OPINION: Kyiv's 2024 Military Strategy – Embracing a New Reality

Photo by Roman PILIPEY / AFP

   An article on the German news site Die Welt suggests that Valery Zaluzhny, the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU), was not initially supportive of the highly anticipated all-out armored summer counteroffensive. However, there are indications that 2024 might bring changes to current expectations.

Die Welt claims that Zaluzhny may have been pressured into the offensive by politicians, including some from Ukraine and primarily from Western nations eager for a quick return on their investment in arms and ammunition provided to Ukraine.

Nico Lange, former chief of staff to Germany’s Minister of Defence and now a senior fellow at the Munich Security Conference, supports this perspective, stating, “… [Ukraine’s] commander-in-chief was never in favor of launching the offensive, as he did not see a chance for success without sufficient air support, and only agreed to it for political reasons.”

Zaluzhny's reservations proved justified when the initial armor-led assaults faced significant resistance while attempting to breach the well-prepared three-layer defenses of the Russian forces' "Surovikin line."

Although the actual losses of Western armor were not as high as claimed by the Kremlin, Zaluzhny and the on-ground commander, Oleksandr Syrskyi, swiftly recognized that persisting with this approach would lead to unsustainable losses.

In a matter of days, the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) adapted their strategy. Instead of relying on mechanized units, commanders directed small assault units to engage on foot, deploying armor strategically only when it could effectively confront Russian armored units. This shift allowed the AFU to minimize casualties in both personnel and equipment, providing additional time for Ukraine and its Western partners to train and accumulate weapons supplies.

The pace of progress following the counteroffensive did not meet the expectations of many U.S. and European politicians, especially the media, which was quick to label it a failure and a stalemate. Some suggested that Kyiv had already lost and should seek peace.

However, this perspective overlooks a crucial detail: analysis by the Dutch open-source portal Oryx indicates that approximately 95 percent of the weapons systems delivered to Ukraine have yet to be deployed and remain available.

A report in another German publication, Bild, quoting unnamed military officers, states that the primary goal of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) strategy is to maximize the destruction of the Russian military while minimizing losses for Ukraine.

A Ukrainian officer emphasized, "Our goal is to achieve the maximum positive destruction rate. If the ratio is 10 to 1 in our favor, we will continue an offensive; if 1 to 1, we will retreat." Another soldier echoed this sentiment, stating, "...there is now no pressure, we are simply aiming for maximum losses to the enemy. Positions don't matter; the main thing is that the majority of Ukrainians remain alive."

Although this "holding action" may not lead to immediate political and military collapse, its objective is to influence Putin's need for a breakthrough before the March presidential election.

The AFU strategy not only aims to minimize this likelihood but also ensures that Ukraine has the time to strategize for an enhanced counteroffensive in 2024. In addition to the weapons already received, Kyiv submitted a weapons wish list to the US on Dec. 6, including additional air defense systems, fighter aircraft, Apache attack helicopters, Abrams tanks, drones, and ammunition, as reported by Reuters.

The requests, as per Die Welt, suggest that Ukraine is gearing up for "the counteroffensive General Zaluzhny likely had in mind from the very beginning." The inclusion of superior air support would enable the kind of comprehensive, mobile armored warfare that Ukraine's NATO supporters had envisioned.

Despite ongoing resistance in the US Congress to maintaining the substantial levels of assistance outlined by President Biden, Ukraine received weapons and equipment, including ammunition for HIMARS and 155mm artillery in early December, totaling $175 million. Congress approved an additional $300 million for 2024 on Dec. 14. Separately, the Senate extended its current session to further deliberate on the president's request for $61 billion in aid for Kyiv.

There is also attention on the creation of a somewhat precarious bridgehead on the left bank of the Dnipro in the Kherson region, which the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) seem to be enlarging. It is approximately 60 kilometers from there to the Crimean Peninsula, which, in recent months, has become the target of assaults involving drones, special forces, and partisans. These actions have already prompted the withdrawal of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

According to an unnamed military adviser, the foothold could potentially serve as a launch point towards the Crimean Peninsula, especially with the anticipated air support requested by Ukraine. He emphasized that efforts to reclaim occupied territory will regain prominence as Russian losses persist at current or even higher levels. The introduction of "game-changing weapons," such as the US ATACMS, the German Taurus cruise missile, and advanced aircraft like the F-16, along with attack helicopters, could play a pivotal role.

Contrary to concerns about Ukraine's vulnerable position, Die Welt reports that there are currently 600,000 troops deployed along the 1,000-kilometer frontline. This deployment has seen little change, with gains and losses measured only in increments of 10s or 100s of meters. The Russians continue employing "meat grinder" frontal attacks, particularly in eastern Ukraine, resulting in significant losses in both manpower and equipment.

The Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) have shifted their strategy, as explained by Lange to Die Welt, stating, "They are no longer trying to hold their positions, as they did in Bakhmut. Instead, they want to slow the Russian forces down and wear them down in the process."

President Putin, in both October and during a recent "direct line" broadcast on Thursday, claimed that the losses ratio favored Moscow. However, this assertion is sharply contradicted by a recently declassified US intelligence report, revealing that Russia has suffered nearly 90 percent losses in manpower from its original deployment in the full-scale invasion, accompanied by a corresponding decline in tanks and heavy equipment.

The Ukrainian strategy of attrition, coupled with incremental gains, may ultimately prove effective. With the prospect of receiving at least some of the requested tools from a week ago, there is a growing possibility that a decisive counteroffensive may be on the horizon.