“We will oust them to our border,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky proclaimed about Russian troops in a speech Monday, marking Ukraine’s Independence Day. “It is time for the Russian military to flee.”
The best defense is a good offense, as military strategists have argued for centuries. And if Ukraine’s drive toward the coast succeeds, it will restore the country’s economic viability by relieving pressure on its port city of Odessa. Moreover, it could threaten Russia’s occupation of Crimea by cutting into the land bridge that connects to the Russian-controlled Donbas region in the east.
Ukrainian and U.S. officials won’t talk about details of the assault plan. As Zelensky said in his speech, “You won’t hear specifics from any truly responsible person.” But it’s clear from public sources that the Ukrainians are trying to push Russian forces back from the Dnieper River, toward Kherson, and pressing toward Zaporizhzhia, east of Crimea, toward the Sea of Azov. Other thrusts in different parts of the country are likely, too.
Ukraine’s opportunity now is that U.S.-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) and other precision weapons have allowed the Ukrainian military to target Russian rear headquarters, ammunitions dumps, bridges and other transport nodes. The days when the Russians could sit back near the border and lob missiles at Ukrainian cities are over. “The target set is command and control nodes,” explains one U.S. official. “The Russians are struggling in a big way.”
The Russian military is disoriented because of the pounding they’ve received, U.S. officials believe. Analysts estimate that Russia has lost thousands of officers, including hundreds of colonels and dozens of generals. The relentless attacks have forced Russian commanders to keep moving headquarters posts, adding to their command and logistical problems.
Ukraine’s other big advantage in this new phase of the war is the “partisan” campaign behind the lines against the Russian occupiers. U.S. military commanders warned their Russian counterparts to expect this brutal irregular warfare, based on the U.S. experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. Russian officials didn’t listen, and now they’re facing attacks they don’t see coming and can’t root out, despite all their firepower. Every Ukrainian with a cellphone is an artillery spotter or intelligence collector.
This partisan campaign, like the HIMARS precision fire, is a product of U.S. planning and training of Ukrainian forces. Since 2014, U.S. Special Operations forces have been teaching the Ukrainians how to fight an occupying army — using special units like the ones that were so effective against al-Qaeda and Islamic State fighters.
Gen. Richard Clarke, who is retiring this week as head of U.S. Special Operations Command, explained in an interview how the United States built up its Ukrainian special operations forces (SOF) counterparts in anticipation of a coming campaign against Russian invaders.
“What we did, starting in 2014, was set the conditions,” Clarke recalled. “When the Russians invaded in February, we’d been working with Ukrainian SOF for seven years. With our assistance, they built the capacity, so they grew and they grew in numbers, but more importantly, they built capability,” in both combat assaults and information operations.
To prepare to repel the Russian invasion, each Ukrainian SOF brigade last year created and trained a “resistance company” recruited from the local population in areas such as Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and the Donbas that were likely to be Russian targets. As a result, Clarke said, “If you’re a Russian soldier today, your head must be on a swivel because you don’t know where the threat is. They can’t look at any Ukrainian and know if that person is an enemy.”
This guerrilla war has produced a grim body count among pro-Russian officials in the occupied areas. In the past few weeks, pro-Russian officials have been killed or injured by car bombs, roadside bombs, poison and shotguns.
As Russia has struggled with Ukraine’s fierce resistance, it has increasingly turned to mercenaries from a private army known as the Wagner Group. Their corpses are easy to recognize on the battlefield because they wear distinctive “Grim Reaper” badges with the slogan “Death is our business — and business is good,” and “I don’t believe in anything. I’m here for the violence.”
That grotesque, cynical brutality captured the spirit of Putin’s war. But after six months, the assault has stalled, and for Russia the business of death doesn’t look so good.