Ukraine’s Weak Spots in the War of Attrition

The danger is looming for a Kharkiv 2.0 scenario in 2024. Russia may break through the thinly manned Ukrainian front line and seize a substantial amount of territory. But new weapon deliveries may change the equation.

Franz-Stefan Gady is the founder and chief executive officer of Gady Consulting.
Franz-Stefan Gady is the founder and chief executive officer of Gady Consulting. Nathan Murrell

In his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway describes the sequence in which financial bankruptcy usually occurs: “gradually and then suddenly.” In war, front-line collapses often occur in similar order. The contours of an impending front-line collapse have often been discernible for quite some time. But because the enemy has not yet launched his main assault or because the front line holds in the initial phase of the attack, there is little loss in men, materiel, and territory. There could be the illusion of stalemate — until the one attack that succeeds in breaking parts of the front line, causing panic and a general loss of command and control. The rest can then come very quickly. Enemy mechanised and motorised formations race through the breach, try to expand it, and seize as much territory as they can. Square kilometre after square kilometre is lost, and hastily established defensive positions are overrun and captured. Tanks, guns, and other weapons are abandoned. Chaos reigns until the front stabilises again, be it because the defender has managed to break the attacker’s momentum or simply because the attacker ran out of steam and needs to get resupplied, refit his forces, and consolidate his gains.

„A new round of mobilisation is ... necessary. But it is a deeply unpopular move politically.“

Franz-Stefan Gady

Such a scenario has already occurred once during Russia’s brutal war of aggression in Ukraine. In the fall of 2022, the Ukrainian armed forces achieved a rapid breakthrough that resulted in the collapse of parts of the Russian front line in the Kharkiv area. Russia had only a thinly manned line there with units at some places at only 25 percent strength and very low morale. Thousands of Russian soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured. Hundreds of Russian armoured vehicles were destroyed, abandoned, and captured. Ukraine was able to liberate more than 12,000 square kilometres of its territory. “Ukrainian forces broke through at Kharkiv, leading to a Russian rout,” I stated in an analysis earlier this year with my co-author Michael Kofman. “But the decisive factor was attrition, which forced the Russian military to choose between defending Kherson and reinforcing Kharkiv.” Still trying to fight this war at peacetime strength, Russia did not have enough manpower in the fall of 2022 to deal with two Ukrainian counteroffensives along a front line stretching over 1,600 kilometres.

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