If you’re reading Daily Kos, you are inherently smart. Objectively so. Ask anyone in the room around you—you’re the person they go to if they have questions about politics, or about COVID, or … about Ukraine. That’s not a humble brag. That’s a brash brag. It’s what I’m most proud of—we make people look smart to everyone around them.
That’s all to say, you’ve known from the first days of the war that this was always going to be decided on logistics. Most people think wars are about tanks battling it out, infantry pushing each other out of trenches and other defensive positions, and artillery duels. And yes, those are things that happen. But ultimately, wars are decided by boring trucks and spreadsheets and beancounters. No war machine functions without the food, water, fuel, lubricants, ammunition, and other supplies it needs. As I calculated early during the war, about 15% of an army fights, the other 85% supports the 15%.
That’s why I knew from the first day that Russia’s invading army of 200,000 was woefully inadequate, and even more so divided among five different axes. It’s why I knew Kyiv would never be taken once Ukraine demonstrated its will to fight (which wasn’t a foregone conclusion given what we had seen in Afghanistan and Kabul). And it’s why I knew that Kherson was untenable, marveling at Russia’s illogical reinforcement of that front, despite being dependent on just two bridges for its entire supply. And to be clear, none of this was rocket science, I didn’t have special insight or unique military talent. As the famous saying goes, amateurs talk tactics, professionals study logistics.
Apparently, Russia is severely lacking in professionals.
Kherson was the only regional capital conquered by Russia this entire war, and then only because of treachery and treason. Had Ukraine managed to quickly blow the Antonovsky bridge connecting the city to the south, Russia would likely have never taken it. Furthermore, had Ukraine managed to blow the bridge at the Nova Kakhovka dam, Russia’s war effort would’ve looked much different, sparing this entire front the ravages of war.
Yet it was on this front that Ukraine notched its first military victory—the halt of Russia’s push toward Odesa at Voznesensk. Russia would give up its effort toward Kyiv just a week or so later. But the flat open space, with little cover for any advancing military force, turned the region into a sort of see-saw battle, with both sides pushing forward, then receding as a wall of artillery stymied any advance. Here’s an example from just this past week:
Here’s Russian armor getting hit. Everything is out in the open out here.
Still, Russia had occupied most of Kherson oblast, and rather than push forward, it seemed content digging in for the long haul, building an extensive network of trenches through the region See this entire thread:
With 🇺🇦 advancing all over NE Kherson, and steadily closing in on Nova Khakova with the dam over the Dnipro river. Questions arise where could 🇷🇺 retreating forces try to make a stand. We have been monitoring this area and have seen an increase in activity around the dam. pic.twitter.com/IaULxml8nz
— NLwartracker (@NLwartracker) October 6, 2022
A head-on charge toward Kherson, like what Russia is currently attempting in the Donbas (e.g. Bakhmut), would cost thousands of lives and pieces of equipment and months of time which Ukraine couldn’t spare. But there was a smarter way to do it, and yes, it was … logistics.
As already noted, Northern Kherson is connected to other Russian-occupied territory by two bridges—the Antonovsky bridge near Kherson city, and the dam at Nova Kakhova. Russia was fine so long as those bridges and their railheads and supply depots lay beyond Ukrainian artillery range. But the receipt of HIMRS/MLRS rocket artillery changed the entire game. Now in range, Ukraine lobbed tens of millions of dollars worth of GMLRS rockets at both bridges severely degrading them, while systematically taking out every single Russia command and control center and ammunition/supply depot within 80 kilometers. Russia was suddenly dependent on truck logistics and and a network of barges to supply the Kherson front.
Ukraine was never shy about broadcasting its designs on the region. So much so, that after several months of promising an August counteroffensive in Kherson, Russia flooded the zone with tens of thousands of new troops and thousands of pieces of equipment, many of them pulled from the Izyum front. It dug the trenches we saw above. It formally annexed the region, proclaiming that Kherson was Russia. It even issued veiled threats, claiming they would defend their new territory with nuclear weapons.
This all backfired spectacularly on Russia. First, they hollowed out the Izyum front. Ukraine was able to launch its surprise September Kharkiv counteroffensive, capturing thousands of square kilometers of land in a matter of weeks, and liberating all but a sliver of Kharkiv oblast. While the progress isn’t as dramatic as it was back in September, Ukraine continues to advance on that front, threatening Svatove and Russia’s hold on thousands more square kilometers of occupied lands in Ukraine’s northeast.
But Russia’s Kherson reinforcement backfired a second way—it had no way to supply 20-40,000 troops via barge. Military observers estimated that Russia was able to only move about 30-40% of the supplies necessary for a force that large. Artillery, in particular, is particularly hungry, with Russia firing tens of thousands of shells every single day. On a front in which artillery was particularly determinative, this posed an extremely serious problem.
Meanwhile, Ukraine was happily using supplies of precision-guided Excalibur artillery shells to systematically degrade those prepared Russian positions. These precious rounds were even used against supply trucks—an interesting choice for a $100,000 artillery round. But again, when you’re degrading an opponent’s logistical supplies, taking out a truck and whatever supplies it was carrying becomes far more valuable than comparing the cost of the round to cheap Russian crap.
All the while, HIMARS kept pounding supply cachets and barges, while disrupting Russian attempts to build a pontoon bridge next to the incapacitated Antonovsky bridge. Ukraine’s stunning attack on the Kerch Bridge connecting Crimea to Russia further degraded Russia’s logistics to its southern front. That rail line is still out of commission.
And then, Ukraine pushed, attacking toward Mylove (which translates to a far less romantic “soap”), and around Snihurivka. Don’t worry if you don’t know where they are, it doesn’t matter anymore. Russian forces held strongly in this incredibly unforgiving terrain for an attacker, and Ukraine undoubtedly took losses. But they were never designed to actually take territory. They were designed to force Russia to expend valuable resources—its limited ammo and fuel. Ukrainian troops reported in various channels how Russian shelling had slowed to almost nothing, clearly forced to ration supplies for defensive purpose.
Winter was likely the final straw. Supply struggles would only worsen with winter weather, thus Russia had little choice but abandon its hard-fought, well-entrenched positions. On its way out, it finished blowing the Antonovsky and Nova Kakhovka bridges. Ukraine is likely fine with that. This front, for the time being, is over. So now what?
Mykolaiv finally gets a break from tube artillery. Russia can still strike the city with its dwindling stock of cruise missiles and Iranian drones, but for the most part, the city will be able to start rebuilding in earnest. Kherson is clearly in range of Russian artillery, but Ukraine can keep its counter-battery operation at full alert. My guess is that Russia will mostly move on, like we’ve seen in Sumy and Chernihiv. The fact that Kherson hasn’t been shelled during its liberation celebrations seems significant.
Telegram sources have reported massive number of retreating Russian forces moving through Melitipol, likely headed toward other fronts.
Ukraine has designs on Melitopol of course. Russian Telegram has been claiming a buildup of Ukrainian forces in that direction for the last two months. There’s the Svatove direction, up north. If Ukraine takes the town, then pushes to Starobilsk (a straight shot), that entire northeastern swatch of red territory would be liberated in one fell swoop. We’d be back near the original February 24 borders in that direction.
And then there’s the battle for Bakhmut and the strong Russian push toward Pavlivka. Ukrainian defenders likely desperately need to be rotated out. But even more importantly, there will be a lot of newly freed up artillery to help in these directions, including HIMARS/MLRS assets and the latest 500 Excalibur shells announced by the Pentagon this week.
Russia’s winter isn’t going to be an easy one. Ukraine, on the other hand, just sewed up its Southern flank and can now plot its next move, on its own terms.