A Ukrainian artillery unit near the embattled city of Bakhmut

A Ukrainian artillery unit near the embattled city of Bakhmut

Foto: Roman Chop / AP / dpa

Operation Counterstrike What Might the Approaching Ukrainian Offensive Achieve?

Ukraine will likely unleash its counteroffensive soon with tanks, drones and fresh troops. Kyiv badly needs some kind of success. The troops aren't only fighting the Russians – they also need to prove to the West that they are still worthy of support.

The Ukrainian officer sets up a Google Meet call just five minutes ahead of our interview, sending the link from quarters located somewhere in the southwestern Ukrainian region of Zaporizhzhia. He declines to say exactly where.

The lieutenant-colonel and the reconnaissance unit he commands were sent to this part of the front back in late February. Since then, they have been scouting the front lines and mapping the trenches dug by the Russian troops. Drones, satellite imagery, frontline reconnaissance missions: The Ukrainian unit has been deploying all the tools at its disposal.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 20/2023 (May 13th, 2023) of DER SPIEGEL.

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They are, says the commander, "of course tired." In the initial weeks of the war, they helped stop the initial Russian push toward the capital of Kyiv. In the fall, they were part of the liberation of Kherson, the last major military success for the Ukrainians. Soon, they are likely to take part in another vital battle – one which could shape future developments in this war.

For the past several months, the leadership in Kyiv has been preparing a large-scale counteroffensive. New combat units have been formed and heavy weaponry has been brought into the country from NATO member states, including battle tanks, self-propelled guns and armored vehicles. The Ukrainian army has trained tens of thousands of new troops, some at bases inside Ukraine and others at sites in the United Kingdom, Poland and elsewhere under the watchful guidance of American and German military personnel. Ukraine intends to send at least 12 new brigades into battle, the equivalent of up to 50,000 troops. Their goal is that of overrunning well-protected Russian positions and reconquering as much occupied territory in the south and east of the country as possible.

The Ukrainians, though, aren’t just taking on the Russian army, they are also fighting to shore up public opinion in the West. If the counteroffensive doesn’t deliver results, support in Ukraine’s partner countries could begin to erode. Furthermore, political shifts in NATO member states – especially a possible Donald Trump victory in U.S. presidential elections next year – could even endanger future aid and weapons deliveries.

Where and when, exactly, the Ukrainian troops will attack is only known to a handful of people in top military and government leadership positions. But it is widely considered a certainty that the counteroffensive will be launched soon. Perhaps within just a few weeks – or even a few days.

Trenches, Minefields and "Dragon's Teeth"

The lieutenant-colonel in Zaporizhzhia says that fresh units trained in the West were recently deployed to his section of the front. "It has been good for the morale of those who have been fighting for several months." The new troops are well-trained and well-equipped, he says, "but they’ve never fought before." Real battlefield experience, he says, cannot be replaced no matter how good the training is, adding that it remains to be seen just how well-prepared the new troops really are.

The officer says that the Ukrainian troops in this region are facing soldiers from the regular Russian army along with members of the Russian National Guard and special forces from the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency. The latter, says the lieutenant-colonel, have better discipline and better morale than the regular troops, who sometimes drink to excess and don’t always obey orders. But he says that he hasn’t seen any Russian paratroopers – who are considered particularly tough and were responsible for no small number of Ukrainian casualties in Kherson – in the area. "They’re probably all in the Donbas," he says.

The staggered Russian lines, the commander continues, are well-fortified – as can also be seen in satellite images. The defensive positions are secured threefold: with trenches, minefields and concrete obstacles known as "dragon’s teeth."

Whether the recently arrived Ukrainian units will actually attack at this particular site is unclear. The deployment could easily be a feint to confuse the Russians and distract them from an advance somewhere else in the country.

Russia continues to hold almost one-sixth of Ukraine’s territory, including almost the entire Luhansk region in the far east of the country along with significant chunks of the Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions. As such, there are a number of places a counterattack might target. The Ukrainian leadership could group its troops together for a single, large attack, or launch an endless series of smaller attacks over the next several months at different locations along the front.

Kyiv’s army may attack in Zaporizhzhia and, concurrently, try to reach the eastern banks of the Dnieper River in Kherson. An advance through the embattled town of Vuhledar toward Mariupol is also possible, as is an attack in the area of Kupiansk and Svatove in an effort to cut Russian supply lines to its troops in the Donbas. Even a counterstrike near Bakhmut is possible. Mercenaries from the Wagner Group in conjunction with regular Russian units have almost completely taken over the town in Donetsk following months of vicious fighting, with significant losses on both sides. In recent days, however, Ukrainian units have been carrying out counterattacks on the Russian flank and have retaken a small strip of land to the south of the city. Some Russian military bloggers have expressed concern that the Ukrainian strikes could be the prelude to a much larger operation.

The Nerve Center of Melitopol

But if there is such a thing as a nerve center for the Russian military presence in Ukraine, it is the city of Melitopol in the southern part of the Zaporizhzhia region. An important rail hub located some 65 kilometers behind the front, the city is vital for Russian logistics in southern Ukraine. A Ukrainian advance to Melitopol wouldn’t just drive a wedge between the Russian troops in the south and those in the east, it could also endanger Russian supply lines to Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014.

That strategic importance explains why Russian positions north of the city are so well-fortified. "They have had a lot of time to prepare," says Ivan Fedorov, the mayor of Melitopol. In the initial days of the war, he was abducted by the occupiers, but was later released as part of a prisoner exchange. He is now in a part of Ukraine under the control of Kyiv. He still maintains close contacts with people in his occupied hometown.

In a telephone conversation, Fedorov says that the Russians have begun closing passport offices and other occupational administrative offices in the city of his birth. The occupiers also recently ordered residents in 18 towns close to the front in the Zaporizhzhia region to "evacuate," saying that the area could soon see intense fighting. One of those towns is Enerhodar, home to the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. "They are taking the people to Berdiansk on the Sea of Asov, or even further to Russia," says Fedorov.

Melitopol Mayor Ivan Fedorov (in March 2022 in Zaporizhzhia): "They have had a lot of time to prepare."

Melitopol Mayor Ivan Fedorov (in March 2022 in Zaporizhzhia): "They have had a lot of time to prepare."

Foto: Emin Oezmen / Magnum Photos

At the same time, the mayor says, there have been troop movements in the opposite direction. "The occupiers are bringing tanks, artillery and a large number of soldiers to the front through Melitopol." He says that a number of locals in the region continue to secretly provide information to Ukrainian intelligence officials and special forces in the region, resulting in a precise overview of enemy movements. Still, Fedorov says, because the Russians had so much time to build up significant defensive fortifications, he believes that any attack toward Melitopol would be difficult.

Leaders in Kyiv have also recently begun trying to manage expectations for the counteroffensive. People abroad are "waiting for something huge," Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov recently told the Washington Post, adding that he fears such expectations could lead to "emotional disappointment."

The minister’s warning comes a month after secret U.S. memos about Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine were publicized. Among the documents was a U.S. secret service memo in which analysts noted in early February that they expected only "modest territorial gains" from the approaching counteroffensive.

In the reconquering of Kharkiv and Kherson last fall, the Ukrainians were able to leverage advantages that they won’t have this time around. Russia faced significant challenges in supplying its troops on the western banks of the Dnieper River, while the Ukrainian army was able to find a soft spot in enemy lines in Kharkiv and used it for a surprise attack. But they were unable to ride the momentum of the breakthrough in the winter because Moscow threw tens of thousands of new recruits at the Ukrainians.

The approaching counteroffensive will have its own character, says Franz-Stefan Gady, a military expert at the Institute for International Strategic Studies in London. He believes that a slow advance, similar to that seen in Kherson, is more likely than a quick, large-scale attack like in Kharkiv. He believes that "multiple, creeping operations" are more likely and warns against launching any attack too soon. "The longer Ukraine delays the offensive – into late May, maybe early June – the better." Such a wait, he says, would give Ukrainian troops more time to train and familiarize themselves with the new weaponry.

Ukraine will have an additional 230 Western battle tanks available, in addition to 1,550 more armored vehicles and at least 260 more howitzers. NATO has trained and outfitted nine Ukrainian brigades. These units are now ready, says Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, but the Ukrainian military is still waiting for the final deliveries of armored vehicles, which is why they need "a bit more time" before launching the counterattack.

No single weapons system will decide this war, says Gady. "It's all about using arms in combination with tactics." Artillery pieces like the Panzerhaubitze 2000 from Germany will continue to be key in future battles, the analyst says. And new tank units with models like the Leopard 2 will also play an important role, as will modern air defense systems that will protect the Ukrainians from warplanes and ballistic missiles.

"War Is Always Chaos"

Finally, there is the human factor. "War is always chaos," says Gady, who visited the embattled city of Bakhmut in early March. "An able commander turns it into organized chaos." Particularly in offensive operations, he says, it is vital to delegate decisions to individual commanders at the field level. They are able to react to changes more rapidly and take advantage of openings that may present themselves.

In the first year of war, the Ukrainians were frequently able to do so. But the almost constant fighting has come at the cost of many of their most experienced soldiers and officers. The leaked papers from the Pentagon include estimates that up to 131,000 Ukrainians have been either killed or injured since the beginning of the war – against estimates of up to 223,000 Russian casualties. The Kremlin, too, has lost many of its best units, most recently in the brutal fighting seen in Bakhmut and Vuhledar.

The general staff in Kyiv estimates that there are currently around 300,000 Russian soldiers in Ukraine. A senior military intelligence officials says that between 7,000 and 10,000 of them are part of the Wagner Group of mercenaries.

Putin’s soldiers have learned from some of the mistakes they made earlier on in the war. They have now moved important supply hubs, munitions depots and command centers far behind the frontlines to keep them out of range of the precise HIMARS multiple-rocket launchers in the Ukrainian arsenal. The Russians have also made things more difficult for their opponents with jamming transmitters, which have, in recent months, caused countless Ukrainian drones to fall harmlessly from the sky. They are even thought have developed the ability to disrupt the GPS signals used by HIMARS rockets.

The Ukrainians have responded with innovations of their own. Their soldiers have increasingly launched attacks using homemade kamikaze drones, according to the commander of a reconnaissance unit in the Donbas. Such drones are able to carry payloads of up to 2 kilograms to targets 10 kilometers away. They are cheap, reliable and are now being produced at hundreds of sites around the country, the officer says. He sees them as an effective alternative to American Switchblade drones, which have proven vulnerable to Russian jamming. "At the tactical level, the homemade drones can have a significant effect," the major says, sending along a video as proof of a drone attack carried out by his troops on a Russian position.

The Ukrainians are also working on weapons that will be able to strike at targets far behind the front. In late April, oil tanks in Crimea exploded, likely the result of a Ukrainian drone attack. The lieutenant-colonel at the front in Zaporizhzhia says there will be additional "surprises" unveiled in the counterattack: Weapons developed in Ukraine that haven’t yet been deployed.

Kyiv Seeks to Lower Expectations

On top of that is a previously secret delivery from Britain, first reported by the U.S. broadcaster CNN, that could prove decisive for the operation’s success. Storm Shadow cruise missiles, which have a range of more than 250 kilometers, are thought to already be in Ukraine. Such missiles would allow Ukrainian forces to strike important targets deep into Russian occupied territory.

By contrast, there hasn’t been much movement on the F-16 fighter jets Kyiv has been requesting for the past several months. NATO member states have hundreds of the warplanes but have thus far not agreed to send them to Ukraine. "We need them to protect our population and our troops,” says Oleksiy Danilov, head of the Ukrainian Security Council. "We will continue to ask for them, and we will also get them." For the counteroffensive, though, the Ukrainians will likely be forced to rely on around two dozen MiG-29 warplanes committed by Poland and Slovakia.

Either way, says military analyst Gady, the offensive – no matter how large it ultimately is and how successful it may be – won’t bring the war to an end. He warns against measuring the success of the approaching operation solely by how much territory the Ukrainian army is able to reconquer. Also important, he says, is the degree to which the Kremlin’s forces can be weakened without an excessive number of Ukrainian casualties. Gady believes that any counteroffensive could be considered a success if it secures long-term support from the West. The Ukrainians, he says, are in a position where they must constantly prove themselves to their partners.

That likely explains why the leadership in Kyiv is doing all it can to lower expectations. Security Council head Danilov says that he has no specific criteria for the success of the counteroffensive. "I’m not even using the word counteroffensive," he says, adding that there is only complete liberation and the various steps toward that goal. It sounds as though he is prepared for an extended conflict.

The fact that he has reason for such an approach is shown in an analysis completed by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington. Accordingly, wars since 1946 that do not end within the first year last over a decade on average.

The Ukrainian lieutenant-colonel in Zaporizhzhia even sees the defensive battle as a generational challenge. More important than individual weapons systems, he says, is the country’s will to persevere. It is up to them, he says, to free themselves once and for all from the Moscow regime. "We cannot leave this to our children."

With additional reporting by Fedir Petrov

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