The strategy aims to create a military vacuum between NATO’s eastern border and Russia,
which can then be filled with Russian political influence and/or Russian military power. To put it crudely, from the point of view of Russian strategy, it makes no difference where the meat grinder is set up, where the Ukrainian army is being pulverized, in the Donbas or perhaps on the front in Kherson.
Of course, there is some exaggeration in saying it makes no difference. We shall see why in a moment.
How will the balance between defense and offense be struck in this war?
I have written several times, referring to the classics of war theory, that defense is the stronger form of warfare ab ovo. Why? Because the basic position is that there is a status quo that the attacker wants to change and the defender wants to defend. The attacker is compelled to act, the defender is not.
Beyond this theoretical difference, however, the balance between offense and defense is constantly changing, depending on technological, social and cultural processes. While during the Gulf wars, offense seemed to be the stronger form of combat, the first six months of the Ukrainian-Russian war suggest that the balance has shifted very markedly in favor of defense. To put it even more simply, offense has become more expensive, by orders of magnitude, than defense. This is true for manpower, military technology and the logistical „tail” that sustains it. This pattern was confirmed both during the siege of Kiev and during the Ukrainian counterattacks around Kharkiv. The Russian army’s glacier-speed advance through the fortified lines of the Donbass is further evidence of the dominance of defense.
What resources are available to the opposing parties?
In the field of military technology, grossly simplified, it’s about
Russian quantity versus Ukrainian quality.
Whether this quality, which comes from Western support, will be able to offset the Russian quantity is an open question.
In the field of manpower, at least on paper, the Ukrainian side has so far enjoyed numerical superiority by several times. This advantage does not seem sustainable in the long term. Qualitatively, there is no glaring difference between the two armies in terms of manpower.
What does all this say about the possible outcome of the Battle of Kherson?
If we accept the premises I have listed, then we can draw a whole series of conclusions from them, without detailed knowledge of the current operational situation.
1.Since defense is the proven and stronger form of combat at this stage of the war, the most advantageous position is one that attacks at the strategic level while defending at the operational level. In the battle for Kherson, the former is the position of the Russians, the latter of the Ukrainians. In this context, it is also worth reflecting that if the Ukrainian army could not overcome the Russians in a defensive formation, more advantageous than the current one, there is little reason to believe that they will suddenly succeed in the less advantageous offensive formation.
2. If the Russian strategy is to wear down the Ukrainian forces, it is much easier to do so if the Ukrainians attack on the open steppes around Kherson than if they defend the fortifications of the Donbass. Not to mention the fact that such a counterattack cannot be carried out with poorly trained territorial defenders. The Ukrainian offensive is likely to rely on well-trained and battle-hardened units, which cannot be easily replaced in the event of mass casualties. Paradoxically, the Ukrainian counterattack in Kherson could be a strategic boon for the Russians. Assuming that the battle does not end in a catastrophic Russian defeat.
3. As for the role of military technology, the most important insight is that Russian artillery is capable of covering the entire Kherson theater of operations effectively. High-accuracy Ukrainian artillery such as HIMARS will be very effective in attacking artillery ammunition depots and command points, but cannot meaningfully engage in tactical level daytime artillery engagements. Or rather, they can, but then their chances of survival are drastically reduced by the presence of ever-increasing numbers of Russian reconnaissance drones. HIMARS has proven very effective at surviving in artillery raids scattered along a front many hundreds of kilometers wide, but if they are tied down to support a very narrow front, they quickly lose the tactical flexibility that has been the reason for their survival.
4. For the Ukrainians to begin the counter-offensive in Kherson with any plausible hope of success, at least one of three conditions would have had to be met. The first is operational surprise, possibly supplemented by one or more technological surprises. The second is a far greater Ukrainian superiority in terms of both munitions and manpower. Those who were so fond of proclaiming the classic three-to-one ratio during the siege of Kiev suddenly seem to have lost their abacus. The third condition is a very creative and very surprising tactical feat. The attack began with the first two having already been abandoned by the Ukrainian side. The only question that remains is whether the Ukrainians will be able to pull off a certain creative feat that would compensate for the built-in shortcomings of this counterattack as a force multiplier.
5. Time is more important than space for the success of the Ukrainian counter-offensive. After the initial successes, progress will become more difficult day by day, as the time that elapses gives the Russians the opportunity to concentrate additional forces, especially artillery. What we don’t see in the first days of the battle, it is highly doubtful we will ever see again.
6. A narrative embellished to the extreme is only a half-truth. The Dnieper is not necessarily an ally of the Ukrainians in this battle. On the one hand, the constant assault on the bridges is a huge burden on Russian logistics, and on the other, the river forms a fairly decent anti-tank trench behind which Russian artillery can be more or less safe. They have to expect firefights and ambushes, but the chances of having to use direct fire against Ukrainian tanks are negligible.
What does this mean for the outcome of the battle?
It means that
at the political level, whatever happens on the battlefield, both sides will declare themselves victors at the battle for Kherson.
It is not impossible that even a very modest tactical success for the Ukrainians could have huge political significance, both in terms of maintaining morale at home as well as allied morale. The Ukrainians will point to the map and argue that if the West had adequately supported them with military equipment, we could be talking about an operational success rather than a tactical one. This would probably be a decisive factor in maintaining or expanding the volume of Western assistance. It is not impossible that this is the rationalization of the counterattack at Kherson, rather than success in battle measured in square kilometers. If this is indeed the case, and the objectives of the offensive are political rather than military, then the Ukrainians will be willing to make very great sacrifices to achieve these demonstrable political objectives.
The only question is whether the expected gains in domestic morale and foreign support will compensate Ukraine for its accelerated pace of self-destruction.
At the strategic or operational level, the counter-offensive in Kherson is unlikely to represent a real turning point. In my judgment, the most likely scenario will be a surge of the line of contact to a depth of a few dozen kilometers. Some small settlements may change hands, possibly several times. However,
the chances that the Ukrainian side will succeed in retaking Kherson are negligible.
There is also little chance that the Russians could use the break in the Ukrainian counter-offensive to make the next leap towards Mykolaiv.
Looking at the war as a whole, it seems that neither side has enough military power at the moment to exploit a possible breakthrough at the operational level.
Comparing the battles of the current war with the battles of World War II fought in the same area, we see a much more cautious, economical and static warfare, devoid of any brave maneuvering.
The great counterattack, on which the outcome of the war was hung by the sensationalist media, will have a fairly indifferent outcome when examined on the map, whether the Ukrainian side emerges victorious or the Russian.
That is why I think it is not impossible that, years from now, we will look back on this “decisive” battle announced months in advance as the Battle of Kherson that made no difference at all.