To understand why it’s a bad idea to try to hold onto a tiny 2 km-wide salient sticking out into enemy-controlled territory—while also surrounded on three sides in modern combat—try joining the Russian defenders in Urozhaine. They are receiving a horrific lesson on tactical futility.
Urozhaine has been at the center of some of the fiercest fighting on the southern front, alongside Robotyne to the west. It is part of Ukraine’s advance southward from Velyka Novosilka.
Urozhaine is a small town, with a pre-war population of around 1,000. it sits alongside the T0518 Highway that connects the Ukrainian-held Velyka Novosilka to Staromlynivka, which sits just north of Russia’s only fortified defense line in this region.
Urozhaine and Staromaiorske are separated by the tiny Mokri Yali River; Staromaiorske was liberated by Ukrainian troops on July 27.
Rather than concede this defensive alignment centered on Staromaiorske and Urozhaine once the defense line had been breached, Russia instead launched a furious series of counterattacks in early August, running straight uphill against newly established Ukrainian defensive positions on the high ground within the town. After several days of counterattacks, the Russians gave up, having accomplished nothing.
For all of Russia’s “fight for every inch” philosophy, I didn’t think Russia would be so boneheaded as to refuse to retreat from Urozhaine after giving up on retaking Staromaiorske. It’s hard to express just how impossible a position Urozhaine became after Staromaiorske fell firmly into Ukrainian control.
Most people with even a cursory understanding of military tactics understand that “trying to defend a position surrounded on three sides is a bad idea,” but let’s put it into very practical terms.
First, understand that there’s a de facto maximum “combat density” of troops Russia can put into a given position before things become counterproductive. That is, one can only put so many military resources into a square kilometer of ground.
Packing troops and equipment into a small area means they become more vulnerable to artillery and airstrikes. If troops are stationed in every third building, an artillery round that accidentally hits the wrong building won’t kill any troops; if you pack soldiers into every building, even an artillery round that “misses” its mark can take out troops.
Combat density problems are particularly acute when on the defensive.
On the offensive, a large number of troops can be packed into a small area for a short period (especially if they are riding in armored vehicles); they can fight for a short spurt and then disperse to avoid enemy firepower.
But on the defensive, by definition, the goal is to keep the defensive force in place for an extended period of time. In theory, reserves could be rushed into an area and then quickly retreated, but there are practical limits quickly encountered in time and space.
Thus, assuming that Russia concentrated maximal practical defensive forces on Urozhaine prior to the fall of Staromaiorske, Russia cannot simply rush more troops into Urozhaine to resolve the more precarious nature of its current tactical situation. It will have to make do with the same amount of combat power as it had before.
Before Staromaiorske was captured by Ukraine, Russian defenders could rely on the Russian troops in Staromaiorske to cover their left flank. Since its fall, the same number of defenders must now defend not only the northern and eastern approaches to Urozhaine, but its western flank as well.
This leaves Urozhaine significantly more vulnerable. But Russia’s problems run far deeper.
The Russo-Ukrainian War has frequently been described as an “artillery war,” which is certainly a fair characterization. And one weapon that has made artillery dramatically more powerful has been the simple reconnaissance drone.
For example, the M777, the lightweight American towed 155 mm howitzer in ubiquitous Ukrainian service—with nearly 200 delivered to Ukraine—is very accurate. With digital fire controls and high-precision manufacturing, it achieves a circle error of probability of 25m, at a maximum range of 23km. That is, if it fires one round at a target at 23km, 50% of the time, the shot will land within 25m (82 feet) of the target.
This might be accurate enough to hit a large building, but it is not accurate enough to hit tank-sized units or a small squad of infantry.
There are three ways in which artillery can dramatically improve its odds of hitting the target.
First, Ukrainian artillery can reach for a guided munition. Excalibur GPS rounds, GMLRS rockets from HIMARS rocket artillery, and BONUS or SMArt antitank munitions all have various types of guidance abilities that reduce CEP to only a few meters, making them highly likely to destroy their targets. Russian artillery also has some limited access to laser-guided artillery shells, although these require a spotter to guide the shell into the target with a laser targeter.
The downside is that guided munitions cost hundreds of times more than a conventional artillery round. An Excalibur GPS guided round costs around $100k, where as a conventional 155 mm shell can be had for a few hundred dollars.
Second, artillery in defensive positions can rely on preregistered artillery fire. Artillery in defensive positions can “test fire” a few rounds at various anticipated enemy approaches beforehand and gain a working knowledge of where they expect rounds to fall at different angles of fire. This information is recorded, so when an enemy force approaches a preregistered site, artillery can open fire using this information, allowing them to land far more accurate strikes. This basic tactic is used by both Russian and Ukrainian artillery crews and is one reason that artillery tends to be deadlier in defense.
Lastly, artillery crews can make use of a spotter to lay down adjusted artillery fire. A spotter—on the ground or in an aircraft—or most commonly, a reconnaissance drone will observe where artillery shells are falling. That information is relayed back to artillery crews, who adjust their fire accordingly. Artillery shells can gradually be “walked” to their target by adjusting the artillery fire over time.
Thus, in modern combat, the ability to place enemy targets under observation is essentially equivalent to firepower. Artillery firing blindly to blanket enemy targets in hopes of hitting something is a waste of ammunition. Sometimes there is no better option, but concentrating firepower on targets under observation minimizes the number of shells necessary to efficiently destroy targets.
This brings into focus another major problem with Russia’s choice to defend Urozhaine.
Before Staromaiorske fell, Ukrainian drones had to fly over Russian anti-drone defenses deployed in the north in order to observe rearward Russian positions.
With Staromaiorske now under Ukrainian control, observation drones can likely bring most or nearly all of Urozhaine under observation, while barely needing to penetrate Russian anti-drone defenses.
Again: Observation is firepower.
Ukrainian artillery is being relayed information from frontline Ukrainian units and thus can walk artillery barrages onto Russian rearward targets with great efficiency, bringing all of Urozhaine under risk of artillery strikes at any time.
Unsurprisingly, Ukraine has been doing just that for the past two weeks.
The stupidity of Russia’s decision to defend a 4km-long and 2km-wide salient sticking into Ukrainian-controlled ground can be inferred from the lack of air defense.
Air defense assets, with their powerful expensive radars and expensive anti-air munitions that generally cost over $1M per missile, are not something to put right on the front line. Even less expensive short-ranged anti-air systems will generally be placed at least a few kilometers from the front, lest they become easy targets to enemy artillery.
Before Urozhaine became an isolated tiny salient, it may have been safe to place short-ranged SAM systems around the vicinity of Zavitne Bazhannya, which could give coverage against Ukrainian Close Air Support bombers trying to fly in for a strike—making it a risky proposition. That’s not to say that such a strike couldn’t be attempted, particularly with a GPS-guided glide bomb, like the JDAM, which can be toss-bombed from a distance of 30km or more. But it would be a more dangerous proposition.
However, once Staromaiorske was liberated and Ukraine advanced on both flanks of Urozhaine, not only did all of Urozhaine come under spotter drone observation for Ukrainian artillery, Ukraine also pushed its ability to observe Russian-held territory several kilometers behind Urozhaine, making such areas likely too dangerous for Russian SAM batteries. Russian SAM batteries were almost certainly forced to pull their anti-air coverage several kilometers backward—leaving Urozhaine further exposed to Ukrainian CAS bomber strikes.
Thus we see JDAM strikes on front-line Russian strong points by Ukrainian bombers in Urozhaine.
I share Kos’ befuddlement at Russia’s strategic decision to contest every inch of ground beyond their main defense lines, even at the cost of expending their reserves in repeated counterattacks on newly captured high grounds—like at Staromaiorske.
However, due to the fog of war, I have difficulty entirely ruling out the possibility that perhaps the Russians have some logistically, militarily, or politically strategic angle that I am not seeing to justify this expenditure of men and materiel. Perhaps Russia is counting on mobilization to refill its ranks, or there really are 100 T-90 tanks about to roll off of Russian assembly lines. Perhaps Russia’s gotten assurances of Chinese military aid that will be arriving within weeks. I think all these things are fantastically unlikely at present, but I won’t say the possibility is zero.
What I will say, with a fair amount of confidence, is that the Russian decision not to withdraw from Urozhaine after Ukraine liberated Staromaiorske and the counterattacks to regain the position failed cannot possibly be militarily justified. These Russian soldiers were left in an utterly vulnerable position where they would be exposed to Ukrainian firepower. This has been a fully lopsided fight for Ukraine, as its forces were able to strike at Russian positions at will for two weeks.
Now that Ukraine felt the defenders have been sufficiently degraded to move on the position from the north and southwest, it’s unsurprising the Russian defenses are quickly crumbling. It’s quite likely that any Russian defenders in this position have been thoroughly decimated in the past two weeks, in what can only be described as utter folly on the part of Russian commanders.
Switching gears, I have been watching with growing interest Ukraine’s small-scale operations to establish defensible positions on the left bank (i.e. the south bank) of the Dnipro River, close to Kherson.
Ukraine first sent the 73rd Marine special operations unit on a mission to establish a position across the Dnipro, where the remains of the Antonivka Bridge still stand.
Russian positions in Oleshky have not been seriously threatened, but repeated attempts by Russian artillery, cruise missiles, and land forces to dislodge Ukraine from its now dug-in positions have failed. Ukraine has extended its area of control southwest, to encompass all the territory north of the Konka River, and reportedly has crossed the Konka River southwest of Oleshky, although forces have not appeared to have advanced any further.
On Wednesday, Ukraine launched a small-scale offensive operation aimed at Kozachi Laheri, about 17km northeast of Oleshky.
The scale of this attack was reportedly not large, involving fewer than 50 soldiers on seven boats. But even this small force managed to penetrate Russia’s limited defenses at Kozahi Laheri and establish a defensive position in the western part of the town.
A furious artillery duel followed, as Russia tried to force the Ukrainiansto retreat with sheer firepower, and Ukraine laid down counterbattery fire and bombardment of nearby Russian positions.
Remarkably, given the small initial force that was sent, Ukraine continues to hold its position at Kozahi Laheri. It’s unclear if the small initial force has been reinforced.
So the question becomes, what is Ukraine’s objective in launching these small-scale attacks across the river?
Due to the small scale of the attack, the Institute for the Study of War initially characterized this operation as a “limited raid,” but this is a characterization I would dispute. Raids are generally aimed at causing damage and exploiting gaps in enemy defenses, but they generally do not aim to capture and hold territory—however small the territorial gains are.
Ukraine launched a series of probing attacks and raids from November-June, wherein Ukrainian troops would disembark on the left bank of the Dnipro, perhaps fight a few skirmishes, investigate the surroundings, or attack a small isolated outpost, then leave. These are classic raid operations.
But Ukraine’s operation in crossing the Dnipro north of Oleshky, and now west of Kosachi Laheri, are of a different character; even if they are similar in scale to past operations, soldiers are now seeking to find defensible locations and dig in.
Several possibilities for Ukrainian objectives can be surmised, and these are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
First, the goal could be to “fix” Russian troops in the Kherson direction. By threatening to land and establish defensible positions on the opposite bank of the Dnipro, Russia is forced to maintain a measure of defensive forces in this region. if too many Russian troops are being diverted to Zaporizhzhia or the Donetsk fronts, Ukraine could launch gradually expanding raids to drive fear of an even greater-scale attack that would permit Ukraine to begin establishing a serious cross-river offensive.
Russian commanders may fear the situation getting out of hand and request reinforcements before things are too late, and Ukraine might “fix” a significant amount of Russian troops in this area with a relatively small commitment of troops.
Second, Ukraine’s goal might be the attrition of Russian artillery assets.
Ukraine has been leveraging significant advantages in counterbattery radar, precision munitions, and long-range rocket artillery in HIMARS to a 3:1 or better artillery kill ratio. Pro-Russian bloggers have been calling it an “artillery genocide.”
RUSI has already observed a radical 75%+ decline in the volume of 152 mm heavy artillery fire for Russia, and an increased reliance on heavy mortars in its place. Russian artillery has shown an increased reliance on archaic 50- to 70-year-old artillery systems and towed artillery, leaving its crews increasingly vulnerable to counterbattery fire. Degraded crews and weaker equipment further accelerate Ukraine’s artillery advantages.
One of Ukraine’s present goals is likely to eliminate sufficient quantities of trained Russian artillery crews and enough high-quality artillery pieces to grind Russia’s artillery arm into increasing ineffectiveness.
To accomplish this, Ukraine needs not only localized casualties to Russian artillery assets in areas they wish to advance ,but a global decline in Russian artillery assets. To achieve this, Ukraine needs to leverage its advantages and engage Russian artillery in as many areas as possible. By dealing damage to Russian artillery in maximum areas of combat, the overall Russian losses might become overwhelming on a systemic level.
Although the number of Ukrainian infantry engaged in combat in these cross-river operations is tiny compared to the fighting around Robotyne, Urozhaine, or Bakhmut, the number of artillery units engaged in combat is not trivial. The fires from the furious bombardments and counterbattery fire are large enough to be detected as serious artillery engagements on FIRMS satellite heat map data.
Thus, these small-scale infantry raids may be trigger points to force Russian artillery units to reveal themselves to counterbattery fire. Whatever Russian artillery Ukraine can knock out in these engagements may be the primary point of launching the attacks—as opposed to any ground that Ukraine gains on the left bank.
Finally, it is possible that Ukraine is building towards a serious river crossing operation, aimed at opening a new and significant route of advance from the rear of the Russian defenses around Melitopol and Tokmak.
This would be great! Except that to sustain a large enough force that could seriously threaten the Russian rear, Ukraine needs a pontoon bridge or three.
Laying a pontoon bridge across the Dnipro is certainly possible. Russia built a pontoon crossing in under 24 hours right next to the Antonivka Bridge on Oct. 19, 2022, despite the river’s width being nearly a mile around this area. Around where the Antonivka Rail Bridge used to be, about a mile upstream from the Road Bridge, the river narrows considerably and is only a little more than 500m wide.
So there are certainly some points where Ukraine could lay a pontoon bridge.
The problem is securing a perimeter that makes the bridges secure. If Ukraine begins building a pontoon bridge while under observation by Russian reconnaissance drones, the bridge will undoubtedly be quickly destroyed.
This is the inverse of the “observation is firepower” issue discussed above with regards to Urozhaine. For Ukraine to build a pontoon bridge and protect it, at the very minimum, Ukraine must drive back Russian positions from the planned bridge site. Ukraine could then deploy anti-drone assets to prevent observation by Russian reconnaissance drones.
Ten kilometers would probably be an absolute bare minimum depth, but 15-20km would probably be necessary.
It’s not that bringing a sufficient force to conduct such a major operation isn’t within Ukraine’s capabilities.
Based on publicly known military ferry assets Ukraine has received, I previously calculated that in the first 20 minutes, Ukraine could ferry across 8 main battle tanks and 12 infantry fighting vehicles. By the end of two hours, if Russia fails to disrupt the crossings, Ukraine should be able to bring across around 30 to 40 MBTs, 80 to 100 IFVs, 8,000+ dismounted infantry, and supporting artillery.
The problem isn’t so much bringing a large force across the river, but being able to sustain it. Multiple brigades worth of Ukrainian soldiers would require enormous supplies of food, ammunition, and fuel simply to sustain in place, let alone to advance.
Additionally, bringing a significant force across the river risks having it isolated and destroyed. Ukraine can simply load up a few dozen soldiers to make a hasty retreat if a major Russian counterattack is brewing. But as previously noted, organizing a fighting withdrawal of hundreds or thousands of Ukrainian troops, tanks, and other armored vehicles is a different dimension of complexity—and likely beyond Ukraine’s capabilities.
But there is one relatively low-risk way for Ukraine to gradually set conditions for a push across the river: Bring the towns surrounding Oleshky under Ukrainian control with small unit offensives before launching a bigger assault.
For example, Ukrainian raids on small villages—perhaps southwest of Oleshky, like Kardashynka or Kokhany, or northeast of Oleshky around Pishchanivka—could establish small defensive positions that help isolate Oleshky from Russian reinforcements. This would create staging areas for a major effort to surround and capture Oleshky rapidly—if Ukraine chose to do so.
Such actions can continue at relatively small scale, requiring dozens, not hundreds of soldiers. Yet the overall net effect of gradually establishing defensible positions dotted around the riverside villages would be to gradually impede the movement of Russian forces alongside the river, and establish conditions for a rapid encirclement of Oleshky if Ukraine chose to bring across a significant force.
This would increasingly put pressure on Russia to increase troop presence in this area, or risk permitting Ukraine to establish a significant bridgehead across the Dnipro.
There are numerous complications to such an operation—which would be enormously risky. Russian cruise missiles could be used to target any pontoon bridges, and Ukraine’s logistics would be dependent on its ability to keep the pontoon bridges intact. Ukraine would likely need multiple bridges to ensure that it can survive the loss of one bridge, even temporarily. Ukraine would also need to deploy a modern Western SAM battery to guard against Russian missile attacks—and even then the risks would be high.
But if Ukraine is aiming to begin a pattern of establishing small defensible locations along the bank of the Dnipro, there may be a greater operational goal down the road. And the mere threat of those operational developments could force Russia into some tough decisions on where to allocate troops.
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