Ukrainian counteroffensive: What is President Zelenskyy waiting for?

The Ukrainian armed forces still need supplies of equipment and weapons to avoid heavy losses, says President Zelenskyy.

The Ukrainian troops’ counteroffensive is delayed indefinitely as, according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, “more time is needed.”

The president stressed members of new brigades were fully ready, with some units having received training abroad. But the Ukrainian armed forces still need supplies of equipment and weapons to avoid heavy losses.

What is Kyiv waiting for?

Since the end of last year, there has been talk of a large-scale Ukrainian counteroffensive. For security reasons, Kyiv stopped short of announcing specific dates, but experts in the West have previously suggested the start of the operation could take place any time from the end of April to the first two weeks of June.

“I think the reason why he announced it now is that expectations for this counteroffensive have quite clearly got out of hand in many circles,” says Simon Schlegel, a senior Ukraine Analyst at the International Crisis Group. “Anticipation has been very, very high. And the reason for that is probably because there is a narrative going around, especially in Russia, that Ukraine only has ‘one punch one try’ at this very complicated counteroffensive. And therefore, it’s probably a good thing right now that from the very top, that Zelenskyy himself, tries to also tone down expectations a bit.”

The Ukrainian president says his armed forces need more equipment. On 9th May, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Kyiv already had everything it needed for the operation, including equipment and soldiers trained in the West, and stressed it was up to the armed forces command to draw up a plan for success.

Some experts believe the delay is because Kyiv wants to be as sure as possible of the success of any counteroffensive.

“In this situation, you cannot have enough. Simply put, it’s always better to have more especially ammunition,” says Schlegel. And both sides have been running quite low. It’s become not just a military supply issue, but an industrial issue, a production issue. And it’s possible that ammunition is currently the bottleneck that Zelenskyy wants to widen before actually risking the lives of his soldiers.”

Max Bergmann, Director of the Europe, Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies agrees.

“We know the Ukrainians have obtained a number of tanks and they’ve obtained a number of other armoured personnel carriers and transport vehicles,” he explains. “But I’m sure they’re still waiting for more deliveries. So the question for Ukraine is, do you wait and wait for more deliveries to arrive but potentially give Russia more time to prepare for the potential counteroffensive?”

However, some Western observers believe the Ukrainian president’s statement is calculated to dupe Moscow into believing the counteroffensive has been delayed – when in fact it has already begun.

Dr Neil Melvin, Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) says it’s important to understand what the word ‘counteroffensive’ actually means:

“I think often the images are kind of a shock and awe moment where all of the tanks roll forward. But actually, the counteroffensive itself is a long term process,” he says. “And I would argue that, in fact, the counteroffensive by Ukraine has already started. What they’re trying to do is shape the battlefield at the moment and they’re pulling the Russian forces in different directions. They’re trying to find gaps by probing and they’re moving their forces around.”

What kind of weapons does Ukraine need?

According to Bloomberg, since December (i.e. in preparation for a perceived counteroffensive) Ukraine has received the equivalent of $30bn of Western equipment and supplies – more than the annual military budget of any NATO country (except the US). For the entire period, the amount of aid has exceeded $67bn.

Kyiv is now talking about the need for long-range weapons, aviation and air defence systems.

On 11 May, London announced it was sending Storm Shadow tactical missiles with an estimated range of 560 km to Kiev (however, the export versions are limited to 250 km). According to experts, this is not simply just another weapons delivery, but one that could play an important role in the upcoming operation.

Melvin explains why these weapons are a potential game changer.

“Actually what they do is strike at Russia’s ability to coordinate its own defence, so what we saw earlier in the war where the United States provided Ukraine with HIMARS artillery, that was very damaging to the Russians because with this artillery the Ukrainians could destroy logistical hubs at headquarters,” he explains. “The Russians have adapted. They’ve pushed those facilities out of range of HIMARS. With these new missiles, suddenly they’re back in range.”

What some believe the success or failure of a Ukrainian counteroffensive boils down to is the ability of the Ukrainian armed forces to coordinate as accurately and quickly as possible between different units and government agencies.

“What Ukraine has to do is what’s called combined arms warfare which means linking the air force, the ground forces, the intelligence community, the political leadership and keeping in contact with this very complicated set of actors as the armed forces move forward,” Melvin continues. “So it’s not just about breaking through the Russian lines, but actually sustaining that.”

Air warfare

But there are difficulties ahead. Storm Shadow missiles are airborne and can be launched from a range of European-made aircraft – Tornado, Typhoon, Mirage 2000 and Rafale.

According to available information, Ukraine does not yet have these planes. In February, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the transfer of Typhoons to Kyiv was not impossible, and it was even reported that training of Ukrainian pilots had begun.

The Ukrainian air force already has experience of using Western missiles from Soviet aircraft. Many of these machines, adapted to NATO standards, were supplied to Ukraine by the former Warsaw Pact countries.

However, Kyiv is demanding modern Western-made fighter jets – first and foremost, the American F-16s.

According to experts, these planes simply will not make it before the spring-summer campaign and it will take too much time to train Ukrainian pilots and adapt the country’s airfield and technical infrastructure.

Secondly, it’s unlikely they would play a significant offensive role in the war, as Bergmann outlines:

“We have to realise that Russia’s advanced fighter jets and other aircraft are not operating to the same degree as expected in this war because of Ukraine’s air defences. Russia also has substantial air defence capabilities, which would pose a threat to any Western fighters that Ukraine obtains.

“I think it’s essential that Ukraine receives fighter jets. It’s an additional form of air defence which can be used to protect Ukrainian skies, both from missiles, drones and Russian fighter jets. But here, it appears  they will play more of a defensive rather than offensive role.”

Before the full-scale invasion, the West believed that Kyiv would hold out for days or at best weeks because of the superiority of the Russian air force. But as early as 5 March, after just 10 days of war, Moscow reported that Ukraine’s air force and air defences had been suppressed and destroyed.

This was not the case. Ukraine’s air and air defence forces not only retained combat effectiveness but ultimately prevented Russia from gaining air superiority.

However, any Ukrainian counteroffensive will also face a number of other serious obstacles.

According to experts, for the first time in modern history, countries of an equal technical level have faced each other on the battlefield. Moreover, both Russia and Ukraine built their air defence system on Soviet principles. During the Cold War, the USSR created a large number of very different, ground-based air defence systems. Together they were supposed to create a theoretically impenetrable multi-levelled barrier at all altitudes and speeds. This means the Soviet pilot training school focused more on operating against a “Western” system than its own.

As a result, air defence activity at high altitudes has forced aircraft on both sides to switch to operations at ultra-low altitudes, literally just a few metres above the ground. But there, for a variety of reasons, it has proved more effective to use drones.

Will the counteroffensive prove decisive?

Many Western political analysts have not ruled out the possibility that the failure of a Ukrainian counteroffensive could lead to a reduction in Western assistance – simply because it has almost exhausted its ability to supply equipment and gear without compromising its own security. This would put pressure on Kyiv to reach a ceasefire on the terms of the status quo.

“I think there are other aspects beyond military success that will influence how supportive Western audiences and Western governments will be in the next phase. How well Ukraine manages to reintegrate the territories they liberate. Will this create a refugee crisis, for example, in Crimea? How they treat prisoners of war, and how well they manage the dangers of escalation. I think these factors are almost as important as a pure military success that is measured in liberated territory,” Schlegel adds.

But now, alongside the readiness of Ukraine’s armed forces for a counter-offensive, there are increasing calls for long-term, strategic support for the country. Even if the armed forces fail to achieve the goals of the spring and summer campaign, the West is being called on not abandon its support for Kyiv.

Back in March, EU leaders began to seriously consider increasing the production of weapons and ammunition – especially for Ukraine.

“While it’s right to focus on the counteroffensive and making sure Ukraine has everything, I think there also needs to be a political message,” says Melvin. “In most scenarios, the counteroffensive will not end the war by the summer. So the Western community needs now to factor in that this war is going to be a long war and that Ukraine is going to need resources to continue to fight to bring it to an end. But even beyond that, even if Russia is defeated in Ukraine, Russia is likely to remain a major threat to Ukraine, but also to the wider Europe.”

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The anticipated Ukrainian counter-offensive: When, where and how?

The Ukrainian military has been talking since late last year about plans for a major counter-offensive.

The Pentagon documents, if they are to be believed, indicated that the offensive was planned to start on 30 April.

In late March, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy noted that the Ukrainian Armed Forces were not yet ready for large-scale operations. And Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal indicated in mid-April that a counteroffensive could be expected in the summer.

When will the operation start?

Western experts are more inclined to the prime minister’s position: late autumn, or even early summer.

“They want good weather conditions so that they can conduct offensive manoeuvre operations,” said Robert Cullum, Lecturer in Defence Studies, King’s College London.

“They’ll be trying to generate and sustain their own forces, but they’ll also be trying to get ahead of Russian attempts to dig in and fortify their own position. So they’ll be trying to balance those three things off. And I think the kind of window of opportunity is within the next one to two months. So April, May, into early June.”

But even before that, there is no doubt that the Armed Forces of Ukraine will conduct battlefield reconnaissance and limited-scale operations to identify weaknesses in the Russian defence.

Possible plans by Kyiv

Ukrainian politicians and military officials say the ultimate goal should be the liberation of all Ukrainian territory, including the annexed Crimea and the territory of the separatist republics in the east of the country. But this is unlikely to be done in a single operation in the near future.


The most obvious target of a Ukrainian offensive, according to experts, could be a strike in the direction of the Sea of Azov, in the Zaporizhzhia region, around Melitopol. This could split the occupied territories in two, cut the land routes to Crimea and the Kherson region, and allow artillery to bombard the Crimean peninsula, the naval base in Sevastopol and the Crimean bridge. This is the scenario most often discussed by politicians, the military and experts alike.

But the problem here for Kyiv is that this strike direction is also obvious for Moscow. It has been repeatedly reported that Russian troops are seriously reinforcing their positions in the region.

“The problem then is the availability of forces because they have then two open flanks, one in the west towards Crimea, one in the east towards the Donbas, and they have to cover these two open flanks against Russian counter-attacks against both sides,” said Gustav Gressel, Senior Policy Fellow, European Council on Foreign Relations.

“So the deeper they go, the more forces they will need to just cover the flanks and push the offensive forward that might slow them down and that might also sort of swallow a considerable amount of forces.”

Experts consider a more realistic objective for Kyiv would be to advance 30 kilometres into the Melitopol area, so that Russian supply routes are in the range of Ukrainian artillery.

Flanks: Kherson and Luhansk

Vladimir Putin’s visit to the occupied regions of Kherson and Luhansk, which was announced on 18 April, is also linked by many experts to the preparation of defence in these directions, the flanks of the Russian grouping.

In the event of an offensive in these directions, Kyiv will have to worry less about securing its flanks, but in each case there are disadvantages.

In the Luhansk region, Kremenna, Svatove, Severodonetsk and Lysychansk could be the focus of Ukrainian strikes. Fighting in this area has been going on with varying success for a long time. However, the terrain there is wooded and rugged. Heavy Western equipment would be difficult to use in these conditions.

An offensive in the Kherson region could be the shortest route to Crimea for Ukrainian troops. But in order to do so they would have to cross the Dnieper River. The most difficult aspect, according to experts, will not be the formation operation itself, but the need to preserve and hold the crossings and bridges – which will undoubtedly become the most important target for Russian aviation and tactical missiles. Russian strikes against them could cut off and isolate the advancing Ukrainian grouping.

Air and artillery superiority

In theory, one important factor in a successful offensive should be air superiority. The advancing group, and its supply lines, must be protected during the operation.

Kyiv has repeatedly spoken of a shortage of both combat and air defence aircraft. If the same Pentagon documents that have surfaced online are to be believed, Ukraine will run out of missiles for “Soviet” long- and medium-range air defence systems by May, that is if used at the current rate, even without taking into account a possible offensive.

But this is about protection against Russian strikes on cities. For the front, according to experts, it is not such a serious problem.

“Yes, they don’t have air superiority, which is, of course, not ideal. But on the other hand, most of their reconnaissance is not done by aircraft,” said Gustav Gressel. “And also most of their strike missions are not done by aircraft like it’s done in NATO. It’s done by artillery, just like in the Russian army.”

“It’s been a very artillery intensive war,” said Robert Cullum. “Both sides have used artillery and artillery ammunition in enormous quantities, both on the attack and the defence. So another problem they have to overcome is the supply of artillery ammunition, which is a key enabler of military success in this war.”

Still, the lack of “frontline” air defence assets could significantly reduce the chances of the AFU if the Russian army makes extensive use of aircraft to counter the Ukrainian offensive, and here the West will not be able to provide significant support.

On the intelligence side, Kyiv has the advantage of access to U.S. and NATO information, as well as information from guerrillas in the occupied territories.

Pentagon leaks

However, the leaks of secret Pentagon documents could be a disadvantage for Kyiv.

“The American point of view is that the Russians now know how deep and with what means the American intelligence services can look into the Russian planning and Russian command and control structure, and they might adjust, for example, their codes or the encryption to prevent that,” said Gustav Gressel.

“ If that happens, and if Western intelligence at a time of the counter-offensive is less precise than it used to be, that would be a bad thing for Ukrainians.”

How can Russia counter the Ukrainian counter-offensive?

According to Western intelligence, Russia is fortifying almost the entire front line on Ukrainian territory, some 800 km long. These strips, according to media reports, consist of several lines of anti-tank trenches, trenches, barbed wire, obstacles and all sorts of fortified firing points.

The quality of these barriers has been questioned by Western experts; nevertheless, even in this form they will be a serious obstacle for the attackers if they do not have sufficient artillery and engineering support.

As stated above, Kyiv will need many forces to support its flanks to develop deep breaks; these forces will inevitably be redeployed from other directions, which the Russian army can take advantage of to launch counterstrikes in weakened areas.

Nuclear defence

The Kremlin has increasingly resorted to nuclear rhetoric in recent months, and at the end of March a decision was taken to deploy Russian nuclear weapons on the territory of Belarus. Experts doubt Russia would resort to a nuclear strike if the Ukrainian push proved successful.

Will the Kremlin decide to use nuclear weapons if the Ukrainian offensive is successful?

“Putin will definitely think twice or three times,” said Gustave Gressel. “To be honest, I don’t believe that he will do it for any region, maybe except for Crimea, because the price is very high and the recipe for success is dubious.”

Will the counter-offensive bring a decisive result?

Ukrainian politicians periodically claim that a decisive counter-offensive in the spring and summer could bring the war to an end before the end of the year. Western experts are very cautious about this, while paying tribute to the high morale of Ukrainians.

“If they’ve achieved significant success, and I think there will be, they’ll be in a position to force the Russians to the table and perhaps extract some kind of concessions, particularly if Crimea is threatened,” said Robert Cullum.

“Putin really won’t want to lose Crimea because it’s such a symbol of his regime’s success. If the Ukrainians haven’t achieved much success, then I think they’ll be facing a lot more pressure from their allies who are really at the limit of what they’re willing to give in terms of assistance and equipment. And so Ukraine will probably face a lot more pressure to find some kind of status quo ceasefire.”

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Ukraine and its allies must agree on what victory against Russia means

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

The recent trans-Atlantic debacle regarding the transfer of tanks to Ukraine — especially German-made Leopards — brought to the fore the fact that despite the immense threat posed by Russia to European security, there are still deep fractures within NATO.

The German government finally approved the transfer of the coveted Leopard tanks to Ukraine, but only following weeks of intense political pressure on German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

For that to happen, US President Joe Biden’s administration had to relent and send some of its fuel-inefficient yet powerful Abrams tanks to Ukraine.

But why the discord?

Different theories of victory, different views on Europe’s future

To make sense of the periodic disagreements on Ukraine within the bloc, we need to look at how different NATO powers conceive the endpoint of Russia’s war.

By my count, there are at least three broad “theories of victory” shared by different parts of the alliance.

That is, different countries within the alliance have different ideas about what winning means in Ukraine and what concrete actions are needed to achieve that endpoint.

Poland and the Baltic countries share the same maximalist theory of victory with Ukraine. That is, they define victory in terms of the complete liberation of the Ukrainian territory illegally occupied by Russia after the bloodiest day of the Maidan Revolution in Kyiv on 20 February 2014, including the Crimean peninsula and the regions in the Donbas.

As part of this endgame, the maximalist view also includes the collapse of the President Vladimir Putin-led regime at the Kremlin — and ideally, even the collapse of the Russian state.

To achieve this definition of victory, the countries that subscribe to this view push for increased material support for Ukraine with increasingly sophisticated weapons.

Besides that, this group of countries advocate for an increasingly bellicose treatment of Russia, refusal of any compromise or negotiations, and intensifying international pressure on Putin’s regime.

Option two: Frustrating Russia enough to sit down for peace talks

In turn, Germany and France advance a different theory of victory.

They define it as a negotiated settlement following talks on an equal footing between Kyiv and Moscow.

They believe Russia cannot be completely obliterated without running the risk of a dangerous — or even nuclear — escalation.

Simply put, it would not be advisable to have a nuclear power in chaos, provoking spillover effects and global instability.

As such, they aim to arm Ukraine with sufficient weapons to frustrate any Russian military initiative but not to eliminate potential incentives to negotiate.

An ideal situation would be a military impasse on the front, which may force the two sides to shift to diplomacy to solve their disagreements.

Looking at the German policy from this perspective, Scholz’s reticence to supply Ukraine with tanks makes much more sense.

Bloodying Moscow’s nose — yet letting it have Crimea

Finally, the UK and the US seem to have a slightly different theory of victory than the one prioritised by Kyiv.

London and Washington seem to be happy to give the Kremlin a bloody nose and will support Ukraine in reclaiming its territory illegally occupied since the beginning of the full-scale invasion in February 2022, including the self-proclaimed separatist states in the Donbas — but not Crimea.

Eroding Russia’s conventional capabilities, without providing any incentives to Putin to escalate militarily by using nuclear weapons, fits neatly within Washington’s “strategic competition” framework.

As such, the US is providing substantial military assistance to Ukraine in a gradual, planned, and well-targeted manner, seeking to slowly chip away at Russia’s conventional capabilities without leading to an escalatory reaction.

To this end, the White House has publicly stated that it will support Ukraine to reclaim only its territory lost in 2022, evading questions regarding Crimea.

Ukrainians will pay the cost of any disagreements with their lives

The contrasting theories of victory employed by different groups of NATO countries lead to increased friction between allies.

In turn, this has hampered the entire war effort, as different countries seek to advance different paths to end the war according to their preferred definition of victory.

Countries are reluctant to engage in initiatives or to support mobilisation actions that go against their preferred route in supporting Kyiv and ending the war.

The power differentials between the US and the UK, the western Europeans, and the northern-and-eastern Europeans play a critical role.

Of the three, the latter have been surprisingly assertive and successful in pushing their views.

Relying on the media influence that Ukraine still enjoys worldwide and the domestic disagreements within Germany, they have been able to force Scholz’s hand.

However, all this squabbling comes with a cost that is counted in Ukrainian lives.

As the war evolves, the contrasting theories of victory held by different NATO members will lead to recurrent conflicts that will not end up helping improve Europe’s security.

A unified agreement on what victory entails means solidified resolve to defeat Russia

Instead, what is needed is a trans-Atlantic compromise over what should be achieved in Ukraine, with the Kyiv leadership at the table.

While Kyiv’s aims are legitimate and worthwhile, Ukrainians must also consider the implications and worries of their partners, on which they so desperately depend.

Together, these countries need to set aside their diplo-talk and agree on a straightforward view of what would comprise victory that can be shared by everyone.

To do otherwise risks undermining Ukraine’s and Europe’s success and future security.

The continued military support for Ukraine is beyond question, yet negotiating a shared theory of victory must not be taboo.

If there is to be trust between partners, and if we are to overcome current squabbles, European, North American, and Ukrainian leaders must discuss frankly where the war is going, what is to be achieved, and how it should be achieved.

Marius Ghincea is a PhD Researcher at the European University Institute in Fiesole and a Research Fellow at the Hertie School in Berlin. His research agenda focuses on the domestic politics of foreign policy, especially in the United States and Germany.

At Euronews, we believe all views matter. Contact us at [email protected] to send pitches or submissions and be part of the conversation.

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