Jack Watling: Ukrainian breakthrough might not happen before next spring

RUSI research fellow Jack Watling attending the ABCD23 conference in Tallinn.
RUSI research fellow Jack Watling attending the ABCD23 conference in Tallinn. Source: Raul Mee / ICDS / Flickr

Ukraine's success in pushing out Russian troops might not happen before next spring, Jack Watling, research fellow at U.K. think tank RUSI, tells ERR in an interview.

Can you give a short overview of the situation on the ground in Ukraine right now? Are the Ukrainians winning, simply put?

The Ukrainian military is continuing to push south in Zaporizhzhia, trying to get through the second line of defenses on the way to Tokmak, and they're also pushing eastwards around Bakhmut. They're making progress, but it's very deliberate, very slow, and we still don't know how far they are gong to get. If they can reach Tokmak, I think we can call it a successful operation.

What are they facing? What are the major threats? Are the mines the most dangerous component, is it still artillery? What sort of threats are they facing, what is slowing them down?

Massively dense minefields are slowing down their movement, because they have to reconnoiter them and then breach. But what that slowing down means is that they become vulnerable to Russian artillery, and then the Russians are counterattacking very aggressively when they do get through. If a small force makes a breach in the line, they are counterattacked, often with armor. So it becomes difficult to widen the breach and get more units forwards that they can exploit. /.../ They are making progress, but then they have to consolidate before they can make more progress. And this means the Russians can reset their defensive positions every time. So we are seeing the Ukrainians succeed in their assaults, but they are company-sized assaults that have to be carefully planned and orchestrated.

In the beginning of summer when the counteroffensive began, Estonian analyst suggested that the Ukrainians were probing, looking for weak sports and hoping for breakthroughs. Is this still what's happening?

The challenge for the Ukrainian military is that they lack trained staff officers, and so there is a practical limit to the size of force that each brigade can command. They are also struggling with the fact that they can only train collectively at about the company level. So it is difficult to build units of action that they can synchronize above about two companies at a time.

So I would be surprised if we saw a significant increase in the scale of activity, instead this is deliberate methodical breakthrough operations conducted at small scale, limited by the availability of munitions and the span of control that the brigades can achieve.

Recently there has been more talk of Russians adapting. When the war started, the world was frankly shocked by the incompetence of the Russian army. But this dynamic has changed, according to some analysts. Have the Russians adapted? Are there new threats that are emerging? We've seen the Challenger 2 that got destroyed by Lancets [drones], as well as Ukrainian MiGs, even though I don't know how valid they are. Are loitering munitions becoming more of a threat, are Russians learning to use them better?

When the Lancet was first deployed around October of last year, their effectiveness was around 10 percent. We are now seeing it broach 70 percent. That is because it is being used in coordination with artillery and Orlan-10 [surveillance drones] and other capabilities to essentially immobilize vehicles that can then be destroyed by other means.

It's a significant problem. It's also an example of how the Russians are focusing on some capabilities that are proving very effective. The Russians are adapting, but they tend to adapt in response to failure rather than anticipate that they might have a problem. /.../ They very rarely seem to anticipate that a capability might struggle, even though there would be good analytical reasons for thinking that it might.

Where will this lead? I do not think it is possible to liberate the whole of Crimea and eastern Ukraine with this slow progress. It doesn't seem like a strategy that would lead to an overwhelming Ukrainian victory. Does something need to change for the Ukrainians to be able to bring this war to a close?

So, if you think about it in maneuverous terms, you know, how quickly can you dislocate the enemy, this does not lead to a very good place. But if we think about it in positional terms, the Ukrainians will reach certain points, like Tokmak, where all of a sudden they can bring their artillery to bear against some pretty critical ground lines of communication.

When they do that, they can impose very asymmetric attrition on the Russians. It becomes much harder for the Russians to resupply certain positions, and therefore the Russians have to choose whether they accept asymmetric losses or whether they withdraw. And so you can see that the dynamic can shift in a very nonlinear way.

The critical question for the Ukrainians is how much progress can they make now? Can they set up the conditions to inflict very heavy attrition on the Russians through the winter? And can they have the initiative coming into the spring?

So are they able to force the Russians to commit newly mobilized personnel to Ukraine immediately rather than train them into new units? Secondly, can the Ukrainians use the training that's being provided by their partners to expand the scale at which they can operate? And that's improving command and control, expanding the number of companies that are able to do assault actions.

So we're hitting a very critical phase and it will determine the character of the fighting throughout the first half of next year.

Is the West providing enough support to keep this up? I think you've mentioned in one of your reports as well that these advances come at a cost compared to just holding the line in terms of armored vehicles or just soldiers' lives as well.

There aren't stockpiles of munitions and equipment that NATO has that can be pushed in for another buildup at this scale. And so the question is not whether we are giving enough. The question is whether we are doing enough to provide the industrial base to sustain this level of effort.

I think we are likely to see a constrained supply of ammunition over the winter, just because if you look at the rate between production and expenditure, you know, we are hitting some pretty challenging thresholds. The investment has been made to increase production, but there is a lag between the investment and the increase, which means that much more ammunition will become available probably in the second half of next year.

With the equipment, the key question is are we doing enough to be able to repair and maintain equipment, not are we pushing more vehicles in. There's some things, like ATACMS, which may extend the Ukrainians' ability to deliver the same kind of effect they were getting from Storm Shadow. /.../ The question is, can those capabilities be used in synchronization with offensive maneuver, other things, to mean that the disruption they cause unlocks parts of the battlefield?

The HIMARS was kind of a success story. I don't know how accurate this is in military terms, but it was a capability that gave the Ukrainians something they didn't have before and that changed the course of battle. Can ATACMS be something fundamentally new? Or is this discourse all wrong? It has been suggested there are no silver bullets we can give the Ukrainians.

There is no silver bullet. The GMLRS, or the munitions that are fired from HIMARS, did fundamentally change how the Russians could operate, because combined with geospatial imagery, you could undermine their logistics and therefore the scale at which they could use artillery. That effect has been persistent, the Russians haven't found a way around it. And so they are having to change the way they use artillery quite fundamentally.

But that's only possible because there was a sufficient volume of GMLRS. When we start talking about things like ATACMS, you know, 100, 200 ATACMS, these can inflict a lot of damage on the Russians by hitting critical targets. But it's not going to be a sustained shaping effect like GMLRSs because there aren't enough of them to have that effect.

This is a tough question, but how and when do you see the Ukrainians eventually winning? Might they achieve the breakthrough you described next year, with perhaps another spring offensive? Or will it become another frozen conflict for a decade?

It's possible that Ukraine will liberate significant territory next year, but that doesn't end it. The Russians could be pushed all the way out of Ukraine – I mean all the way out – and they could still bombard Ukraine on a regular basis with long-range missiles and prevent its economy from functioning.

And so the question really is, is there a political strategy to translate Ukraine's successes on the battlefield into a lasting peace, because that's the Ukrainian definition of victory, right, is being able to live and prosper without the prospect of being invaded again in a few years' time. And I don't think we have an answer for that yet. So if we're talking about victory as a finite conclusion to this, I don't know what that looks like at this point. But in terms of territorial gains, it's entirely viable to make significant progress next year.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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