STOLYPIN: So much rests on Ukraine's counter-offensive

STOLYPIN: So much rests on Ukraine's counter-offensive
The anticipation of Ukraine's mooted counter-offensive is palpable, but the timing and outcome remain opaque. / bne IntelliNews
By Mark Galeotti May 14, 2023

After months in which Ukrainian officials and their Western cheerleaders talked up the chances of a quick victory, now they are trying to manage expectations. Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov has warned that “the expectation from our counter-offensive campaign is overestimated in the world,” while President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has suggested that the counter-offensive is not imminent, and that while they could “go forward, and, I think, be successful,” with what they already had, “we'd lose a lot of people. I think that’s unacceptable. So we need to wait. We still need a bit more time.”

Of course, just as earlier boosterism was intended to encourage Western allies to pledge military assistance in the hope of a quicker end to the war, there is likely to be a degree of deliberate disinformation at work now: why let the Russians know when you're coming for them? It also reflects, though, a genuine uncertainty about the outcome.

The unavoidable operation

No one is ever completely ready for a military operation: there is always room for more men, more materiel, more planning, more preparation. Ultimately, it is often a question of balancing ‘ready enough’ with the wider context, given that all wars are ultimately political acts. Indeed, according to the Russians, the Ukrainians have already started their counter-offensive, even if we can hardly take Moscow at face value.

Nonetheless, Kyiv does have to launch some kind of spring or summer offensive. Domestic politics require it, and it is also necessary to demonstrate that all the billions of Western financial and military assistance are being put to good use. Nato leaders unlocked more assistance, including providing modern tanks, precisely with the hope or expectation that this could bring forward the end of the war. As a British diplomat admitted, “the coalition can probably hold together for another year of war, but if this starts to look indefinite or unwinnable, then it’s going to get harder and harder.” With an eye on Donald Trump’s campaign and his refusal to state that he wants a Ukrainian victory, a US colleague was even more downbeat: “it’s going to be crucial that the [Ukrainians] are clearly winning before we get into our presidential campaigns,” fearing that “it’s hard to campaign on a good money after bad ticket.”

Ideally, then, Kyiv wants some kind of dramatic turnaround. Wars are rarely all about lines on the map, but territorial gains have a powerful symbolic political value, and the kind of breakthrough that was achieved last year from Kharkiv or liberating a city would be hard to ignore. Less dramatic but perhaps of even greater operational value would be shifting the nature of the conflict from a grinding attritional struggle, which favours Russia's larger population base, into a more fluid war of manoeuvre, in which Ukrainian elan and Western heavy metal could be put to the fullest use.

The chance of a breakthrough

On paper, this is unlikely. The Russians have taken heavy losses, but these have been more than offset by the mobilisation of 300,000 reservists last year, and even as the Wagner mercenary group is being ground away in Bakhmut, new mercenary forces are being established, even by corporate giants such as Gazprom. Rather than a sign that they expect some Mad Maxian future for Russia of warlordism and anarchy, this in in effect an indirect tax. In Putin’s mobilisation state, those who have benefited from the patronage of the regime – or who hope to maintain their fortunes – are being expected to play their part in the ‘Great Patriotic Military Operation.’

Furthermore, the Russians know that the Ukrainians are coming, even if not necessarily when or where. Beyond Bakhmut and a few other particular hotspots, they are largely moving into a defensive stance, in their newly-built lines of trenches. It is always dangerous to underestimate the tenacity of Russian troops in defence; however, it is equally foolish to forget the crucial role of morale. Many of these troops are poorly trained, badly disciplined and recalcitrant draftees. Do they have enough food and ammunition? Do they know what they are there for? Are their officers working with them to form coherent units? On past showing, the answer is likely to be in the main, no. General Gerasimov’s ill-conceived early spring offensive, presumably launched to satisfy Putin, undercut efforts to focus on consolidating the new ‘mobik’ units in that period.

This therefore raises the spectre of panic, and this can prove quickly and destructively contagious. Once some units break and run, they disrupt the units behind them and open gaps in the defensive line. Adjacent units, their flanks now exposed, may begin to withdraw in good order, or simply break, as seems to have just happened to the Russians in southern Bakhmut. So far, this has proved a most unpredictable war, and it is still hard to make any meaningful prognostications about the outcome of the counter-offensive. The Ukrainians may get bogged down in Russia’s minefields and artillery fire zones, unable to make more than incremental territorial gains – or they could break through and make dramatic headway, nipping at the heels of fleeing Russian troops. It’s a coin toss.

Ukrainian triumph?

Maybe Kyiv will regain control of Melitopol, breaking the ‘land corridor’ to Crimea. Or, in a symbolic act of liberation, invest the exposed city of Donetsk. The challenge, though, is that even if the Russians are chased out of Donetsk and Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, this is vanishingly unlikely to end the war.

Although a comprehensive collapse of the Russian lines in Ukraine might perhaps pose the kind of systemic challenge which could force the elite into reassessing their support for him, there is no sign yet that Putin’s grip on the security apparatus is weak enough that any challenge would succeed – or even be launched. Besides, even if Russia is driven out of these regions, it still has the means to attack and subvert Ukraine, and many Western countries would be deeply resistant to supporting a further campaign into Russian territory.

Really, it is Crimea that is key. This is the one part of Ukraine that most Russians genuinely believe is rightfully theirs, whose annexation helped revive Putin’s fortunes, and a peninsula whose strategic importance outweighs all the rest of the occupied territories. Although much is written about his so-called ‘red lines’ – which, time and again, prove to be no more than pale pink when challenged – the risk of a quick loss of Crimea probably is about the only likely scenario which might push a panicked Putin into some dangerous escalation, whether nuclear or not.

Mindful of this – and of Western worries – Kyiv is unlikely to make such a direct strike at the peninsula. Instead, their strategy is likely to be closer to how they liberated Kherson. After an initial and bloodily unsuccessful bid to storm the city, they instead settled down in a campaign of isolation and harassment, using their new, Western-supplied long-range artillery to break supply lines, shatter command centres and generally make it clear to the Russians that they were no more than sitting ducks. Eventually, the generals prevailed on Putin and were allowed to withdraw.

Of course, Crimea is not Kherson, but if the ‘land bridge’ is broken, the Kerch Bridge would no doubt soon follow. Civilians and soldiers on the peninsula alike would need to be supplied by vulnerable air and sea links, which would be unequal to the task. It could be that eventually Putin accepts that it is better to try to strike a deal than see a hungry and hopeless Crimea surrender on its own initiative. Even so, that may not be enough to save his presidency, as ‘turbopatriots’ and technocrats alike ask themselves for what did Russia invade in the first place, and at what cost?

No guarantees

Of course, this is just one potential future scenario, and the most positive one from Ukraine’s point of view. Ukraine has also suffered heavy losses, which has especially thinned out its experienced junior and field officers, and it still lacks proper air support, and is having to adapt quickly to new tactics and new equipment. In many ways, this will be a clash of unknowns: Russian morale in defence in depth against Ukraine’s capacity to defeat it.

As a result, one could as easily posit minimal territorial gains, Ukrainian forces being held away from Melitopol and the other urban centres, which are, after all, generally harder targets for frontal assault, as the Russians demonstrated with Kherson, and autumn rolling round with the war still in near-stalemate. This is the working assumption of most professional analysts at the moment, as opposed to the armchair generals who have staked out social media as their playpen.

Russia will still face serious challenges, not least in the tough political decision of when to launch another mobilisation wave to replenish its depleted forces (doing so before the September gubernatorial elections would seem to be asking for trouble), but it may also be contemplating 2024, with elections due in both Ukraine and the USA, with a little more confidence.

So much, it seems, will rest on this counter-offensive.

Mark Galeotti is director of consultancy Mayak Intelligence and honorary professor at UCL School of Slavonic & East European Studies.