This started as a long letter to Khepesh, but I decided to share my ramblings with the forum for discussion. I am particularly interested in the views of Russian speaking posters that have access to Russian military forums and sites and can add some insights. Particularly valuable would be the contribution of those that are military and can check for errors or misconceptions, as I am just a self-proclaimed armchair strategist, but everybody feel free to contribute.
Summing it up, I am exploring if the current strategical stagnation of this war is due to tactical reasons, or if the conflict has been frozen due to other reasons, and probable outcomes.
First of all, please share your news from the frontline in the situation threads. Nothing much seems to be happening, there is some harassing fire but it seems the possible junta offensive is delayed by the rain and we cannot expect anything major until the onset of cold dry weather.
Junta has to make a push this year before going bankrupt, and is evident they are never going to comply with Minsk agreements, the question is not if, but when. Standing idle does not seem to be an option anymore, and the bankruptcy may be the catalyst to finally attack. We know they were set to go at the end of august but were stopped at the last moment. It is unlikely that they will stop a second time.
That being said, I have been thwarted so many times this year in predicting a renewed Ukrainian offensive that I think more or less the situation of "neither war nor peace" will continue, with perhaps a limited offensive attack. I am coming to believe that the Ukranian army lacks the capability of launching an offensive, they were decisively defeated in 2014 and what they have left is basically cannon fodder infantry and artillery. They would like to attack but they cannot. If they had the capability they would have done so. I have cried wolf too many times. It is a strange war and somethings are beyond my understanding.
On the opposing side, I think the Novorussians don't have enough troops but that cuts both ways, if they manage to make a breach, the whole front collapses as both sides are stretched thin. I keep repeating that the Ukranian front is in the same situation as the Germans at Normandy in 1944. When the front breaks there is nothing behind, because any movement backwards only stretches further the lines, making impossible to maintain any continuous front.
The Ukranian inactivity and lack of conviction in their probing attacks suggest weakness. On the other hand what intrigues me is that they never used their full potential. On paper at least both sides have big maneuver armored reserves, counting hundreds of tanks. Yet if I am not mistaken, the biggest number of tanks seen fighting at a unit was a entire company, a dozen tanks at most. It is strange that they only used a force that size to try to break open the Debaltsevo pocket. As a tank officer you will be well aware of this and be puzzled that no side has used armor en masse. Instead tanks seem to have been spread among infantry units as support, and being used as mobile artillery pieces.
To Khepesh: as a tank officer you may agree with my reasoning that what prevents mass use of armor is that they simply lack the trained officers and communications to do anything larger than company sized attack. It's not just tanks, but infantry as well. As I understand from my study of military history and tactics, the critical part is having middle ranking officers. You can train amateurs to work efficiently up to the company level. As long as it is a small force and the commander can see the terrain and forces by himself.
The critical level is at the intermediate level, batallion and up to brigade levels. Here it is necessary to do staff work and coordinate the actions of various companies and supporting arms. It seems to me that the Ukrops are very badly led and they lack the ability to prepare a simple tactical plan, to coordinate an artillery preparation, coordination of infantry and tanks and mount a batallion scale attack to take a position, in an advance measured in hundreds of meters, let alone anything more complex involving more than one battallion or a peentration of several kilometers.
I am very familiar with these kinds of problems and operating with an amateur army raised from scratch due to my extensive study of the Spanish Civil War, so I have reason to believe a similar situation is happening with the Ukrops and to a lesser degree with the NAF. It seems though that the Ukrops haven't the Spanish genius for improvisation, and that they are even worse off than the Spanish Reds. In our war we went from militia columns to full brigades, divisions and corps in one year of fighting.
They didn't even had the skeleton of an army to use for cadres. From my limited knowledge, the Ukranian army is even worse off than the armies of the Russian Civil War. there was no army worth of the name before the Donbass war, so they are not lacking just colonels and majors, but they are lacking even proper sergeants.
So maybe the reason for the inactivity of the ukrops is sheer incompetence and impotence due to organizational problems. I, for a variety of good reasons, disagree with the notion that the ukros troops are getting better training from Western countries. I haven't served in the military but I do have a good idea of what can be accomplished in a given amount of time. They can train a few infantry companies to fight better or at least not make stupid mistakes, you can train infantry lieutenants in a few months, but you can't create battallion commanders and headquarters staff as easily.
I also have another suspicion, that as a tank officer belongs to your area of expertise. I think both sides actually field far fewer tanks and armored vehicles than the hundreds they have on paper. Most of the vehicles were very old, dating back to Soviet times, and the engines must be worn. No engine, no tank! I suspect many tanks and other vehicles are unserviceable and the rest are kept going through cannibalization. It seems very likely both sides lack trained armor crews, and that more than anything else keeps the effective number low.
On the Ukranian side it is quite probable they have scarcity of fuel. I think this may be that instead of 400 or 500, the Ukrops can only field a hundred tanks , and then spread all along the front.
It also seems that afte huge losses in 2014, the ukrops are reluctant to risk their remaining tanks combat worthy tanks, wich are more precious now. If they had 400 tanks operative, it is no big deal to lose 40 or 50, but if you have only 200 left, you lose a quarter of your force.
As a tank officer and no doubt with access to Russian military forums, I am interested in Khepesh technical assesment. Maybe both sides are holding back their tanks because they are very vulnerable to antitank weapons? It seems to me from combat footage that the tactic is to use them as mobile artillery, firing explosive shells from a range beyond infantry RPG rockets.
You know as well as me that steel armored tanks were rendered obsolete by shaped charges. Seems the T-64 and the T-72 had composite armor in the glacis and turret front that makes them at least resistant to RPG hits, and anytime reactive armor should have made them well protected against that threat (unless hit repeated times like it happened in Grozny during the 1st Chechen War). I am sure this subject is discussed openly in tank military forums and you will be familiar with the technical specifications, so my questions are:
1) Are the tanks completely vulnerable or their armor offers some protection?
2) RPGs being used, have tandem charge arheads? in other words, does the reactive armor protect against them or it is useless? From videos seems the reactive armor blocks are being kept, reason I think that even if they are useless against tandem charges, they still offer a plus of protection against kinetic energy projectils from tank cannons.
3) Are antitank missiles being used? It seems not much as most of them had expired their shelf life, as those abandoned in Slavyansk, and stocks have been consumed already. I see lots of Rapira towed antitank guns being used, like if it were WWII, for lack of something better. There are reports that the Ukrops got a few modern antitank guided missiles from the West, Javelin antitank missiles of the "fire and forget" type wich would be vastly superior to the 1980s guided missiles I am familiar with, the MILAN and TOW and Soviet equivalents
From some website I read that the T-64 though old, is not completely useless, there were no penetrations of the front hull and turret. It seems that most tanks have been lost due to poor tactics and poor coordination with infantry, either being destroyed by RPGs at close range fired against the sides, or in tank duels against other tanks. I think if both sides are using the old Rapira towed AT guns, wich I believe most of them are the old 100mm gun mounted in the T-54 is because these have longer range than RPGs and they can still disable tanks by shots to the hull and turret sides.
Of course artillery has destroyed a lot of tanks, and some destroyed by mines and improvised bombs as well. But it would appear that aside from ambushes at close range by infantry armed with RPGs, specially in urban terrain, there must have been a lot of tank duels, with tanks destroying each other with armor piercing kinetic shot. I would be grateful for any confirmation for these theories from what you have read in the Russian internet. I think not only armchair generals but professional Russian soldiers are studying this war with keen interest and they are drawing conclusions more accurate than some of the drivel written by Western "experts"
Technical discussion aside, what I really want to know if tanks are capable at least of surviving some hits and therefore a mass armored breakthrough is possible, or if they are so vulnerable to antitank rockets that they are used as mobile fire support, and that would explain both sides reluctance to use mass armor, as the crews are aware they ride in rolling coffins and reluctant to take risks.
I am intrigued because it seems that in the taking of the airport and the February battles the Novorussians used few tanks. It seemed like a infantry and artillery battle like the First World War (and many battles of the Second as well). I don't know if this was of a desire of keeping the precious armored reserve for decisive battles, or a reflection that tanks are so vulnerable to antitank defense that is better not to risk them.
A lot of people make a simplistic analysis that the war has ended in a stalemate of trench warfare because neither side can break through the fortified lines of the other. I do not think is the case. There is a stalemate because neither side for one reason or another has done an all out offensive to break the front using all the forces at their disposal.
But I want to rule out the possibility that the antitank defense is so strong that we are back to the same situation as in trench warfare. Breakthroughs by infantry alone are too difficult.
I think the Ukranians simply cannot breakthrough because they are too weak and incompetent. I think the Novorussians could but they are so short of troops they can't hold the ground they gain, that's why the didn't keep Marinka this summer. In a continuous front all positions support each other, so any salient gained will be under fire from neighboring positions.
Wich begs the question, why then don't break through at one point and roll the continuous front? The front is too long and is thinly held. There are no reserves behind. If it breaks, there is no other line where to stablish a front until the Dnieper river.
Perhaps the operation is too ambitious yet for the Novorussian army, but maybe not, if they break the front is just a matter of driving to the objetives then, like in the encirclements of summer of 2014. Drive to the enemy rear, encircle them, and sit down to shoot them up as they try to get out of the pocket.
Is the frontline too strong to break? I don't think so. Tanks were designed to break trench lines. Even if the Ukranians have made concrete bunkers, the front is not a continuous impregnable Maginot line. Front is too long, is like German lines in the Ostrfront during the winter of 1941-1942, not a continous line but a series of defensive hedgehog positions around towns linked by fire and patrols. Yes, some sectors are too densely fortified to make a breakthrough possible, like in the Donetsk sector. I am very familiar with the situation, as in the Spanish Civil War happened the same. It was a infantry artillery war with barely armored vehicles, so when the front stabilized and fortifications were done, that sector remained unmoved for the rest of the war, like it happened around Madrid, but elsewhere lines were thinly held and breakthroughs and maneuver were still possible. In the current case a breakthrough at any point of the southern front towards Mariupol and the Dnieper is possible.
Even if there are trenches and bunkers, tanks can get through these and shrugg off machine gun fire, mortar bombs and most of artillery barrage to open the way for infantry. A fortified position can only be held if there are antitank weapons present. There are no Antitank missiles, and nothing comparable to the pak fronts of Kursk. Artillery preparation and accompanying infantry can take care of enemy antitank teams armed with RPGs. In the worst case, instead of the tanks doing the breakthrough and infantry following, infantry assault can breach the defenses and clean a lane for the tanks to pass through and exploit.
So really I don't think is tank vulnerability or the strenght of the defenses that is keeping both sides from breaking the stalemate. If adequately prepared and enough force concentrated, any defense line can be broken. Moreover with the extended front there are more than enough weakly defended spots where a breakthrough can be achieved, leaving aside the matter of enemy reaction to counterattack and seal the breach, of course.
In this analysis I have left out the mines. Antitank and antipersonnel minefields would be the obvious solution to the problem of maintaining a continuous extended line of defense without enough forces. Yet it is unclear if these are being used. I think Ukraine like most of the world, went along with the ban of land mines and destroyed them. I think both sides are using directional mines (of the Claymore type) and improvised booby traps to strengthen their positions, but both sides lack the pressure land mines , both antitank and antipersonnel to lay vast belts that would need to be cleared by engineers before attacking.
Summing it up, neither side defensive lines due to shortages of manpower, materials and lack of antitank weapons and mines have anything resembling the defense lines in the Kursk salient in 1943. Sure, some fortified towns would be very tough to break on a head on assault, but there is no need to do that, since the intervals between hedgehog positions could be easily breached and the strongpoints bypassed or enveloped.
So either side could break the front if they decided to do it. However, for the Ukranian army this would invite total defeat if failed, as their forces seem incompetent to carry even local attacks. The Novorussian weakness may be that they don't have enough forces to concentrate for an attack without stripping the rest of the front, but I reckon that even with inferior numbers the losses suffered by the Ukranian army and the shortening of the front after eliminating the Debaltsevo salient has improved the force ratios enough to pull this off. After all, if the Ukranians are so weak that they cannot attack at all, then quiet sectors can be stripped to concentrate forces for a breakthrough.
Perhaps Novorussian army is still not ready and more training is neccessary before passing to the offensive next year, but the Ukranian weakness is so tempting, specially if no offensive materializes this year that it begs the question why a decision in the battlefied is not sought.
In the purely military analysis, the front can be breached with decisive consequences, military, and political.
If it hasn't been done this year is because Ukraine would like to, but it is too weak to attack, and Novorussia isn't allowed to attack because Russia still needs Ukraine as a gas transit country (as an article in slavyangrad. org reminded me ) and complete military victory is not achievable. I think Putin got cold feet at the last moment and didn't send the army into Ukraine because he was threatened with total war.They can't support Novorussia to go and take Kiev because that would provoke US intervention and a repeat of the Korean War. So the strategy would be to keep Novorussia alive and hold until such time Germany and the USA get tired of supporting Ukraine and the regime collapses as did South Vietnam.
I think the Kremlin is wrong and if Novorussia was allowed to defeat the Ukranian army and liberate Ukraine or at least partition it, there is nothing Germany or USA could do about it. Our only hope is that the Ukraine regime chooses war opening the way for its total defeat and allowing Russia to dictate peace on its terms.