Editor’s note: Jeffrey Owens is a Jeffersonville native, a 1995 graduate of Miami Trace High School and 2000 graduate of Ohio University. As a lifelong history buff, Owens published “Victory In Europe; A People’s History of the Second World War”, a more than 700-page analysis of World War II in Europe in 2015. Since 2015, Owens has hosted more than a dozen educational symposiums on a variety of military history topics at the Grove City Library. He is a resident of New Holland.
Dedication: To Victoria Amelina. The celebrated Ukrainian writer and personal contact of mine, who was tragically murdered by a Russian missile attack on the Ria Pizzeria Lounge in Kramatorsk on June 27.
Counteroffensive! Few days have passed over the previous many months of coverage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine without mention of and anticipation for it. Few operations have been of greater importance, as the continued international support of Ukraine and corresponding success of their counteroffensive establishes the moral principals of which the 21st century will be governed.
Will we as a global community return to imperialism, submit to nuclear blackmail, allow for a resurgence of genocide and repeat the mistakes of history by appeasing aggression? Or will democracy be defended, and human rights upheld?
If the former wins out, one can expect other aggressor nations like China, North Korea and Iran to follow suit with Russia and embark on their own imperial conquests, further destabilizing the world and bringing the risk of nuclear conflict ever closer. While if it is the ladder, international order is reestablished, nuclear blackmail and imperialism in the 21st century are rendered obsolete, the value of human life is reaffirmed and democracy is shown superior to dictatorship.
Among the most difficult of military operations, the counteroffensive is a strategic level assault launched in response to an attack by another. Timing is of the essence. A counteroffensive is launched once the opposing force has expended its offensive capabilities, exhausted its front-line troops and committed its strategic reserves to combat positions. Carl von Clausewitz observed that no other action more effectively forces an attacker to abandon offensive operations than the counteroffensive, and if done properly, can have devastating effects.
Twice in 2022 the Ukrainians launched successful counteroffensives, both of which Clausewtiz likely would have praised considering the lack of offensive resources Ukraine possessed. First, upon stabilizing the Kyiv front by the end of March 2022 by inflicting massive casualties and bringing wholesale destruction upon Russian logistical supply lines, a Ukrainian counteroffensive pushed the Russians completely out of the entire northern front of Ukraine stretching roughly three hundred kilometers across Kyiv, Sumy and Chernahiv.
After months of impaling themselves against Ukrainian defenses in Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, Luhansk Oblast in the late spring and early summer of 2022, Russia culminated their own Donbas offensive by exhausting both their available manpower and ammunition stockpiles. With the Russian force concentration in the center, their flanks in Kharkiv and western Kherson became both depleted of reserves and vulnerable to counteroffensive operations.
From September through early November respectively, the Armed Forces of Ukraine liberated both flanks from Russian occupation which drastically shifted the course of the war. In just two months’ time, Russia lost 18,000 square kilometers of defensible territory, but simultaneously doubled their manpower via Putin’s partial mobilization declared after the collapse of Russian forces in Kharkiv in September. Since NATO had not yet provided offensive weaponry to Ukraine, a new phase of the war was initiated in which lines fell static and the strategic initiative shifted to Russia.
With appallingly high losses in both experienced manpower and equipment between February and October, Russia could only press their initiative through a months long missile campaign against civilian infrastructure and infantry driven frontal assaults in attempts to seize a few Ukrainian cities at incredibly high cost. The missile campaign sought to not only attrit Ukraine’s air defense capabilities, but also to undermine civilian morale with the stated objective of freezing and starving the population over the impending winter.
Infantry driven frontal assaults against cities was all Russia could do with their limited equipment and experienced personnel. Even by conservative western intelligence assessments Russia suffered 100,000 casualties throughout 2023 just in the taking of Bakhmut, and as a result destroyed much of their own manpower advantage achieved through partial mobilization.
The front again briefly fell static in the late spring of 2023 as Russia exhausted its own strategic initiative with incredibly minimal gains, and heavy rains resulted in Rasputitsa (time of the mud) which for centuries had afflicted invading armies advancing across Ukraine. As the ground hardened and weather improved, the time for Ukraine’s counteroffensive, in which Ukraine would begin seizing back the 100,000 square kilometers of their territory occupied by Russia, came ever nearer.
Shaping, planning and patience were essential to Ukraine’s success. Ukrainian leadership refused to waste their resources as the Russians had by firing hundreds of millions of dollars of missiles against civilian infrastructure which had little if any effect on the battlefield and throwing dismounted infantry against defensive entrenchments.
Nine new brigades, totaling nearly 40,000 soldiers were formed for the purpose of launching the counteroffensive, who spent months training in NATO countries on NATO equipment and learning combined arms maneuver. These new brigades were outfitted with NATO weaponry consisting of hundreds of heavy battle tanks, armored personnel carriers, infantry fighting vehicles, and a vast arsenal of other western equipment.
Counter-battery strikes against Russian artillery leading up to the counteroffensive increased considerably and resulted in the destruction of 500 Russian artillery pieces in May alone. Air launched long range Storm Shadow cruise missiles provided by the U.K. struck Russian ammunition depots and troop-formations deep inside occupied Ukraine. Anti-Putin Russian units operating in Ukraine launched multiple attacks inside Russia, simultaneously exposing extreme weaknesses in Russian border security and forcing Russian commanders to spread their already stretched resources to combat them.
Still the task which lay before Ukraine remains daunting. The front line running from the Russian border to the Dnipro River spans nearly one thousand kilometers, the entirety of which must be defended even while counteroffensive operations are ongoing. While the nine new brigades were training for months in NATO countries, the hundreds of thousands of soldiers holding the one thousand kilometer defensive line were forced to ration ammunition to allow for sufficient stockpiles to be built for the counteroffensive.
The battlefield is reminiscent of World War 1 with vast networks of trenches spanning hundreds of kilometers in any direction. The “no-man’s land” separating the two sides is devoid of all life, where the earth has been disemboweled from the impact of thousands of daily artillery rounds and is littered with the carcasses of hundreds of destroyed vehicles. In preparation for a Ukrainian counteroffensive, Russian forces built extensive defensive fortifications across occupied Ukraine, many of which run 20-30 kilometers deep.
The “zero line” is the most forward and rudimentary layer of defense composed of fox holes where opposing infantry soldiers directly engage one another across the no-man’s land from a distance of a few hundred meters. The “security zone” lies directly behind the zero line and is comprised of up to five kilometers of obstacle belts reinforced by well dug in trenches with established firing positions designed to cover the entire approach.
Each obstacle belt in the security zone spans roughly 700 meters to one kilometer and are complex networks of barbed wire, trenches, anti-tank ditches, dragons’ teeth, interlocking lines of fire and mine fields. All are serious challenges designed to inflict maximum cruelty on advancing Ukrainian forces. Barbed wire slices through flesh while land mines steal lives and limbs.
The “main line” or third layer of defense lay yet another five to ten kilometers behind the security zone, which consists of permanent concrete reinforced trenches with fall back positions, concealed bases for reinforcements and subterranean command posts. Within the five-to-ten-kilometer gap between the security zone trenches and the main line lies yet another maze of obstacle belts, each of which are extremely lethal.
Russia is not a signatory of the 1997 Ottawa Treaty for the banning of most land mines and has turned Ukraine into the most mined country in the world. Throughout both the security zones and the approaches to the mainlines during the counteroffensive Ukrainian forces are encountering dense minefields laden with a blend of anti-personnel and anti-tank mines.
These obstacles are among the most difficult and lethal for Ukrainian forces to overcome. Russian combat engineers have employed a complex system of multiple initiation points throughout its minefields whereby a victim initiated antipersonnel mine is hard wired to an adjacent mine in which one detonates the other.
Drones are as thick as fleas and there is no such thing in Ukraine as a sneak attack, as every movement of every unit is observed by someone. The average lifespan of a drone in Ukraine is two hours and the Armed Forces of Ukraine goes through 10,000 a month. Similar numbers apply to the Russian army.
Although slow to learn, the Russian army has implemented multiple tactical adaptations and has created a well-oiled and lethal infantry driven combat doctrine supported by drones and artillery. Initially the most adaptable forces in the Russian army were special forces, naval infantry and airborne units, who had extensive experience in complex operations in Syria and the Donbas. These units, however, were exposed to massive risks during the full-scale invasion and have been almost entirely attrited. Russia then mobilized their trainers to replace its experienced units, who were also killed en masse, which created an enormous deficit in the Russian military’s ability to identify problems and implement solutions.
A centralized process grew with groups of colonels at various military academies in Russia studying shortfalls in performance of the Russian military in Ukraine, printing a flurry of new combat manuals to resolve issues, and distributing them to units at the front.
This is an entirely reactive process in response to existing problems, with zero horizon scanning involved for identifying and solving future challenges. Captured combat manuals are incredibly specific, complete with anything from detailed schematics of the order in which switches should be flipped on particular pieces of equipment to introducing new terminology and doctrines of execution.
Among these newly introduced practices are “nomadic cannon, fiery carousel, and umbrella cover.” Each come with their own protocols, but all establish moderately innovated means of supporting infantry with artillery, creating a constant source of harassing fire, integrating various types of fires together, and improving suppression of Ukrainian guns.
Further, the Russian military has established a “Reconnaissance Fires Circuit” for integrating their artillery with drones to vastly improve targeting. Most levels of command, from battalion up maintain their own drones, allowing for divisional commanders to simultaneously observe live organic feeds from multiple supporting axis of any approaching Ukrainian attack.
Artillery remains the fulcrum upon which the Russian army balances, and its current rate of fires in Ukraine average between 12,000 to 24,000 shells per day. Although significant, this is a considerable decline from the 60,000 shells per day they were firing in the summer of 2022.
Due to Ukrainian counter-battery operations and HIMARS attacks which destroyed hundreds of Russian ammunition warehouses, the Russian army has transitioned largely away from 152mm artillery cannons in favor of 120mm mortars. These weapons are far more mobile than tracked or towed cannons, more difficult to target in counter-battery actions, and are highly effective against Ukrainian attacks through the dense obstacle belts in the security zones and on the approaches to the main lines of defensive fortifications.
Released footage of Ukrainian soldiers training in NATO countries for frontal assaults against a simulated Russian zero line, reveals solid infantry tactics. Armored personnel carriers approach the line at several points to create a deception as to the location of the actual attack. Multiple disembarking squads working in tandem lay down covering fire to suppress Russian guns while grenades are lobbed into the fox holes. Upon detonation each are charged and seized with impressive speed.
Among hundreds of challenges for Ukrainian soldiers in the counteroffensive will be perfecting this process of overrunning the zero line with extreme efficiency without allowing themselves to get fixed in firefights with Russian defenders. Ukrainian forces can expect to come under drone surveillance within minutes of a serious fire exchange, which can result in almost immediate incoming barrages of mortar rounds.
Difficulties only increase beyond the zero line, as the five kilometers of near endless obstacles throughout the security zone must next be breached. De-mining is incredibly challenging in peace time, not to mention while under sustained machine gun and mortar fire. NATO equipment is not impervious and can easily receive mobility kills from anti-tank mines, only to have their crews come under drone directed artillery bombardments.
While much as been made in the media from photographs of a few disabled Bradley vehicles and Leopard tanks at the front, this pales in comparison to Russia’s winter offensive at Vuhledar. Along with gaining next to zero ground, a minimum of 131 Russian armored vehicles were destroyed in Vuhledar and Ukraine documented multiple individual days in which hundreds of Russian soldiers were killed charging across the open terrain.
Artillery in support of Ukrainian troops in the counteroffensive is crucial, but it is impossible for it to function under standard NATO doctrine, as that doctrine calls for air supremacy. With the air space contested, fixed artillery batteries, as NATO countries typically employ, would be destroyed within minutes in Ukraine by counter-battery strikes.
At any given moment scores of drones and loitering munitions patrol the sky, searching for heat signatures from firing cannons. Once detected, counter-battery strikes can be initiated within as little as two minutes, destroying the guns. As a result, maintaining sustained artillery support to infantry is incredibly challenging, as artillery units must fire, and immediately displace to avoid counter strikes.
The challenges that lay before Ukraine in the counteroffensive are very similar to that faced by the Allied powers in the Normandy campaign of 1944, In excess of six weeks spanning June 6 through the end of July, Allied armies slowly slogged through vast swaths of prepared German defenses and hedgerows, resulting in 27,000 casualties and thousands of destroyed and or damaged pieces of equipment.
One huge advantage that the Allied powers of 1944 had over Ukraine in 2023 however is complete air supremacy. Eisenhower simply would never have launched the invasion without it and casualties easily could have quadrupled if ground and supporting naval forces were incessantly strafed by the Luftwaffe.
Ukraine has only a fraction of the air power of Russia, and their only serious countermeasure to the Russian Air Force is an eclectic array of GBAD (Ground Based Air Defenses) systems. Some have been donated by NATO while others were leftovers from Soviet arsenals, but all of which are spread throughout Ukraine. Although NATO does produce state of the art GBAD systems there are precious few of them to go around. NATO’s own doctrine calls for air supremacy prior to engaging in any land warfare, and as a result no NATO countries have significant stockpiles of either their GBAD interceptors or especially the launchers.
No NATO country has ever been in the situation that Ukraine is. Ukrainians must rely entirely on a smattering of GBAD systems across the largest country in Europe to simultaneously defend their cities against hundreds of missile and drone attacks while also providing air cover to ground troops. There likely will be no “Patton’s Third Army” sweeping through occupied Ukraine, as Ukrainian troops must consciously remain under the umbrella of their respective GBAD cover. Otherwise, they will come under devastating attack by Russian fixed and or rotary wing aircraft.
As the counteroffensive plunges forward, Ukraine continues to fight two wars. One against a genocidal invader, determined to destroy Ukrainian statehood and to permanently subjugate Ukraine to Russia, and the second for continued international support of their defense. Ukraine is quite literally shielding the free world from Russian imperialism. Russia’s leadership and propaganda machine leaves no room for misunderstanding that they seek genocide of the Ukrainian people, to destroy NATO, and to reestablish control over both their former vassal states and Warsaw Pact countries. The idea of a “negotiated settlement” is pure fantasy and a myth created by those who don’t support aid to Ukraine. Russia, the aggressor, has repeatedly stated that they will accept nothing short of unconditional surrender by Ukraine.
If left unchecked and unsupported, the execution pits, mass raping of women, kidnapping of children and the wholesale destruction of occupied Ukraine would serve as a mere microcosm of the fate which all Eastern Europe would suffer in the face of Russian revanchism.
Incessant delays and excessive pandering by western governments in the supply of military aid to Ukraine is paid for in thousands of Ukrainian lives. Although the billions of dollars of aid that has been provided is deeply appreciated by Ukrainians, the current rate of supply remains entirely insufficient to allow Ukraine to win the war quickly and efficiently. As discussed, the Ukrainian thrust in the fall stalled out due to the complete lack of any offensive weaponry provided to Ukraine. Then ammunition on the front had to be rationed in the face of the Russian winter onslaught in preparation for a counteroffensive, all while 40,000 troops were for months out of the country training.
Now Ukraine is launching a counteroffensive against a well dug in enemy across a one-thousand-kilometer front with just a few hundred modern battle tanks and no air power; a situation that would be completely unthinkable to any NATO country. Providing all needed military supplies, from rifles, tanks, long range missiles and fighter jets, is an incredibly small price for the collective west to pay to Ukraine for shouldering the burden of defending the free world while suffering all the casualties of the war.
On June 10, 1940, as Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy together were overrunning France, President Franklin Roosevelt publicly addressed those Americans “…who still hold to the now somewhat obvious delusion that we can permit the United States to become a lone island in a world dominated by the philosophy of force.” In such a scenario the U.S. would be left “…handcuffed, hungry, and fed through the bars by the contemptuous, unpitying masters of other continents.” Later that same year, while standing alone in Europe against the Nazi onslaught, Winston Churchill said to his American audience “We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle, nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down. Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.”
Ukraine asks not for a single soldier but rather just for the tools with which to defend itself. As the world faces down this enemy, let us have the foresight of Roosevelt and the vigilance of Churchill and recall the lessons of history that peace is ensured through strength, not appeasement. We cannot allow ourselves to become imprisoned by force, intimidation, imperialism and nuclear blackmail, as we have an opportunity, through supporting Ukraine, to end the Russian threat. In channeling the words of these leaders, lets arm Ukraine with the tools needed, not for survival, but for victory, which brings with it; peace.