Ukraine and its allies have been prepping the propaganda battlefield for months about Kiev’s big spring offensive, or counter-offensive if you prefer. The ghosts of Kursk have been gathering over the scene, warning about attacks which are predictable and made where the Russians have been able to prepare extensive defensive positions. This time, will the Leopard tank be what the Tiger Elephant was last time?
That is a small question which leads to a big question: will Ukraine’s offensive be of operational or just tactical significance? The U. S. military has but a small understanding of the operational level of war, which comes between the tactical and strategic levels and connects the two. In essence, it is deciding what to do tactically in order to strike as powerfully as possible at an enemy strategic “hinge,” something on which the enemy depends and which, if destroyed, collapses him.
The advice Ukraine seems to be getting from the U.S. military reflects the latter’s failure to grasp the operational level. Most American recommendations suggest terrain objectives, either in the east toward Donbas or south to break the Russian-occupied corridor connecting the Donbas with Crimea. But even a successful Ukrainian offensive in these places would mean little strategically. Attacking toward the Donbas would just take back more Ukrainian land, which Russia could retake again later; shoving contests of this sort reflect attrition warfare, not maneuver warfare. Attacking south towards the Sea of Azov would seem more promising operationally, but this is an illusion. Even if Ukraine can break the Russian-held corridor and keep it broken, it will be at most a strategic inconvenience for Russia. Why? Because Crimea can easily be supplied by water. In today’s world, people forget that transportation by water is the most efficient and least expensive way to move goods of any sort. A Ukrainian offensive to cut Russia’s land links with Crimea would only have strategic effect if Ukraine controlled the Black Sea, which it does not and cannot.
What if we look at Ukraine’s situation from a German, not an American, perspective? The German way of war focused on the operational level. Ukraine has a strong German heritage in its approach to war, reflecting the facts that Germany and Austria-Hungary gave Ukraine its independence during World War I and hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians fought alongside Germans to defend their country and people from Stalin in World War II. As best I can tell at this remove, Ukraine’s army has been fighting German-style maneuver warfare at the tactical level, which is one reason for its surprising successes.
From the German perspective (Kaiserheer and Wehrmacht, not Bundesheer), Russia has a critical strategic hinge Ukraine can attack. What is it? The Wagner Group and some allied Russian mercenary forces. The performance of the Russian Army has been so poor that only these mercenaries have offensive capability. With a handful of exceptions, Russian Army units seem to be fortress troops, Stellungsdivisionen who can only be expected to fight when defending, not attacking (and sometimes they cannot do that). So a suitable operational goal for the coming Ukrainian offensive would be destruction of the Wagner Group. That could be strategically decisive.
Furthermore, it looks to me as if the Wagner Group is wearing a large “kick me” sign on its back. How so? By deploying most of its forces in an effort to encircle Bakhmut. All Ukraine’s spring offensive has to do is encircle the encirclers. Moreover, because Wagner is attacking, not defending, it is unlikely to have built extensive defensive fortifications. It appears to be a ripe plum, ready to be picked off.
Ukraine may already grasp this, which may be why it has been so focused on defending Bakhmut. The city itself has little strategic significance. But if Bakhmut is grabbing Wagner Group’s nose so Ukraine’s offensive can kick its tail, then Ukraine’s losses in Bakhmut would be worth it.
This is of course all conjecture. But if Ukraine’s spring offensive is operational it its objective, then its long range prospects, never good, at least get better. If it squanders its newly-built forces for mere tactical gains, that will tell us to move as quickly as possible towards a negotiated peace before Ukraine’s position deteriorates further. So, Kiev, who are you going to listen to, Milley or Manstein?