Recent speculation in the world’s media on when the long-anticipated Ukrainian counter-offensive against their Russian invaders will begin has now reached almost hysterical proportions. When is it coming, they ask? And, quite rightly, the UkrAF remain tight-lipped. There’s no point in forewarning your enemy after all. Surprise is key to most successful military operations.
What might be holding it up is the other question. There are a number of factors which might explain the delay. First there is the weather at this time of year. We all knew that the manoeuvrability of ground forces is seriously compromised by the spring mud season – the Ukrainians call it “bezdorizhzhya”, the Russians “rasputitsa” – that follows the thaw, and so it has proved to be.
By all accounts the rainfall in Ukraine has also been heavier and has lasted longer this year, resulting in a glutinous and clinging mud that essentially brings movement off metalled roads to a halt. And Ukraine has relatively few tarmacadamed roads compared to most western European countries. The rest are more akin to dirt highways and farm tracks, fine in summer but not so good at the moment.
The second major factor which seems likely to be delaying any major Ukrainian offensive so far is lack or resources. While the UkrAF have proved reluctant to publicise their own losses, they are likely to be serious in both men and materiel. Less than the Russians it would appear, but still significant.
Notwithstanding the influx of western equipment and the training of UkrAF personnel in its use in the UK and elsewhere, they are probably not yet ready. Yes, some 250 western main battle tanks have now been delivered plus many more armoured fighting vehicles, but the UkrAF still lack three critical components in sufficient numbers; fast jets, air defence weaponry, and ammunition.
We have noted all of this before, but until Ukraine feels comfortable that is can bring a critical mass of its forces – in attack usually a ratio of three attackers to every defender is the minimum – to the main point of effort then the outcome will be in the balance. More than anything else, it needs to achieve air superiority even if limited in time and place to allow its forces to manoeuvre.
If they do manage to get all their ducks in a row, though, where might the blow fall? There appear to be three main options; a thrust into the Donbas from the east or north-east (or both), trying to continue the successes of the Kharkiv offensives and take back territory held there by the Russians since 2014.
This I think is the least likely. The Russians have had nine years to prepare their positions and the ground has been fought over many times before. In any case, the current fighting around Bakhmut, which the Russians seem to be determined to capture at any cost, is keeping their forces tied down which probably suits the Ukrainians very well. I suspect this will continue as a sort of holding action by the UkrAF, preventing enemy forces being deployed elsewhere.
The second might be to attack south from the Kherson area, across the Dnipro river, and threaten Russian-held Crimea via the Isthmus of Perekop, an invasion route favoured historically by many including Germany in the Second World War. Indeed, there are reports that the UkrAF may have already secured a small toehold on the left (eastern) bank of the river close to Kherson city.
This is fraught with difficulty. The Dnipro is a major river obstacle, and whilst moving small units across seems to have been feasible, getting a major offensive grouping to do the same in the face of determined opposition is another thing altogether. The risks may be too great.
Which leaves us with the military pundits’ favourite, a thrust south from the area of Zaporizhzhia to Melitopol and beyond to the Sea of Azov, thereby cutting Russian land communications, and supply routes, to Kherson Oblast, and making their occupying forces vulnerable to being rolled up from the east. Ukrainian success here would also bring much of Crimea within range of their precision artillery and missiles.
This too is hardly risk free. It is perhaps the most obvious course of action, and Russia has been building several lines of defences to counter just such a move. However, there are no major river systems to be crossed and the ground, when dry, is eminently suitable for armoured forces.
Will Ukraine double-bluff the Russians and strike here as many expect? Once again secrecy prevails, but with the right equipment and training, sufficient supplies of ammunition, and a favourable force ratio it may well be doable. Ukraine has surprised us all before in this war.
As for when the offensive might begin, well, that might be slightly easier to forecast. The ground should have firmed up by mid-June, and if UkrAF logistic build-ups and formation training are completed we might see some movement by then.
Until such times as one side makes a move, however, the stalemate will continue.
Lt Col Stuart Crawford is a defence analyst and former army officer. Sign up for his podcasts and newsletters at www.DefenceReview.uk
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