Is Ukraine's war strategy behind schedule? Four Russian vulnerabilities and three ways Ukraine is exploiting them

Is Ukraine's war strategy behind schedule? Four Russian vulnerabilities and three ways Ukraine is exploiting them

Originally published in the ABC


Over the past few days, international security affairs attention has shifted from the mutiny led by Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin back to the war in Ukraine.

The Ukrainians have been pummelling away at Russian defences with assaults occurring around Bakhmut, in Donetsk, and in Zaporizhzhia oblasts.

There have been concerns expressed by some, particularly in the media but also by Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, that the Ukrainian campaign is going slowly or that it is "behind schedule".

But all military operations consist of pulses and pauses and there is much we do not see in this war. Even if it is occurring at a different pace than anticipated, the Ukrainian 2023 offensive is probably still unrolling roughly like the Ukrainian high command anticipated.

How might this be the case?

Exploitable vulnerabilities

The Ukrainian planning, begun last year, would have started with an assessment of the Russians.

The Ukrainians understand the Russian military better than anyone else. Their senior leaders have studied in Russian military schools and there is a deep knowledge of Russian doctrine in Ukrainian military institutions. Because of this, the Ukrainians would have concluded that the Russians in Ukraine, while capable, have exploitable vulnerabilities.

Vulnerability one is numbers

The Russians began to construct their obstacle belts late last year under General Sergey Surovikin.

The Russians planned to defend the line with massive reinforcements delivered by last year's partial mobilisation. But in the intervening period, the Russians have sustained massive casualties.

In May this year, a spokesperson from the White House briefed that Russia had sustained 100,000 casualties in previous months.

Vulnerability two is logistics

At the end of last year, reports also began to emerge about shortfalls in ammunition in Russian forces. This led to them seeking supplies from places like North Korea and Iran.

Consequently, the Ukrainians made Russian ammunition storage depots a high priority in the lead-up to their offensive.

Vulnerability three is tactics

How the Russians are using their defensive lines, now known as the Surovikin Line, is important.

The Russians appear to be "defending forward". This means they are deploying large numbers of their combat forces in the forward security zones of their defensive layouts. This is a high-risk strategy because if they have over-committed their forces forward, any Ukrainian penetration will expose the relatively less-well-defended main defensive positions.

Vulnerability four is loss of cohesion

And now, in the wake of the Prigozhin mutiny last weekend, another vulnerability has been created in the Russian military.

While it was already an institution where soldiers were treated badly and bad news was never reported upwards, the events of last weekend would have been a jolt to the cohesion of Russian military leadership.

The Russian government, in investigating who knew about the mutiny in advance, has recalled some military leaders, including General Surovikin, to Moscow. Many others will be nervous about their positions.

How is Ukraine exploiting Russia's weaknesses?

Because of these vulnerabilities, the Russian military in Ukraine may be much frailer than we appreciate. How are the Ukrainians exploiting this? In short, they have adopted a broad front approach in their campaign.

There are several reasons why.


First, it is enhancing the survivability of Ukrainian forces — who do not have control of the air — by not (yet) concentrating large numbers of forces in small amounts of terrain. Dispersal is a crucial approach in an environment where a mesh of military and civilian sensors and analytical capacity is used to employ very precise and lethal weapons.

The Ukrainians will see this as a virtue – they can retain as much combat power as possible while undertaking small-scale actions to collect intelligence and prompt Russian reactions that produce high-value targets.


At the same time, the Ukrainian broad front strategy is deceiving Russian military leaders about where the main effort for the Ukrainian ground offensive will eventually occur. The Russians must defend across hundreds of miles of front lines.

But the Ukrainians need only break through in one location to potentially cause a cascading impact on other Russian defensive operations.


In adopting this broad front approach, the Ukrainians also benefit from what military theorists call interior lines. This is where a more centrally deployed force is able to act against divided enemy forces.

There are many examples from military history where smaller military forces have used interior lines to defeat larger forces in offensive and defensive operations. For Ukraine, the design for their current offensives probably takes this into account so they might isolate and defeat different elements of the Russian defensive forces.

Pressure is building but patience is key

The Ukrainians are steadily building pressure across a broad front against the Russians. They seek the optimum location to penetrate the Surovikin Line — a defensive barrier constructed under General Surovikin's guidance.

This involves the tough business of close combat, killing and combined-arms obstacle breaching. While difficult, when Ukraine does achieve a penetration, the Russians are in trouble. In such a situation, it is disaggregated command and control, rapid adaptation and the willingness to exploit opportunities that will carry the day.

Since the start of this war, the Ukrainians have demonstrated these qualities in spades while the Russians have not. So, while many fret about the "slowness" of the Ukrainian campaign, we must remain patient.

The Ukrainians have only deployed a small portion of their offensive combat power. They have prepared the battle space well with deep strike operations and information warfare.

And, throughout this war, they have shown a talent for surprise. We may well see more surprises from them in the days and weeks ahead. And if this happens, Putin and his military commanders will be in even deeper trouble than they faced last weekend.


Areas of expertise: Russia-Ukraine war; military history and strategy; advanced technologies