Two years of full invasion: “Ukraine must go on the defensive”


As of: February 24, 2024 2:29 p.m

Ammunition shortages are forcing the Ukrainian army to go on the defensive in the war against Russia, says military analyst Hendrik Remmel. But how can Ukraine go on the offensive – and what does the West understand by a victory for Kiev? On the second anniversary of the attack on Ukraine, the Ukrainian army has to withdraw from the town of Avdiivka, which has been fought over for months. What does this withdrawal represent?

Hendrik Remmel: The situation of the Ukrainian army is precarious at the beginning of the third year of the war. But the loss of Avdiivka will not decide the outcome of the war. Avdiivka was relevant for the Ukrainian army as a favorable starting point for an attack on the city of Donetsk. This is another reason why it is not insignificant for the Russian armed forces, at least at an operational level, that they have taken this city. The latter also enables further attacks to the west, especially on the Pokrovsk transport hub and, if necessary, the subsequent outflanking of Ukrainian forces in the Sloviansk and Kramatorsk area. But to believe that the Russian army’s capture would be a strategic game changer is misguided from a military perspective.

“It’s primarily about wear and tear” Can we expect that the Russian armed forces will now quickly advance towards the west or northwest?

Remmel: The possibility exists. But the Russian armed forces, just like the Ukrainian ones, have not been able to quickly gain large amounts of space in recent years. There was an exception in the Kharkiv area, where the Ukrainians took advantage of weak Russian defenses and a deception campaign in the information space. But basically both sides are primarily concerned with wear and tear. The focus is more on how to destroy the largest groupings of forces possible, also because space-oriented attack operations require an extremely high level of training and equipment, which neither side can currently provide to the required extent.

If the Russian armed forces had planned to take advantage of the success of the attack in and around Avdiivka and advance further west, then ideally they would have done so immediately after the withdrawal of the Ukrainian units; we should have seen that by now. The fact that the Russian armed forces are spreading out rather than concentrating in the area in question speaks against them carrying out a major operational push towards the west in the near future. This is also because the Ukrainian armed forces are prepared for this situation and have set up holding positions west of Avdiivka, which make a large-scale Russian operation towards the west more difficult.

Desperate search on the world market A war of attrition requires ammunition and soldiers. What does Ukraine need to get in these areas in order to get through what is expected to be a difficult year in 2024?

Remmel: You can assume that Ukraine will have to go on the defensive strategically this year, also because it does not have enough ammunition. We know that, for example, not enough artillery ammunition is being delivered from the West. Production rates are increasing and people are desperately trying to procure artillery ammunition on the world market. But it is very unlikely that the Ukrainian armed forces will be able to balance this war of fire rates in the near future.

To person

Hendrik Remmel is a research associate at the German Institute for Defense and Strategic Studies (GIDS) in Hamburg. His focus is on conflict analysis and the investigation of Germany’s strategic culture. The military analyst has several years of experience as a combat troop officer in the Bundeswehr. His study “The USA as a geostrategic actor in the Ukraine war” was published last month.

The advantages of defense And that’s why it makes sense to go on the defensive?

Remmel: When you act militarily defensively, you need fewer personnel and less material because you don’t have to actively move tactically, you don’t have to hold newly conquered terrain with additional forces, and you don’t have to prepare your movements with fire. Therefore, given the current personnel and material situation, it makes sense to remain on the defensive at least until the situation regarding ammunition has improved again. This also makes it possible to rotate units that have been in combat for a long time from the front, to train them and to equip them with better equipment.

Currently the Russians have a rate of fire superiority of one to five, one to six. The Ukrainians will never be able to fully compensate for this in the future. Therefore, in order to regain the initiative, the Ukrainians must establish a superiority in effectiveness. So they have to be able to hit faster and better than the Russians, especially with their long-range weapons.

The second important aspect to compensate for the personnel inferiority is comprehensive technological superiority. The Ukrainians need weapons systems that have greater effective combat ranges than those of the Russians, while also effectively protecting their crews so that they can be re-used even if the combat vehicle is destroyed. They do not want to and cannot burn tens of thousands of men for every conquest of a small town, as the Russians do, but they must use superior weapon systems to try to enforce local superiority on a tactical level, which then results in breakthroughs.

The third point that is crucial in the long term is the establishment of Ukrainian leadership superiority. This means being able to assess a situation faster than the enemy with superior command structures and capable staffs on the battlefield, then make the right decision and implement it faster than the Russian counterpart. Because these are the Russians’ weak points. They do not have large quantities of precision weapons, high technology and well-trained command staff. They are characterized more by their superiority in fire rates and a slow pace of operations.

Hatched: territories occupied by Russia

“That won’t win this war.” The EU wants to provide the promised one million pieces of artillery ammunition at least by the end of the year.

Remmel: Here I have to say very clearly: You will not win this war with an additional million rounds of artillery ammunition. They were already promised for spring. It is a huge problem for the Ukrainian General Staff if they calculate with a million rounds and then only get something between 300,000 and 500,000. This also has a strategic dimension because the Ukrainian General Staff obviously cannot rely on the word given by the West.

The Russian army now fires around 10,000 rounds of ammunition per day. So you can extrapolate how long a million rounds are enough just to equalize the Russian rate of fire. That’s less than three months. And in that time they will not win this war. That’s why, in my opinion, effective technology and leadership superiority are more crucial and more realistic to implement in the medium term than a reversal of fire superiority. How confident are you that it can be made?

Remmel: This is a political question. After the Munich Security Conference there are new efforts. The crucial question is: Will the West create a political consensus to support Ukraine with everything it needs? Although I am skeptical about this question, I still have hope.

What a difference the Taurus rockets would make At the Munich Security Conference, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urged more efforts from the West. The debate in this country is currently primarily about the delivery of “Taurus” cruise missiles. What strategic advantage would this give Ukraine?

Remmel: Basically, no single weapon system will determine the outcome of the war, not even the “Taurus” cruise missile. Nevertheless, it is of great value to the Ukrainian armed forces because it has high penetration power compared to the other cruise missiles supplied. In addition to attacking supply lines and command posts beyond the reach of artillery, it is particularly suitable for attacking targets that are particularly robust.

Originally designed to combat bunkers, the “Taurus” would be suitable, for example, for destroying the Kerch Bridge. It connects Crimea, which is so important for Russia, with the Russian mainland and would be the only remaining supply route in the event of a successful Ukrainian advance into the Melitopol-Berdyansk area. Such a scenario would present Putin with a strategic dilemma, but this example also makes it clear that the Taurus alone cannot force such a situation.

Does “Boiling the frog” work? In parts of the West, however, there are questions about what a Russian defeat would mean for the stability of the country. What role does this play in supporting Ukraine?

Remmel: I believe this concern is at least partially justified and is relatively pronounced, especially in the USA, but ultimately speculation. The USA wants to avoid at all costs that this conflict escalates into NATO alliance territory either conventionally or nuclearly. It would automatically trigger the Article 5 alliance case and force the US to redirect its strategic focus, now in the Asia-Pacific region, back to the European continent.

A possible U.S. approach could be to provide limited military aid to Ukraine in order to avoid inflicting the shock of a catastrophic military defeat on the Russians, while still signaling to them that they cannot achieve their strategic goals militarily. Such an approach is also described as “boiling the frog.” In a figurative sense, this means: I put a frog in a pot of water and slowly increase the temperature. This means the frog doesn’t notice that it’s being boiled and doesn’t jump out of the pot. This strategy could prevent the Russians from exploiting their escalation superiority over Ukraine.

A fundamental strategic question in this context that is rarely discussed in Germany is: What is the geostrategic end scenario of this war? Does Putin even accept military defeat? This is talked about relatively rarely. Instead, the reporting focuses on strategically almost insignificant gains or losses of terrain of a few kilometers. The Americans have not yet clearly stated publicly what scenario should prevail at the end of the war. And this discussion is not being held in this way in European countries either.

We always talk about the need to provide support for Ukraine to win this war. But what does this winning actually mean? The Ukrainians are clear about this and say: We want the 1991 borders back, including Crimea. But what happens if that doesn’t work? And why isn’t the West doing everything it can to ensure that Ukraine can achieve its goal? Significantly greater efforts are needed from the West to drive hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers from Crimea and eastern Ukraine. It should also not be forgotten that if Ukraine succeeds, there is no guarantee that Putin or his successor will not try again. Even after the war ends, Ukraine will continue to be dependent on military, diplomatic and economic support from the West.

The interview was conducted by Eckart Aretz,

Andrea Beer, ARD Kiev, tagesschau, February 24, 2024 6:23 a.m

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