The recent attack didn't seem as big as it could have been and the weather is not right
The Saker is our regular contributor. This article also appeared at The Vineyard of the Saker
I have to admit the increased fighting in the last few days has been a surprise for me. For one thing, I expected an attack later in the year because right now the weather conditions are bad and very much favor the defenders.
I also expected a heavy fire preparation of the battlefield (meaning that the Ukrainians would shell Novorussian positions) followed by a push by Ukrainian armor along several well defined axes. I expected the Novorussians to retreat to pull-in the attacking Ukrainians into firepockets and then gradually destroy them. This is not at all what actually happened.
First, the Ukrainians continued shelling, but not the Novorussian forces, but the usual terrorist shelling of the civilian neighborhoods of Donesk and other cities, Gorlovka, in particular, has suffered terribly and is completely in ruins. That kind of shelling makes the Ukrainians feel good, but it serves no military purpose.
Second, there was not concentrated attack of Ukrainian armor. 2 tanks here, 4 thanks there, but nothing like the heavy armor attack the Ukrainians could in theory launch.
So yes, the Ukrainianss did try to attack at the airport, and the combats there for a while were extremely intense, no doubt about that, but these were limited attack. The same deal goes for the town of Peski which now is mostly in Novorussian hands: the combat operations there were very intense, and the Ukrainians are still dug in the the northern outskirts of the town, but the size of the entire battle is still clearly local.
So my first conclusion is this: this was a major escalation of combat operations, but this has NOT been The Big Ukrainian Attack. That attack has simply not materialized yet.
The second outright bizarre and counter-intuitive event was the reaction of the Novorussians who instead of digging in actually went on the offensive in several locations including Mariupol. The good news is that the Novorussians are clearly very careful and moving in slowly and carefully which is vital for a successful operation to liberate Mariupol (assuming that this is their goal).
The Novorussian morale is, by all reports, rock solid, optimistic and careful. Exactly what you need to prevail. The Novorussian victory at the airport is a huge moral boost for the Novorussians and a crushing psychological blow for the Ukrainians.
My second conclusion: the Novorussians have done everything exactly right. Far from feeling the need for a layers defense in depth, they have immediately counter-attacked and they have done so successfully, deliberately and carefully.
Today I listened with great interest to a press conference by a Ukrainian military spokesman who declared that a large number of Russian Federation troops had participated in the combats around the airport and that more had entered the Ukrainian territory.
This is very good news because the Ukrainians always begin by hallucinating about Russian Federation forces every time they are badly defeated somewhere. It could well be that the Ukrainian losses are even bigger than we know.
As for the Russians, they have clearly reopened the Voentorg [military aid] spigot at full capacity. Well, in reality, the Voentorg was already working at full capacity for months now, but now the Russians don't even try to hide it very much. Novorussian commanders are now openly saying that they have all the men and weapons they need.
Still, and while the news today is all good, I caution everybody against over optimistic "hurray we won!!!" kind of attitudes. I will repeat this crucial finding again and again: The Big Attack has not happened yet.
Good question. For one thing, the weather is really not good for the Ukrainians. Not only does this kind of weather inherently favor the defender over the attacker, but the Russian hardware (sights) is much better suited to these conditions that the old Soviet era gear used by the Ukrainians.
Second, you might have heard of this old rule of thumb that the attacker needs roughly 3:1 superiority over the defender to be successful. As any rule of thumb, it is not really true, it has a lot of exceptions and it makes a lot of usually inapplicable assumptions. Still, this rule is still "kinda, sorta, generally true".
For the Ukrainians this does not mean an overall 3:1 superiority along the entire front, but yes, it does suggest that a 3:1 superiority is needed along the axes of attack in order to punch through the Novorussian defenses. The only way to achieve that is with high mobility. And this is where the current weather conditions definitely complicate things. So maybe the Ukrainians are waiting for better weather to start The Big One.
Then there are all those rumors about Ukrainian units refusing to go on the offensive. Initially, I dismissed them as Novorussian propaganda, but then the Ukrainian social media also began echoing this information. Apparently, entire units are refusing to go on the offensive. Frankly, I don't blame them.
Sure, the Ukrainians did lick their wounds from the catastrophic campaign last summer, but there is only that much anybody can do in just few months. In most countries, just basic training, "bootcamp", is 3-4 months after which a civilian is considered only as a basic solider, a "private". Only then does this basic solider get any kind of specialty. As for a NCO (non commissioned, a corporal, sergeant, etc.) or an officer - they need even much more training.
Except that the Ukrainians have already used a lot of their older, but at least trained, NCOs and officers this summer and now they are either dead, or crippled or disgusted. Poroshenko has now announced three waves of mobilization for 2015, but is rather evident for anybody with a semblance of intelligence that he is really conscripting cannon fodder, not a capable fighting force.
In contrast, the Novorussians now have plenty of well-trained, well equipped and battle hardened experienced men on all levels. And make no mistake, a company of experienced battle hardened soldiers will defeat an entire battalion of clueless recruits, especially if the former are better equipped (which is the case thanks to the Voentorg).
So, maybe, just maybe, Kiev is seriously beginning to run out of idiots and fanatics willing to get slaughtered in the Donbass. This is not an assumption we can make, it is too early for that, but I just cannot understand what the point of this latest half-baked attack could possibly have been.
Finally, there is the very real possibility that the junta is just completely losing control of the country - that orders are given, some body follows them, somebody not, somebody half war but not really, that complete disorganization and chaos is settling in and that there is no real Ukie army left, just lots of guns and lots of people, but not a unified combat force.
I honestly don't know and would love to hear who others explain the outright bizarre events of the past 24 hours.
What is sure is that "so far, so good" and that things could have started much worse then they did. I am therefore very cautiously optimistic.