Operation De-occupation: What Ukraine will need to liberate occupied territories – NV analysis
Опитані NV експерти вважають, що очікуваний український контрнаступ може мати як блискавичний результат, так і затягтися на триваліший період (Photo:Alex Babenko / Reuters)
NV spoke to experts about how many and what kind of weapons Ukraine will need to liberate the territories occupied by the enemy, and about the possible scenarios of de-occupation.
A year after the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion, the issue of a possible spring counter-offensive that will allow the Ukrainian Armed Forces to begin the liberation of the lands seized by the Russian invaders – including Crimea – has become much clearer. Western leaders also support the idea of a Ukrainian counteroffensive. However, the question of when Ukraine would be ready to launch an operation to liberate the occupied territories depends on the pace at which the West provides the military assistance Ukraine needs.
NV asked military experts about how many and what kind of weapons Ukraine will need to de-occupy its lands in three areas: the southeastern territories of the mainland, the Donbas, and the Crimean peninsula. We spoke to military expert Oleh Zhdanov, military expert and aviation history researcher Mikhail Zhirokhov, and military-political observer of the Information Resistance group Alexander Kovalenko.
De-occupation of the southeastern territories (parts of Zaporizhzhya, Mykolaiv, and Kherson Oblasts)
Almost all the experts interviewed by NV base their assessments on information from Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces General, Valery Zaluzhny, which he shared in December 2022 in an interview with the UK publication the Economist. At that time, the commander-in-chief said that in order to reach the borders of February 23, 2022, Ukraine needs 300 tanks, 600-700 infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), and 500 howitzers. Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov subsequently clarified that Zaluzhny meant these figures to mean the needs of the Ukrainian Armed Forces to successfully conduct one specific operation. For the complete de-occupation of Ukrainian lands, the Minister of Defense said even more equipment and weapons are needed.
The experts NV spoke to believe that with this quantity of weapons, an offensive would be most promising in the southeastern direction of Ukraine’s mainland.
The amount of equipment detailed by Zaluzhny in December 2022 represents kit for about 10 mechanized brigades to carry out active counter-offensive operations. However, in comments to NV, military expert Zhdanov recalls that in September 2022, the commander-in-chief indicated in his article that 10-20 brigades’ worth of weapons would be required to create a counter-offensive force. That is, in fact, twice the number of weapons that Zaluzhny announced in December.
“Let's take the middle figure – we need to arm 15 brigades,” suggests Zhdanov.
According to him, three or four of them should be tank brigades (300-400 tanks), with the remainder being mechanized and airborne brigades.
Zhdanov's opinion is shared by Zhirokhov. According to him, for a breakthrough that can cause Russian defenses to crumble and allow the Ukrainian Armed Forces to advance to the administrative border of occupied Crimea, they would need at least three tank brigades. That is 300 tanks.
But it is not just a question of tanks. For tank brigades to operate successfully, they need the help and cover of infantry fighting vehicles.
“In fact, each tank brigade has two more mechanized or motorized infantry brigades of 120-150 infantry fighting vehicles,” Zhirokhov points out.
Thus, for a successful operation to liberate the southeastern territories of the mainland of Ukraine, 720-900 infantry fighting vehicles would be needed.
“Plus, this offensive would require at least two artillery brigades,” says Zhirokhov, which according to his calculations, is about 220 more artillery pieces.
These figures are not maximums. According to Olexander Kovalenko from Information Resistance, calculations of the quantities of arms needed should start from what forces and assets the Russian invaders have on the most active fronts. Thus, he argues, there are now 30 battalion tactical groups (BTGs) of Russian invaders in Zaporizhzhya Oblast.
“If we open the specification for the standard equipment of a battalion tactical group,” explains Kovalenko, “these are 11 tanks, 33 infantry fighting vehicles, multiple launch rocket systems, cannon artillery, mortar units, and so on.”
Thus, for 30 BTGs, there need to be about 300 tanks, almost 1,000 infantry fighting vehicles,360 MLRS, 360 self-propelled artillery pieces and 180 mortars.
However, according to Kovalenko's estimates, the invaders' 30 BTGs in Zaporizhzhya Oblast can hardly be considered full-fledged, since they are currently not fully supplied either in terms of equipment or personnel. In addition, there are problems with ammunition and logistics.
Given this, Kovalenko poses the question: “If they have this composition and that situation, then do we need to have the same number of battalion tactical groups for a counter-offensive, especially if our armored personnel carriers are better?”
He answers himself, saying, “it is not necessary to have a quantitative advantage, but it is enough to have a technical, technological and qualitative advantage.” And according to Kovalenko, the Ukrainian Armed Forces now have such an advantage in some bridgeheads.
In his December interview with the Economist, General Zaluzhny said that in order to get to the borders of Crimea, it is necessary to cover the 84 kilometer distance to occupied Melitopol.
“This is enough for us, because Melitopol would give us full fire control over the ground corridor, because from it we can already fire at the Crimean Isthmus, with...HIMARS and so on,” Zaluzhny said of the situation last December.
The Russian military command is now doing everything it can to create a fortified area from Melitopol, so Kovalenko warns that enemy BTGs are most concentrated in the Vasilyevka-Tokmak-Melitopol triangle. Given this, Zhdanov predicts that the best direction for a counteroffensive would be to split the Russian forces in half in the southeast with access to the Sea of Azov.
“It doesn’t matter in what place,” Zhdanov explains, adding “perhaps it would even be necessary to reach the coast without hitting the cities of Berdyansk or Mariupol.”
All the better, according to Zhdanov, is to reach somewhere between them. This is dictated, first of all, by the desire to avoid a major confrontation with the enemy. At the same time, access to the Azov coast solves a number of key issues necessary to defeat Russia and actually nullifies all of Putin's achievements in the region.
“The Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant would be in a deep encirclement of our troops, as would the Kakhovka Hydro Plant,” Zhdanov explains regarding the advantages of access to the Sea of Azov.
And in this case, he argues, the Ukrainian Armed Forces would not even have to storm these facilities, because the enemy garrisons located there are unlikely to last long without logistics, supplies, ammunition, and food.
“In addition, access to the Azov coast means the elimination of the land corridor to Crimea,” Zhdanov emphasizes.
The liberated of Crimea
The liberation of the Ukrainian peninsula could be the next step in the liberation of the occupied territories. Thus, almost all the experts interviewed by NV are convinced that the destruction of the Crimean Bridge is a prerequisite for the de-occupation of Crimea, followed by a logistical blockade of the peninsula. When the Ukrainian Armed Forces arrive at the coast of the Sea of Azov, this condition will be met, since the bridge connecting Russian territory with occupied Crimea will be under fire control of Ukrainian forces, enabling the Armed Forces to launch an operation to deplete Russian forces on the peninsula.
Thus, Informational Resistance’s Kovalenko believes that the most effective scenario for the liberation of the occupied peninsula would be not a direct counter-offensive operation, but a plan analogous to the liberation of Snake Island and right-bank Kherson Oblast.
Kovalenko suggests that the de-occupation of Crimea could be achieved by a “long-term, gradual and systematic destruction of all of the Russian invaders’ assets on the peninsula.”
At the same time, one of the tasks, in his opinion, is to keep Crimea in a complete blockade for as long as possible and thus either force the invader’s army to sail away from there, or to leave it so exhausted that it cannot resist when a full-fledged counter-offensive operation begins on the peninsula.
Zhirokhov and Zhdanov support this idea of a logistical blockade. Zhdanov adds that the Ukrainian Armed Forces could also add a maritime component to this by using seaborne drones.
“True, they can only be used on the high seas, because after one drone attack, protective nets were installed in Sevastopol, and the effectiveness of these drones fell sharply,” explains Zhdanov.
However, in his opinion, if Ukraine receives missiles with a 300-500 km range, then it will beable to fight the remnants of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. And striking the base in Novorossiysk will remove the problem of the Russian fleet in the Black Sea from the agenda.
At the same time, Zhirokhov believes that the liberation of Crimea will most likely take place not by military means, but rather by political ones.
“Our Western allies are saying that an offensive in Crimea could provoke Putin into using tactical nuclear weapons – this is exactly the red line that Western countries are trying not to cross,” Zhirokhov explains.
“At least for now.”
However, Kovalenko and Zhdanov believe that Russia no longer has any red lines, and doubt that even the destruction of the Crimean bridge will provoke Russian dictator Vladimir Putin into using nuclear weapons.
“Look at the behavior of our partner countries,” says Zhdanov.
“They are no longer afraid of Putin’s reaction.”
Even the dictator's defiant proclamation that Russia was suspending participation in the New START arms control agreement did not cause much reaction in the world.
“Therefore, grabbing the nuclear “baton” and waving it around no longer gives Putin the privileges it did six months ago,” he argues.
Liberation of Donbas (parts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts)
The liberation of occupied Donbas, according to NV’s experts, will perhaps be Ukrainian defenders’ most difficult task. First of all, Donbas shares a border with Russia, and therefore will have a direct supply of Russian troops. This means that more weapons will be needed on this front.
“If 300 tanks marching across the steppes of the south is one thing, then the Donetsk region and urban developments are completely different,” Zhirokhov told NV.
Therefore, he believes that an operation to liberate this territory will require not 300, but 400-500 tanks.
Zhirokhov also believes that the Ukrainian military is trying to get away from the practice of fighting in cities.
“We know the example of Mariupol,” the expert recalls, “when the Russians had an advantage in the air and in everything else for three months.”
Given this, the Ukrainians understand that an attempt to take any city in street battles will cost lives and materiel. Therefore, according to Zhirokhov, they will most likely avoid this and choose a different strategy.
For his part, Kovalenko doubts that it makes sense to talk about some kind of counteroffensive in Donetsk Oblast any time soon.
“For a long time, it will be a defense-type springboard, where we will conduct defense,” he believes.
According to his calculations, Donetsk Oblast is host to the largest number of combat-ready and more or less completed enemy BTGs, with almost 40 deployed there. This includes almost 450 tanks, 1,300 infantry fighting vehicles, 480 MLRS, 480 self-propelled artillery pieces, and 240 mortars.
In the Luhansk region, according to Kovalenko, as well as in Zaporizhzhya Oblast, there are now up to 30 BTGs which may include approximately 300 tanks, almost 1,000 infantry fighting vehicles, 360 MLRS, 360 self-propelled artillery mounts, and 180 mortars.
At the same time, the situation in the Luhansk Oblast seems more promising to Kovalenko. However, it will be possible to talk about the prospects of moving against it only after the Russians' fiasco of an attempted offensive concludes, after which a Ukrainian counter-offensive will begin. This is how Kovalenko sees the conditions for the liberation of Luhansk Oblast. And he adds that the liberation of Donbas could take place almost simultaneously with the liberation of Crimea.
At the same time, Zhdanov believes that, along with the gradual entry of Ukrainian troops into Crimea and the de-occupation of the territories of the peninsula, holding Donbas will start to lose its significance for the Russian dictator Putin and become unjustifiable.
How long it will take
According to Zhdanov, with an appropriate amount of weapons and an uninterrupted supply of ammunition, the liberation of the occupied territories could take from one to three months.
He explains this rather minimal period by the fact that a breakthrough in one of these counter-offensives could cause a fatal collapse of all Russian defenses, leading to panic and flight by Russian military personnel. And as an example, he cites the flight of Russian invaders from Kharkiv Oblast in the fall of 2022.
“If the Russian commanders manage to keep the situation under control and they mount a fighting retreat, then it could take up to three months, or even more,” Zhdanov said.
However, Zhirokhov and Kovalenko forecast it taking more time. So, according to Zhirokhov, the most optimistic scenario for the liberation of the occupied territories could be implemented in two months. And in the most pessimistic scenario, even if counter-offensive actions begin in early March, de-occupation could be delayed until the end of 2023.
For his part, Kovalenko claims that the active phase of the war will not end this year, but will continue into 2024. It is there that the main achievements and victories await Ukraine.
“Regarding hostilities in 2024, we are talking about the liberation of Crimea and the territories of the Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts occupied since 2014,” he explains.
But be that as it may, Zhdanov believes that, judging by the more decisive statements of UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and the last Ramstein meeting, which had the consistent theme of providing Ukraine with the weapons it needs as soon as possible, Kyiv has been de-facto given the task of de-occupying its territories.
“And this is a direct path to our victory,” he says.
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