With Ukraine's long-awaited counteroffensive in southern and eastern Ukraine now under way, pressure will build on Kyiv to demonstrate its forces can make strategic gains and prove to its Western allies that it can win the war. Richard Gardiner discusses the nature of the task at hand, and measures what success and failure would look like for Ukraine.
In early June, Ukraine's long-awaited counteroffensive began. The start of the next phase of the war was confirmed by intensifying Ukrainian military operations along the frontlines in eastern and southern Ukraine, as well as the introduction of new Western equipment, including Leopard 2 tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles. With conditions now set for a sustained Ukrainian push into Russian-occupied territory, the coming months before the winter conditions return herald a dynamic, volatile, and potentially pivotal period in the conflict.
The challenges ahead
The failure of Russian forces to make strategic gains in their winter offensive, combined with the influx of significant amounts of Western weaponry in recent months, has given Ukraine a solid foundation to go on the attack. Ukraine remains a motivated and well-equipped force that has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to prevail against a larger enemy, and reports indicate that the majority of its dedicated counteroffensive units are yet to join the fight. The recent mutiny led by Yevgeny Prigozhin within the Wagner forces had a minimal immediate impact on Russian forces stationed on Ukraine's frontlines, but it carries potential long-term repercussions for Russia's war effort. The incident likely signifies the demise of Wagner as an autonomous military presence in Ukraine, while also revealing vulnerabilities within the Russian leadership, which could lead to increased political instability. The ensuing uncertainty could serve to erode the morale of Russian forces, while simultaneously bolstering Ukrainian hopes of further disarray among Russian troops. However, the success of the Ukraine's offensive is not guaranteed. In contrast to the surprise of Ukraine's dramatic counteroffensive in the Kharkiv Oblast in late 2022, Russia has had time to prepare its defensive lines in southern Ukraine, which consist of well-established trench networks, minefields, and lines of anti-tank obstacles. Russian artillery units have also had months to fine-tune their targeting in specific zones, creating a formidable challenge for Ukrainian assault forces attempting to breach the defensive lines.
Additionally, offensive operations are more complex than defensive ones, and Ukrainian success will come at a cost in terms of human life and equipment. Forces attacking well-prepared defensive positions typically suffer higher casualties than the defending force, and military doctrine suggests that attacking forces should have a 3-to-1 advantage to achieve success. Combined with improved Russian tactics, such as enhanced electronic warfare and increased utilisation of attack helicopters in the early phases of the counteroffensive, there are signs that the coming months will be tough and bloody for Ukraine's attackers. The numerous factors influencing the trajectory of the counteroffensive, and the unpredictable nature of warfare, create significant uncertainty over the final result. Nevertheless, Ukraine possesses clear goals that it aims to achieve. Below we evaluate what success or failure would look like.
Ukraine's counteroffensive in southern and eastern Ukraine
The success of Ukraine's counteroffensive will primarily be determined by its ability to recapture and hold key territories. If it can break through the well-fortified Russian lines across Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk oblasts, it is likely to cause a collapse in Russian morale and a withdrawal of forces. One of the main objectives is to regain control of the crucial logistical hubs in the land bridge between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, such as Melitopol or Tokmak. Although capturing these cities alone may not secure a victory for Ukraine, it would have significant operational implications by severely hindering Russia's ability to resupply its troops in Crimea and Kherson, as well as setting the scene for future Ukrainian operations in 2024. Such territorial gains would showcase Ukraine's effective utilisation of donated military equipment, justifying additional aid packages and reducing war weariness in Western capitals. Lastly, a successful Ukrainian operation would not only allow them to regain the initiative, but deal a psychological blow to the Kremlin and suggest that its objectives in Ukraine are growing further out of their reach.
A mixed bag
Partial success will likely involve Ukraine recapturing some territory, but not achieving a decisive advance or retaking strategically valuable towns such as Melitopol or Tokmak. Breaching Russian defensive lines in parts of Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia oblasts would demonstrate to Western allies that Ukraine can succeed with continued support and the expansion of donated equipment, such as F-16 jets, which would bolster Ukraine's air support capabilities in future operations.
Ukraine remains a motivated and well-equipped force that has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to prevail against a larger enemy.'
Limited success would also entail Ukraine minimising its own personnel and equipment losses, while inflicting heavy Russian casualties. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky continues to rule out peace talks with Russia and has stressed the importance of battlefield victories to prevent a stalemate. Therefore, Ukraine's failure to achieve its territorial objectives in the current operation will require further counter-offensives in 2024. In this scenario it becomes crucial that Ukrainian forces maintain their offensive potential, while further diminishing Russia's over the coming months, to increase their chances of success in the new year.
The counteroffensive can be considered a failure if Ukraine fails to make significant territorial gains, inflicts limited Russian losses and suffers heavy casualties of its own. In such a scenario, the current front line would remain largely unchanged as the conflict settles in autumn. A winter stalemate would play into Russian President Vladimir Putin's hands and solidify his belief that Ukraine's Western allies will ultimately lose patience, reducing their support for the struggling war effort and pressuring Zelensky into making significant territorial concessions. While Western countries would be concerned about the precedent this sets, the costs and pressures of funding billions of dollars worth of military equipment and resources to Ukraine may become overwhelming amid increasing domestic resistance. Ultimately, the prerequisite for continued military support will be for Ukraine to demonstrate that it can make progress towards the final objective of winning the war. If Ukraine enters the winter without the initiative and an exhausted, depleted army, it will find it increasingly challenging to convince its partners that it can be victorious.