A series of recent attacks on Russian forces in southern Ukraine and its forcibly-annexed Crimean Peninsula reveal what Ukrainian officials say is a new strategy designed to take out supply lines in its occupied territories.
Mykhaylo Podolyak, a key adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, recently described it as designed to create “chaos within Russian forces” and that such strikes could accelerate over the next two to three months.
Insurgent activity in occupied territories and stealthy strikes possibly carried out by partisans trained by the Ukrainian military have also intensified, with the use of car bombs, targeted shootings, and booby traps on the rise.
Ukraine’s summer campaign has thus far taken out Russian command centers, decimated ammunition depots, and crippled supply lines with strikes on key pieces of infrastructure across the southern Kherson region. A large-scale push to retake territory, however, has so far failed to materialize, with Ukrainian frontline forces in the south largely pinned down in trenches and facing Russian artillery barrages.
To find out more about what this shift in strategy could mean, RFE/RL spoke with George Barros, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington-based think tank.
RFE/RL: Ukrainian officials have claimed they are engaged in a strategy of creating “chaos within Russian forces” by launching a counteroffensive targeting Russian supply lines deep into occupied territory, including a spate of recent attacks in Crimea. Is this the southern counteroffensive that many observers of the war have been waiting for and how is this strategy likely to change the battle lines across Ukraine?
George Barros: This is part of the counteroffensive. These targeted precision strikes that the Ukrainians have been conducting against logistical targets throughout southern Ukraine, as well as in occupied Crimea, are part of a coherent Ukrainian counteroffensive in order to regain control of the west bank of the Dnieper River and the upper part of Kherson Oblast.
Also, it’s important to remember that strikes against Crimea do not violate Ukrainian commitments to Western partners about Ukraine’s nonuse of Western weaponry against Russian territory because this is territory that Russia illegally took, back in 2014. Since then, Crimea has become a massive Russian military stronghold, from the Black Sea Fleet to airborne forces. It is also where Russian supply lines run directly between Russia itself via the Kerch Strait bridge into southern Kherson, which directly supports Russian frontline troops.
Therefore, if [Kyiv] is seeking to hollow out Russian forces [in that area], the Ukrainians are doing a smart job by targeting [various strategic infrastructure] that can degrade Russia’s ability to be able to move heavy military equipment.
A lot of the Western observers have been expecting to see a grandiose, large-scale Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kherson, but the Russians have reinforced this territory now and brought in lots of equipment and more units [and] they’ve created multiple prepared defensive lines.
The Ukrainian response has since been to degrade the supply lines required to sustain those frontline positions so that over time they might be able to actually break through.
RFE/RL: I’ve seen some observers of the war say that Ukraine is doing these attacks because they can’t muster the manpower and material needed for this big counteroffensive. But it seems you’re saying that this is a deliberate Ukrainian strategy to first weaken and degrade Russian forces and then make a push for territory?
Barros: The Ukrainians don’t want to engage the Russian defenses head on. What they want to do is to degrade it to the point where it actually becomes manageable.
The example of how the Ukrainians retook Snake Island is useful here.
The Ukrainians did not retake Snake Island by sending airborne forces or launching an amphibious force to physically go clear the island.
Instead, they did consistent strikes on Russian assets that were on the island to make it so that holding the island was extremely costly for the Russians until Russian commanders decided that the costs were greater than the utility of holding it.
We’re seeing a similar approach now in the south around Kherson and to a degree in Crimea as well.
RFE/RL: We’ve seen some Russian attacks on Ukrainian forces in the south and in the north, but one of the big questions for a long time has been what is Moscow’s ability to muster enough manpower to sustain itself over time and meet the objectives that it has set for itself. How is Russia dealing with those issues?
Barros: The Russians are trying to continue to gather what forces they can through these different force-generation efforts.
[At ISW] we’ve identified a couple of different distinct lines of effort. For example, Russia has a concept of what they call national battalions, which are essentially an effort for various oblasts and regions to generate volunteer units. They usually call them battalions, but they’re putting together groups of between 300 to 400 troops per unit. They’re often recruiting people with no prior military experience and in some cases are sending them to the front line with just 30 days of training. In some cases they’re also not even able to muster a full 400-man unit and are instead just sending them in piecemeal.
That’s not going to generate enough effective combat power and it certainly takes far more than 30 days [of training] to create a good soldier that is capable of operating in a combined arms mechanized war, which is what the Russians are conducting. There are also other parallel [recruiting] efforts under way, from granting clemency to convicted prisoners if they’re willing to deploy to Ukraine to using dirty tactics to effectively [trick] young recruits into signing a contract to go to the front line.
That’s all to say that Russia will have difficulties mustering enough forces for effective combat power but will continue to try all it can to get soldiers without actually calling for a mass mobilization.
RFE/RL: So where does that leave us in the weeks and months ahead? We are seeing reports of Ukraine training partisans and using special forces selectively behind Russian lines and the Kremlin appears to be moving forward with its referendum plans for parts of Ukraine. What else is likely to shape the situation on the ground and elsewhere?
Barros: One question is if Ukraine can successfully get this counteroffensive going in the next six to eight weeks and get to the point where they can sufficiently degrade Russian forces and hollow them out. I’d also expect an uptick in more coordinated partisan efforts from Ukraine and we’ve already seen Ukrainian officials set the conditions for them to potentially be part of the counteroffensive.
With regards to Russian efforts to take different areas, the Russians are somewhat frantically trying to annex these territories with sham referendums. People should remember that the Kremlin’s stated objective has been consistent: to gain full political and territorial control over Ukraine. While we might hear statements from officials that they are only really focused on the Donbas or the south, it’s about all of Ukraine.
Even if Moscow doesn’t succeed in doing this all at once, any foothold they can maintain in Ukraine will be used in the future to continue what was already started.