The war in Ukraine is approaching a tipping point.
The Russian military has struggled to make meaningful progress after months of trying and has still not succeeded in reclaiming the devastated city Bakhmut. A persistent inability to lay down air superioritylow junk moraland equipment shortages all suggest that President Vladimir Putin’s military machine will soon be unable to conduct meaningful offensive operations.
A key to successful military planning lies in reliably identifying new ways to achieve the greatest strategic advantage at the lowest total cost. Ukraine’s decision to vigorously defend Bakhmut is an excellent example of this, even if it goes against the logic that little strategic value thereby.
By throwing its own troops into Bakhmut, Ukraine has tied up much of the Russian army heavy losses. The approach is both a strategy of corrosion – the gradual exhaustion of the invader – and absorption, absorbing repeated Russian attacks while taking pressure off other parts of the conflict zone.
This has led to some important payouts for Ukraine. First, the Moscow commanders have not been able to do that shifting forces to another axis of progress.
Second, the loss of personnel and equipment means fewer bodies and less equipment available for Russia to pursue its offensive war.
Third, it has one buffer to build Ukrainian defenses once Bakhmut finally falls.
Finally it has bought time to train and equip his troops for his own counter-offensive operations.
When, where and how Ukraine launches its counter-offensive are the most crucial decisions President Volodymyr Zelensky will make about the war yet. Ukraine’s own vulnerabilities mean that no obvious answers are revealing themselves, and whatever Zelensky decides will carry significant risk.
Time of day
One of the most important considerations is timing. Ukraine’s armed forces will want to advance under optimal conditions to liberate as much of its territory as possible before winter approaches (winter makes ground operations, supplies and air support much more difficult to sustain).
Failure to do so will not only weaken Kiev’s position in peace negotiations, but may leave large parts of Ukraine under Russian control for the foreseeable future. Aware that strategic momentum will shift once Ukraine counterattacks, Russian forces are building up deep networks of tank traps, trenches and other defenses to stop the momentum.
Taken together, these would suggest a counter-offensive sooner rather than later. Why wait for both the weather and the enemy to conspire to thwart your attempts to liberate territory, especially when Russia is better placed to fight a protracted war?
But that ignores even more crucial considerations around Ukraine’s capabilities, and its prospects for achieving its war goals that have shifted timeframes.
Simply put, it is absolutely crucial for Ukraine to counteroffensive succeeds. If not, the international coalition that has kept Ukraine in the fight with arms, training and aid might favor a negotiated settlement.
internal politics will inevitably play a role in shaping thinking in the United States as the election season gains momentum. While both sides of American politics is quite firmly behind Kiev, that may change.
Indeed, the surest way to encourage American populist isolationists is a stalled Ukrainian advance. And since a multinational coalition is only as strong as its weakest link, Ukrainian planners will also be keen not to give Berlin or Paris any reason to waver.
Having the means, not just the will
Besides the need to maintain international support for the full restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty, the planning of offensive operations essentially rests on Kiev. ability to perform them.
Attacking is much more expensive than defending. A counter-offensive launched before Kiev had a chance to recruit, prepare, arm and muster the necessary personnel would soon come to naught. Such a failure would be a severe blow to Ukrainian morale, give momentum back to Russia and lead to senseless loss of life.
Counter-offensives therefore require the right capabilities to increase the chance of success. Much of the public discussion of Ukraine’s wartime needs has centered on tanks and air power. These are of course very important, but neither can really hold territory. You need ground troops for that – and lots of them.
In addition, many of the likely lines of Ukrainian advance will contain bottlenecks and vulnerable terrain. The retreating Russian army can be counted on to mine, ambushes and scorched earth tactics to transform viable routes for the Ukrainians into impenetrable and risky ones. That means that the Ukrainian armed forces will also need specialized equipment stafffrom bridging units to those specializing in clearing terrain.
As their troops advance, Ukraine’s armored vehicles will require refueling and logistics support, and his army will need regular food, aid and ammunition. They will all have to be mobile to keep the counteroffensive going. The aerial resupply capability of Ukrainian forces penetrating deep into Russian-annexed areas will also need to be developed.
In addition, re-establishing control of liberated areas will require significant planning to provide humanitarian supplies, shelter, medical care and public administration – not to mention security from any Russian forces left behind to wreak havoc.
Scope and location
As to where the Ukrainian counter-attack will come from, the general view is that it is most likely to take place around Zaporizhzhia in the southeast (made famous for its regularly besieged nuclear power plant). But war is about trying to get strategic surprise, which Ukraine’s armed forces have shown themselves to be adept at.
Before the counter-offensive begins, we need a variety of Ukrainian feints, probes and “Shapingthe battlespace – essentially the use of tactical, strategic and political tools to turn the situation on the battlefield to your advantage.
Finally, the status of Crimea in Ukraine’s plans deserves some attention. It will remain one of the thorniest problems in the eventual resolution of the war. The official position of the Zelensky government is clear: you can no peace with Russia until Ukraine is fully recovered, including the Crimean peninsula confiscated by Russia in 2014. This is understandable. Any hint of willingness to cede territory points to weakness at home, at the Kremlin and internationally.
It is important that Ukraine keeps the agency. It will ultimately decide the scope and location of the counter-offensive. But several factors make Crimea a potentially special case. It is well defended and hard to attack. There are only approx ten roads connecting the peninsula with the province of Kherson. It is home to the highest concentration of ethnic Russian (and Russian-leaning) people in Ukraine. And Western supporters of Ukraine remain concerned that Putin’s deep personal and political investment in Crimea would make a Ukrainian attempt to retake it one of the Kremlins.red lines” for further escalation.
The build-up to Ukraine’s imminent counter-offensive has been patient and cautious so far, focusing on developing the best chance of operational success. With more than a year of evidence, we can expect Ukraine’s armed forces to outperform their Russian adversaries. Time and time again, Kiev’s approach has been agile, creative and efficient with limited resources. Ukraine’s commanders have also wisely followed the maxim of not interrupting your enemy while they make a mistake (arguably the one thing at which the Russian armed forces excelled).
But the commitment to Ukraine is no less than national survival. The success or failure of his attempt to take back his territory will determine whether his future will revolve around rebuilding a damaged but restored state, or the pain of shaping an existence in a shattered and partial state . And the repercussions outside Ukraine will be no less solemn, teaching dictators that expansionism is rewarded, or that it is a catastrophic mistake.
Ultimately, we owe it to the people of Ukraine and to ourselves to ensure that this last lesson prevails.