How to Win the Battle in Eastern Ukraine

This quick take is part of our Crisis Crossroads series, which highlights timely analysis by CSIS scholars on the evolving situation in Ukraine and its security, economic, energy, and humanitarian effects.

Russian forces are positioning themselves for a large “cauldron battle” in eastern Ukraine designed to shatter the Ukrainian army and gain terrain to use as a bargaining chip at the negotiating table. Kyiv has a limited window of opportunity to conduct a series of localized counterattacks that limit Russia’s ability to encircle the Ukrainian armed forces.

In military theory, a cauldron battle is an operational maneuver to surround the enemy on at least three sides. The idea comes from the German kesselschlacht, in which the goal is to force the enemy into a self-defeating battle of annihilation, surrender, or retreat along a narrow front ceding territory to the attacking force. The maneuver is a variation of a pincer movement, or double envelopment, in which an advancing force attacks both flanks of the defender.

Despite its German origins, the maneuver has long been used by Russian forces. In Russian military history, the classic example of a cauldron battle is Stalingrad, where the Soviets encircled the German Sixth Army in November 1942. More recently, the Russians executed a cauldron battle in the Battle of Debaltseve in 2015 during the hybrid fighting in the Donbas region that followed Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

The best way to defeat the Russians in a cauldron battle is for Ukraine to deny encirclement. First, Ukrainian forces could launch a series of spoiling attacks that prevent Russia from building up forces. While large-scale spoiling attacks are risky, smaller “hit-and-run ambushes” alongside sabotage by Ukrainian special forces between Kharkiv and Izyum are sustainable and pull Russian forces away from the front.

Second, the Ukrainian forces could transition from defensive war, which is subject to negative aims and denying an adversary an objective, to offensive action. While Ukrainian forces maintain a series of fortified fighting positions in the east, they will have to absorb large-scale combined arms assaults by Russian forces. These fighting positions could act as surfaces—strong points—that fix an advance and create opportunities for Ukrainian forces to counterattack Russia’s assailable flanks. These flanking attacks could even produce new “cauldrons,” in which low morale among the Russian army cascades into large-scale surrenders and combat losses.

For Ukraine to break the siege of its cities and a war of attrition that is already destroying its economy and displacing millions, Kyiv needs to explore how to break the Russian army. Winning the coming cauldron battle presents a near-term opportunity.

Benjamin Jensen is a senior fellow for future war, gaming, and strategy in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. 

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Benjamin Jensen
Senior Fellow, Futures Lab, International Security Program