In depth

How Ukraine's looming counteroffensive could reshape Russia's war

What we know about the potentially crucial move

For months now, Ukraine and its Western allies have been discussing a big springtime push by Ukrainian forces to recapture another significant portion of Ukrainian land seized by Russia and its proxy forces over the past decade but especially in the year since Russia launched its full invasion. And now, with Russia's winter offensive appearing to have ended in bloody failure, there's widespread speculation that Ukraine's counteroffensive is imminent. "It may have already started; it may be weeks away," wrote CNN's Nick Paton Walsh. "We don't know — and that fact is a strong measure of Ukraine's success as this begins."

The stakes for this looming fight are enormous. Ukraine needs to prove it can put donated Western tanks, armored vehicles, artillery and rockets to good use, pushing Russia back. Russia, on the other hand, has spent months digging trenches and building fortifications to ensure that Ukraine does not recapture its seized territory. And both sides have already taken heavy casualties, consecrating the eastern front with too much blood to abandon casually.

When and where is Ukraine going to launch its attack?

For obvious reasons, Ukraine is not broadcasting its attack plans beforehand. But a series of incidents in Russian or Russian-occupied territories — fuel depot explosions in Crimea, partisan attacks in Melitopolfreight trail derailments in Russia's Bryansk region — suggest Kyiv is laying the groundwork for an attack. "We are ready and have been waiting for a counteroffensive for a long time," a Ukrainian soldier, "Artur," said in a text to CNN. "We have completed our resupply."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper that Ukraine is "waiting for ammunition to arrive from our partners" before launching the counteroffensive. "We can't start yet, we can't send our brave soldiers to the front line without tanks, artillery and long-range rockets," he added. Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov stated in a briefing that the tanks Ukraine will use in the counteroffensive have arrived, and "preparations are coming to an end."

Not everyone was convinced Zelensky will actually carry through with the attack, reported BBC News, but those doubts seem to have disappeared. The Kremlin has already instructed Russian state media to "not lower the expectations of the announced Ukrainian counteroffensive" but rather prepare to spin it as a victory if the campaign falls short and blame "the entire West" if it succeeds, reported Russian opposition outlet Meduza.

"I would emphasize there will not be just one big push but probably several different offensives," retired Australian Maj. Gen. Mick Ryan, who has been following the war closely, wrote on his "Futura Doctrina" Substack. "This is because both the south and the east present opportunities for offensive action. But it is also because the Ukrainians will want to deceive Russia about their main effort," as they did to great effect in their fall counteroffensive.

Kyiv isn't necessarily thrilled with all the speculation. Only three people know when Ukraine will attack: Zelensky, the defense minister and Ukraine's commander in chief, stated Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar on social media. "Please stop asking experts questions about a counteroffensive on the air, please stop writing blogs and posts on this topic, please stop publicly discussing the military plans of our army."

"We will not have an element of surprise. Because every smartphone is shouting about this counteroffensive," Artur told CNN. The Russians "may not know where it will be, or maybe they do. And if they do, they will be prepared."

How will Ukraine determine the right moment to strike?

"Timing will be everything" in this counteroffensive, and the first consideration is the weather and how much Ukraine's springtime "mud season" would slow down trucks, ground troops, tanks and other treaded vehicles, wrote Ryan. Ukraine will also be guided by when its forces are ready and adequately supplied, when the politics are right, and when opportunity knocks. "As soon as it is God's will, the weather and the commanders' decision, we will do it," said Reznikov.

Ukraine would ideally like to push southeast through Zaporizhzhia toward Melitopol and the Sea of Azov, severing Russia's land bridge to Crimea and cutting off its supply lines to positions further west, Phillips O'Brien, a professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, told The Wall Street Journal. Russia has been preparing for such an attack by building up defensive fortifications in Zaporizhzhia, but "one thing [the Ukrainians] have been good at is seeing where they can take advantage of weaker points in the Russian line," he added. "The key thing is to have some success."

How will Ukraine attack?

"Ukraine's operational plans remain confidential, but some aspects of what is to come are discernible" from a survey of the Western weapons it's receiving and previous battlefield performance, reported the Journal. Groups of Ukrainian troops have been training in Europe and the U.S. to both learn how to use the new Western tanks and weapons systems and to work on using those weapons in coordination with artillery units, foot soldiers, combat engineers and other assets in combined-arms maneuvers

We also know that, due to Ukraine's limited number of aircraft and its contested airspace, it "won't be able to launch a NATO-style assault," added the Journal. Instead of leading the offensive with a massive air attack, "Ukraine will probably launch a big attack — or multiple smaller attacks — using ground-based precision long-range weaponry including rockets and artillery," such as HIMARS and howitzers. 

After the "initial fusillade of artillery and rockets, Ukrainian ground forces are likely to advance in large numbers, much as U.S. troops would," though with fewer modern battle tanks, predicted the Journal. "Behind a front wave of tanks would likely follow dozens of armored fighting vehicles" and infantry carriers, which "can transport foot soldiers to take and hold territory or to fend off Russian infantry that might threaten Ukrainian forces."

"As the Ukrainians have shown at Kyiv, Kherson and Kharkiv, they — unlike the Russians — know how to plan and conduct successful large-scale offensives," wrote Ryan. But "this time, the Ukrainians will have to fight through more dense obstacle belts established by the Russians in the east and south," designed both to "channel attackers into 'killing zones' as well as slow down and break up the cohesion of attacks."

In fact, "Russia has constructed some of the most extensive systems of military defensive works seen anywhere in the world for many decades" and "not just near the current front lines" but also "deep inside areas Russia currently controls," wrote Britain's Ministry of Defense. "The defenses highlight Russian leaders' deep concern that Ukraine could achieve a major breakthrough."

Will Ukraine's new Western armaments make a difference?

Yes, but it's unclear how much. "While Kyiv's forces are more motivated and, in some cases, better armed than Moscow's troops, Russia has had months to prepare for a Ukrainian attack and shown greater willingness to expend lives and materiel," reported the Journal.

"More than 98 percent of the combat vehicles promised to Ukraine have already been delivered," said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. "That means over 1,550 armored vehicles, 230 tanks and other equipment, including vast amounts of ammunition," he added. "In total, we have trained and equipped more than nine new Ukrainian armored brigades. This will put Ukraine in a strong position to continue to retake occupied territory."

Ukraine's new "first-rate Western tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, artillery" and other equipment "will pose a massive challenge to Russia's hold on its occupied territory," agreed Ryan. The Russian-dug trenches, tank ditches, dragon's teeth, mines and other defensive obstacles will require "dangerous and slow" work by specialized teams, but "the last few American aid packages have recognized this with large amounts of combat engineering equipment."

Besides, physical defenses are only an obstacle if they are well-defended, and if the depleted Russian forces don't man the trenches and other barriers, Ukraine can just bulldoze them and advance, retired U.S. Army Lt. John Nagl, who teaches warfighting at the U.S. Army War College, told the Journal. "If the Ukrainians can penetrate these defensive zones and break into Russian rear areas, they could capture both Russian forces and large swathes of territory," said Ryan. 

The goal of giving Ukraine modern weapons is ultimately to crush Russian forces enough that Putin "is nudged into peace talks where the Kremlin cedes at least the territory it has taken since the invasion in February 2022," reported the Journal. "But few officials have any confidence the war and the peace will unfold so neatly," and many believe that "even newly supplied with armaments, Ukrainian forces are unlikely to gain such a decisive enough battlefield advantage that Kyiv is in position to demand the return of all that ground."

And even if Ukraine recaptures "significant" amounts of territory and inflicts "unsustainable losses" on Russian forces, a leaked Defense Intelligence Agency report assessed, "negotiations to end the conflict are unlikely during 2023 in all considered scenarios," according to The Washington Post.

Why is this counteroffensive so important?

Obviously, "Ukraine wants to re-seize the initiative in this war" and "take back their territory" while degrading Russia's invading army, wrote Ryan at Australia's ABC News. But this is also a "battle of wills," and "destroying Russian morale will be an important objective," too. 

Putin is showing every sign of planning to grind Ukraine down through a war of attrition and wait out Kyiv's Western allies. So Ukraine needs to "demonstrate to the Russians — from Putin to the bottom of their army — that they cannot win this war" and "their days in Ukraine are numbered," added Ryan. "This psychological aspect of offensive operations is very important." 

And that's another advantage of Ukraine upgrading its armaments while Russia is, out of necessity, "turning to much older tanks and armored vehicles drawn from Cold War stores," Ryan stated on his Substack. "Imagine you are the tank crew of an old Russian tank that is three to four times as old as you are. And imagine then you have been briefed that you will be coming up against the latest Western tanks," he said. "Regardless of what the ludicrous Russian propaganda tells us, this will have a significant impact on Russian morale."

After this hard winter, Ukraine also needs to rack up some wins to maintain Western support and interest, John Spencer, chair of urban warfare studies at the Madison Policy Forum think tank, told the Journal. "A Ukrainian spring offensive with Leopards and Bradleys in the lead will do more for them in the alliances than any actual ground they take back."

"The success of this Ukrainian campaign may not just determine the level of support from Western nations," though, wrote Ryan at The Sydney Morning Herald. "Depending on the degree to which they achieve success, it may well provide a foundation for Ukrainian victory. A massive wave of steel and fire will shortly be unleashed on the Russians to give the Ukrainians the best chance of achieving this."

Updated May 3, 2023: This piece has been updated throughout to reflect recent developments. 


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