Playing Defense: Russia’s New Ukraine Strategy

September 10, 2023 Topic: Russia-Ukraine War Region: Eastern Europe Tags: Russia-Ukraine WarCrimeaDonetskLuhansk

Playing Defense: Russia’s New Ukraine Strategy

By holding out long enough to inflict disproportionate casualties on the Ukrainian counteroffensive, the Kremlin hopes to buy time for its military to rebuild and reorganize.


In June 2023, after four months of meticulous planning, the Ukrainian Army launched its much-anticipated counteroffensive, concentrating its efforts on Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia. This confrontation with the Russian Army bore one significant difference from the initial skirmishes of the Russo-Ukrainian War: the Russians were prepared. In contrast to February 2022, when the Kremlin embarked on an overly ambitious and hastily executed invasion that quickly transformed into a colossal military debacle, the Russian military had devised a strategic and feasible plan to counter Ukraine’s offensive moves. Realizing that hopes for an outright victory had vanished, Moscow began anticipating a Ukrainian counteroffensive. By November 2022, it had constructed an extensive defensive line running through its captured territory in southern and eastern Ukraine. According to British intelligence, this defensive corridor includes layers of trenches, razor wire, earthen berms, dragon teeth, and truncated pyramids. The combined area of Russia’s anti-personnel and anti-tank minefields is roughly equivalent to the entire state of Florida.

In light of these circumstances, one must consider the strategic agenda behind Russia’s decision to invest so many resources into one of the most extensive defensive fortifications in the world. As with most defensive lines, its primary objective is simply to impede the advance of Ukrainian forces and maintain control over the territories it currently occupies. However, considering the sheer size of the fortifications and the ongoing 600-mile-long frontline engagement with Ukraine’s counteroffensive, it becomes evident that sustaining control over all occupied territories may prove challenging, given Moscow’s limited resources and the existing strain on its military forces. For this reason, Russia likely chose a defensive strategy to give its troops time and room to breathe and prioritize more limited objectives in the coming year.


As Ukraine initiates its counteroffensive across the southern and eastern theaters of the war, Russia’s top priority is defending its positions in the strategically located Zaporizhzhia Oblast. The advance of Ukrainian forces in this region directly threatens Russia’s land bridge connecting Donetsk to Crimea. Preserving the integrity of this land bridge is Russia’s utmost priority, as its absence would divide Russian troops into two separate blocs. To supply ammunition and reinforcements to the Kherson-Crimea front, Moscow would have to rely on either shipments, airlifts, or convoys across the Kerch Bridge—all three of which have proved highly vulnerable to Ukrainian firepower. In April 2022, Ukraine demonstrated its offensive capability against the Russian Black Sea Fleet by deploying its subsonic R-360 Neptune anti-ship cruise missiles, which led to the sinking of the Russian Navy’s Moskva flagship. This event highlighted Moscow’s vulnerability, especially considering that the Moskva’s primary role was to provide aerial defense protection for Russian vessels. Additionally, the flagship had maintained a safe distance of fifty nautical miles from the Ukrainian coast. Given the 170-mile operational range of Ukraine’s Neptune missiles and Kyiv’s recent deployment of “sea drones” against the bridge connecting the Russian mainland and Crimea, it becomes evident that without a direct land route between Donetsk and Crimea, supplying troops in the Kherson-Crimea region would become highly challenging.

The other major objective of Russia’s defense is likely to prevent Ukrainian forces from crossing the Dnieper River, particularly at its narrow delta, where it enters the Black Sea. The pace and depth of the Dnieper can serve as a “natural moat,” granting the Russian Army advantages for defense purposes. Preserving this natural barrier is of utmost importance. If Ukrainian forces advance across the river and into Kherson Oblast, they will diminish the “buffer zone” between Crimea and Ukraine, leaving the Crimean Peninsula open to artillery bombardment or land invasion. Following the recent incremental progress of Ukrainian forces toward the southern bank of Kherson, the strategic importance of this region has grown. Any further advances in this direction could grant Ukraine the tactical advantage in establishing a stable front along the southern bank of the Dnieper. Consequently, reclaiming this territory, or at the very least minimizing its breadth, may become a paramount objective for the Russian military.

Russia’s objective of maintaining a territorial shield between its occupied territory and Ukraine also extends to Donetsk and Luhansk, which the Kremlin officially annexed in 2022. Securing control over these regions holds immense psychological importance for the Kremlin. Over nearly a decade, Russia has employed extensive internal propaganda efforts to present these territories as integral parts of the “Russkiy Mir” (Russian World). Therefore, any Ukrainian inroads toward Novorossiya (New Russia) would not only raise doubts among many Russians regarding their leadership’s wisdom in invading Ukraine but also question the competence of their military commanders. Losing territories captured through “grey zone” tactics in 2014 would severely damage the morale of Russian soldiers and civilians. For this reason, preventing Ukraine from advancing into the regions occupied since 2014 serves as both a political and military objective for the Kremlin. In this context, Russia needs to protect the towns that are logistical gateways to Donetsk and Luhansk, such as Pisky and Bakhmut.

While Russia may have specific priorities in its defense against the Ukrainian counteroffensive, the Russian high command is still aware of the importance of maintaining a relatively aligned defense line. In fact, Russia has constructed the most extensive defensive fortifications in Europe since World War II—precisely because they understand that without “strategic depth” in Ukraine, a breakthrough by Ukrainian forces could result in a rout of their forces, similar to the one that took place in northern Ukraine in the fall of 2022.

Finally, aside from direct military results, Russia has one hidden objective: to buy time. Russia aims to hold back Ukrainian troops to provide its defense industry with the necessary time to rebuild its offensive capabilities after they were significantly degraded by poor decision-making in the early days of the war.

Historically, Russia has frequently overcome its major adversaries by luring them into successive defense belts. This tactic exhausts the enemy’s equipment and manpower, allowing Russia to regroup and bolster its military. This strategy proved effective during confrontations like the Great Northern War (1700–1721) against Charles XII of Sweden, Napoleon’s invasion in 1812, and Nazi Germany’s Operation Barbarossa in 1941. In each scenario, Russia’s defensive maneuvers smoothed the transition to an offensive posture.

Given this historical backdrop, it is plausible that Russia’s aim in the present conflict is to exhaust Ukraine’s military capacities and provide the necessary reprieve for its own military. Recent reports indicate that Moscow has brokered an agreement with Iran to produce 6,000 Shahed drones inside Russia, underscoring the Kremlin’s intent to maintain robust offensive capabilities. Furthermore, stopping a significant Ukrainian counteroffensive in its tracks could deliver a severe blow to the morale of the Ukrainian populace. Already grappling with the daily onslaught of missile and drone strikes, economic strain, and forced displacements, such a setback might catalyze Ukrainian public sentiment in favor of a political settlement. It may do the same for Western sentiments as well. If Ukraine fails to make progress in the counteroffensive, public support for costly military aid transfers to Kyiv may drop and provide ammunition for restraint-oriented politicians. Such arguments may lead to a re-evaluation of Western support and even a push from some NATO nations for a peace deal on terms favorable to Moscow.

Simply put, Russia is exhausting its military resources beyond its long-term capacity to demonstrate that a decisive Ukrainian victory is impractical.  As Russia’s military capabilities strain under the weight of protracted engagement, the notion that such exhaustive efforts can ultimately yield a viable outcome for its campaign becomes increasingly untenable—but by holding out long enough and by inflicting disproportionate casualties on the Ukrainians as their counteroffensive continues, the Kremlin hopes to achieve its aims before this happens. It is up to Ukraine and NATO to determine if these efforts will bear fruit.

Arman Mahmoudian is a lecturer of Russian Studies and International Affairs and a researcher at the University of South Florida’s Global and National Security Institute.

Image: Shutterstock.