The Eastern Front

No one familiar with the war in the east 1941-45 can fail to see parallels between events then and now.  The similarities are obvious.  Ukraine is smaller than Russia, its army is smaller, and it has less, although better equipment.  The Ukrainian army seems to be following the German way of war, maneuver warfare, or at least trying to.  It does appear to have developed the culture maneuver warfare requires, where results are more important than methods, decision-making is decentralized, initiative is desired more than obedience and it all rests on self rather than imposed discipline.  I find it interesting that a Slavic army seems able to do this; could the Russian army do the same?

At present it certainly cannot.  By 1944, perhaps 1943, the Red Army was equal to the Germans on the operational level.  It was never so on the tactical level, where the culture was strictly top-down.  Today, the Russians seem to have lost their ability on the operational level without improving on the tactical level.  I recall a conversation I had in the 1970s with John Ericson, the author of Road to Stalingrad and Road to Berlin.  He said to me, “Do you want to understand today’s Russian army?  Ask yourself what it was like under Tsar Nicholas I.”

All this would seem to leave Ukraine with good odds of victory.  But as we move from the board situation to specifics, the balance changes.  Having largely failed on the offensive, the Russian army has gone over to the defensive.  Clausewitz argues that the defensive is stronger than the offensive.  More, we know from military history that armies which are ineffective ont he offensive often fight much better on the defensive.  That was true of the Russians facing Army Group South in 1941, and may be true again today.  The Russians appear to have adopted a cordon defense, which is inherently weak, but they have built it in depth.  Much will depend on whether they have strong, mobile operational reserves that can counter-attack and encircle Ukrainian forces that break through; the dissolution of the Wagner Group may have hurt the Russians badly in this respect.

From the Ukrainian perspective, they face one problem that greatly hampered the Wehrmacht and another the Germans did not face.  The first is that they have a hodgepodge of equipment drawn from anywhere and everywhere, or produced in an endless variety of models, each with different parts.  The result is a logistics nightmare.  That in turn feeds into Ukraine’s second problem, one not facing the Wehrmacht: insufficient operational depth.

As I have said before, for Ukraine to win it needs to turn the conflict from a war of attrition to a war of maneuver.  But that requires deep thrusts that encircle masses of Russians.  They don’t have the operational depth to do that because they cannot cross the border into Russia itself.  So they face a Russian defense that has operational depth without that depth being available to the attacker.

I can see only one way around this: break through the Russian defenses at one end and then turn parallel to them in their rear and drive to their other end.  This would be classic German Durchbruch und Aufrollen at the operational level.  With major Ukrainian forces in their rear, the Russian linear defenses might collapse in a rout. 

But here is where Ukraine’s dog’s breakfast of equipment becomes a serious problem.  Through the Aufrollen aspect of the campaign, Ukraine’s supply line would be slow and vulnerable.  It would also have to carry ammunition and spare parts for a wide variety of tanks, air defense units, artillery, etc., meaning it would be enormous.  If Russia’s cordon defense collapses, the Ukrainian supply line could be shortened.  But if it doesn’t, Ukraine’s army could be trapped behind enemy lines without ammunition and spare parts.  That would mean the end of Ukraine.