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.
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.
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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