We all know it’s coming.
For months, Ukrainian generals have been hunched over maps, studying intelligence, and shuffling parts as they try to come up with a plan to take their country back.
Meanwhile, Kiev’s allies were looting their store coffers in search of any extra piece of artifact that might help.
The moment of truth is now approaching. The momentum of the Russian offensive in the winter had run out. The muddy ground in Ukraine is beginning to harden.
Soon, it will be time to counterattack.
Here, MailOnline analyzes the what, where, when and how of the upcoming attack and reveals why it will decide Ukraine’s future…
Ukrainian soldiers fire targets on the front line in the direction of the city of Ogildar, Donetsk, Ukraine as the Russo-Ukrainian War continues on April 18, 2023
Ukrainian soldiers fired at targets on the front line in the direction of the city of Oglidar, Donetsk
What’s the plan?
Ukraine is believed to have massed up to 100,000 men in at least 12, but possibly as many as 18 combat brigades to counter the Russians.
It is believed that they got around 200 Western tanks, 800 armored vehicles and 150 artillery guns to arm nine of those brigades – meaning they could deploy up to 400 tanks, 1,600 vehicles and 300 guns in total if they planned to build nine more.
Russia’s status is less clear. Based on leaked casualty figures, Putin could have as few as 100,000 men or as many as 290,000 in Ukraine.
The same leaks indicate that there are only about 500 tanks left on the battlefield, but possibly more drawing from stores. The number of armored vehicles and artillery guns is not clear.
Ukraine’s battle plans are top secret, but Mick Ryan, a general who recently retired from the Australian Army, told MailOnline Kiev had three broad options.
First, they can launch one big attack, using everything they have; Second, they could split that force between simultaneous attacks to the south and east. Or third, they could decide to launch attacks on a smaller scale both in the south and in the east, which are uncoordinated attacks.
Gen. Stephen Twitty, a retired US Army general, believes Ukraine will opt for the third option — a tactic he refers to as “eating one apple at a time.”
“Ukraine will go with what has worked for them in the past,” he said. “What the Ukrainians have succeeded in doing is small maneuvers using infantry, armor and artillery, to attack Russian forces in small areas, and to gain ground.”
Gen. Ryan believes it will be a mixture of the second and third options.
He expects a full-scale attack unlikely, because it is difficult to orchestrate and easy for the Russians to detect and defend against — but he thinks the Ukraine plan will look different than anything we’ve seen so far.
“This will look very different because the challenge is different,” he said. They will have to break through areas of obstacles that they have not done before.
One thing the Ukrainians have mastered in this war surprises us.
Ukrainian soldiers firing mortar shells towards Russian positions near Bakhmut
Ukraine hopes to be able to surprise the Russian units preparing for a counterattack. Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) speaks with the commander of the Russian army, Valery Gerasimov (right)
Where to target Ukraine?
The Russians believe that Melitopol – a small city in southern Ukraine that was captured during the early days of the war – is the most likely target.
Its return would break the “land bridge” between Putin’s forces to the south and east, open the way to re-control Mariupol, and place Crimea within HIMARS’ domain.
In recent weeks, Ukraine has intensified its bombing of military targets in the city with long-range missiles and artillery, and it seems to confirm those suspicions.
Attacks on the eastern Luhansk region are also likely, as Ukraine seeks to relieve pressure on places like Bakhmut and restore its industrial regions in the Donbass.
But all may not be as it seems.
Surprise will be the key to victory, General Ryan says, because Russia does not have enough men to fully defend the 750-mile front line.
And the men have a wide variety of quality, from the elite paratroopers to the recruits who have barely had a day’s training.
This means that the line will have weaknesses, and Ukraine’s path to victory lies in finding and exploiting them.
If they could trick the Russians into positioning their best units around a city they actually had no plans to attack, that would help.
General Twitty added: ‘You’re talking about 800 miles of defensive lines, there’s no army out there that can (cover) 800 miles. The key will be to find the weaknesses in this line.
When will the attack begin?
The simple answer is: we don’t know. But we do have some clues.
First, an attack is unlikely as long as the ground is muddy. Ukrainian grass freezes in winter, thaws to ice in early spring, and then hardens back as the weather warms—generally in late April and early May.
Second, Ukraine is unlikely to attack until it receives all the weapons it has been promised and until its forces are trained to use them—a process that is expected to be completed around the same time.
But a third, Gen. Ryan and Gen. Tweety, say they will have the logistics to continue the offensive once it begins.
Given the number of different systems Ukraine now operates, that would be very complex — and how long it would take is anyone’s guess.
“I feel like they’re not going until the logistics are in place,” Gen. Tuite said.
Sustainability will be key. This means spare parts, fuel, ammunition.
“Success will depend on their ability to take all this new equipment, put it together and make it work for them on the battlefield.”
A Ukrainian soldier points to another soldier driving a Russian T-72 tank, as Russia’s offensive into Ukraine continues, in the liberated village of Lukianivka
How will Ukraine carry out the attacks?
Starting last year, Russian forces began building lines of tank traps, trenches, minefields and barbed wire fences that now run the entire front line.
Ukraine’s first task will be to breach this line.
For this, they were provided with demining vehicles, breaching charges, hydraulic bridges and bulldozers.
Speed will be vital. The Russian artillery would be seen beforehand at the positions on the line, and staying too long would mean shells falling over them.
Once across the line, they would have to face the remaining Russian forces to defend it.
General Ryan anticipates that these will be Wagner’s recruits, mercenaries, and other low-skilled soldiers that Russia considers expendable.
Next will come Russia’s mobile defense – units that sit far from the front but are ready to rush into battle whenever and wherever barricades are breached.
General Ryan believes that Russia will use the remaining elite forces it has left for the task, such as the Marines and paratroopers.
Provided that Ukraine can push them back, the next task will be to consolidate their forces and attack again as soon as possible – generating momentum that could lead to defeat.
“You want to surprise the Russians, generate shock and exploit that,” says Gen. Ryan. “If you can do it over and over again, you can make a breakthrough.”
President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky speaks at a joint press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (not pictured) following their meeting in Kiev, Ukraine, April 20, 2023
Ukrainian soldiers return from heavy fighting amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, near Pakhmut, Ukraine, April 15, 2023
What is Zelensky’s goal?
President Zelensky has made his goal clear: to remove Russia from every part of the occupied territories, all the way to Crimea.
This might be the ultimate goal, but no one expected this attack to reach the Southern Peninsula. So what can we expect?
General Ryan says the goal for Ukraine should be to take back large parts of its south and east from Russia, in a way that makes it clear that it has taken back the initiative.
For General Tweety, the goal should be to ensure that any territory they retake remains in their hands and is not retaken immediately.
Last year, the Ukrainians recaptured Kherson, taking back part of Kharkiv. They consolidated their gains and held on to them.
Their goals this time should be the same: to win back swathes of territory, which is a success in itself, but then to hang on to those gains.
The two generals expect the war to drag on beyond the end of this year, so another major goal will be to convince Ukraine’s western allies that all the equipment they donated was worth it — because Kiev will need more through 2024.
And if Zelensky is to make good on his promise to liberate Crimea, he’ll need more again – perhaps including fighter jets and naval vessels.
He would have to count on the success during this offensive to inspire Western leaders to donate this kit, and to put his forces in a good position for any future offensive.
If Ukraine can achieve this, then a complete victory over Russia is on the cards. But failure could mean that the door closes forever.
The fate of Ukraine and the end of the war will be decided in the coming months.