Has Ukraine’s much-heralded counter-offensive already begun? At the end of last month, defence minister Oleksy Reznikov promised that ‘as soon as there is God’s will, the weather and a decision by the commanders, we will do it’. The past few weeks have seen an upsurge in what the military describe as shaping operations, preparing the ground for battle, with attacks on Russian fuel and weapons depots and command centres. This week’s incursion by Ukraine’s anti-Kremlin Russian units over the border into the Belgorod region could also be an attempt to distract Moscow and make it disperse its forces away from likely lines of attack.
Kyiv is at once fighting a military campaign against Moscow and a political one in the West
This looks like Schrödinger’s counter-offensive, already begun yet still in abeyance, at once absolutely crucial and unlikely to make a great difference. Either way, come it must, not least because Kyiv is at once fighting a military campaign against Moscow and a political one in the West.
Arguably Ukraine’s greatest potential threat comes not from the Kremlin’s under-performing armed forces but from any weakening of western unity and will to support the war. So far, ‘Ukraine fatigue’ has not become a serious issue, but last week’s promise by G7 leaders that support would continue ‘for as long as it takes’ was essentially rhetorical. Kyiv has few illusions but that this could change quickly, especially with presidential elections in the USA next year raising the prospect of a return of Donald Trump, a man who has already refused to join the ritual affirmations of support for Ukraine.
This means that Kyiv cannot afford to play it safe. After Russia’s abortive and ill-conceived winter offensive, which squandered its opportunity to consolidate its forces, Ukraine is in a relatively strong position. However, it needs to demonstrate what US officials have taken to calling a ‘return on investment’ to its western backers. The goal will therefore be to achieve some concrete and politically powerful objective, measured in terms of territorial gains.
The irony is that while the invasion has generated a cottage industry of amateur and professional war-mappers, eagerly posting on social media their colourful takes on the ebb and flow of the front line, success in war is not really measured in such terms. Ukraine’s true aim is to render the Russian forces incapable of resisting, by shattering their lines of supply and command, breaking their morale and forcing them into positions which are patently untenable. As one British officer involved in training Ukraine’s forces put it: ‘Taking back a city may not matter if the Ukrainians bleed themselves dry doing it; but if they can degrade the Russians into being unable to continue the fight, it’s irrelevant what they do and don’t recapture.’
Yet progress on the ground will be a crucial measure for not just the Ukrainian people but for both Vladimir Putin and the West. Part of the reason Nato members decided to step up their support this year was the hope that a more convincing Ukrainian victory on the battlefield would shock Putin into rethinking his invasion. This may prove unfeasibly optimistic, but Kyiv needs to prove to western boosters and sceptics alike that it retains the initiative, that victory is possible and that the war will not last forever.
The Ukrainians have stood up nine new brigades trained and equipped by the West, as well as at least three more of their own. Added to existing reserves, this means they may have up to 20 brigades, or 100,000 troops, to throw into the fray. Against them are perhaps 200,000 Russians, many of these mobilised reservists of distinctly questionable training and morale, but leavened with the remnants of battle-hardened paratroopers and other professional forces.
Of course, the Russians know that the Ukrainians will be coming for them. Outside Bakhmut and a couple of other hot spots, they are scaling down offensive operations and bracing themselves for the coming storm. Along much of the front, they have built extensive defensive lines, with trenches, razor wire, minefields and concrete ‘dragon’s teeth’ anti-tank obstacles. The goal is not simply to tangle and slow attacking Ukrainian forces so that they can be killed by Russia’s still-lethal artillery, but also to keep Russian troops in place: they are less likely to break and run in battle if dug in.
The Ukrainians still have the initiative, though, and get to decide where to fight. Driving south into the Zaporizhia region opens up the prospect of liberating the cities of Melitopol and Mariupol, the latter having become especially symbolic given the 83-day siege that left it a blasted ruin, as well as the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant. More to the point, it could cut the ‘land bridge’, the road and rail connection to Crimea. This would force the Russians to rely on the Kerch Bridge and air and sea routes to reinforce and resupply it, all of which would be open to interdiction. Rather than trying to storm the heavily defended peninsula, Kyiv could simply besiege it.
Alternatively, Kyiv could try to repeat its successful one-two punch from August and September. Then, it first attacked the Russian-held city of Kherson in the south, and afterwards, as Russian reserves rushed to reinforce that front, launched another offensive from Kharkiv in the north-east. Ukrainian forces cut through over-stretched Russian lines, forcing a rapid withdrawal. More than 4,500 square miles were retaken in a month. This time, they could, for example, move to try to retake Bakhmut with some of their less mobile brigades, or stab through Svatove into the northernmost occupied territories, to cut one of Moscow’s main railway lines for the whole Donbas region. After all, supply lines are crucial to this voracious conflict (the Russians are firing on average some 10,000 artillery shells a day).
The hope would be that such an attack would prompt a similar redeployment of forces, opening up opportunity somewhere else for Ukraine’s new mechanised units. These offer greater protected mobility than its army had in the past. Kyiv is hoping to shift the nature of the conflict from a grinding, bloody war of attrition in which Russia’s greater population gives it an obvious advantage – although Russia has lost almost twice as many troops, proportionately Ukraine has suffered more – into one of manoeuvre, as fought by Nato. Of course, all this presumes that the Russians could be fooled a second time. While the high command has hardly covered itself in glory, it has shown itself capable of learning lessons eventually, and has more reserves to spare this time round.
The real imponderable is, as it has been throughout the war, morale. Ukrainian soldiers have demonstrated an enviable determination and elan, what a British military observer called a ‘true will to fight’. The Russians have numbers and still a great deal of long-range firepower. Despite the promise to supply Ukraine with F-16 jets, the Russians also have air superiority, even if they have not really used this to any great advantage so far. None of this will matter if their troops won’t fight, or break and run, especially as panic on the battlefield is contagious. Putin must be hoping that his repeated invocation of the second world war inspires similar dogged determination, but there is little evidence the under-fed and under-motivated soldiers in the trenches accept the parallel.
Even if the counter-offensive is a triumph, though, it is hard to see it all being over by Christmas. War is a political act; were every Russian soldier driven off every square inch of occupied territory (a very unlikely prospect) that would not in itself end the war. Sadly, it is the loser who decides when a war ends. Unless Putin has some compelling reason to abandon his vendetta against Ukraine, it will continue. From its own territory, Russia can continue to launch air attacks, lob shells and deploy its covert and non-kinetic arsenal, from hackers to assassins.
Earlier in the spring, there were still hopes that it would be enough to force Putin to agree terms. One senior US official enthused to me that ‘the only thing worse than a humiliating negotiated peace’ for Putin ‘would be a defeat imposed on him’. As the Russian leader ratchets up his rhetoric, painting the conflict as an existential struggle for Russian status and independence against a hegemonic West using Ukraine to try and humble the motherland, this is looking less and less plausible. There needs to be a theory of victory which goes beyond the magical thinking that imagines Putin’s capitulation or decapitation instantly leading to peace in our time. The counter-offensive certainly matters, but only as a first step towards a just resolution of the war. If it fails, the chances of the conflict becoming a debilitating stalemate grow.