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The Attacks of June 2023
The War in Ukraine (2014-2023)
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This attempt to make sense of the series of small-scale attacks begun by the Ukrainian Armed Forces on 4 June 2023 begins with the reminder that “all models are wrong, but some are better than others.” That is, while I hope that the analogies I employ will shed some light on the logic behind this effort, I fully realize that, like other warlike enterprises, the location, scale, and timing of these operations owe as much to chance, friction, and passion as they do to reason and rhyme.
Regular readers of the Tactical Notebook will not be surprised that, as the pattern of these attacks began to emerge, the first analogy that suggested itself to me was that of the attack with limited objectives [Angriff mit begrenzten Zielen]. Conducted by German formations fighting in France and Flanders during the first winter of the First World War, each operation of this type served the purpose of capturing particular pieces of ground that, when integrated into a larger defensive position, improved the ability of a given division or army corps to conduct defensive operations. This enhancement of the defensive power of German forces in West, in turn, allowed them to do more with less, thereby freeing formations for service on other fronts.
While clearly focused on the capture of small pieces of ground, none of the attacks carried out in June of 2023 displayed the definitive characteristic of an attack with limited objectives. That is, when they succeeded, they did nothing to improve the defensive posture of nearby Ukrainian forces. On the contrary, the capture of particular pieces of ground served to weaken the ability of local Ukrainian forces to withstand Russian attacks.
Consider, for example, the case of the ridge near the town of Robotyne, eight miles (thirteen kilometers) south of the city of Orikhiv. Rather than eliminating a bulge in the Ukrainian position, the seizure by Ukrainian forces of the north side of the ridge created a salient in the Russian position. This protrusion, in turn, both facilitated the work of Russian artillery and invited Russian counterattack. To put things more bluntly, the capture of the high ground near Robotyne put the victors in the middle of a fire sack.
The frequent use of the word “bridgehead” to describe places captured in Ukrainian attacks suggests that they might serve the purpose of setting the stage for operations of a larger sort. The ground in question, however, lacks the characteristics of classic “key terrain.” That is to say, the countryside in Zaporizhzhia and western Donetsk is so open, and so free of natural obstacles, that, as far as grand offensives go, each square kilometer of ground is much the same as any other.
The extensive fortification of Russian defensive positions in Ukraine suggests the possibility that the attacks serve to “eat the elephant one bite at a time.” The tempo of Ukrainian attacks, however, provides the Russians with plenty of time to dig fresh trenches, lay new minefields, and sow new dragons’ teeth. In other words, if the battle is a race between destruction of old defenses and the construction of new ones, the builders are winning.