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‘Kursk 2.0’: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Defense-in-Depth

  • Published
  • By MAJ Viktor Stoll

In the morning of 05 July 1943, Oberkommando des Herres (OKH) ordered Army Group Center and Army Group South to begin their attack on a 250km wide and 150km deep Soviet ‘bulge’ along the Eastern Front. The attacks were to penetrate through Soviet defenses at the ‘elbows’ of the salient – Army Group Center from the north and Army Group South from the south – before converging at a point east of the town of Kursk near the geographic center of the bulge. The German plan – Operation Zitadelle – envisioned the double envelopment of at least six Soviet armies and the breaking of the Soviet operational initiative for the rest of the year. What ensued was the largest ground force clash in history – the Battle of Kursk – with over three million men, ten thousand tanks, and fifty thousand artillery and mortar pieces. 

Following the Stalingrad debacle and the breakout of Soviet forces during Operation Uranus in the winter of 1942-1943, the commander of Army Group South, Erich von Manstein, conducted a desperate maneuver defense near Kharkiv that temporarily halted the Soviet advance. The result was the salient at Kursk, projecting like a dagger toward the Bug-Neman line marking the borders of Hitler’s Greater German Reich. Both the Soviet Stavka and OKH knew that the battle for the Kursk bulge would be the central struggle of the year and likely decide who would maintain strategic initiative well in 1944, and both prepared accordingly for this epic showdown in the north of Ukraine.

The Germans had given the Soviets ample time to improve their defense as Hitler held off the start date of Zitadelle while awaiting his new Wunderwaffen to lead the armored assault – the Panzer Mk. V ‘Panther’ and Mk. VI ‘Tiger’. For their part, the Soviets created a triple band of entrenchments, anti-tank and anti-personal obstacle belts, and gun emplacements nearly 25km deep and ringing the Kursk salient like an iron horseshoe. The Soviets, too, had learned much from their earlier envelopments at the hands of the German Wehrmacht in 1941 and 1942. Not only had the Stavka greatly increased the depth of Soviet defensive lines, but had greatly increased the density of forces occupying them and the tactical doctrine needed to prevent a German armored breakthrough. The Soviet defense-in-depth at Kursk combined the WWI “elastic defense” doctrine with its prodigious employment of channelizing obstacles and pre-registered artillery targets, as well as mobile armored strike groups at every echelon from battalion to front.  The further German forces penetrated the defense, the greater their channelization and the greater the density of concentrated fires and armored counterattacks they would face.[1] 

The concentrated German armor thrusts of Panther and Tiger battlegroups which began on 05 July initially made substantive localized progress into the Soviet defenses.  However, the deeper Army Group Center’s and South’s penetration progressed, the more precarious their positions became. German supporting infantry and soft-shell logistics faced an ever-intensifying bombardment by Soviet indirect fires. The tactical air superiority of the Luftwaffe was likewise whittled down by the barrage of anti-aircraft fire. Soviet counter-attacks were launched along each line of the belt on any potential German breakthrough – with multiple brigades of T-34’s attacking isolated German Heavy Tank Battalions.[2] 

The defense-in-depth worked brilliantly and, by 12 July Hitler had called off the offensive. The Germans never penetrated more than 12km into the defense and within a week had lost the tactical, operational, and strategic initiative for the remainder of the war on the Eastern Front. By late September, led by their operational reserve from the Battle of Kursk, Soviet forces conducted two simultaneous counter-offensives against the depleted German Army Groups. Operation Rumyantsev and Operation Kutuzov flung the front lines west nearly 100km and liberated both Kharkiv and Smolensk right in time for the autumnal raputitsa muddy season.

It appears that a similar titanic clash eighty years later, over similar ground near Kursk, is already gearing up.[3] According to General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, Ukraine’s supreme military commander, some 200,000 Russian conscripts are assembling to “have another go at Kyiv” before the spring raputitsa.[4] It looks increasingly likely that the Russian axis of advance, with possible participation of the Belarusian Armed Forces, will lead from southern Belarus and the Kursk and Bryansk Oblasts down the Dniepro River and converge in the environs of Kyiv.[5] Essentially, it will be a replay of the initial invasion plan of February and March 2022 – before Russian logistics, lack of supporting infantry, and tenacious Ukrainian defenses mauled Russia’s elite armored and airborne units in the same space.[6] Looking over these original highways of death – littered with rusting T-72, BMP, and BTR hulks – can’t instill a confident elan in the hastily trained, poorly equipped, and chaotically-led conscript formations expected to have given Kyiv the coup de grâce.[7]

Exactly how Russian and Ukrainian leadership anticipates the same effort playing out given the destruction of Russia’s best trained, equipped, and led units seems to be found in the “meat grinder” operational approach currently running at full tilt around the Donbas town of Bakhmut.[8] Here, the Wagner Private Military Company, is leading Russian efforts to seize this operationally irrelevant town by sending squad-sized waves of conscript convict cannon fodder into a classic Ukrainian defense-in-depth. Russian forces, operating with little to no combined arms synergy, achieve some localized numerical advantages over Ukrainian defenders on the front lines. If the pressure becomes too significant, the first-line Ukrainian defenders conduct a withdrawal while pre-registered Ukrainian artillery concentrates fires on the channelizing Russian forces as they approach the entrenchments. If Russian forces do make it through this first stretch in the elastic defense, highly mobile Ukrainian strike forces launch combined arms counterattacks and drive the Russians back.[9] Within a day or two, the Ukrainians have reoccupied front-line trenches and the area is littered with Russian corpses and smoldering vehicle hulks. This classic defense-in-depth is assisted by the Western-provided precision long-range fires and SOF infiltration that continually disrupts Russian staging and sustainment of manpower and material in rear areas. After nearly six months of futile attempts to capture the town, and likely 10,000+ casualties, it appears that the Russian effort has reached its culmination point.[10]

Like the Soviets at Kursk, the Ukrainians have learned to stop worrying and love the defense-in-depth. And they’ve been applying this doctrinal embrace prodigiously to their northern border in anticipation of “another go” at Kyiv in 2023. Ukrainian forces have spent their time wisely, creating mutually reinforcing belts of entrenchments, obstacles, and pre-registered fires to a depth of up to 30km.[11] These static defenses are augmented by Kyiv’s rapidly expanding mechanized forces that will lead tactical and operational counterattacks against any potential breakthrough, as well as lead a post-Kursk-style strategic counteroffensive once the Russians culminate.  With the added benefits of the region’s forested and marshy terrain serving as natural defenses, it appears that Kyiv is ready for whatever Russia may throw its way in the coming months.  And it seems that the likely outcomes of this “Kursk 2.0” will hand Ukraine the strategic and operational initiative necessary to finish the war on its terms in 2023.


MAJ Viktor Stoll 
Major Viktor Stoll (US Army) has served in a variety of strategist, planner, and intelligence roles in the USINDOPACOM, USAFRICOM, and USEUCOM theaters.  He earned his MA in Modern History from King's College London and is currently pursuing his PhD in History at the University of Cambridge where he studies the nexus of Great Power Competition, colonial administration, and social scientific expertise during the Interwar Period.



[1.] For more on the evolution of Soviet defensive doctrine between 1941 and 1943, see:  David Glantz, "Soviet Defensive Tactics at Kursk, July 1943", U.S. Army Combat Studies Institute Report No. 11 (September, 1986).

[2.] For more on the Battle of Kursk, see:  David Glantz and Jonathan House, When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 1995).

[3.] Andrew E. Kramer, “Ukraine Says Russia is Training Soldiers for Possible New Offensive”, The New York Times, 18 December 2022, accessed from:; Sarah Rainsford, “Ukraine War: Russia troop deployment to Belarus prompts speculation”, BBC News, 26 October 2023, accessed from:

[4.] Andrew E. Kramer and Marc Santora, “In Subfreezing Cold, Waves of Russian Missiles Batter Ukraine”, The New York Times, 16 December 2022, accessed from:

[5.] Tadeusz Giczan, “Is Belarus Preparing to join Russia’s War? Maybe”, Center for European Policy Analysis, 07 December 2022, accessed from:

[6.] Anton Troianovski, “Eight Takeaways From The Times’s Investigation Into Putin’s War”, The New York Times, 17 December 2022, accessed from: ; Robert Hart, “Russian Forces ‘Fully Withdrawn’ From Northern Ukraine, U.K. Defense Ministry Says”, Forbes, 08 April 2022, accessed from:

[7.] Vladyslav Musiienko, “Russian Rust: Destroyed Russian tanks and other military vehicles litter the landscapes of Ukraine”, National Review, 26 July 2022, accessed from:

[8.] Peter Beaumont, “In the ‘Bakhmut meat grinder’, deadlocked enemy forces slog it out”, The Guardian, 10 December 2022 accessed from:

[9.] Anonymous, “Russia is hurling troops at the tiny Ukrainian town of Bakhmut”, The Economist,06 December 2022, accessed from:

[10.] George Barros, Riley Bailey, Karolina Hird, Kateryna Stepanenko, and Frederick W. Kagan, “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 28”, Institute for the Study of War, 28 December 2022, accessed from:

[11.] Thomas Macintosh, “Ukraine to boost Belarus border defences as Putin meets Lukashenko”, BBC, 20 December 2022, accessed from:

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