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Ukraine’s slow progress in its counter-offensive has frustrated some defence officials in the United States and Germany, but that may overlook the much less reported, yet no less significant, effort that Kyiv is devoting to its deep battle.

This blog was first published on the Military Balance+ on 24 August 2023

There is more to Ukraine’s counter-offensive than many people appreciate.

There is much reporting and commentary on the ground attacks against Russian front-line defences. Recent Western media reports suggest that Ukraine’s slow progress with its counter-offensive has frustrated some unnamed defence officials in the United States and Germany. But this attention overlooks the much less reported, though no less significant, effort that Kyiv is devoting to its deep battle. Those efforts – conducted at long range, over a protracted timescale, against adversary elements not engaged in the close battle – may set Ukraine’s forces up for breakout success or at least to significantly diminish Russia’s combat power.

While Ukrainian forces have been inching forward in the close battle, pushing through Russian defensive belts that combine linear trench systems, extensive minefields and anti-tank obstacles, Kyiv has also been relentlessly pursuing attacks on a multitude of targets at distance, spanning from the Donbas to Crimea to Moscow. Kyiv probably calculates that these attacks will erode Russian morale and increase pressure on its commanders, while also weakening the enemy’s forces by disrupting their command, control, supply and movement.

What’s unfolding

To carry out the deep battle, Ukraine is drawing on a range of Western-provided and home-grown equipment. Those include strikes by rocket artillery, including precision munitions, such as GPS-guided M982 Excalibur shells provided by the United States, and guided-rockets, including those fired from HIMARS launchers. More recently, Ukraine has used United Kingdom-supplied Storm Shadow cruise missiles to attack Russian ammunition dumps and bridges. Ukraine has also modified S-200 Gammon air defence missiles into surface-to-surface rockets to strike targets at range; Moscow claims to have shot down at least some of them.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian partisans and special forces have conducted bombings and assassinated pro-Russian officials far behind enemy lines. Some special forces recently made a foray into Crimea, raising the nation’s flag in the Russian-occupied territory to mark Ukraine’s Independence Day.

The attacks on Russian-occupied Crimea and in the Black Sea, where Ukraine has deployed uninhabited vessels to successfully target the Black Sea Fleet, are complemented by deeper attacks into Russia itself. These include a range of drone strikes, sabotage and incursions by proxy forces.

Signs of success

Ukraine’s deep battle campaign has shown signs of success in disrupting both Russian military operations and the country’s daily routines. Ukrainian military chief General Valery Zaluzhny has said that attacks on Russia itself are designed to undermine the country’s ‘sense of impunity’ as Kyiv aims to heap political duress on Moscow to augment the military pressure from the counter-offensive.

Repeated drone attacks on Moscow have struck buildings and temporarily halted flight operations at airports serving the Russian capital. Attacks like these, or those on the Soltsy-2 air base south of St. Petersburg where a Tupolev Tu-22M bomber was destroyed, offer more than psychological effects. They may force Russia to redeploy air defence systems away from Ukraine and drive Russia’s air force to operate from further behind the front line.

Operationally more relevant, though, are attacks on Russian logistic nodes crucial to its forces in southern Ukraine. Supplies for these forces can flow from Crimea, but Ukraine has successfully degraded vital infrastructure, such as bridges into Southern Ukraine and across the Kerch Strait, through missiles and uninhabited boat attacks. The alternative route is the M14 road to Kerson that travels through Mariupol and Melitopol, Ukraine does not need to capture this road to disrupt it as a supply line but might choose to do so by capturing Russian territory that would act as a springboard for long-range artillery rockets, underscoring how close and deep battle can support each other.

Combined effect

Success with the deep battle has only become more important given the pace of the close battle, where Russia’s defences have driven Ukraine to abandon a ‘blitzkrieg’ approach in the counter-offensive after taking losses, including Leopard 2 tanks and Bradley armoured fighting vehicles. A more dismounted operation has since pushed back Russian forces in some sectors, but not at the pace many hoped for in the effort’s early days.

Ukraine is clearly aiming for the deep battle – combined with repeated attacks along the lengthy front line – to bring Russian forces to a tipping point where combat power and morale may begin to break. To achieve this, the deep battle is stretching Russia’s supply lines, making it more challenging for Moscow to reinforce front-line troops with ammunition and other needed items, and hindering its ability to easily bring new formations into the fight to open new fronts.