Sunday, 23 April 2023 15:15

So what’s the deal with Ukraine’s spring offensive?

Servicemen in the National Guard of Ukraine take part in military exercises in Kharkiv in April.

The long-awaited, long-expected, much-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive is looming, forthcoming, set to happen, or happening imminently — go ahead, pick your preferred word combo. But the message is the same: The next stage of the Ukraine war is Kyiv’s spring push.

The Russians are readying for it. Western governments provided training and new military equipment in advance of it. Ukraine has promised it’s happening. But the timing, the strategy, the specific terrain or territory: the only people who really know that are the Ukrainians themselves.

Although Ukraine isn’t about to publicly advertise it. These are complex, multilayered operations, and surprise, actually, does tend to be pretty advantageous in war. As Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said this week, Ukraine is already conducting various counteroffensive “actions.”

None of that changes the stakes around Ukraine’s counteroffensive. The pressure is on for Ukraine to reclaim and liberate territory from Russian control, and prove it can put advanced Western military assistance to effective and successful use. Kyiv must demonstrate this attritional, exhausting conflict is not turning into a stalemate.

“It has to be a campaign in which even if Ukraine suffers some losses, or has to abandon some territories — for example, the city of Bakhmut — it still has to demonstrate unprecedented skill and strategic ingenuity that will be inspirational for the Western partners and Ukrainian society to keep supporting Ukraine in this war,” said Polina Beliakova, postdoctoral fellow at the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College.

The demand for drama might not quite match reality. Any counteroffensive could involve multiple operations, spanning weeks and months. The dynamics of the war are different than they were even last year, when Ukraine liberated the Kharkiv region in late summer, and forced a Russian retreat in the south, near Kherson, in November.

Ukraine has new advanced Western tanks, but also newly trained and untested troops. Russia’s winter offensive, so far, seems lackluster and ill-conceived, but its military is not defeated. Moscow garnered small gains, but at big costs: The battle for Bakhmut is still ongoing, months later. Both Russia and Ukraine are exhausting manpower and firepower in the fight for every inch of that city, and it’s not yet clear how that might affect Ukraine’s ability to launch an attack — or Russia’s ability to defend against it.

These, and other big questions, are — you know it — looming over Ukraine’s also-looming offensive. And then perhaps the biggest question is what comes after the counteroffensive, and what it will reveal about the future course of the war.

But wait, why is everyone so focused on this Ukrainian counteroffensive?

Ukraine’s objectives have not changed: to end Russian occupation within the country’s internationally recognized borders, including areas Moscow has controlled since 2014, like Crimea. To do that, pretty simply, you have to recapture occupied territory and expel the Russians. And to do that, you have to go on the offensive.

The expectation is that Ukraine would launch these offensive operations this spring, after receiving new military equipment and support from Western backers, after replenishing and training new troops, probably after mud season, and after Russia exhausted itself in its own offensive operations.

Russia mounted a winter offensive in the east, pouring troops into the Donbas. Moscow made territorial gains but failed to retake huge swaths of the region, instead settling for a few minor towns. After months, full Russian control of Bakhmut remains contested, even if documents from the recent US leak show that US officials for months have questioned Ukraine’s decision to keep fighting for what is essentially a lost, and not super strategic, city.

Both Ukraine and Russia are burning through resources in Bakhmut. Ukraine used this strategy effectively last year, exhausting Russia and leaving its forces vulnerable and weakened for its successful counteroffensive in Kharkiv. Ukraine appears to be trying to repeat this tactic, though Western officials are clearly skeptical that the costs — expending ammunition and troops — for Ukraine might outweigh the advantages.

But Ukraine can’t stay on the defensive indefinitely, otherwise the entire conflict starts to look like a stalemate — and that bangs up against political realities, especially in the West. Western partners like the US may be dubious about Ukraine retaking all of its territory (particularly Crimea), but they want to see some movement. Which may be the real reason everyone is talking about the counteroffensive: There is an external urgency and pressure on Ukraine to prove that it can repeat past successes, deploy Western equipment, and keep defeating Russia on the battlefield.

The longer that doesn’t happen, the greater the risk that skepticism of robust Ukraine support will grow in Western capitals, whether or not it’s completely warranted. (As the leaks showed, and as Ukraine has been saying for months, the West has been late and a step behind in delivering materials.) Congressional Republicans sent a letter to President Joe Biden this week to stop sending “unrestrained aid” to Ukraine.

But especially when it comes to military equipment — ammunition, artillery, armored vehicles — that physical aid does have some constraints; the West doesn’t have unlimited stockpiles, and it will take time to ramp up production to get Ukraine more of what it needs. It will also take policy shifts and resources, and doubts about Ukraine’s capabilities could complicate that.

The downside of the counteroffensive hype is, even after Ukraine launches it and we all agree it’s happening, it is unlikely to lead to a decisive victory overnight. Russia controls too much territory, and it has shored up its defenses in many places where Ukraine is likely to attack. It could be very slow: Ukraine retaking terrain, consolidating control, then pushing forward; a “take the bite of the apple approach,” said retired Lt. Gen. Stephen Twitty, the deputy commander of US European Command from 2018 to 2020 and distinguished fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis.

A lot of experts I spoke to think some of the urgency is manufactured (including by us journalists), and that Western governments understand and trust Ukraine to execute these operations when they’re ready. Ukraine, too, doesn’t have any incentive to launch a counteroffensive before it’s fully prepared. Kyiv needs to train troops, including new recruits, and it needs to shore up its logistical and supply capabilities. Moving before it’s ready could prove disastrous.

But still, the bargain remains: Ukraine has to end up in a better position than it started this spring.

“The Ukrainians are going to have to continue showing gains,” said Evelyn Farkas, a senior Pentagon official for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia during the Obama administration and executive director of the McCain Institute. “As long as they’re not showing significant loss of territory, we’re not going to get impatient. If they start looking like they’re losing tactically, then I would imagine that people might get nervous in Washington and other capitals.”

Speaking of Western capitals, Ukraine got the tanks! How might it affect the counteroffensive?

Earlier this year, after months of debate, Western governments agreed to send Ukraine advanced main battle tanks. Germany pledged to provide Leopard 2s, and to allow other countries to send their stocks of the German-made tanks. The United Kingdom is sending Challenger 2 tanks. The United States said it would send 31 M1 Abrams tanks, though they would take months to get there — but the commitment at least helped convince Berlin to offer up the Leopards, which would get to Ukraine much faster. (According to Friday’s meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, Abrams tanks will arrive in Germany in a few weeks, with training beginning after that.) In total, Western partners have delivered about 230 tanks to Kyiv.

A Ukrainian soldier makes a “V” for victory sign with one hand while training on German-made Leopard 2 battle tanks in Spain on March 13, 2023.

Ukraine had tanks, but they were mostly old Soviet models, and after a year of war a lot of those are mostly spent, and difficult to find parts to repair. Western equipment will be easier to service — Western officials said Friday they are establishing a Leopard servicing center in Poland — and fix.

In addition to these tanks, Western governments delivered infantry fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers. All of these are pretty crucial in a counteroffensive. They deliver troops to where they need to be on the front lines, and if you’re facing heavy artillery from, say, Russian forces, walking on foot or with regular trucks is very perilous.

On paper, that all seems great: equipment has been delivered, and Ukrainian soldiers have been trained on these tanks.

But Kyiv has a lot of different types of tanks and armored vehicles from a lot of different countries, all of which have their own specifications. When you’re talking about, say, Germany’s Leopard 2 versus the UK’s Challenger 2, they each use a different size rifle, and the ammunition isn’t compatible between the two.

“Keeping all of this equipment supplied and sustained long term is really going to be a big challenge,” said Sonny Butterworth, a senior analyst for land platforms at Janes, the defense intelligence firm. Ukraine might be able to find enough rounds for each type of gun, with personnel assigned to the right units right now. “But when things get underway, you start losing vehicles, you start needing to be resupplied in the fields, things are getting a bit more muddled up. Logistically it’s a bit more difficult,” he added.

In other words, the question is less about the tanks and more about all the supplies and logistical capabilities to support and deploy these vehicles successfully in combat. That is already a challenge in a war zone, even more so when you have a hodgepodge of different models. For example, bridging equipment helps tanks cross rivers, but it also depends on the weight of the tanks. If you’re in battle, and you’ve got the wrong equipment for your tank, you may need to bring in another, and little things like that can slow maneuvers and make forces vulnerable. Ukraine will also need support for mine-clearing and breaching, real-time combat engineering, and more.

“These are essential for offensive operations,” said Michael Kofman, director of the Russia Studies program at CNA. “Much of the discourse tends to focus on things like tanks, right? The reality is that this was probably a much lower priority compared to other capabilities.”

How prepared are Ukrainian troops, and how prepared are Russian forces for them?

Ukraine has suffered heavy losses in the past year; recently leaked intel documents suggest somewhere between 124,000 and 131,000 casualties, with about 17,500 killed in action. It is still less than estimates for Russia (as many as 220,000 casualties, with about 43,000 killed in action), but the toll is significant.

Ukraine’s forces have generally been much more motivated and willing to fight; the battle is existential for them. But after a year of fighting and a substantial expansion of the military, Ukraine had to mobilize more personnel, and new troops are filling out the ranks alongside seasoned, highly trained, and highly motivated forces. That has created an unevenness in the Ukrainian military.

“The vulnerability there is unit cohesion,” Beliakova said. “We don’t know whether they can fight together; they have not fought together.”

That feeds into questions about Ukraine’s force quality. Replenished troops, trained and armed with Western equipment, should have the advantage. “It is difficult to say how much of that force will really be ready,” Kofman said of Ukrainian troops. “Of course, that depends on the actual timing of this offensive.”

That may influence whether Ukraine can achieve a large-scale breakthrough against Russian lines. That also depends a bit on, well, the state of the Russian lines. Russian defenses have been largely untested against new advanced Western weapons. But Moscow has been ramping up its defenses ahead of the counteroffensive, potentially learning some lessons from last year. Those preparations could make any operation for Ukraine costly and challenging.

Russia’s winter counteroffensive showed continued vulnerabilities in training and equipment among Moscow’s forces; it also exhausted some of those numbers. Russia mobilized thousands of troops last fall, but Western intelligence officials are skeptical of Russia’s ability to man and put personnel along a massive front line. It will still likely be easier for Russia to defend than attack at this moment, but the question is whether, and how effectively, Ukraine can exploit any Russian weaknesses along those defenses.

A year has taken a toll on both Ukrainian and Russian troops. Beyond manpower, there are also real questions about equipment — specifically ammunition. Both Russia and Ukraine are facing ammunition constraints, likely a mix of trying to conserve for an operation, but also because they may not have enough.

Western governments are racing to ramp up supplies, as earlier this year, Ukraine was burning through ammunition faster than the US and NATO allies could replace it. Even if Ukraine is prepared and fully equipped as it launches these offensive operations, the big question is whether the US and its allies can continue to supply Ukraine with what it needs to consolidate any gains and launch subsequent attacks.

What happens after the counteroffensive?

This, experts said, is really the biggest question about the counteroffensive. Everyone knows it will happen, and most experts I spoke to were naturally reluctant to make predictions, but the general consensus seems to be that yes, Ukraine will have some degree of success in taking back some territory — just the scope and scale and pace are impossible to say. A lot is going to depend on how success is defined: by Ukraine, by the West, and by Russia, too.

Ukraine, of course, wants to push Russia outside of its borders, but it seems unlikely that Kyiv will achieve that in one counteroffensive push. Russia just controls too much territory — about one-sixth of Ukraine’s land — and as much as Russian troops have struggled to achieve sweeping gains, they are still in this thing, not defeated.

Any counteroffensive is likely to be costly, too; Ukraine can expect to suffer personnel and equipment losses. If it wants to sustain operations, the West is going to have to continue assisting Kyiv with weapons and supplies.

Western supplies are not infinite. A successful spring counteroffensive could buy the West time to gather more supplies and manufacture more ammunition, but it also just isn’t going to be easy to send over major weapons systems, like those tanks.

Many Western governments turned over what they had to spare, and they don’t have many extra tanks and infantry fighting vehicles to give, without sacrificing their own force readiness. “If Ukraine comes to need more in the future, where are they going to come from?” asked Butterworth.

Ahead of the counteroffensive, Western governments have reiterated their support, both political and practical. But the longer a counteroffensive takes (and it could take a long time), and the more costly it is (and it could be costly), the greater the potential that the West starts to question whether Ukraine can really win this war.

The risk right now is not that the Ukraine war becomes a stalemate. The risk is that observers and Western backers start to perceive it as one. “If Ukraine does not succeed, it will amplify the voices abroad that call for negotiations with Russia, basically saying that the conflict cannot be solved militarily,” Beliakova said.

“It means less aid, less support, less training, less money, and it would be losing the war — but not on the battlefield, but actually politically,” she added.