What to expect of Ukraine’s grand counter-offensive – NV analysis

20 May, 02:24 PM
Battle of the year. The Armed Forces are ready for an offensive to liberate the occupied territory of Ukraine (Photo:Dmytro Smolienko/NURPHOTO via Reuters Connect)

Battle of the year. The Armed Forces are ready for an offensive to liberate the occupied territory of Ukraine (Photo:Dmytro Smolienko/NURPHOTO via Reuters Connect)

NV asked experts to share their opinions on where and when a Ukrainian counter-offensive will begin, and what to expect of it.

The West and Ukraine have for several months been pondering the prospects for a major counter-offensive by the Ukrainian army. World leaders, top officials, politicians, military analysts and journalists are all guessing when it will start, its main attack direction, and its possible outcomes.

And the West is now increasingly expressing fears that Ukraine won't be able to break the Russian army's back in one mighty blow. Ukrainian officials too have started to call for caution: expectations are too high, no decisive victory is coming is the message.

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The words of Volodymyr Havrylov, Deputy Minister of Defense of Ukraine, resonated against this background. He told UK newspaper the Independent: "We will launch our counter-offensive – when and where doesn’t matter now. (Then,) Russia will be in panic; you will see a lot of panic."

But as of now, this remains only brave talk. There is no clear timetable for a Ukrainian offensive.

“We really need some more time, not too much. We will be ready in some time … I can't share with you," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on May 15. But he did share with journalists his belief that Ukraine would win by 2024.

At least 12 brigades with a total of 30,000 soldiers have been trained for the upcoming major Ukrainian offensive, Western politicians and experts say. Nine of them were trained in Western countries. According to estimates by Bloomberg, Kyiv has received at least 200 tanks and 300 infantry fighting vehicles from its U.S. and European partners.

That was the reasoning behind the U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken's recent statement that the Ukrainian Armed Forces are 100% ready for a successful counter-offensive.

So what can we expect from the Ukrainian Defense Forces? When will they launch the long-rumored major offensive? What outcome can we hope for? NV asked these questions to three national military experts: Yuriy Karin, a military columnist, coordinator of the Information Resistance OSINT group; Oleksandr Kovalenko, a military expert from the "Information Resistance" group; and Mykhailo Samus, director of the New Geopolitics Research Network.

Here is a generalized predictive analysis of the Ukrainian counter-offensive:

The theory of the big blow

The experts named the three most beneficial areas for a Ukrainian large-scale attack: 

  • the left or eastern bank of Kherson Oblast (towards the isthmuses leading to Crimea);
  • the coastal part of Zaporizhzhya Oblast (from Zaporizhzhya to Melitopol, cutting the "land corridor" to Crimea); 
  • Luhansk Oblast (from Svatove into the east direction to the state border).

The Ukrainian army is preparing for a possible offensive in all these directions. These prep works are similar to that done before the liberation of the right (western) bank of the Dnipro River of Kherson Oblast. It will require missile and artillery attacks deep within Russian-occupied Ukrainian areas, with strikes to eliminate command posts, ammunition warehouses, fuel tanks, logistics hubs and personnel housing facilities, Samus said.

“If you look back at the Kherson operation, everyone was calling and asking the same questions: ‘When is the attack going to happen, why is it being postponed for so long?’” says Samus.

‘In Ukraine and in Western military science, there is no such thing as ‘Let's capture a city by May 9. There are no set deadlines, there are conditions for (conducting) such operations. And they’re being created right now."

The experts interviewed by NV refuse to speculate on the possible dates of the counter-offensive, only saying that it could start in the near future. After all, the ground is at least ready to bear the movement of heavy equipment.

All three named possible directions for a "big strike" are convenient for the deployment of the Ukraine's army's tank assault formations.

However, only the General Staff of the Armed Forces knows what the actual plan is.

Ut Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Valerii Zaluzhnyi and his team likely have several scenarios for a grand counter-offensive of this year, all experts agreed on that.

Eventually, it may not even be a single strike, but a combination of them, depending on the situation, they said.

It may be, for example, an initial breakthrough across the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast, followed by an offensive from Zaporizhzhya to the south.

In this case, the Ukrainian army can strike across the Dnipro in the direction of Crimea, cutting off weapons and personnel supplies from Crimea to the Tokmak-Melitopol area. It would set the conditions for a Ukrainian offensive from Zaporizhzhya to the east and forced the occupiers to retreat to the east, to the devastated city of Mariupol.

The Russians obviously fear this very scenario. Satellite images show many kilometers of defence lines and barriers they are preparing north of Melitopol.

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According to the UK Defence Intelligence, Russia has completed three layers of defensive zones across about 120 kilometers of the frontline in the southern part of Zaporizhzhya Oblast: a front line of forward combat positions and two lines of more elaborated and continuous defenses with a gap of about 10-20 kilometers between them.

Still, even such a deep defence won't be able to stop the Ukrainian army, Oleksandr Kovalenko believes.

"Let there be even 10 lines, which is actually even worse for the Russians. After all, when the first line of defense is rapidly collapsed, the defending forces must be able to quickly regroup and retreat in a controlled manner to the second line. Otherwise, the entire front will collapse," the analyst said. "It all depends on how professionally the Armed Forces act.”

The counter-offensive operation may go in the reverse direction: starting from Zaporizhzhya and after reaching the Sea of Azov, turn west in order to get to the Dnipro River from this side and reach the administrative border of Crimea.

At the same time, the Ukrainian Armed Forces army may launch a distracting secondary strike in Luhansk Oblast.

However, it may start with distracting attacks along the entire front from Vasylivka (on the left bank of the Dnipro River, south of Zaporizhzhya) to the state border in the north of Luhansk Oblast. After all, this entire segment looks like a huge half-ring, with the Ukrainian Defense Forces occupying the inner, shorter circumference, and the Russians the outer. That's why it's easier for the Ukrainian Armed Forces to maneuver their forces here, forcing the occupiers to play catchup. If the enemy is "loosened up" by a few limited attacks, forced to hastily "plug the holes" with reserves, the Ukrainian command will have a chance to deliver a powerful cleaving blow in an unexpected place.

Moreover, the battle for Bakhmut in Donetsk Oblast will serve as an additional destabilizing factor for the Russian army. It has absorbed significant enemy resources, and is continuing to do so.

Logistics and the controllability of troops on all the length of the front line will be critical to the survival of the Russian army, the experts said unanimously. And this has always been Russia's major weakness.

The experts emphasize that a counter-offensive shouldn't be viewed dogmatically. Not only can it be launched in different directions and even combine several thrusts, but the operation itself can last for an indefinite amount of time. In fact, it will most likely consist of several separate stages.

"Each scenario has a maximum program and a minimum program. Force majeure can change everything," Kovalenko emphasizes.

"We need to take into account that the offensive of the Ukrainian Armed Forces will not be limited to just one operation, but may be periodically renewed," he says.

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