After months of anticipation, Ukraine’s armed forces – newly trained in complex warfare tactics and armed with billions of dollars in advanced Western weaponry – launched multi-front operations last week in an attempt to dislodge entrenched Russian military units, a counter-offensive that many officials in the United States and Europe say it could be a turning point in the 15-month war.
Much depends on the outcome. There is little doubt that the new military impetus will influence discussions about future aid to Ukraine, as well as debates about how to secure Ukraine’s future. What remains unclear, however, is what exactly the United States, Europe and Ukraine see as a “successful” counter-offensive.
Publicly, US and European officials leave any definition of success to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. For now, Mr. Zelensky has not set any public goals beyond his oft-stated demand that Russian troops leave all of Ukraine. He is known as a master communicator; any perception that he is withdrawing that broad ambition could undermine his support at a critical time.
Privately, US and European officials admit that it is highly unlikely that all Russian troops will be expelled from occupied Ukrainian land. Yet two themes emerge as clear ideas of “success”: that the Ukrainian army recaptures and holds significant parts of territory previously occupied by the Russians, and that Kiev deals a debilitating blow to the Russian army that forces the Kremlin to doubt the future. of its military options in Ukraine.
Some success on the battlefield, whether in decimating the Russian army, claiming territory, or both, could help Kiev secure additional military aid from Europe and the United States. It would also instil confidence in the Allied capitals that their strategy of transforming Ukrainian forces into a Western-style army is working. And most importantly, such a result would create more support in Europe for some kind of long-term security guarantee for Kiev and strengthen Ukraine’s position at the negotiating table.
Success is not guaranteed. Throughout the war, the Ukrainian army, with highly motivated troops, creative military operations and advanced Western weaponry, has outperformed the Russian army. army. But the Ukrainians have also found it difficult in recent months to drive the Russians out of their entrenched defensive positions, while the front lines barely moved.
Nevertheless, Ukraine has shown that it can launch successful offensives, such as last year when it seized much of the territory east of Kharkiv and recaptured the southern city of Kherson after a long battle.
US intelligence officials have determined that the most likely scenarios are smaller Ukrainian victories in the opening stages of the fighting, such as retaking parts of the Donbas or driving Russia out of agricultural and mining areas in southeastern Ukraine.
The seizure of the nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia would be both a symbolic and a strategic victory, returning one of the world’s largest nuclear power plants and an important source of electricity to Ukraine.
US and European officials say it is critical for Ukraine to cut off, or at least compress, the so-called land bridge: the large swath of territory Russia has seized between its border and the Crimean peninsula, which has become an important supply route for the military stronghold it built there.
Kiev wants to reclaim its southeastern coast on the Sea of Azov. If Ukraine can drive its troops to the coast and cut off Crimea, Mr. Zelensky could consider that a huge victory. But even if the Ukrainian forces failed to reach the sea and instead took medium-sized cities in southern Ukraine, that would effectively reduce the land bridge.
From those positions, Ukrainian forces could use medium-range artillery to threaten Russian command posts in Crimea and any military supply convoys Russia sends along the coastline. While Russian forces in Crimea are currently well-supplied, US officials said, besieging the land bridge would make the winter difficult for them.
Retaking land is one thing, but what US officials say is crucial is for Ukrainian troops to hold it.
Essentially, the United States and its allies will look to the counteroffensive for evidence that their plan to transform the Ukrainian military into a modern fighting force that uses NATO tactics, and can use complex maneuvers and advanced equipment to defeat a smaller fighting force to defeat a larger one, is sound.
Strong action by Ukraine will have the added benefit of further damaging the morale of Russian troops. The Russian army is currently facing a critical shortage of weapons and personnel. Moscow was forced to pull decades-old tanks out of storage to use in combat and relies on barely trained conscripts. Those shortfalls should prevent Russian troops from taking advantage of Ukrainian missteps or mounting their own offensive in the coming months.
“Moscow has suffered military losses requiring years of reconstruction, rendering it less able to pose a conventional military threat to Europe and operate assertively in Eurasia and on the global stage,” Avril D. Haines, the director of the National Intelligence Service, to the Senate last month.
Still, the Russian forces are starting to get better – improving their tactics and practicing better defensive operations. War always favors the defenders, something the entrenched Russians might be able to use to their advantage during Ukraine’s counterattack.
For now, the Russian air force is largely absent from the war, with Ukrainian air defense batteries threatening Russian bombers and fighters. The United States and its allies have been trying to fill Ukraine’s air defense equipment shortages. But if Russia flies more aggressive bombing attacks on Ukraine, that could pose a challenge during the counter-offensive.
US and European officials say a vital goal of the counter-offensive should be to further weaken the Russian military. Russian troops have suffered massive casualties this year in fighting in Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine. Success, as one NATO ambassador put it, would push Russia back and kill many Russian troops.
Another possible scenario, according to U.S. intelligence, is that the Russians make a mistake, such as misplacing their troops or under-defending a trench line, which could allow Ukraine to break through the lines and deliver a devastating blow. to Russian troops.
Of course, some Allied officials fear that Ukraine could be too successful. A huge loss of soldiers could force Mr Putin to mobilize a larger part of his population to build his army.
And while U.S. officials have said the risk of Putin using a nuclear weapon has decreased, U.S. intelligence officials say a total defeat in Ukraine or a loss of Crimea are two scenarios in which Putin could potentially order the use of a nuclear weapon.
A failed counteroffensive is easier to measure. If the battle lines remain relatively unchanged, or if Ukraine is unable to recapture a key city, some officials in Allied capitals or Congress are likely to cast doubts on the war, especially if the Ukrainians lose too many troops and much equipment is destroyed.
The United States, NATO allies and Ukraine have trained about 30,000 troops in combined arms maneuvers — a complex style of warfare that requires constant communication between tanks, artillery, fighter jets and infantry troops — for the express purpose of leading the counteroffensive.
If the Ukrainians fail to make significant gains from these maneuvers, it could cast doubt on the long-term strategy of the US to strengthen Ukraine by providing them with even more advanced weapons and complex training.
Failure, according to European diplomats, would essentially look like a Ukrainian army that hasn’t learned to fight, lost the equipment it’s been given to them over the past few months, and won’t gain territory to show for it – with a Russian army poised to take its drive refresh .
Despite some early losses and tough Russian defenses in the east, US officials are optimistic Ukraine will make enough gains, however small, to call the fighting a success.
Both Ukraine and Western allies have invested in the counter-offensive because, regardless of the precise outcome, it paves the way for the next phase of the war. The US and UK plan to help secure Ukraine includes building support for robust security guarantees from the US and NATO countries, as well as pushing through a plan to build closer economic ties between Kiev and European countries.
Crucially, if the counter-offensive weakens Russia, it may be forced to engage in meaningful dialogue with a stronger Ukraine.
Biden administration officials cautiously say their support for Ukraine will not depend on the success of the counter-offensive.
Speaking with Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Thursday, President Biden brushed aside questions about future funding for Ukraine’s struggle.
“I think we will have the necessary funding to support Ukraine for as long as it takes,” Biden said.
But realistically, success or failure could affect support within an unruly US Congress, which must approve additional funding for Ukraine, as well as in Europe, where there are similar concerns about how long the war will last, how much it will cost and what it will do in the longer term to energy and food prices.
Whatever the outcome of the counter-offensive, US and European officials agree that Putin is in no mood to negotiate for now. But Mr. Putin understands brute force, and that’s what makes the counteroffensive so important. If followed by continued Western support and security assurances, that at least has the potential to change the calculus in Moscow.
David E Sanger reporting contributed.