Like Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia on the third day of Gettysburg, the Ukrainian military, by expending its strength in a series of pyrrhic offenses, has reached its high-water mark. As Ukraine prepares to enact its version version of “Pickett’s Charge” in Kherson, what remains of the Russian-Ukraine conflict is a long, bloody, and tragic path toward the destruction of Ukraine as a modern nation state.
The “Special Military Option” (SMO) was never supposed to reach this level of drama.
From its inception, Russia had limited objectives which singularly focused on the liberation of the newly-declared independent republics of Donetsk and Lugansk—collectively comprising the historically Russian territory of the Donbas. Russian territorial acquisition in support of this objective was focused on attaining military advantage as opposed to radically redrawing the political map of Ukraine—the diversionary attack toward Kiev, and the establishment of a land bridge connecting Crimea with the Donbas. That these seizures of territory were meant to be temporary is borne out by the facts of the case—Russia’s voluntary withdrawal from northern Ukraine in late March-early April, and the willingness of Russia during the Istanbul round of negotiations in early April to return the occupied territories of Kherson and Zaporizhia in exchange for recognition of an independent Donbas.
The Russian force structure that had been allocated to the task of the SMO was neither designed nor intended to wage a protracted conflict encompassing frontages more than 1,000 kilometers (or 2,500 kilometers, if one factors in the Russian-Ukrainian border stretching from Belarus to Lugansk.) By initiating a conflict with somewhere between 150,000-200,000 troops against a foe possessing an active duty component of some 260,000 troops supported by available reserves comprising some 600,000 additional trained personnel, Russia opted to ignore standard military force ratio requirements for offensive operations which hold that the attacker-to-defender ratio should be at least 3 to 1 in favor of the attacker, and instead gambled on a combination of speed and audacity to try and create the impression of the inevitability of a Russian victory, thereby facilitating the collapse of Ukrainian resistance.
The Russian high command was not the only entity which embraced such an outcome. General Mark Miley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, briefed the US Congress prior to the initiation of the SMO that he assessed Russia would capture Kiev within 72 hours of initiating hostilities. Yours truly likewise tweeted out in the days before the SMO began that “I think this is going to be one of the most decisive victories in the history of modern warfare. The Ukrainian Army can’t fight, and the Russian Army is vastly superior. So this is going to be over in less than a week.”
General Miley and I, along with a whole host of others (including, most likely, the Russian General Staff) were wrong—very wrong.
The ability and willingness of the Ukrainian armed forces to resist the Russian assault was manifest in both the casualties they inflicted among the Russians (thousands), and the casualties they were willing to sustain in defense of their homeland (tens of thousands). The tenacity and resilience of the Ukrainian defenders was such that within a week the Russians shifted gears from SMO Phase 1 (the “shock and awe”-induced collapse of the Ukrainian government) to SMO Phase 1.2, namely using the precepts of maneuver warfare to shape the Ukrainian battlefield in a manner that was conducive for the initiation of SMO Phase 2—the liberation of the Donbas. By March 25 the “shaping” operations had proceeded to the point that Russia formally announced the cessation of Phase 1.2 and transitioned into Phase 2.
Phase 2 of the SMO was dominated in its early stage to the capture of the city of Mariupol, a Ukrainian-held urban area that had been occupied by ultra-nationalist forces belonging to the Azov organization, who used the city as a springboard for further depravations in the remainder of the Donbas. Russian forces consolidated their positions in Kherson and Zaporizhia to the south, and around Kharkov in the north, securing the flanks of the main Russian effort which was now almost singularly focused on the liberation/conquest of the Donbas.
The fighting was extremely difficult, with the Russian military and their allies from the people’s militias of Lugansk and Donetsk, together with elements of the Russian National Guard and other volunteer units (the Chechen battalions stand out in this regard, as does the Wagner Group), steadily working to reduce one of the densest networks of prepared defenses ever seen in modern warfare. The nature of the fighting, where Russia methodically reduced the Ukrainian positions with massed artillery fire before sending in infantry supported by armor to seize and occupy positions, developed an algorithmic rhythm which generated casualty ratios more than 10 to 1 in favor of Russia. Seen in this light, the force allocation to Phase 2 of the SMO seemed more than adequate.
War is rarely static, and the enemy always gets a vote. The demonstrated willingness and ability on the part of Ukraine to forcefully resist the Russian SMO compelled the United States and its allies in NATO, the G-7, and the European Union to begin supplying Ukraine with heavy weapons, including armored vehicles and artillery, in quantities that could have a meaningful impact on the battlefield. Ukraine’s western allies also provided the financial support necessary for Ukraine to remain relatively solvent, while coordinating closely on matters pertaining to intelligence, communications, logistics, and operational planning. In addition, the provision by NATO of training facilities located on NATO soil provided Ukraine with a safe environment to train on this new NATO-provided equipment, and organize new combat units that could replace those being decimated in the meat grinder that was the frontline in eastern Ukraine.
By the end of July, Russian forces had been engaged in intensive combat operations for five months, necessitating an operational pause along the line of contact for the purpose of resting and refitting an exhausted Russian fighting force. While this pause occurred, Ukraine was in the process of assembling a force of some 300,000 men, including 50-70,000 newly trained and quipped soldiers who were organized and operated in accordance with NATO doctrine and standards.
While the assembly of this force was apparent to all (Russian blogs reported on it in detail), the Russian high command did little if anything to impede the accumulation of Ukrainian offensive power near the front lines. Moreover, Ukraine had been announcing its intent to conduct large-scale offensive operations in the Kherson region, prompting Russia to deploy its strategic reserves from the Kharkov and Donbas regions to the Kherson front. In early September, the Ukrainian offensive against Kharkov was initiated, with Ukraine making minor gains while suffering extensive casualties. It looked like Russia had been able to defeat the Ukrainian offensive.
But the Ukrainians were not yet finished. A few days after the Kherson offensive was initiated, Ukraine began shifting its own reserves toward the Kharkov region, where they began offensive operations less than a week into September. The initial Ukrainian attacks focused on the area surrounding the town of Balakliya. The town itself was held by a combined company of Special Rapid Response Units, or SOBR, from Samara (the “Omega” detachment) and Ufa (the “Tolpar” detachment.) The combined SOBR unit comprised some 200 men who were equipped with little more than light weapons.
To the south of Balakliya was the 150th Motorized Rifle Division, an elite unit formed in 2016 exclusively from contract soldiers. The 150th MRD had participated in the campaign to capture Mariupol, and in June participated in offensive operations in the Popasna region of the Donetsk republic, where it suffered heavy casualties. Elements of the 150th MRD were withdrawn for refitting, while the remainder of the division was dispatched to positions south of Balakliya.
When the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the Kharkov region began, the initial attacks fell on the positions held by the 150th MRD. The thinly-manned defensive lines were breached, and the 150th MRD defenders fell back on prepared secondary positions. These, too, were breached, and the 150th MRD began a near-panicked retreat that was done in such a rush the command abandoned the ceremonial copy of the “victory banner,” raised by the division over the Reichstag at the conclusion of the Battle for Berlin in May 1945, which had been presented to it by the commander of the Southern Military District in 2019.
The sudden retreat of the 150th MRD, when combined with a similar withdrawal of Russian forces north of Balakliya, left the combined SOBR detachment isolated and surrounded, attempting to defend the town against a concentrated force of Ukrainian tanks and armored vehicles, supported by artillery. They did so, valiantly, hoping for relief that never came. Confronted with the option of defending Balakliya to the death or attempting a breakout that would return them to Russian lines, the SOBR detachment opted to breakout and, against all odds, succeeded in evacuating all its men, including the wounded, without suffering a single officer killed in action.
The story of the ignominious retreat of the Russian military has been told elsewhere. Some portray it as a total route; it was not. Some portray it as some form of three-dimensional chess art-of-war mind game; it was not that, either.
What it was is what happens when inadequate military resources are applied to a military problem requiring much more. When Ukraine masses 5,000 troops along a front held by 30-60 men per kilometer, with no defense in depth, this is the result you get—a pell-mell retreat, somewhat orderly, to a new defensive line where the troop-to-kilometer ratio is more favorable to the defender.
The Ukrainian forces had been, thanks to the US/NATO intervention, trained and equipped to NATO standards. They were also provided with NATO intelligence, communications, logistics, and command and control capabilities and support. The Ukrainians identified the weakest point in the Russian defenses and exploited it. The rest is history.
The Ukrainians were able to repeat this result in the battle for Liman. There, forces from the 208th Cossack Regiment of the Lugansk People’s Militia and two sub-battalion formations from the Russian Special Combat Army Reserve (BARS, an organization started in 2021 which is like the organized reserve of the US Army) were deployed along a sector which allowed for an allocation of around 60 men per kilometer. These units were flanked by Russian units from the 20th Combined Arms Army (in the north) and the 58th Combined Arms Army (in the south); neither Russian formation provided the BARS units and the Cossacks with either artillery forward observers or forward air controllers. As such, when the Ukrainians massed their troops and tanks, these defenders could do little but watch as they advanced, unmolested by Russian fires.
Liman was lost.
Similar stories occurred in the Kherson/Zaporizhia battles of late September, as Ukrainian forces, acting on accurate and timely intelligence provided by the US and NATO, were able to find the seam in the Russian defense, launch attacks to exploit this seam, thereby compelling the Russian forces to withdraw to a more defensible position.
For the Ukrainians, the hard-earned victories on the battlefield were a breath of fresh air. Together with their western information warfare specialists, the Ukrainian government used a compliant western mainstream media to promote a Russian “death by a thousand cuts,” the notion of a Russian regime so corrupt and incompetent that the Russian elite, empowered by the anger of a betrayed Russian nation, would instigate a “Moscow Maidan,” a coup replicating the events that transpired in Ukraine in February 2014 that led to the ouster of Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich and triggering the events which culminated in Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine.
A “Moscow Maidan” may have seemed viable to the intelligence officers seated in Langley and London who drafted the various position papers and supporting analysis that breathed life into the concept. It was accepted as gospel by the Ukrainian regime of Volodymyr Zelensky and his NATO backers. But bad theory never survives contact with the harsh brutality of reality, and hopes for a “Moscow Maidan” were quickly quashed as Ukraine pursued its “death by a thousand cuts” literally a bridge too far.
The October 8 terrorist attack on the Crimea Bridge, a strategic infrastructure project connecting the Crimean Peninsula with southern Russia, represented the crossing of a red line that Moscow could simply not ignore. Planned and executed by the Ukrainian intelligence service on the orders of the President of Ukraine, the suicide truck bomb that temporarily halted road and rail traffic of the bridge jolted the Russian leadership into action. On October 9 Russian President Vladimir Putin appointed General Sergei Surovikin, a well-regarded combat leader with experience in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Syria, as the sole commander of military operations in Ukraine, ending the cumbersome command arrangement that had been in place since the start of the SMO which had four separate commanders reporting to the Russian General Staff in Moscow.
Prior to this appointment, Surovikin, also known by the nickname of “General Armageddon,” commanded the southern military district, where he oversaw operations in Ukraine that led to the capture of Kherson and Zaporizhia provinces. Surovikin was given the authority to use all the weapons at his disposal, excluding nuclear, to achieve the objectives of the SMO. Within 24 hours his presence was felt, as Russia unleashed what has been, to date, a sustained aerial bombardment of Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, with a particular emphasis on electrical power generation capacity.
By implementing what, by all accounts, appears to be a Russian version of the strategic air campaign employed by the US against Iraq in Operation Desert Storm, back in January-February 1991, Surovikin appears to be on a path that, with the completion of the partial mobilization of 300,000 Russian reservists (along with more than a hundred thousand additional volunteers), will lead a final pivot toward the inevitable strategic Russian victory over Ukraine and its NATO backers.
The Ukrainian leadership knows this—Zelensky’s panicked plea for a NATO preemptive nuclear strike against Russia (ignoring the fact that, by making such an appeal, Zelensky was asking his erstwhile allies to commit mass suicide) underscores the depth Ukraine’s desperation has reached.
NATO knows this as well. The panicked gathering of NATO leaders for the purpose of frantically trying to build an air defense shield capable of protecting European cities from a similar Russian aerial onslaught, while making promises to Ukraine about the provision of new air defense systems, points to the growing recognition that Russia is winning.
All that remains are the final, tragic acts of this drama. In southern Ukraine, Zelensky is assembling his final reserves, some 60,000 strong, which he is preparing to throw at the Russian defenses in one last gambit to break through and seize the city of Kherson. Like General Longstreet when considering the Union line, the Ukrainian commanders examine the Russian defenses, knowing all too well they lack the means to achieve the desired victory. But the die has been cast, and the command to advance must be given. There is no doubt the Ukrainian military and their western mercenary allies will do their duty and, like General Picket and the other confederate commanders at Gettysburg, order their forces forward into the fire of battle.
The result will be the same—the cream of Ukraine’s youth will be spent, dead, dying, and shattered on the shoals of what history will show to be the high-water mark of NATO’s gambit to use Ukraine as a tool to destroy Russia. But the tide has shifted; Russia has a new commander, a new army, and a new will to win.
Ukraine will soon have nothing more than the memory of those lives their feckless leadership squandered in a failed effort to fulfil the larger ambition of allies unworthy of the name. Hopefully those memories will help dampen the sorrow of the survivors of this tragedy as they reflect on their destroyed homeland, doomed by the combination of overarching ambition, narcissistic pride, and hubris to become a pitiful shadow of what once was a proud nation.