Ukraine Should Beware of the Bear at the Back Door

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Ukrainian servicemen shoot with SPG-9 recoilless gun during training in Kharkiv region, Ukraine
Ukrainian servicemen shoot with SPG-9 recoilless gun during training in Kharkiv region, Ukraine, Tuesday, July 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

Gary Anderson lectures on Red Teaming and Alternative Analysis at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs and was a special adviser to the deputy secretary of defense during the George W. Bush administration.

The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

Many military observers analyzing the Russo-Ukrainian War believe that Russia is reaching a culminating moment in its current eastern offensive. A recent Washington Post article cites experts who believe that Russian industry cannot sustain for much longer the production of artillery ammunition to adequately support the war of attrition that its army is waging. This comes at a time when western reinforcement in artillery and rockets is beginning to come to the aid of beleaguered Ukrainian forces. Other observers cite problems of recruiting and retention in Russian ranks.

All of this seems to point to an eventual Russian operational pause that would certainly give Kyiv's forces a respite or perhaps an opportunity to counterattack and regain lost ground. It is certain that the Russians have expended massive effort for relatively minuscule strategic gains. All that analysis provides signs of hope for the Ukrainians, but it is also a time of great potential peril because nothing is more dangerous than a wounded or cornered animal.

Depending on how bad the political situation becomes in Moscow, the Russians may resort to a risky, high-payoff adventure and attempt to seize Kyiv again. Military history is replete with such gambles.

During World War I in 1918, Germany was running out of soldiers, material and national will as the United States began pouring men and equipment into the allied ranks, replacing the Russians who had quit in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution. The German General Staff made a desperate gamble with a surprise offensive using new infiltration tactics to shatter the front line.

Led by highly trained shock troops, the German effort came close to breaking the French and British armies, but the heroic efforts by fresh U.S. Marines and soldiers at places like Belleau Wood finally blunted the German push short of Paris. In addition, much of the German momentum was stalled by an inability to supply advancing shock troops. In many cases, discipline broke down as near-starving German troops feasted on captured French and British rations.

Similarly, the Germans again seemed on the ropes in December 1944 with the allies advancing from the west and east and German cities being blasted from the air. Many American commanders believed the war would be over by Christmas. However, German Führer Adolf Hitler decided to take a desperate gamble and ordered an armored attack at a weak point in the difficult terrain of the Ardennes mountains. The Germans hoped to compensate for lack of fuel by overrunning allied supply depots to plunder needed gas.

The surprise was nearly complete. Only gallant stands by units such as the American 101st Airborne Division thwarted the Nazi advance until Gen. George S. Patton's Third Army could restore the lines.

The situation was similar in the Pacific where the Japanese were being strangled by an effective submarine campaign that blocked critical fuel from Southeast Asia, and American ship production was overwhelming the Japanese Navy.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur's invasion of the Philippines would have meant the end of Tokyo's imperial ambitions. In a desperate move, the Japanese planned a brilliant counterattack designed to defeat the Philippine invasion. A fleet of Japan's remaining aircraft carriers feinted toward Leyte Gulf nearly devoid of planes because the Japanese were short of trained carrier pilots. This was a ruse to draw the American carriers under Adm. William Halsey Jr. away from the landing beaches. Meanwhile, a surface action group centered around the Yamato -- the world's most formidable battleship -- would strike from another direction to destroy the landing force.

The deception worked, and Halsey took the bait. The beaches were defended only by a light force of destroyers, destroyer escorts, and escort (Jeep) aircraft carriers. Only the heroic efforts of those light American ships saved the day. In an action that became known as the "last stand of the Tin Can Sailors," the valiant American seamen bluffed the superior Japanese force into retreat. One destroyer escort, the Samuel B. Roberts, single-handedly disabled a Japanese cruiser and then attacked the Yamato at close range before being sunk (the wreckage of the Roberts was recently located in 22,000 feet of water).

If any of these three desperate counterattacks had succeeded, the effect on the Allies' morale might have been devastating. The Ukrainian military should take note. The Russian attempt at a coup de main to decapitate Ukrainian leadership by capturing Kyiv in February failed. Since then, the Russian main effort has shifted east, but if that effort totally bogs down, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Moscow might try another lightning thrust at the Ukrainian capital from the northern back door leading to Kyiv.

If even partially successful, such an effort could have a crippling effect on Ukrainian and western morale. It might not win the war, but it would certainly prolong it.

The Russians have shown that they are capable of learning from military experience. They are analyzing the failures of airborne and other special operations efforts in the initial stages of the conflict, as well as their inability to conduct rapid armored combined arms operations in their initial advance on Kyiv. The Ukrainians would be well advised not to discount another try on their capital. This is not to suggest such a Russian course of action is likely, but the best way to guard against strategic surprise is to be ready for it.

Complacency caused the Americans to be surprised in the Ardennes and at Leyte Gulf. Keeping the armed forces and civilians around Kyiv prepared and vigilant without causing panic will be a challenge, but it is also prudent. However, each historical case cited here was the last gasp of a desperate foe. There is hope in that.

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