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Ukraine's military is shifting to a defensive strategy that failed Nazi Germany in WWII

Michael Peck   

Ukraine's military is shifting to a defensive strategy that failed Nazi Germany in WWII
  • Ukraine's military has chosen a defensive strategy that echoes the German approach from WWII.
  • Lacking enough troops to defend its huge territory, Nazi Germany opted for a mobile defense.

In 1943, as the tide of war turned against the Third Reich, the German high command opted for a desperate strategy on the Eastern Front. Outnumbered and outgunned by the Red Army, the Germans pinned their hopes on a mobile, aggressive defense to stop a relentless series of Soviet offensives in Ukraine and southern Russia.

As today’s Ukraine fights over many of the same battlefields of 1943, it has chosen a strategy that echoes the German approach from 80 years ago. After the failure of its much-anticipated summer counteroffensive, and running low on ammunition and stamina to fight off continual Russian attacks, Ukrainian commanders talk of switching to an “active defense.” It hopes to block Russian advances while looking for opportunities to counterpunch and regain ground.

But if that approach failed to stop the Red Army from conquering Berlin in 1945, could it save Ukraine today?

Answering that question first requires defining “active defense,” one of those broad military terms that mean different things to different people. The US Army’s field manual of operational terms defines active defense as “the employment of limited offensive action and counterattacks to deny a contested area or position to the enemy.”

But that isn’t what Ukraine is doing, Douglas Nash, a retired US Army colonel and author of several books on German military operations in World War II, told Business Insider. Active defense is meant to be waged by large units, while Ukraine appears to conducting small-unit operations.

“Active defense was understood to be generally applicable to divisions, corps and field armies,” Nash said. “Not squads, platoons, companies and battalions.”

The scale of these forces are drastically different. A US field army, for example, typically ranges upwards of 90,000 soldiers while a battalion has about 1,000.

Nazi Germany’s approach – what the Germans called “elastic defense” – also differed from Ukraine’s current tactics. By mid-1943, Germany’s strategic situation had become ominous. The Soviets were continually on the attack after their victory at Stalingrad. Yet after four years of war, Germany lacked enough troops and equipment to strongly defend the entire 2,000-mile-long Eastern Front. Meanwhile, the Western Allies were preparing to land in Italy and France, which would squeeze Germany in a two-front war. Thus, the Wehrmacht had to conserve its resources.

The solution devised by German commanders, notably the legendary Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, was a mobile defense that would take advantage of German tactical and operational prowess, especially of the elite panzer (tank) divisions. In military textbooks, von Manstein is famous for his “backhand blow” concept of letting the Soviets advance into German-occupied territory, and then launching an exquisitely timed counterattack to encircle and destroy the Soviet spearheads. The classic example is the Third Battle of Kharkov in February 1943, when von Manstein’s unleashed a planned counterblow that annihilated Soviet armor pursuing the retreating Germans after Stalingrad.

However, this was more of a strategic rather than a tactical concept. “Von Manstein was willing to trade space for time in order to draw the enemy into a well-laid trap, which would be sprung once the enemy's forces entered the kill zone,” Nash explained. “Once that occurred, artillery and obstacles would be used to pin the enemy in place, while mechanized forces would attack into the neck of the enemy penetration to cut him off and destroy him piecemeal, thus restoring the front line to where it was before.”

“This type of active defense was usually conducted at the field army level, with different units designated to play the defensive role by holding the trap open, while other units played the maneuver and offensive role. It usually worked, but depended quite a bit on the quality of those leading the battle.”

In fact, during its summer 2023 counteroffensive, Ukraine did attempt larger-scale mechanized operations with its new Western-equipped strike brigades. But Ukraine — and Russia — lacked adequate numbers of trained junior officers and command staffs. Suffering heavy losses for minimal gains, Ukraine switched to a trench warfare strategy of attacks by small units to seize perhaps a few hundred yards at a time to stem heavy losses from anti-tank mines, artillery fire and drones.

In 1943, von Manstein’s counterattack comprised around 280,000 soldiers and 30 divisions. For Ukraine, “offensives at the level of a battalion are a major rarity," a Ukrainian officer told Reuters in January 2024.

'Static defense'

The essence of von Manstein-esque victory is maneuver — and a willingness to lose ground to entrap an advancing enemy. The most notable feature of the Russo-Ukraine war is how difficult battlefield maneuver has become when drones are constantly spying overhead, and guided missiles can strike targets from 50 miles away. To survive, Ukrainian and Russians troops try to stay under cover of trenches as much as possible. And politically, a policy of ceding ground — albeit temporarily — may not appeal to Ukrainian leaders who wore down their army in brutal battles to keep cities such as Bakhmut.

“If one looks at what the Ukrainian armed forces are doing on the ground at this moment, they are pursuing more of a static defense,” Nash said. “Active defense implies maneuver, and there is very little maneuver happening at the moment on the Ukrainian side. The Russians are attempting to use maneuver, but they are paying an extraordinarily high price for it, gaining very little in exchange for very high losses in men and material.”

Russia has lost hundreds of tanks and vehicles and as many as 20,000 troops in its attempts to capture the city of Avdiivka in Ukraine’s east.

It’s not that Ukrainians don’t want to conduct deep mechanized offensives. They simply lack the means to do so. “The Ukrainians learned the hard way this past summer that an army must have all the pieces together in order to practice any kind of maneuver on the modern battlefield, even active defense,” Nash said. “Tanks, artillery, air defense, air superiority, counter-mine warfare tools, drones, electronic warfare, and so on. Even a limited ‘active defense’ needs all of these elements, too.”

Last summer, Ukraine’s frontal assault with vehicles hit mines and were menaced by missiles fired from Russian helicopters. In a later effort to clear a path through the mines, dismounted troops were picked off by attack drones and artillery.

NATO in the late 1970s was bigger and better-armed than Ukraine today, when it took up the active defense doctrine and it’s not clear how well it would have worked. NATO embraced the concept as a response to the USSR’s numerically superior Warsaw Pact forces, and the devastating effect of modern weapons seen in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The idea was that the West would remain on the strategic defense, using firepower, guided missiles and local counterattacks to attrit the Soviets as they advanced deeper into Western Europe. This pleased neither the US Army, which has historically preferred to remain on the offensive, nor West Germany.

Active defense was adopted “against West German opposition, because the Germans did not want to give up any territory,” Nash said. “Yet with overwhelming Soviet military power arrayed against it, NATO — led primarily by the US — felt it had no other choice.” By the 1980s, the US Army had switched to the AirLand Battle concept, which envisaged taking the initiative in offensive operations to defeat an enemy attack.

Whether it’s called active defense or something else, the concept has limitations. Von Manstein is often portrayed as the genius whose advice was ignored by Hitler, who inflexibly chose to defend every inch of conquered territory. But while von Manstein’s backhand blows would have been the better option, they couldn’t solve Germany's strategic dilemma. To remain on the defensive would have handed the strategic initiative to the Soviets. The Stavka (Soviet high command) could concentrate overwhelming force at will to smash through any sector of the thinly manned German lines. The German panzer divisions would eventually have been worn down as they acted as armored fire brigades, rushing from crisis point to crisis point to stem a breakthrough.

Ukraine’s strategy of strategic defense and tactical attack is a reasonable choice — at least in the short term. For an army desperate to conserve resources, and looking for any way it can to sting and discomfit a larger opponent, it’s better than sitting passively on the defensive.

But if the goal is to defeat Russia and liberate occupied Ukraine, this is not the solution. “Ukraine can launch local counterattacks to regain lost platoon, company, or battalion positions,” Nash said. However, this “cannot lead to victory.”

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master's in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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