A tale of three generals — how the Ukrainian military turned the tide
- October 14, 2022
- Mick Ryan
Over the past three months the wider world has watched Ukrainian army offensives with amazement. While impressive, their successes are not miracles and can be explained by superb leadership, excellent operational planning and its decentralised chain of command.
When histories of the war in Ukraine are written, the month of September 2022 will probably represent a significant milestone in the conflict. On 21 September, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his decision to ‘support the proposal of the Defence Ministry and the General Staff on partial mobilization’. His speech paved the way for the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of additional Russian troops for the war in Ukraine. And in its wording, also set up senior Russian military leaders to take responsibility for failures in the war.
Putin would have clearly felt pressure from the military to initiate this call up. Russian Army leaders have watched their army slowly but surely disappear. Russia has lost huge numbers of personnel killed, wounded and captured. Those fighting in Ukraine have been in combat for nearly 8 months. It is now a hollow and exhausted force which needs rotation, an impossible task without mobilization.
On 30 September, Putin announced the annexation of four Ukrainian provinces. Full of vitriol, nuclear threats and anti-West fury, the main audience for Putin’s speech was his domestic constituents. Putin also used the speech as a war update, with the message that Russian progress so far is significant.
These two announcements were designed to check Ukrainian momentum in this war. Over the last several months, Ukrainian influence operations has secured more western assistance including the important HIMARS rocket system. Russian troops have failed to achieve significant progress, and Russia has suffered several strategic setbacks including the loss of the ship Moskva, as well as the attacks on its Saki Naval Aviation base in Crimea and the Kerch bridge.
But it is in Kharkiv and Kherson where any remaining Russian momentum in this war was lost, however. September and beginning of October is very much the story of two Ukrainian campaigns, as well as that of the two senior Ukrainian military commanders who led these campaigns. My aim is to assess the importance of the Kharkiv and Kherson campaigns in the overall context of the war, while also highlighting the importance of the leadership that has overseen the planning and execution of these military activities. But, before exploring the campaigns in these two regions, a brief review of the broader Ukrainian military strategy is required.
Ukraine’s Military Strategy
Since the beginning of their invasion, Russia’s military has been forced by the Ukrainians to continually re-assess their strategic objectives. This is not unusual in warfare. While political objectives shape how war is conducted and what battles are fought, so too do battles reshape political objectives. The Ukrainian resistance, and their defeat of the Russians in the north of the country early in the war, have unhinged the Russian overall campaign for Ukraine.
This has been the result of well-considered Ukrainian military strategy. I have previously described this approach as a strategy of corrosion. The Ukrainians, through a variety of indirect attacks, information operations, destruction of Russian logistics and commanders, and tough close combat, have embraced the corrosion of the Russian physical, moral, and intellectual capacity to fight.
British military historian and theorist, Basil Liddell Hart described this as the indirect approach. He wrote about how ‘effective results in war have rarely been attained unless the approach has had such indirectness as to ensure the opponents unreadiness to meet it.’
The Ukrainians have clearly studied this approach closely. They have attacked the weakest physical support systems of the Russian army in Ukraine — communications networks, logistic supply routes, rear areas, artillery and senior commanders in their command posts. In the initial Battles for Kyiv and Kharkiv, the Ukrainians were able to fight the Russians to a standstill because they were able to penetrate Russian rear areas and destroy parts of their logistic support. All of this also had a significant impact on Russian morale. The Ukrainians corroded the northern Russian expedition physical and morally from within and forced its withdrawal from Ukraine.
From the start of the war, leading this effort has been General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi. Appointed by President Zelensky to usher in a new generation of military leaders, Zaluzhnyi has proved to be a decisive yet innovative leader of the kind required when a smaller nation must fight off a larger predator. He has also shown a talent for appointing talented subordinate generals, providing them with guidance and then allowing them to get on with the job. It is this command philosophy from the top, combined with the military strategy of corrosion, that has provided the sure foundations of operational success in Kherson and Kharkiv.
The Kherson region fell to the Russian invaders during a short, sharp campaign in late February and early March 2022. Led by the Russian 58th Combined Arms Army, by 2 March the Russians were able to secure Kherson city. It was the first major Ukrainian city in the south captured by the Russians.
The Kherson region was always destined to be a key battleground in this war. This is because southern Ukraine is a significant source of Ukrainian GDP as well as the location of the ports through which goods are dispatched that represent over half of Ukraine’s export earnings. From a Russian perspective, capturing and retaining the south denies Ukraine vital revenue and helps choke the country economically. For the Ukrainians therefore, the south is the most decisive theatre of the war. They must recapture it if they are to remain a sovereign nation and able to export their goods — including steel and grain — to the world market.
Another political dimension of the south is that it is an area where Putin needs to demonstrate some success. After the failures of the Russian military before Kyiv and Kharkiv, losing the south would be a significant blow. He therefore included the Kherson region in his September annexation declaration, and for months has been forcing a rapid Russification of the region.
Beyond its political importance, Kherson is an important military objective. It provides a buffer for Russia if it is to retain Crimea, as well as a launch pad for any subsequent Russian advance on Odesa. For the Ukrainians, retaking Kherson stops any advance on Odesa dead, and provides ground for subsequent operations to recapture Crimea from Russia. Kherson also contains important transportation hubs that enable these operations.
After its capture, a series of small back and forth battles occurred in Kherson without having a decisive impact on the war. However, from July this year, it became clear that the Ukrainians were slowly but deliberately undertaking small scale attacks across the Kherson frontline to gain intelligence on Russian dispositions, attack Russian logistics and kill senior Russian leaders. These military operations by the Ukrainians were supported by partisan activities in Kherson city.
The arrival of HIMARS in late June allowed the Ukrainians to expand its campaign against Russian forces in the south. Ukrainian government statements, including from President Zelensky, made clear that Ukraine would be recapturing southern Ukraine. Perceiving a weakness in its position in the south, particularly with the Ukrainian campaign to destroy bridges and other transport hubs, the Russian Army rushed in reinforcements throughout August 2022.
Leading this campaign on the Ukrainian side has been General Kovalchuk. A former chief of staff of the Ukrainian Air Assault Forces, he is a Hero of Ukraine for leadership in the earlier phase of this war against Russia. Now commanding upwards of 100,000 Ukrainian troops organised into scores of Brigades, he has demonstrated the ability to cleverly sequence attacks deep behind Russian lines, deception activities and the capacity to identify weaknesses in Russian lines for attacks by ground forces. And as the southern counter offensive gained momentum in late August, he orchestrated the campaign to isolate thousands of Russian troops on the west bank of Dnipro.
Official reports from the south over this period were scant. The Ukrainian military, which has demonstrated a great talent for operational security in this war, releases little official information about progress or otherwise in the south. But there was a sense in July and August, among military professionals and commentators, that this region might fall into some form of extended and attritional stalemate like what had been witnessed in the Donbas.
General Kovalchuk had other ideas. And while he watched and waited for opportunities, events elsewhere would stun the Russians.
Just before the Russian invasion in February, Ukrainian Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrskiy found himself responsible for the defence of Kyiv. Described in one profile as ‘the kind of military officer who plans for all contingencies’, Syrskiy undertook a careful appreciation of the ground north of Kyiv and the approaches that the Russians might employ. He then dispersed his forces from their normal barracks to prevent targeting by the Russians. Through the close-run battle that was Hostamel, through to the eventual defeat of the Russians attempting to encircle Kyiv, Syrskiy was at the heart of the successful defence of the Ukrainian capital.
He proved to be innovative and adaptive, having to respond to circumstances that surprised even him in the early hours of the war. ‘To think the leadership of Russia would unleash such brazen, large-scale aggression, honestly speaking, I could not even imagine it,’ Syrskiy told the Washington Post months later. ‘It seemed to me that if active hostilities were to start, they would most likely start in the east, around or within the borders of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.’
In early September, Syrskiy was occupying another military appointment. He was now in the Kharkiv region. As commander of land forces and the eastern front, he was about to launch an audacious military assault that would surprise the Russians, delight Ukraine’s people and force the west to reassess its views of the Ukrainian armed forces.
The Kharkiv region had been the scene of bitter fighting since the beginning of the Russian invasion. Proximate to the Russian city of Belgorod across the border, Kharkiv was an important political and military objective for the Russians. It came under intense bombardment in February, March and April, and the Russians almost succeeded in encircling it. Almost. In May, the Ukrainians conducted a counter offensive in the Kharkiv region which pushed the Russians out of artillery range of Kharkiv city, and back to the Russian border. By mid-May, the battle for Kharkiv was over. The Ukrainians had secured their second largest city.
From then, sporadic battles and skirmishes occurred north and east of the city. Small parts of territory were exchanged at times, but rarely were these battles decisive. But while all this was occurring, a larger operational design was being developed by the Ukrainians that would feature a series of offensives across the country against the spread out and weakening Russian military.
Operational design is an important component of the military profession. It is through good operational design that military commanders and their staffs’ sequence and orchestrate the tactical goals and actions of military forces in the field to meet desired strategic and political outcomes. It is an extraordinarily complicated process, demanding years of development in the experts that plan and lead such activities. It also demands clear prioritisation of limited assets like HIMARS, air support, engineers and electronic warfare, and massive stockpiling of logistic support. And to complicate matters, these activities should be conducted in secret to prevent the enemy knowing where offensives might occur. Surprise and deception are critical.
On 6 September, the Ukrainians burst out of their assembly areas and broke into the Russian defensive lines in Kharkiv. Over a six-day period, the forces led by General Syrskiy recaptured dozens of Ukrainians settlements and forced the Russians to retreat behind the barrier that was the Oskil River. Masses of Russian equipment and munitions were also captured that would be repurposed for the next phase of this offensive.
From 13 September, the Ukrainians then began their crossings of the Oskil River and the continued exploitation of disorganised Russian defences in northern Luhansk. Thousands of square kilometres of Ukrainian territory were recovered.
Returning from a visit to Ukrainian soldiers in north-eastern Ukraine in mid-September, President Zelensky stated that: ‘I am grateful to Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrskiy and the officers of his staff — everyone who planned and successfully conducted the military operation to liberate the Kharkiv region. Ukrainians once again managed to do what many considered impossible.’
But the Ukrainians had yet another trick up their sleeve.
Movement on the Kherson Front
As the month of October dawned, it was a grim time for the Russian Army. They were on the backfoot in north-eastern Ukraine, losing ground, equipment and soldiers to the rapidly advancing Ukrainians. In the south, thousands of Russian soldiers were trapped west of the Dnipro River. At home, tens of thousands of young Russians were voting with their feet in the wake of Putin’s ‘partial’ mobilisation decree. Mobilisation in Russia was also chaotic with limited instructors — or equipment — for thousands of newly conscripted Russians.
On 2 October, the situation got even worse for Russia. Ukrainian General Kovalchuk’s forces, having identified weaknesses in the Russian defences in northern Kherson, launched a sudden offensive that rapidly broke through the northern Kherson Russian defences. Ukrainian ground combat forces rapidly advanced as far south as Dudchany and recaptured over 2,400 square kilometres of Ukrainian territory from the Russians.
The Ukrainians and Russians are engaged in a brutal effort to control the south. Both sides understand its importance to the future of the Ukrainian state. While close combat continues across the region, Ukrainian deep strikes are also destroying Russian logistics. The Russians continue to provide reinforcements into the south, as well as build pontoon bridges across the Dnipro to resupply and reinforce their troops on the western bank. While the Ukrainians now have the upper hand, this is a campaign that has some way to run yet.
The Ukrainian southern and north-eastern campaigns continue to evolve. While these may appear to be ‘sudden’ breakthroughs, they are actually the result of a long series of orchestrated actions in the south and northeast of Ukraine, as well as in the strategic information domain. They are mutually reinforcing military operations that are part of a broader operational design.
The Ukrainians, probably from very early in the war, had a broad overall operational design featuring potential operations in the south, northeast — and elsewhere. However, launching these was not only based on time, but also about when opportunities presented themselves. Once they had dealt with the immediate threat to their capital and the survival of their country in February and March, they were able to begin planning a longer-term campaign to take back their nation from the Russian invaders.
In doing so, the Ukrainians slowly assembled reserves that they allocated for planned offensives – and for exploiting opportunities. Creating these required a good appreciation of risk, deception, operational security and logistic stockpiling.
Ukrainian reconnaissance in both regions began months ago. A reconnaissance battle aimed to gain intelligence while denying information to Russian reconnaissance elements. This reconnaissance battle, undertaken by ground, air and electronic warfare units, paints a picture of the ground, enemy dispositions, reserves, key transport routes and logistics. These early actions shaped the likely future battlefield and placed the Russians in a dilemma about where to deploy their scarce reinforcements. Winning this reconnaissance battle in the lead up to a campaign is an essential part of preventing surprise and recognising enemy weaknesses to exploit.
After eight months of operations (and eight years since Russia started this war), Ukraine has several senior commanders who are seasoned strategists and operational artists. They clearly know their enemy well and know how to balance strategic risk and opportunity. These commanders, including Generals Zaluzhnyi, Syrskiy and Kovalchuk, are skilled in providing intent and guiding their staffs and subordinate commanders through the planning and execution of large-scale military operations. This is a rare skill that few military institutions master.
Finally, the north-eastern and southern Ukrainian campaigns have highlighted a significant asymmetry in command philosophies between Ukraine and Russia. Russia centrally controls operations; Ukraine allows its subordinate leaders more freedom to exploit opportunities through mission command. In rapidly moving military activities, military leaders who do not have to constantly refer to higher headquarters can set and dominate operational tempo, ultimately seizing the initiative. The Ukrainians have done this, and the Russians have not.
So far, the Russian Army does not appear to have an answer to what the Ukrainians have achieved in the past three months. The recent missile strikes across Ukraine in the wake of the Kerch bridge attack will have almost no impact on the military campaign. The Ukrainians have answered the questions of earlier this year about whether they could conduct offensives as well as they could defend. They have done so in the most resounding of ways. Ukraine is smashing the Russian Army and has developed a mastery of modern war that many will seek to emulate.