The War of the Trains, continued
by Carlo Graziani
Part 1, Prologue, set up some necessary scenery for the drama that follows, and ended like this:
The UA and the Ukrainian government have, by necessity, employed a weapon that weaker parties traditionally turn to in wartime: deception. As we will see, they implemented a program of deception that paid dividends to a degree at least matching the spectacular successes that the British, and, later, the Western Allies, achieved in WWII. That is the story to which we turn next, as we take up a chronology of the war.
The map below reproduces the one shown in Prologue, and will be needed for reference several times in what follows. I assembled it from the excellent personal railroad site of Yuri Popov, a physics instructor at the University of Michigan, to display the rail connections from Russia to Eastern and North-Eastern Ukraine. Note one conspicuous feature: there actually aren’t that many available connections between Russia and Ukraine.
A War In Four Acts
The chronology of the conflict splits up rather naturally into four phases.
Act I: The Initial Four-Theatre Assault (24 February—6 April)
The Russians launched their assault on four distinct theatres beginning on 24 February: Kyiv was assaulted from Belarus; Kharkiv from Belgorod; Eastern Ukraine from the Russian-controlled rebel areas in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts; and the south—the Azov and Black Sea coast areas, Mariupol, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, and Mikolaiv from Crimea, with Odesa clearly threatened: the intention of this latter axis evidently not just to create the long-desired “land bridge” from Russia to Crimea, but to reach clear across to Moldova, cutting off any rump Ukrainian state from sea access, leaving it to wither on the vine for easy later pruning.
As we all know, the southern effort was the only one rewarded with anything like success. Kherson surrendered on March 2, a major political accomplishment for Putin’s “Special Military Operation.” Elsewhere, however, things began going sideways immediately. Mariupol was invested, but continued resistance at the iron works tied up (for foolish politically-inspired reasons) military resources needed elsewhere until the final surrender on 17 May, 10 weeks after the invasion began. Zaporizhzhia and Mikolaiv were never taken, and Odesa was never seriously threatened by land.
Kyiv and Kharkiv actually repelled their respective assaults, the former preserving the country from decapitation, the latter, as noted in the Prologue, preserving Ukraine’s ability to wage war effectively by allowing it to use its own railway network as interior lines of communication, while forcing the Russians to move around the country’s periphery. The effort in the Donbas basically just fell down. By late March, the Kremlin had to confront the ugly reality that its grandiose invasion plan had failed miserably and humiliatingly, and its forces around Kyiv were being mercilessly pinned by Ukrainian antitank missiles and destroyed by Ukrainian artillery. Facing fearsome losses, the Russians decided to withdraw from Kyiv and Kharkiv, regroup, and re-scope the plan. The new objective would be more modest, but, they were certain, achievable: pinching off the Ukrainian salient in the Donbas, and securing the more Russian-speaking oblasts of Luhansk and Donetsk for annexation to Russia.
Act II: Race to the Donbas (7 April—9 May)
By 6 April, the Russians had completed their withdrawal from Kyiv, and entirely halted efforts to enter Kharkiv, focusing instead on transferring as much combat power as remained in those theatres eastward from Kyiv, and south from Kharkiv, so as to consummate a “classic” of maneuver warfare: the Cannae-style envelopment that has so mesmerized, attracted, and ultimately frustrated so many commanders in history, and which was certainly beyond the meager abilities of the Russian STAVKA. The intention was to force a pincer south from Izyum, while at the same time striking north from Donetsk City, the two pincers meeting more or less at Slovyansk and trapping the greater part of the UA in the salient bulging eastward from Donetsk Oblast into Luhansk Oblast. To the names of famous commanders such as Hannibal, Caesar, Napoleon, and, presumably, Zhukov, entries for Shoigu and Putin were being prepared, not necessarily in that order.
Among the many problems with this high-concept plan was the fact that many of the units needed to carry it out had been very roughly handled by the UA, and needed rest and refit, for which there was no time as they were rushed around the periphery of Ukraine’s territory. The holding of Kharkiv paid a vast dividend now, as the UA was able to exploit its interior lines of communication to rush its forces to plug the gap in neck of the salient well before the Russians were ready to start ponderously forcing their trap closed. As it turns out, much planning had gone on for scenarios much like this one since 2014, and systems of communication trenches and prepared firing positions resembling WWI lines were already in place, waiting to accept the onrushing UA troops.
There were pitched infantry, artillery, tank and air/counter air battles, but the basic top line story is this: The UA stopped the Russian envelopment maneuver cold. It went nowhere, perhaps predictably (in retrospect, at least). Putin and STAVKA must have been frustrated beyond their powers of expression, even in the powerfully expressive blasphemous vulgarity for which the Russian language is justly famous. Meanwhile, the UA began pushing the Russians back from the Kharkiv suburbs at the end of April, and by 9 May Russian efforts were concentrated on preventing the UA from reaching the border north of Kharkiv. A new, new plan was clearly needed.
Act III: “Watch This Hand…” (10 May—1 August)
(1) Eastern Front
The “new, new plan” that STAVKA devised, after an operational “pause” of a week or so, may have been the only good idea that they had in the entire misbegotten campaign. They decided to go to the Russian army’s one true strength: stolid, grinding, massive, concentrated, artillery-forward assault, pulverizing everything in its path, forgoing fancy maneuvers beyond the Army’s capacity. Gathering much of their eastern strength in Luhansk Oblast, they drove it towards the city of Severodonetsk, an important road crossing on the eastern bank of the Siverskyi Donets river, itself a major geographic feature of the Donbas plain.
Very few people are directly acquainted with the thinking of the UA’s general staff, and I am of course not one of those people. From circumstantial evidence, however, we can now infer that well before this point they got sick and tired of being the Russians’ passive victims, and had begun carrying out a series of feints and deceptions with the objective of ultimately seizing the initiative from the Russians and destroying as much of their army as they could trap. Which, in May 2022, would have sounded batshit insane to any outsider watching the progress of the war. And yet the UA set out to do precisely this.
In mid- to late-May, the UA accepted the Russians’ invitation to do battle in the streets of Severodonetsk. A more knuckleheaded challenge by STAVKA is difficult to imagine. By this point, the Russian army was definitely starting to feel the manpower squeeze, and was beginning its series of increasingly madcap recruitment drives in the outer Russian provinces. Entering an urban battlespace to dispute control of each neighborhood, street by street, against a wily, determined defender, was a cognitively challenged choice—it was tantamount to throwing manpower away for no good reason. Even employing lower-quality DNR/LNR “volunteers” from Luhansk and Donetsk breakaway regions was simply wasteful here.
The UA dragged the fight out at an advantageous casualty exchange rate for as long as possible, reinforcing from the west over the highway bridge. The Russians targeted the bridge with artillery for several weeks, succeeding only in proving how difficult it is to drop a bridge with imprecise artillery strikes rained down on its deck: the efficient way to destroy a bridge is to aim direct fire at its supports. Artillery holes through the deck do not undermine the structure for a very long time, and are easily repaired.
Eventually, having exacted an expensive butcher’s bill, the UA executed an orderly withdrawal from the city. They then repeated the performance in the nearby city of Lysichansk, eliciting an outburst from Igor Girkin, a former Russian commander and nationalist milblogger, who excoriated Putin and Shoigu for allowing the UA to deliberately inflict maximum damage on Russian troops and burn through Russian manpower and equipment.
As May gave way to June, then July, the war in the east entered open fields and took on a predictable pattern: the Russians, having secured Luhansk Oblast, were determined to complete the capture of Donetsk Oblast, but were doing so at a rate of about a mile or less per week. They would pour hellish amounts of artillery on flyspeck villages, then launch combined infantry-armored probes that were often repulsed. When such probes succeeded, the UA forces executed another orderly withdrawal to another position.
There were two remarkable things about this to me at the time. One was that this is not what you expect when a larger, more powerful army is shoving a smaller, weaker one backwards. What you expect, instead, is that eventually a desperate rear-guard action falls prey to a blunder or to an enemy stroke of luck, and there is a rout. But all summer long there was no rout. Obviously there was something wrong with the “smaller, weaker” part. The second remarkable thing was that this was apparently not obvious. The UA somehow managed to play-act a part of a combatant on the ropes, sending its Territorial troops into the fight in Severodonetsk as if it were short of regular army troops, and (probably) arranging for those Territorials to be interviewed in Western media so that they could impress journalists with the dire straits that they were in, with how little preparation they had been given, and with the meager support that they had received from Kyiv. How the UA effectively concealed hidden manpower reserves that should have been in plain view to any careful STAVKA intelligence officer, as well as to well-informed Western analysts1, is a story that I expect historians will be shaking their heads over for years to come.
(2) Southern Front
Well, OK, so the UA was hiding a lot of manpower strength. They also had had some serious armor donations in March/April—220 or so T-72s from Poland and the Czech Republic. Some were probably destroyed setting up firing positions in the east, but there were no reports of big tank battles, so they were still husbanding a lot of potential offensive strength. What for?
Near the beginning of July, something odd happened. The Ukrainian government began issuing a series of PSAs announcing that a campaign for the liberation of Kherson would begin soon, that preliminary operations were in progress, and that civilians in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia Oblasts should begin evacuating to Ukrainian-held territory, or start making plans to do so, or at least to make valid shelter-in-place plans. Not long after, deep HIMARS strikes at Russian command, control, and communication (C3) and logistical targets such as ammunition dumps began behind Kherson, clearly intended to soften up Russian defenses by pushing those sites back beyond the 91 km (57 mile) HIMARS M-31 munitions’ striking range, lengthening supply lines and degrading front-line control. All this was odd because the PSAs were tantamount to surrendering any hope of strategic surprise for a Kherson offensive. In fact, it looked like such an obvious feint that I was certain the counteroffensive would happen elsewhere, at Zaporizhzhia. I was wrong about that too. The UA had a much better plan.
The Russians reacted to the threat like a pack of junkyard dogs who just heard a chain-link fence being repeatedly smacked with a tire iron. Kherson was a high-value political prize, the only intact capture of the war. Under no circumstances was it to be allowed to be compromised. The Kherson zone, until that time a sleepy operational backwater, suddenly became the recipient of massive reinforcements.
Kherson is on the west/north bank of the Dnipro river, not far from the river’s Black Sea outlet2. Russia attacked Southern Ukraine from, and is supplied from, the river’s east/south bank. The Dnipro is a mighty body of water, by no means fordable by vehicles. There were three bridges that traversed it. By early August, some 25,000 Russian troops had crossed those bridges and were deploying into the triangle between Kherson, Mikolaiv, and Zaporizhzhia, launching spoiling attacks to ruin the coming Kherson offensive, and to push back the HIMARS range.
These reinforcements had to come from somewhere—remember, Russia was scraping the bottom of a depleted manpower barrel as things stood. STAVKA determined that it was appropriate to designate the region north-east and east-south-east of Kharkiv as an “economy of force” area, meaning that the threat to this region was low, and it could be stripped of forces needed in other theatres. Off those forces went to Kherson.
However, before we move on, take another look at the railroad map above. That “economy of force” theatre happens to contain the vital lifeline of the entire Russian Donbas effort: that would be the Belgorod-Kupyansk rail line. Pity if anything happened to that…
Act IV: The Axe Falls (1 August—Present).
(1) Southern Theatre: The Dnipro Bear Trap
Beginning in July, the UA started taking HIMARS potshots at those three bridges across the Dnipro. Remember that the Russians proved at Severodonetsk that it takes a lot of artillery strikes to drop a bridge, although compared to the accuracy of the M-31 HIMARS munitions, Russian artillery rocket strikes are a bit like playing pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey while drunk. Nonetheless, the Russians had little trouble repairing holes at this stage, as their forces poured over the Dnipro.
In the first weeks of August, however, the UA put on a masterclass on how to drop bridges using precision artillery rockets. It turns out that with the M-31 munitions’ accuracy of a few meters, repeated strikes directly over support structures are perfectly adequate to the task of destroying highway and railway bridges. The three Dnipro bridges were out of service by the second half of August. It gradually began to dawn on the Russians that they had 25,000 troops on the opposite side of the river from their supply train, and they began to frantically construct pontoon (improvised floating, light-duty) bridges. The UA artillery happily targeted these, and anything moving across them.
On 29 August, the Ukrainian government announced that the long-awaited Kherson offensive was finally on, and the UA attacked, after imposing a strict security blackout on media reporting of its operations. The blackout seemed puzzling, at first—after all, the Russians were certain to obtain a clear picture of UA ops from their own units’ tactical intelligence officers within a day or two. The interpretation that emerged from a very lively debate among Adam Silverman’s blog commenters that culminated in a 2 September discussion thread—which I believe holds up well still today—was that a major deception operation was still in progress. That interpretation runs as follows: The Russians, having been tempted to cross the river in force and now cut off from their lines of supply, were gasping as they sucked scarce military resources over ephemeral pontoon bridges. The UA, for its part, could resupply at will from its burgeoning stock of NATO-grade equipment and ammunition, and could drive out that fleet of T-72s from the Warsaw Pact junkyards en masse. Moreover, while the strategic objective of the Ukrainian offensive was obviously Kherson, the Russians were to be kept guessing for as long as possible as to which axes of advance or geographical features might constitute the UA’s operational objectives.
And therein lies the deception. The Russians have been had. The operational objective of the offensive is almost certainly the Russian army itself. The UA has neatly turned the tables on the Russians, putting them in a situation where they are now to be ground down in a battle of attrition, as the Russians had been attempting to do to the UA in the Donbas since May. The beauty of the Dnipro Bear Trap is that it hands total control of the operational tempo and conflict intensity to the Ukrainians. The Russians cannot escape—their heavy vehicles cannot cross pontoon bridges, and all crossings are under artillery observation anyway. That army is never going home. All the UA needs to do is fight in a manner designed to provoke Russian materiel attrition, without necessarily committing to any axis of attack. The Russians will all be in POW camps or dead by some time in October, except possibly for the ones who are very good swimmers in cold water. Whoever thought up this trap is going to get an entry in that historic roll of famous commanders.
When Kherson falls, and the remains of the Russian army beyond the Dnipro is herded into camps, a shattering psychological blow will fall upon Russia, eclipsing all shocks that the Russians have absorbed in the war to date. The political effects on Russian politics, and on International attitudes toward Russia and towards the war are not calculable, but they are certain to be immense. There’s an earthquake coming, and soon.
(2) Kharkiv Offensive: Targets Of Opportunity
On 4 September, soldiers from two different UA battalion-level units uploaded pictures to Twitter from Ozerne, a village on the eastern bank of the Siverskyi-Donets, about 6 km/4 miles from Lyman. From the photos, the crossing had apparently been unopposed, and the smiling troops had the air of boys on a cheeky outing. Still, believing that Lyman was a Russian stronghold, I expected the Russians to come boiling out of there like angry fire ants, and felt sure that a pitched battle would ensue within a day.
There was no battle at or near Ozerne, or Lyman for that matter, at least not that week. Remember “economy of force theatre”? Yeah, well, we didn’t know about that at the time. However, it turns out that the UA did know about it, having presumably done a very careful accounting of where their bag of trapped Russians in the south had come from, and gotten some confirmation from local intelligence sources—it’s their country, after all. They knew that the theatre containing the Belgorod-Kupyansk supply line of the entire Russian Donbas war effort was completely defenseless. For the cost of detaching a few battalions (Michael Kofman estimated 4 or 5 on a recent War on the Rocks podcast) from their main business in the south, they could derange the Russian supply line, and perhaps entirely separate Belgorod from the theatre for which it serves as logistical hub.
This, in my opinion, was the genesis of the now-famous “Kharkiv Offensive” that captured the imagination of the world. It was supposed to be an opportunistic diversion from the main effort in the south, not the headline-grabbing blitzkrieg that it turned out to be. I doubt very much that the UA expected the thinned-out Russians to break and run away as a leaderless, disordered mob, and I’m pretty sure they didn’t plan it that way, but it must have been a very pleasant surprise, as they pushed east and, almost effortlessly, cut the Belgorod supply line at Kupyansk.
The rest of the offensive that followed was natural exploitation, although perhaps it has a purpose beyond liberation of occupied territory. This is not yet necessarily the end for Belgorod.
If you look back at the map, there is a second line farther east, terminating at Starobilsk, which can be reached from Belgorod by means of a detour north, east, then south again, of about 300 km. The detour would be a nuisance, but in Internet network parlance it adds latency rather than degrading bandwidth, especially if the Russians are willing to prioritize military supply train schedules over civilian schedules (want to bet?). So the UA may still need to push further east if it wants to be sure of knocking Belgorod’s supplies out of the war altogether. The advantage of doing so is to put more strain on the resources and scheduling at the remaining distribution hub at Rostov-on-Don, and to ensure that any failure occurring to deliveries from Rostov become critical bottlenecks to the entire Russian war effort.
To close that line, the UA doesn’t actually have to reach it. They just need to get to within 90 km of the Starobilsk rail yard with a HIMARS unit, or even within firing distance of, say, any 10-mile stretch of track, on a decent road with good cover, so that they can fire salvos that make rebar out of stretches of track too long to repair in a useful time. Then Belgorod can go back to being a sleepy border town. I’m sure the local civilian rail passengers would appreciate their schedules going back to normal.
Epilogue: Mobilize This
The big war news story of the past few weeks has been the Russian “mobilization” drive, which is an effort so confused and ill-conceived that I will not let a detailed critique detain us here—tune in to one of Adam’s excoriations of the matter for that, or some of the informed discussions that follow. What I’d like to note here is that at this point, from a logistical perspective, the entire Russian war effort is hanging by a thread, and it almost doesn’t matter whether their mobilization effort succeeds or fails.
Set aside the question of how the raw recruits that are being pulled out of metro stops today are to substitute for the 25,000 mostly contract servicemen (and officers) trapped west of the Dnipro that the Russians are soon going to be forced to write off as a total loss. And of where the combat experience required to train those recruits is to come from. And of whether the Russians should ask the UA nicely for their gear and ammo back, so they can equip a few of them.3
More crucially, the UA is obviously targeting their vulnerable supply rail lines, and have gotten good at it. On 22 September some genius at the Russian supply service decided to run a supply train reported to be full of T-62 tanks from Rostov-on-Don right up to a train station in Yasynuvata, a suburb of Donetsk City, less than five miles from the front line. The train pulled into town and promptly blew up. Obviously, the lessons of the war are not being widely shared among the Russian commands, because there are certainly commanders in the army who learned the hard way to KEEP THEIR GODDAMNED HIGH-VALUE LOGISTICAL TARGETS OUT OF THE 90 KM HIMARS RANGE FROM THE FRONT, but logistics and supply service commanders apparently don’t read those memos. This was not the first Russian supply train targeted by a HIMARS strike. Similarly, the explosion at the ammunition warehouse in Dzankhoi last summer, courtesy of UA/SOF, shows the attention and priority attached by the UA to rail supply targets.
My guess is that the UA wants deep interdiction of all Russian rail links into Ukraine. They’ve got Belgorod nearly off-line, and perhaps entirely off-line if tanks are now shipped to the Donbas from Rostov. Next the UA will want to cut the line from Rostov into Luhansk Oblast through Taganrog. That’s actually nearly accomplished: the border crossing of that line, the town of Vyselky, is 88 km (55 miles) from Marinka, a Donetsk suburb that is currently the site of significant fighting. This is the edge of HIMARS range, meaning that most of the line from Rostov inside Ukraine can already be targeted.
I’m sure the UA would also dearly love to knock the Crimean rail supplies off-line, targeting Kerch or Dzankhoi, or both. These are not impossible goals if the Ukrainian government can cut a deal with the Biden administration for a limited number of accounted-for, agreed-target ATACMS munitions—which have 300 km/188 mile range, and which the U.S. has so far considered too provocative and escalatory to supply to Ukraine. But consider this: a small number of such artillery missiles with warheads specialized for each Crimean target—area bomblets, probably, for rail yards, penetrator high-explosive for bridge supports—would permanently shut off all military supplies to the Southern theatre.4 Then those newly-mobilized recruits can walk, or drive their personal cars to Ukraine, and their stuff can be bused in, but the Russian army will have seen its last tank or artillery shell. And for all intents and purposes, the war will be over.
- The ruse really worked beautifully. The Russians were not the only ones suckered: Michael Kofman, an expert on military affairs and on Russian force structure, was interviewed in the War on the Rocks podcast in June. He delivered a careful analysis of the Russian manpower crisis, but then, with no comparable discussion of Ukraine’s manpower situation, or even an acknowledgment that Ukraine provisions manpower entirely differently from the way Russia does, he breezily stated “both sides have now used up their best troops.” as if there were no distinctions to be drawn between the two, and if Russia was exhausted, Ukraine must be also. I admire Kofman, and pay attention to everything he says. I point this episode out to show that lots of people were taken in, along with the Russians.
- If you are not familiar with the geography of Kherson’s situation, a quick glance at Google Maps might be a good idea at this point.
- As the meme has it, the Russians are at least likely to see some of their ammo returned. The UA operates many of the same heavy-caliber guns and mortars as they do.
- It may or may not be worth the trouble of using ATACMS strikes to sever the final two rail connections northeast and southeast of Luhansk, indicated by the red annotation arrows on the map at the top of this post. Luhansk is about 96 km / 60 miles from Bakhmut, where active—and, for the Russians, futile—fighting is currently in progress. This suggests that the city of Luhansk itself, and its rail connections, may be within M-31 targeting range very soon.