Emulating Kovpak – next moves in the defender’s dilemma.
Updated: May 4, 2022
This is a working draft paper, all opinions, observations, and criticisms are welcome - either by email or through Twitter - and will be edited into the text.
Putin’s illegal and criminal war against Ukraine has reached the end of the first month. The emphasis thus far has been on the opening moves of the aggressor. Russia has revealed its hand in the form of an Anaconda-style plan, backed up by annihilating bombardments against military targets and civilian communities and the struggle to establish lodgements. The strategic plan followed a complex, perhaps ambitious mission, to take control of Ukraine. Thus far, that plan has been thwarted but the war is delicately balanced between gains and losses on both sides. At the root of most decent people’s horror and revulsion is the martyrdom of Mariupol – the 21st Century’s Guernica. The criminal Putin has claimed the war has entered a second phase, believing he still holds the initiative and the considerable gains. The defender, Ukraine is in a dilemma as to what to do next. The defenders cannot very easily conduct a wargame, given the conditions they’re existing under. Wargaming outcomes are common in strategic thinking: march across old battlefields, move military figurines across a tabletop, draw arrows across maps or play a computer video game. The history of wargaming is old and has links to chess, Kriegspiel, and Go. This is my interpretation of the defender’s dilemma – the next move.
Wargaming via Ukraine’s military culture
Sidor Kovpak was Ukraine’s most famous soldier and partisan leader – a Robin Hood legend. He was a soldier in the Imperial Russian Army and fought in the Great War. He joined the Bolsheviks and fought in the Civil War and the Soviet-Polish War. A large part of the German-USSR war 1941/45 was conducted over uninhabited lands of forest swamplands, steppes, and mountains. Local or regional knowledge could be critical and determine the outcome of conflicts. Kovpak became a Soviet partisan leader and his knowledge of Ukraine, Poland and Belarus was second to none. The partisan leaders knew the fault lines between the Nazi structures. The German Army’s flanks between Army Group Centre and Army Group South were notoriously insecure. The rear-area administrations were not well secured regardless of the number of security forces. The sheer expanse of rivers, swamps, woodland, forested swamps offered all kinds of concealment. In 1942/43 Kovpak set out on a deep Soviet Partisan raid into German and Axis occupied eastern Europe – a march believed to cover 1,500 miles.
The purpose of this march was to demonstrate the will to resist the Nazis, but with the very real aim of sowing uncertainty into the Germans' minds. The Kovpak band was composed of four-five battalions – approximately 2,500 partisans. They were formed into a combat group of infantry, cavalry, artillery, signallers, supply trains, and the command system. They were given the mission to engage with enemy security forces, with the aim being to cause maximum disruption. They caused so much disruption, that its possible to read chaos among the local German commanders and anger among the senior command staff. The band trashed four police regiments, shot down a German fighter, and caused general mayhem. The ramifications spread wild rumors among the Germans, whereby almost every partisan incident was reported as Kovpak. To compound the Germans, Kovpak disappeared at the height of German counter-measures and resurfaced in Soviet territory a few weeks later.
Reverse Kovpak – taking the war to the Russians
There would be no point for the Ukrainian Army to conduct a similar campaign to the great Kovpak Raid. However, the fixed positions of the Russian artillery sites, the railways, and the supply dumps represent viable targets in Russian territory. Most of the artillery has been sighted in large dug areas, the size of quarries, and can maneuver to hit pre-planned targets. This earthwork construction was carried out before the war revealing why the artillery has been so accurate and devastating. They are probably protected from airstrikes but perhaps less well defended on the ground.
Scenario: The Ukrainians Army raises volunteers for raiding bands, to infiltrate the Russian lines. Local fighters know the gaps in the line and terrain. They would need several breaches, perhaps under the cover of a decoy assault, or faking it with captured Russian equipment, made to look like a wounded column returning from the action. They would need breaches in several points with sterile teams of 50-150 soldiers, equipped with hand-held anti-tank launchers that could strike the artillery. Light infantry with Semtex-explosives with the mission to blow-up railway lines and bridges. Small teams of sappers could sprinkle mines on roads in dead zones where off-road was impossible. Another set of scouts should enter towns and villages, leaving propaganda material and perhaps release a dozen of the youngest Russian POWs for extra impact. Getting back would be difficult, maybe give the raiders Garmin watches with GPS coordination capability to fix locations for extraction by helicopter or armored assault. Perhaps this is a daring, but one option worth considering, to tip the balance in favor of Ukraine.
Special forces or conventional troops – a discussion?
The advances in military technology and special forces have left me far behind since 2010. A friend (@Historiannick) recommended the inclusion of the Bayrakter drones and sensors on the ground. There is the recently published work of two colleagues (@warmatters and @andrewhoskins) in the field of information warfare, who have ideas how technology could advance such a raid. A former soldier (@gsad1000) has raised questions on Twitter about the options for the Ukraine Army. There are others (@trenchman1418, @BenJSkipper, @NeilPoynter, @Falo12147944, @WilshireTony among many others) who have also contributed to discussions. Others like @SashoTodorov1, @KlemenKocjancic, and @intheua have discussed the politics of the war. It would be interesting to see ideas and opinions develop through Twitter and raise wider participation in the war game.