What will win or lose the Ukraine offensive?
“Don’t call it a counter-offensive,” the Ukrainians argue. “This is our offensive, our chance to finally drive the Russian army out of our territory.”
Okay, but what will it take to truly succeed?
First and foremost, let us not be fooled by Ukraine’s recent hard-fought but minor territorial advances as it retakes inconspicuous, half-abandoned settlements in eastern Donetsk and south-eastern Zaporizhzhia.
Images of victorious, battle-stained Ukrainian soldiers holding up their country’s blue and yellow flag in front of a bullet-ridden structure are a welcome morale boost for Ukrainians after months of stalemate.
However, in the grand scheme of things, this is a sideshow.
The most important Russian-held region in this campaign is in the south, between Zaporizhzhia and the Sea of Azov.
This is the so-called “land corridor” that connects Russia to the unlawfully acquired Crimea, the middle part of the purple-shaded strip on the image below, which has not changed since the invasion’s early weeks last year.
If Ukraine can separate that and maintain the land it has retaken, its offensive will have been mainly successful.
It would cut off Russia’s soldiers in the west and make resupply of their army in Crimea difficult.
It would not definitely mean the end of the war, which some now say might last years, but it would put Ukraine in a strong bargaining position when the inevitable peace talks come place.
But the Russians looked at the map a long time ago and came to the same conclusion.
So, while Ukraine sent its forces to NATO countries for training and prepared their 12 armored brigades for this summer assault, Moscow spent that time building what is now referred to as “the world’s most formidable defensive fortifications.”
Layer upon layer of Russian minefields, concrete tank-blockers (known as “dragons’ teeth”) bunkers, fire positions, and trenches broad and deep enough to stop a Leopard 2 or M1 Abrams tank in its tracks obstruct Ukraine’s path to the coast – its own coast, don’t forget.
All of this is covered by pre-determined artillery impact zones that are calibrated to rain down high explosive on Ukraine’s armored vehicles and crews while they and their engineers try to find a way through.
The early indications are that Russian defenses are holding firm, despite the fact that the campaign is still in its early stages.
Ukraine has yet to commit the majority of its forces, thus these are probing, reconnaissance operations aimed to uncover the location of Russia’s artillery and identify weak points in their lines.
Morale is working in Ukraine’s favor. Its soldiers are strongly motivated and battling to free their homeland from an invading force.
Most Russian forces are not motivated in the same way, and in many situations, their training, equipment, and leadership are inferior to Ukraine’s.
Back in Kyiv, the General Staff will be hoping that if they can achieve a substantial breakthrough, a collapse in Russian morale will be contagious, spreading throughout the battlefront as demoralized Russian forces lose the will to fight.
The quality of hardware offered by NATO members is also in Ukraine’s favor. In contrast to Soviet-designed armoured vehicles, Nato’s tanks and infantry fighting vehicles can typically take a direct blow, or at least enough to protect the personnel inside, who may then continue fighting.
But will this be enough to stop Russia’s artillery and drone attacks?
Russia, being a far larger country, has access to far more resources than Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin, who started this war in the first place, understands that if he can only wear down the Ukrainians into a stalemate that lasts into next year, the US and other allies may tire of supporting this costly war effort and begin to put pressure on Kyiv to reach a ceasefire compromise.
The analysis of Ukraine’s counter-offensive
Satellite photographs depict Russian defenses in advance of a massive attack.
Bakhmut, the city of salt and sparkling wine, is remembered fondly by Ukrainians.
Finally, there is the issue of air cover, or the lack thereof. Attacking a well-defended adversary without enough close air support is extremely dangerous.
Ukraine is well aware of this, which is why it has long pleaded with the West to give it with F16 fighter fighters.
The United States, which manufactures them, did not give the go-ahead until late May, by which time Ukraine’s onslaught had already begun.
Critically for Ukraine, the game-changing F16s may now arrive on the battlefield too late to play an important role in the early stages of this counter-offensive.
This is not to argue that the Ukrainians will be defeated.
They have repeatedly demonstrated their agility, resourcefulness, and inventiveness. They effectively drove the Russian army out of Kherson by striking their rear-area logistics centres, causing the Russians to be unable to resupply their forces in that southern city.
Ukraine will attempt to do the same today, armed with long-range weaponry such as Britain’s Storm Shadow cruise missile.
But, in the thick of all the claim and counter-claim of a propaganda war, it could be weeks or even months before we get a clearer sense of who is likely to win this conflict.