It’s mud season again in Ukraine, a phenomenon with such significance there that it has a special name: “bezdorizhzhia”, the season of bad roads. The Russians say “rasputitsa”. It’s most severe in the spring, when melting winter ice makes the earth muddy, but it generally happens with the autumn rains too.
Bezdorizhzhia has a paralysing effect on armies, especially armies on the attack. Even tanks, which are specifically designed for off-road mobility and exert much less pressure on the ground than cars or trucks do (the enormous weight of the tank is spread over a much greater area by the tank’s tracks), frequently can’t move off paved roads during mud season.
They often can’t move at all, as paved roads laid across mud country may break up if you drive heavy vehicles on them during bezdorizhzhia.
Most soldiers and most of an army’s supplies move in wheeled vehicles, rather than tracked vehicles such as tanks. Almost all wheeled vehicles are strictly road-bound in mud season and often the rest of the time too. A marching soldier also can’t cross the mud with any ease.
Attacking during mud season, then, is a terrible idea.
The Russian army, reinforcing the impression of incompetence it has given ever since the invasion, is of course mounting a huge attack in the Avdiivka area right now.
Reportedly a third assault wave of 40,000 men is about to be thrown in. Ten days of rain are forecast, with temperatures remaining well above freezing. British military intelligence has already suggested that Russian losses in Avdiivka will be the worst in any operation this year, and that’s saying something.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, under intense international pressure, has sought to give the impression that his army’s counter-offensive has not come to a halt as was strongly suggested by his commander-in-chief, General Valery Zaluzhny, last week. But despite Zelensky’s upbeat tone, Zaluzhny will certainly not be attacking for the next few weeks unless the weather is unusual: it would be simply throwing his men away.
Bezdorizhzhia doesn’t last into the winter: as it gets cold the rain gives way to snow and the ground becomes firm again. But winter brings its own problems. Again, it favours the defender over the attacker, especially in eastern Europe. “General Winter” was famously always the deadliest Russian commander that French and German invaders had to face.
Zaluzhny can’t attack seriously through the winter, it’s that simple. The counter-offensive has halted.
Far from a Blitzkrieg
All across the Western world this is being treated as some kind of failure by the Ukrainians. It’s unfortunate that many Western commentators, often former military officers, have previously given it as their opinion that Western tanks, used correctly, would enable a brilliant Blitzkrieg-style breakthrough and end the war in a matter of weeks.
They argued that Russia’s huge, well-equipped tank forces failed in the initial invasion because the Russians were doing it all wrong: they didn’t know how to coordinate their tanks, infantry and artillery in “combined arms” warfare the way Western soldiers can.
Western tanks have been promised to Ukraine: the German Leopard, the US Abrams and British Challengers. But the actual delivery took a long time. Just 87 Leopards and 14 Challengers had reached Ukraine as of August and precisely zero Abrams. Denmark and the Netherlands’ contributions won’t arrive until next year.
Even so, a hundred tanks is a lot of tanks: it’s enough for an armoured brigade. The Ukrainians also had lots of decent Soviet-pattern ones. They had managed to pull a lot of troops out of the line to be rested, re-equipped and trained – often by Western instructors from the same armies that produced the confident ex-military commentators. They had the division-sized armoured force that Western officers had said could win the war.
Yet the mighty Ukrainian armoured spearhead has advanced just 10 miles. Far from a Blitzkrieg, this has been more like erosion than lightning.
This is uncomfortable for the Western military commentators. One of two things must be the case: either they were wrong and tanks, even with Western training and tactics, are no longer a decisive weapon; or the Ukrainians, despite being trained by Western armies, must be doing something wrong.
Nobody likes admitting that they might be wrong, so Western military and ex-military opinion (not usually expressed in public, but nonetheless fairly universal and stated in writing) is that the Ukrainians have been doing it wrong and this is the real reason they haven’t defeated the Russians.
The suggestion is that if Western officers had been given an armoured division they would have done much better with it.
Even if one is an armoured warfare true believer, it’s still hard to picture a Western general really doing much better than Zaluzhny and his colleagues. In order to carry out a classic Blitzkrieg operation, after all, one must first get past the enemy’s front lines. This is extremely difficult to do if they are heavily manned, heavily fortified and protected by deep minefields and lots of heavy weapons.
Heinz Guderian, the German general generally credited with carrying out the first Blitzkrieg in the assault on France in 1940, was up against the heavily fortified Maginot Line. He solved his problem by simply going around it through Luxembourg and Belgium. It’s not usually possible for a defender to have strong fortifications everywhere.
Russia today certainly doesn’t have strong fortifications everywhere. The Russia-Ukraine border all the way from the battle front to Belarus is only lightly protected.
However, Ukraine can mount only minor, semi-deniable operations on Russian soil and cannot use any Western equipment in them, because that has been a condition of Western support.
Even the battle front itself from the border to Donetsk does not have to be very strongly held by the Russians, as Ukrainians breaking through that part of the lines would have the Russian border in front of them, where they would have to stop and the Russians wouldn’t. Any Ukrainian attack there would probably be a feint.
Then, from Zaporizhzhia to Crimea, the front line is along the Dnipro river, a formidable obstacle.
That just leaves a hundred miles of front, from Zaporizhzhia to Donetsk, where the Ukrainians are not blocked by the river and can drive for the Azov Sea. If they could get there they would have cut the Russian army in two, leaving the Crimean half totally dependent on the Kerch bridges for supply – bridges that would then be within range of some Ukrainian weapons. The war would be all but won.
But knowing where the Ukrainian attack has to come means that the Russians can build their Maginot Line – actually called the Surovikin Line – and the Ukrainians have to attack straight into it. Even Heinz Guderian might not have made much progress in this kind of situation.
But they can’t do any of these things because we won’t let them.They could mount a major attack across the almost undefended eastern border, or go around the eastern end of the battle front Guderian-style and roll the Russians up.
Both these options would force the Russians to pull troops and guns and construction effort out of the Surovikin Line. The Ukrainians could mount their real assault somewhere between Donetsk and Russia, ending their drive to the Azov on Russia’s coast. But they can’t do any of these things because we won’t let them.
First we forbid the Ukrainians from operating on Russian territory (or anyway, using our weapons to do so), which forces them to attack along a very limited front. Second, just to make sure they really have no chance of success, we dithered for months before agreeing to supply tanks and then took more months to actually send them, just to make sure that the Russians had lots of time to build the Surovikin Line.
Bluntly, there has been no Ukrainian military failure here. We in the West have forced them to fight with their hands tied behind their backs. The fact that they have made any progress at all is impressive.
Still, it remains a fact that the offensive is stopped for the winter. And it’s also pretty clear that if nothing changes, next year will be a lot like this year: grinding, attritional warfare.
“There will be no deep and beautiful breakthrough,” General Zaluzhny admitted last week. “We have reached the level of technology that puts us into a stalemate.”
Putin’s diminishing power
The prospect of stalemate, bizarrely, is seen by some in the West as a reason to reduce or cut off military support.
The thinking seems to be: well, we’ve spent a lot of money and given you lots of equipment with which our military men say they could have defeated the Russians and you’ve totally failed to defeat them, so we’re not going to give you any more. We’ll just let you run out of ammunition and die, and allow the same criminals who raped and murdered and tortured at Bucha and elsewhere, the same regime that steals children en masse and rounds people up for disappearance into the gulags, to take your country from you.
And we’ll just hope that we’re not next: that Russia won’t rest and rearm and then move in on somewhere else.
However, cutting support doesn’t make sense even if you don’t care at all about Ukraine. Even if we care only about ourselves and our own safety and want that safety at the lowest possible cost, we should keep sending aid.
As a few of the more perceptive commentators have pointed out, spending money on military aid for Ukraine is the most cost-effective defence spending anyone in Nato has ever done.
The Ukrainians have destroyed the Russian army as it existed in 2022: its tough, volunteer “kontraktniki” contract soldiers are gone, as are all the better classes of conscripts and all of Russia’s best tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery pieces.
Putin is reduced to sending the dregs of his jails to war in ancient vehicles rescued from the scrapheap. Russian air and sea power, too, have been badly mauled – or else exposed as missing or ineffectual, in not a few cases. Russia’s entire ability to make war is tied up: even basic defence capabilities in places other than Ukraine have been degraded.
As long as the Ukrainians are fighting, Vladimir Putin’s threat to anyone else is hugely diminished. Westerners are spending small percentages of our normal defence budgets on Ukraine assistance in order to be more or less entirely safe from Russia. It would be madness to stop doing so, no matter how long the stalemate might last. As long as the Ukrainians are willing to fight, we should back them.
Sliding into a stalemate
Even still, a stalemate is undesirable. Ukraine will run out of men before Russia does and the more people of working age it loses, the harder it will be to rebuild its society and economy after the war.
The risk is there that large numbers of refugees taken in across Europe may not want to return home and this problem worsens with every Ukrainian killed or maimed and every Russian bomb, missile or shell fired. We need Ukraine back as a strong ally and the breadbasket of Europe as it was, not as a shattered, depopulated wasteland.
Given that the stalemate is our fault, we Westerners should end it. This is the more so as it would involve no difficult or dangerous action by us.
The clue is in General Zaluzhny’s remark: Ukraine has reached a level of technology that puts it in a stalemate. We have sent tanks, artillery, and armoured vehicles. We have sent missiles of certain types, but only Britain and France have dared to send long-range precision strike missiles – and we only had the Storm Shadow / SCALP to send.
The Storm Shadow / SCALP (“Système de Croisière Autonome à Longue Portée”) is a somewhat modified version of a French 1980s-vintage runway-buster weapon called APACHE. We in Britain like to claim it was jointly developed with France, but it is really just an APACHE with a British bunker-busting warhead that doesn’t work terribly well (as colleagues of mine in the bomb-disposal world discovered during the Iraq invasion).
As one would expect with such an old weapon, it’s not all that effective. In particular, being a subsonic cruise weapon – in other words, a small robotic jet aeroplane – it is relatively easy to detect and shoot down. Its makers nowadays like to claim that it has some kind of “stealth” attributes but this appears to be no more than marketing fluff.
The Ukrainians have managed to make Storm Shadow strikes on the Russian naval base at Sevastopol in Crimea, but they had to carry out various special-forces raids and other attacks beforehand in order to take down Russian air defences so that the missiles could fly in.
They have not managed to put the Crimean airbase at Saky out of commission and the Storm Shadow is simply not delivering the effect it theoretically should: that of putting all Russian-occupied Ukraine under Zelensky’s guns.
Despite the fact that the Kerch bridges ought to be well within the Storm Shadow’s reach, they are still standing – allowing supplies and munitions to flow into Crimea and the “land bridge” of Russian-held territory south of the Surovikin Line. It’s generally thought that the Storm Shadow’s British bunker-buster warhead, backronymed to be dubbed BROACH (“Bomb, Royal Ordnance, Augmented Charge”), can’t do bridges.
In any event, by this point we can say that Storm Shadow isn’t going to break the stalemate for Ukraine. Nor is the obsolete, short-ranged M39 version of the US Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), which Joe Biden has grudgingly and belatedly sent.
This is a supersonic ballistic missile, which is much harder to shoot down. But the M39 cannot reach Saky, Sevastopol or Kerch and its cluster warhead cannot do bridges or hardened targets.
Breaking the deadlock
What the Ukrainians need is one of the proper, full fat versions of ATACMS that followed the original M39: one with a unitary warhead rather than cluster submunitions, meaning that it can take out concrete structures.
Joe Biden is afraid to send real ATACMS because he thinks the Ukrainians would use it to take out the Kerch bridges, once and for all. He’s afraid that this might lead Putin to nuclear escalation. Olaf Scholz is refusing to send Germany’s Taurus missile – much like Storm Shadow, but with a better warhead that can do bridges – for the same reason.
Appeasement is in the air. Biden, Scholz and their school of thought do not want to give the appearance of supplying a war-changing weapon because they are afraid it would make Vladimir Putin angry.\\
But this timid attitude isn’t terribly logical. War-changing weapons have been sent before.
The counter-offensive of 2022, in which the Russians were driven back across the southern Dnipro river, was a huge success because of the arrival of another American missile, the Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMLRS), mostly fired from the Himars vehicle. This can make precision strikes to ranges of more than 70km, much further than anything the Ukrainians had before. The Russians had not realised that the Ukrainians (or friends of theirs) had a way to locate all their field headquarters.
Multiple headquarters and other important targets like ammo dumps were duly taken out by volleys of GMLRS. The Russian army west of the Dnipro fell into disarray and the Ukrainians pushed it back across the river. A US-supplied weapon had changed the war.
Similarly, it was argued that sending Western tanks would provoke Putin. It took Britain’s offer of Challengers to show Biden and Scholz that sending tanks was safe.
Again, it was widely thought that supplying Storm Shadow missiles would lead to the Kerch bridges falling and Russian headquarters across the theatre being pummelled as the weapon’s limitations were not widely known. Yet the sending of Storm Shadow did not provoke Putin to anything more than bluster.
We should stop listening to the argument that the Ukrainians are fighting wrongly. Yes, Western tank armies have beaten Soviet-equipped ones easily in Iraq and Kuwait but this was not because they had Western tanks and Western officers: they won because they had total dominance of the air and thus could use precision strike weapons anywhere in theatre.
We should give the same capability to Ukraine, firstly in the form of proper full-fat ATACMS and then by making sure that the coming F-16 fighter jets are equipped with everything up to and including the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Munition (JASSM), which is everything that Storm Shadow is supposed to be and more.
It’s time to cease taking counsel of our fears and end the stalemate in Ukraine, by taking steps no more aggressive than those we have already taken.
The West needs to get this war wrapped up, so that we can look elsewhere.