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Is the Ukrainian Offensive Another Kursk?
In 1943 the Nazis tried to take Kursk and Failed
Some observers say that the battle now taking place in the Zaporizhzhya area of Ukraine is like the 1943 Battle for Kursk. Is that the case? Why does it matter?
The Nazi attempt to capture and defeat the Russians at Kursk was a massive undertaking, one that bears, in terms of armor, artillery, aircraft and manpower, no real resemblance in scale to the battle now raging in the Zaporizhzhya area.
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In Zaporizhzhya the Ukrainians are trying to establish bridgeheads with the ultimate goal, if they have success, to split Russian forces and gain a position on the Sea of Azov. The Ukrainians have some 12 brigades trained by NATO for this purpose: 9 of the 12 brigades have Western tanks, infantry fighting vehicles (IFV), armored personnel carriers (APC) and MRAPS, and plenty of other equipment. The front is a long one and there are multiple battles going on as the Ukrainians are seeking a breakthrough against dug-in Russian forces arranged in defensive lines with significant depth.
In the Kursk battle both sides deployed their air forces and overall the Luftwaffe had significant success on the battlefield, but at very high cost. The Luftwaffe deployed fighters, ground attack aircraft and bombers. The Russians also put up a good fight deploying hundreds of aircraft including the storied IL-2 Stormovik and the Lavochkin LA-5. In all, Russia lost 1,130 aircraft compared to German losses of 711. But Germany would have major problems replacing aircraft and having enough fuel to keep them in the air. Germany also lost some of its best pilots while, at the same time "green” Russian pilots learned from combat.
Kursk's Operation Citadel featured the largest tank battle in history. The Germans had 2700 tanks for this offensive, the Russians 3,600. German tanks either destroyed or seriously damaged came to 1,536 tanks. Russian tanks either destroyed or damaged amounted to 2,471 tanks of all types. Tanks were often repaired and sent back into action on the battlefield, sometimes two or three times.
In the ongoing Ukraine battle, aside from drones and precision-guided long range weapons such as the UK Stormshadow, the Ukrainian air forces have barely been in the battle. The Russians however, have been using their airpower and their drones effectively. Most impressive has been the Ka-52 helicopters equipped with Vikhr missiles. The Ka-52s are fitted with directed infrared countermeasure systems (DIRCM), the Vitebsk L-370. The Russians say the Vitebsk system has defeated a large number of Ukrainian man-carried air defense systems. The Ka-52s have knocked out many tanks, IFVs, APCs and MRAPs. In the last week Russia upped the number of helicopters in the battle.
Both sides are using aerial delivered mines (sometimes called scatterable mines) and mine clearance systems, including advanced ones supplied by the United States and other NATO and near-NATO countries (ie, Sweden) have not been successful. Recently the Ukrainians introduced an autonomous mine clearance vehicle that may be a captured Russian UR-77 mine clearer.
In the 1943 Kursk battle, mines also played a big role, but Wehrmacht anti-tank weapons and Panzer tanks were more important, killing far more Russian tanks than the Russians were able to destroy German tanks. The Russians dug in many of their T-34 tanks, which protected them to some degree, but also made them easy targets in mass engagements. While the T-34 was subsequently celebrated, it lacked the firepower of German tanks and did not have the precision optics and well developed tanker-skills that German training featured. Many more T-34s were destroyed than German tanks, but in the end the Russians were able to wear down the German army. One of the features of the German offensive launched toward Kursk was the battle that raged around the town of Prokhorovka, a very costly, back and forth affair. The German attacks were part of Operation Roland and was part of the broader Kursk offensive which the Germans called Operation Citadel. In the end the Russians lost 800,000 soldiers (killed and wounded) against German losses of 200,000. The Germans realized that the Russian army, that the Germans had rolled up earlier, had matured into a decent fighting force characterized by better commanders, a higher level of battlefield coordination, and -most of all- a willingness to stand and fight in the midst of horrendous casualties.
Operation Roland took place between 14 July and 27 July 1943. The Germans broke off the engagement when their losses reached unacceptable levels.
The army fielded by the Soviets in 1941 and 1942 was qualitatively different from the Soviet army in 1943, an army that won the battle for Stalingrad and stood tough against the renewed German offensive at Kursk. Russian command markedly improved, tactics improved as did battlefield intelligence. Comparatively, looking at Ukraine, the Russian regular army fighting now is far better than how it looked during the initial stages of Putin's Special Military Operation. Putin, himself, recently discussed the problem of parquet generals (generals that stay in their offices and don't lead by example). In this sense there is a link to the 1943 Kursk battle.
The battle in the Zaporizhzhya region looks different in other ways. The Russians are the defenders, but are effectively countering multiple Ukrainian attacks. We do not know much about Russian losses in equipment and manpower, but it appears the Ukrainian attacks are being rolled back for the most part and are costly to Ukraine and its western suppliers. Ukraine has committed around 20 to 30% of their forces to the fight, with both Western trained brigades and reserve brigades without the skill base of the NATO-organized brigades. Some of the attacking Ukrainian brigades have been all but shattered, and some have been pulled back as they were increasingly ineffective. There is no hard information on total casualties in the Ukrainian offensive, but it is in the thousands. Some of the highly advertised western equipment, Leopard tanks from Germany and Poland and Bradley fighting vehicles from the United States, have been destroyed. American MRAPS, designed for Iraq and Afghanistan, also have been heavily shot up by the Russians. Of course the MRAP was built to protect troops from improvised explosive devices (IEDs). These heavy troop transporters do not have thick armor to stop modern anti-tank weapons or kamikaze UAVs like the Russian ZALA Lancet.
In the Kursk battle, both sides worked to collect intelligence from the other, including radio intercepts. In the 2023 Zaporizhzhya battlefield intelligence comes from overhead resources. The Ukrainians have UAVs and they have US and NATO surveillance aircraft watching the battle from international waters in the Black Sea, not to mention satellites. The Russians also have military satellites and UAVs. The Russians also have saturated the battlefield with jammers and consistently attack enemy radars and command centers.
So far, with the exception of some local Russian counterattacks typically after the Ukrainians have made some territorial advances, the Russians have not launched any counter offensive of their own. Whether Moscow decides to do so in future remains an open question. The Russian strategy, so far at least, is to exhaust Ukraine's forces and reduce their fighting spirit. This is different from the Kursk battle where the Russians did go on the offensive and were willing to take terrible losses to blunt the Nazi offensive.
The Ukrainian offensive is still continuing. But there appear to be some changes which may hint at the future. The first and perhaps most interesting is that Ukraine is not using its armor anymore as the spearhead of its attack on Russian defenses, turning instead to infantry. This has jacked up the casualties on the Ukrainian side, and it also is taking a toll on morale, as some Ukrainian units are refusing to fight, or are trashing their own equipment, and in some cases surrendering to the Russians. It would be wrong to think the breakdown of morale is widespread. But there definitely is evidence, particularly in the week of June 12th, that Ukraine's fighting spirit is foundering.
Zelensky's goal for the Ukrainian offensive is to convince NATO, particularly the United States, of three things. The first is to have Ukraine enter NATO officially on some basis, as a way of obliging NATO to keep supplying Ukraine. Some think Zelensky's secret hope is for NATO troops and air power to bail him out.
Zelensky wants more than some vague security guarantees and NATO may not have a consensus even for that.
The second reason for the offensive is to demonstrate Ukraine's ability to take back territory held by the Russians. Zelensky and his generals know this is what NATO and Washington expect and what they paid to achieve. It was a shock for Ukraine and Zelensky personally to lose the Battle for Bakhmut. Ukraine is still trying to find a way to take Bakhmut back, but with little success. Ukraine needs to show significant progress in the Zaporizhzhya offensive ahead of the big NATO summit at Vilnius on July 7, but as the battles in that region rage on, that may not happen.
NATO also may need to rethink its approach to Ukraine and, despite all the NATO Secretary General's bombast, may need to decide how much to risk on Ukraine. The initial evidence of western planning of the Ukrainian offensive and the performance of western equipment, undermines confidence in NATO itself. It is true that some weapons, especially F-16s, are not currently operating in Ukraine; but other NATO defensive systems ranging from air defense systems to advanced armor such as Leopard tanks, have not performed well enough and have been victimized by Russian countermeasures. This does not bode well for the defense of NATO countries in future. A realistic NATO ought to be thinking about how to defend its heartland instead of burning out its resources on a non-NATO member, no matter what strategic opportunities control of Ukraine might offer for NATO.
Kursk also changed Nazi Germany's strategic plan and was a blow to Hitler's generals and to Hitler himself. The aftermath of Kursk was the end of Nazi Germany's strategic operations on Soviet territory, that is, the end of the eastern front. The Soviet army could now regroup and go after Nazi defenses in Romania, Poland and Hungary and begin the march to Berlin.
We don't know yet what the outcome will be in Zaporizhzhya. There is still a long way to go, but if the pattern that has emerged in the past few weeks continues in future, the Ukrainian army, and Zelensky, will be in the same position the Wehrmacht's top generals and Hitler faced after pulling back from Kursk.
But actually the most important issue is the future of NATO and support for NATO operations outside of its borders. NATO's participation in operations outside of the purview of the defensive alliance has long raised eyebrows about NATO's declared purpose. Ukraine raises the biggest eyebrow of all, as NATO has been promising Ukraine future NATO membership once the war is over. Now there are second thoughts. The latest voiced by US President Joe Biden. Surely Biden didn't come up with this on his own. He needs the war to continue until his reelection, but it looks like Washington is re-thinking its insistence on victory.
Beyond an elusive victory, any decisive failure in Ukraine will likely halt NATO's attempts at expansion and expose manifold weaknesses it may take years to fix, if ever.
Zelensky may have to read the tea leaves and slow the war down to avoid a catastrophe and to try and keep Washington engaged. That would be a neat trick, but it does not seem Zelensky is prepared to exercise that option.
Hitler understood when the Kursk battle was lost, and he pulled out and ended Operation Barbarossa, Nazi Germany's eastern offensive. If the Ukrainian offensive keeps stumbling, Zelensky will be faced with a similar choice.
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