Monday, 12 June 2023 06:04

A guide to understanding the Ukrainian counteroffensive

Members of Ukrainian Armed Forces are seen during their shooting training with heavy weapons at the areas close to the frontline in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine on April 20, 2023.

“When we start the counteroffensive, everyone will know about it, they will see it,” top Ukrainian security official Oleksiy Danilov said Wednesday. Danilov was responding to Russian claims that Kyiv had finally — for real, for real — launched its anticipated counteroffensive.

Russia is not alone in speculating about the significance of recent movements of Ukrainian troops. US officials interpreted an intensification of artillery strikes and ground attacks in eastern Ukraine this week as a possible sign of the offensive’s start. On Thursday, Ukrainian troops reportedly stepped up assaults on the frontlines in the southeast, and those attack units had Western-made weapons, which were expected to be deployed in any Ukrainian operation. On Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy alluded to “very tough battles” in the eastern Donetsk region.

All of which are signs that, yes, the counteroffensive is finally here. But the is-it-or-is-it-not-officially-happening question about the counteroffensive has, in lots of ways, always been besides the point. Ukraine has closely guarded its operational security (even from its Western partners to a degree), and Kyiv is not going to make any public announcements that could jeopardize its strategy or give away its plans. Or as Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense tweeted Monday: “Shhhhhh.”

"Words are very unnecessary
They can only do harm"

(c) Depeche Mode pic.twitter.com/0Ul78wSv9q

— Oleksii Reznikov (@oleksiireznikov) June 4, 2023

And the counteroffensive exists on a sort of continuum. All the ingredients of a successful counteroffensive have been unfolding over the past weeks. Ukraine has targeted Russian frontlines with long-range attacks and carried out localized attacks in places like Bakhmut. Ukraine has its fingerprints on diversionary tactics, like the cross-border attacks into Belgorod led by pro-Ukrainian militias. “Ukrainian forces are already shaping the battlefield,” said Robert Murrett, a former naval intelligence officer and professor of practice at Syracuse University.

As those tactical operations continue, as more Western tanks and newly NATO-trained Ukrainian troops move to the frontlines, as Ukraine advances toward or challenges Russian defensive lines and fortifications, all of it will help reveal the course of the counteroffensive. But the details are mostly just speculation at this point. And as experts emphasized, both Russia and Ukraine want to manipulate the narrative, and so information warfare is deliberately going to obscure what’s happening on the battlefield.

It will likely take more weeks, and maybe months, to fully understand what this counteroffensive might yield. “Everything doesn’t need to happen in a span of a few weeks. It can be a bigger process, and it most likely will also be a bigger process,” said Emil Kastehelmi, an open source intelligence and military analyst.

“Whatever happens at the moment might not determine the whole course of the counteroffensive,” Kastehelmi added.

The only thing that’s actually certain is that Russia’s war in Ukraine is entering a new phase: an all-out effort by Ukraine to liberate Russian-occupied territory and to reshape the course of the war. Ukraine could retake a lot of territory, but the amount likely matters less than how Kyiv alters the strategic picture, seizing key areas that would leave Russia exhausted and in a weaker position than before. Kyiv must prove to its Western backers that it can put resources and advanced equipment to successful use, and reaffirm and bolster outside support.

Because whatever success looks like in the Ukrainian counteroffensive, it is unlikely to usher in the end of Russia’s war.

Where are we with the counteroffensive right now?

Ukrainian forces liberated the Kharkiv region in late summer 2022, and forced a Russian retreat to the other side of the Dnipro River in Kherson last November. (The area was inundated by an exploded dam this week.) Ukraine had momentum going into winter, though the war then entered something of a holding pattern: Fighting continued along the frontlines, but Russia also dug into its defensive positions. Russia launched an offensive this winter to try to seize Luhansk and Donetsk, but didn’t end up with that much to show for it, except for some minor territorial gains and, finally, after about nine months, Bakhmut, a mid-size city that isn’t all that strategically important.

Both Ukraine and Russia expended a lot of manpower and firepower in the battle over Bakhmut, a reality that hung over both Kyiv and Moscow as the world began expecting Ukraine’s counteroffensive this spring. The assumption was that Kyiv would launch such operations 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.

Those conditions have largely been met.

Counteroffensives, though, are complex, multifaceted operations, and they tend to unfold in phases. At least one of those phases has been happening: the so-called “shaping” or “preparation ” phase, as the military wonks might call it. It’s also pretty self-explanatory: Ukraine is trying to create battlefield conditions that will set its forces up for success once it starts the main event.

Ukrainian forces have attacked Russian troops along different parts of the frontlines, including at long ranges. They’re targeting and destroying supply lines. They’re engaged in sabotage, things like the cross-border attacks into Belgorod, and even that weird drone incident in Moscow, designed to divert Russian attention or resources. Ukraine is using these tactics to probe or soften Russian defenses, said Franz-Stefan Gady, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and also to “make sure that the Russians are spreading out along the frontline, not concentrating, also perhaps, [to] move away their operational reserves or commit their forces somewhere where the Ukrainians are not probably going to try their main effort.”

No one knows where that main effort (or efforts) is going to be, although experts and observers have some ideas of where Ukraine might try. One of these is around Zaporizhzhia, in the south, where Ukraine might try to push toward the Sea of Azov, allowing Ukraine to slice up Russia’s so-called “land bridge” linking Crimea to the rest of Ukraine, and potentially giving Kyiv a position to strike Crimea directly.

NEW: #Ukraine has conducted #counteroffensive operations with differential outcomes in at least three sectors of the front as part of wider counteroffensive efforts that have been unfolding since Sunday, June 4.

Latest assessment w/ @criticalthreats: https://t.co/A1Y19HR1xc pic.twitter.com/K2jwvQmVsb

— ISW (@TheStudyofWar) June 9, 2023

Fighting has been intensifying near Zaporizhzhia and outward from there, including around Velyka Novosilka, an area between Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk. But it’s not yet clear if Ukraine will seek to concentrate in specific areas, or attack from multiple fronts. Especially now, spreading out helps — if Ukraine has a breakthrough in one area, Russia might be forced to respond and bring in reinforcements, creating vulnerabilities elsewhere — maybe in the place that Ukraine really wanted to go all along. “I think it also creates just a sensation of ‘we’re being attacked from every every angle,’ and creates a sense of momentum and overwhelming,” said Margarita Konaev, deputy director of analysis and research fellow at the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University.

It’s in Ukraine’s interests to kind of be everywhere all at once right now, just as it’s also in Russia’s interests to identify particular spots and claim they’re slowing Ukrainian advances there. The frontline in Ukraine is some 900 miles long — think Chicago to New Orleans, said Murrett. So the PSA still holds: Chill on the geographic speculation.

How will we know if Ukraine is winning? (Spoiler: You won’t.)

The anticipation around this counteroffensive has, maybe a tiny bit, raised expectations for Ukraine. Ukrainian officials have tried to temper that a bit, saying this isn’t make-or-break for the war. While that is likely true, the pressure is on Ukraine to retake territory and prove to domestic and international audiences that it can continue to challenge, and even defeat, Russia on the battlefield.

Whether or not Ukraine can achieve those lofty aims is uncertain, but what is clear is that it’s way, way, way too early to make those assessments — probably weeks, maybe months away. Ukraine has some advantages this summer that it did not have last year — like more advanced Western equipment — but it also faces new challenges, like a potentially more prepared Russian military, and potentially more challenging targets.

The influence of Western equipment on the battlefield is still an open question. One of the reasons everyone was so hyped this week about the start of the counteroffensive was based on reports that Ukrainian troops along the front included specialized units that had advanced Western weapons and newly NATO-trained troops. A Russian military blogger also reported that German-made Leopard tanks were involved in heavy fighting in Donetsk. “Western-made battle tanks on the front — this would be a good sign the counteroffensive is starting,” Kastehelmi said.

Quietly, slowly, but over time, all these Western military donations have transformed Kyiv’s forces. “By European standards, Ukraine is a military juggernaut,” Murrett said.

But exactly how successful Ukraine will be at maneuvering these tools at scale — conducting what the military folks call “combined arms warfare” — is a big question. Ukraine has a lot of different military systems or platforms, including tanks and infantry-fighting vehicles, drones, and artillery systems. They sometimes complement each other, sometimes cancel each other out. “You can think of it as a deadly game of rock, paper, scissors,” Gady said. If done right, you maximize the losses for the enemy (in this case, Russia) and minimize them for Ukraine. It also means Ukraine will use less of everything: less artillery, less tanks, less troops, because everything is working together, rather than relying heavily on just one thing (like artillery), or one thing at a time. And that means Ukraine gets more done, with about the same effort.

This counteroffensive will test whether Ukrainian forces can pull this off. And Kyiv faces additional logistical and supply challenges. There are different types of tanks and armored fighting vehicles, which all have different specifications, and those need to be supplied and serviced and replaced in real-time, and that needs to be sustained over many weeks and months. “You can have a breakthrough and you can move forward. But if you’re not able to continue to resupply your troops, to bring in fresh troops to the frontlines to, fix your equipment, restore any sort of broken equipment, or equipment lost, then you’re in real trouble,” Konaev said.

Ukraine is likely going to lose equipment as it tries to push through Russian defenses. Russia has built robust fortifications across that massive frontline, stretching from the south, in Kherson, all the way to the north. Some areas are likely spicier than others, but they include trenches, anti-tank bunkers, and they are heavily, heavily mined; Western intelligence officials said earlier this month that Russian minefields are so extensive, breaking through such defenses would be a monumental achievement for any force. Russia also has pretty impressive electronic warfare capabilities along the frontlines, able to jam up drones — Ukraine is losing thousands of drones each month — and the GPS for things like high-mobility artillery rocket systems.

If Ukraine gets through these fortifications easily, some experts said that would be a pretty good sign of Ukrainian success and Russian problems. But experts also said that it is not a precise metric: Russia’s first and second frontlines are basically made to be broken — to slow and wear Ukraine down, and to make it very costly for Kyiv, so they suffer losses to equipment and personnel, and that gives time to Russia to bring in reinforcements.

Which brings us to the recurring theme of not counting the counteroffensive chickens before they hatch. This is going to be a slog, and a very, very difficult and devastating slog at that.

For now, expect a lot more of these probing attacks, as Ukraine pokes at Russian defenses, trying to see what they can exploit, or where they can break through. If they do, here is where you might see Ukrainians send in their mechanized columns — that is, the main battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, armored personal carriers — where Ukrainian forces seek to advance as fast as possible and seize as much territory as possible.

But this is going to take time, likely punctuated by small Ukrainian successes, but also stalls and setbacks. Don’t read too much into a town taken here, a town contested there.

Even liberating a major place, like Mariupol, would be an incredible victory, but not all Ukrainian successes will have that kind of narrative power. And the the less high-profile moves might mean more in the long-run. “Just focusing on these dynamics: What is important because it is a symbol and what is important because it’s part of a calculated set of moves, that is going to lead to a real, operationally vital accomplishment,” Konaev said.

“They’re not always one of the same by any means,” she added.

Why the counteroffensive matters

Ukraine’s objectives have not changed: to end Russian occupation within the country’s internationally recognized borders, including areas Moscow has controlled since 2014, including Crimea.

Ukraine is not going to accomplish all of that with this counteroffensive. But that does not change the stakes for Ukraine’s military and political goals. “Ukrainians need to succeed here,” Kastehelmi said. “They need to show the Western countries that Ukraine actually can achieve its goals, which are to liberate all territories under Russian occupation.”

Ukraine also needs to prove to its domestic audience that it is defending its people and territories. Right now, Ukrainian morale and support for its efforts are high; Russia has tried, and failed, to erode public support through relentless bombing campaigns, but it, if anything, it has only hardened resolve.

But the West may be the most important audience, and the most complicated. The United States and its allies made big commitments to Ukraine ahead of this counteroffensive. Together, the US and its European allies have spent or pledged billions. There are the tanks. The United States also finally agreed to support a coalition to train Ukrainian troops on F-16 fighter jets, which could eventually allow countries to transfer planes to Kyiv.

Ukraine has to show that the supplies and support are paying off, and that more is warranted. The US and (especially) Europe don’t have unlimited stockpiles of military equipment, and both Washington and Brussels are using political capital to invest in ramp-ups for things like artillery. Voices of skepticism in Western capitals are still the minority, but they could intensify if Ukraine struggles in this counteroffensive, especially as the Republican primary for the US presidential election gets underway, which includes some Ukraine-support-skeptic candidates, including the frontrunner and former president.

Of course, unless Ukraine faces a startling defeat (which seems unlikely), the West is unlikely to start rushing Kyiv to the negotiating table. This is more about the calculus softening or changing over time, but even subtle shifts could be huge for Ukraine, which ultimately is reliant on the West to fight and defend itself.

If Ukraine can achieve what many think it wants to achieve, which is to push through the south or southeast to reach the Sea of Azov, cut the Russian front into two, and get close enough to Crimea to show the Russians their position is tenuous — well, that is sort of the dream scenario. It is by no means impossible, but nobody thinks it’s going to be easy.

Beyond that, reclaiming and recapturing territory from Russia — and how quickly it does so — is probably going to be another metric on which Ukraine is judged. In the long run, Ukraine ultimately has to liberate all Russian-occupied territories, but that, too, may not be the best frame for this counteroffensive. “In the short-run, it’s much more important how the Ukrainian Armed Forces are going to emerge out of this offensive relative to how the Russians are going to emerge out of it,” Gady said. “Because this is going to determine the character of future military operations in Ukraine and whether we are going to see another offensive at some point, or who’s going to be faster in terms of reconstituting their combat power.”

This war is not going to end with these Ukrainian operations, and much of this conflict has been defined by incremental gains and attritional warfare. The Ukrainian counteroffensive might not shift the map all that drastically, but Kyiv does need to emerge stronger, Russia weaker.

Russian President Vladimir Putin likely believes he has the advantage, that he can wait out Ukraine and its Western backers. But if Ukraine can batter Russia’s forces, or even leave Russia with less territory than it had at the start of this offensive, it will be hard for Russia to continue to claim it is winning. That likely does not usher in the war’s end, but it will transform this conflict once again.