The history of war shows that the losing side tend to lose ground as they are cut off from supply lines to replenish troops with weapons, food and material. Independent Russian publication Important Stories reports why this appears to be the dynamic at play right now for Russian troops in southern regions of Ukraine.
Updated October 3, 2023 at 3:05 p.m.
A century and a half ago, during the American Civil War of 1861–1865, the foundations of modern warfare were laid out, marking the transition to large-scale, industrial-era armies.
Innovations like the telegraph played a pivotal role, enabling coordinated operations across vast distances and swift responses to changing battle scenarios. The advent of breech-loading firearms and rifled artillery disrupted traditional infantry formations, driving soldiers into trenches for protection.
Meanwhile, the introduction of all-metal warships and the first use of submarines in combat hinted at the future of naval warfare. Balloons were employed for battlefield observation and reconnaissance, foreshadowing the era of aerial warfare.
Over the next five decades, automatic weapons, tanks, and aircraft further transformed the landscape of warfare. However, the most revolutionary and foundational innovation was the utilization of railways for the transportation and supply of troops. In 1862, the US Military Railroad Agency pioneered this concept, marking a historic milestone in military history.
These developments did not go unnoticed in Europe. Otto von Bismarck's Prussia, emerging as a European military leader, drew inspiration from North American military strategy and technology. They adapted these ideas to European warfare, systematically incorporating them into their military development.
Count Helmuth von Moltke, the chief of the Prussian general staff and the architect of the blitzkrieg concept, succeeded in nationalizing Prussian railways and aligning railway communications with the needs of troop mobilization and deployment. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871 showcased the formidable effectiveness of the Prussian army, culminating in the capture of the French Emperor Napoleon III.
The Prussian school of military planning became a model for many European continental armies, including the Russian military. To this day, the principles of the Prussian military school continue to shape military education, traditions, and staff culture in post-Soviet armies. One such principle is the integration of military planning with the logistical framework provided by railways.
Supply lines and geography
In essence, warfare revolves around logistics and geography. For generations, armies have traversed the same routes and vied for control over critical roads, passes, river crossings, and other strategic locations. An illustrative historical example is General Elphinstone's British detachment during the first Anglo-Afghan war in 1832, retracing the same route from Kabul to Jalalabad that Soviet columns used in the 1980s.
Even during the presence of NATO troops in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2021, familiar toponyms from the Soviet era such as Bagram, Kandahar and Herat persisted. International forces converged on these areas not because they replicated Soviet operational plans but because these regions offered the most practical bases and supply routes, due to their mountainous desert terrain, limited water sources and challenging climate.
The advent of mechanized armies and military transport aviation introduced modifications to military strategy and tactics, but the fundamental framework of military operations has remained consistent.
The Prussian school of military planning became a model for European continental armies, including the Russians
For over a century and a half, railways have been indispensable in military operations due to their unparalleled capacity for transporting troops and supplies.
These principles also apply to the Russian-Ukrainian war. According to reports from the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, during the summer of 2022, the Russian army was expending approximately 50,000 shells daily (a reduced rate at present).
This prodigious rate translates to a constant flow of supplies, including ammunition, fuel, lubricants, spare parts, food and various other essentials. Simultaneously, the conflict necessitates the transportation of damaged equipment, casualties, rotations of troops, and more in the opposite direction.
The scale of this logistical operation is colossal, demanding the utilization of rail and sea transport as no other modes could efficiently support such volumes. Moreover, sea transport is intricately linked with railways, with goods transported by rail from ports to base warehouses. Wheeled and tracked vehicles are typically employed only for the final leg of cargo delivery to combat positions.
Russia, Kherson Region - March 5, 2023: A Russian Army serviceman in a trench on the left bank of the Dnieper.
How Russian defense works
The Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine form a horseshoe shape. In the west, this horseshoe is bordered by the Dnieper River, and in the east, it encompasses highly urbanized regions in Donetsk and Lugansk. To the south, Russian troops control a roughly 100-kilometer strip along the Black and Azov Seas.
The southern combat zone primarily consists of open steppe terrain, part of the Black Sea lowland. These lands saw active colonization, industrialization, and agricultural development starting in the 19th century. Even today, the population density and degree of urbanization in the southern Ukrainian steppes remain relatively low.
The southern defensive strategy of the Russian army, often referred to as the "Surovikin Line" in propaganda, is more accurately described as a mosaic of strong points. A continuous line of trenches is typically found only at the squad or platoon strong point (VOP) level.
The distances between neighboring strong points can vary considerably and depend on factors like terrain characteristics, troop density, and specific mission requirements. These strong points are strategically positioned at key locations such as elevated positions, road intersections, and outskirts of settlements. The gaps between them, which are typically unsuitable for vehicle movement, are covered by infantry, mine-explosive barriers, observation posts, and patrols.
These strong points come together to form company strongholds (ROPs), which, in turn, establish the defense area for battalions. Artillery and other heavy weapons are usually positioned in the rear of these formations, providing a comprehensive defense structure.
Air defense measures are in place to safeguard these positions. Additionally, a support zone is established in front of the strong points and can include various fortifications like ditches, embankments, wire fences, and minefields. The flat and open terrain of southern Ukraine enables defenders to observe the surrounding area over long distances without specialized reconnaissance equipment, allowing for the creation of a substantial support zone.
Defense in depth
Behind the first line of defense, at some distance, subsequent defensive echelons are positioned. Cut-off defensive lines may be established perpendicular to the front line to prevent enemy flanking maneuvers in the event of a breakthrough. These lines are designed to channel the advancing enemy into prepared ambushes, pockets of concentrated fire, or other disadvantageous positions. The subsequent defensive echelons are typically not as heavily fortified as the front line to maintain flexibility for maneuvering in the rear.
This description provides an overview of the "Surovikin Line," which stretches from the left bank of the Dnieper to the outskirts of Donetsk. Key features of the Russian defense strategy include a significant deployment of minefields and the utilization of attack helicopters as a mobile operational reserve.
The southern sector, where the invasion forces are located, presents vulnerabilities due to the configuration of the occupied territory, limited communication lines, and the specific geographical characteristics of the theater of military operations.
Notably, the horseshoe-shaped front line allows Ukrainian forces to maneuver along the internal perimeter, providing opportunities to gain advantages in certain areas, while Russian troops are compelled to follow an external, longer route. This dynamic gives Ukrainian forces a strategic edge.
Russian logistical fragility/video
Three scenarios that may play out
The strategic objective of the Ukrainian defense forces in the south is to gain access to the Black and Azov Seas' coastlines. Ukraine aims to prevent Russian units from escaping, as occurred during the liberation of the Kharkiv region and the right bank of the Kherson region. This represents the optimistic scenario for Ukraine in the autumn campaign of 2023.
In a less positive scenario, both parties remain in the same positions as of June 2023, before the counter-offensive began. However, even if the front line remains stable, the vulnerability of the Russians persists. Subjected to enemy fire and limited supplies, the Russian army will gradually lose its combat effectiveness. The speed of this decline depends on the quantity, quality and timing of weapons supplies to Ukraine, particularly long-range weaponry.
While the future remains uncertain, based on current knowledge, Russia will soon need to withdraw from
A realistic scenario unfolds with the Ukrainian army attempting to breach Russian defenses in multiple operational directions right from the start of the counteroffensive. To disrupt supplies via rail, the Ukrainian forces don't necessarily need to reach Berdyansk, Melitopol, or storm other heavily fortified areas.
Instead, they aim to get infantry close to the transport hubs, allowing brigade artillery to effectively target them from a distance of 15–20 kilometers. The railway runs parallel to the entire Russian defense line in the south, approximately 30–40 kilometers from the front line.
Disrupting supplies or reducing railway capacity will place Russian troops in a challenging position, forcing them to endure winter conditions in the cold steppe with limited provisions. Russian defenses in the Black Sea and Azov regions are likely to diminish or collapse by the spring of 2024.
In the eastern operational zone, the Russians will continue to exert pressure, relying on rear areas in Russia and urban areas occupied in 2014. Crimea and Mariupol are expected to remain under Russian control for the time being.
The "fog of war" isn't just a phrase; it has a specific meaning attributed to Carl von Clausewitz. It signifies the inherent uncertainty in the theater of military operations, where complete awareness of the state of affairs is elusive: random factors play a significant role, and commanders' reactions to changing situations are inherently delayed. While the future remains uncertain, based on current knowledge, Russia will soon need to withdraw from Southern Ukraine.