Ukraine’s counter-offensive against the Russian invasion is upon us. Here are the best options for the killer blow against Putin’s men, writes Stuart Crawford.
It feels like we have all been waiting with bated breath for months for the long-trailed Ukrainian counter-offensive to commence.
What was hailed as the “spring offensive” has now morphed into the summer offensive, and yet there are still no firm signs that it is about to begin.
Sure, there have been indications that preparations are underway. Long range strikes into Russian forces rear areas, some with the UK-supplied Storm Shadow air-launched cruise missile, may indicate that some “shaping of the battlefield” is underway.
These strikes are targeting Russian arms and fuel dumps plus lines of communications and are probably designed to both isolate enemy forces on the front line and prevent reinforcements and supplies being brought forward.
Recent maritime drone attacks on Russian naval vessels in the Black Sea may be intended to force the enemy navy into its protected ports and prevent them launching their missiles at Ukrainian targets. In other words, they will keep the Russian navy quiet and out of the equation as much as possible.
The Ukrainian drone attacks on Moscow, on the other hand, are probably just retaliation for Russia’s drone blitz on Kyiv and not to do with any forthcoming major ground offensive.
We’re witnessing a tit-for-tat drone war. The Muscovites will now know that they’re not quite so distanced from the conflict as they might have thought.
But back to the expected Ukrainian summer offensive. We’re constantly being told that it will happen “soon”, but where might the blow(s) fall? Surprise and secrecy are a crucial part of any country’s military strategy and it’s unlikely that Zelensky or the UkrAF will broadcast their intentions in advance, so we don’t know.
However, having had a long look at this from the outside it seems to me that there are three possible options and one wild card one.
The one most favoured by military commentators, and perhaps the most obvious option, is for the Ukrainians to drive south from the area around Zaporizhia towards Melitopol and then beyond to the northern shores of the Sea of Azov.
This, if successful, would cut the land bridge between Russia and Crimea and severely dislocate Russian forces in southern Ukraine, presenting the UkrAF with the opportunity to turn west and roll up Russian forces in the Kherson Oblast and threaten Crimea.
The Russians are well aware of this and have prepared multiple defence lines in depth to counter the possibility. It’s almost too obvious, but the Ukrainians can bluff and double bluff here to their heart’s content.
Being already on the eastern (left) bank of the Dnipro river there are no major obstacles to their advance and the Russians have to be prepared.
Or the Ukrainians could strike south from Kherson city across the Dnipro. They may already have a few small lodgements on the southern (eastern) bank of the river, but this is an operation fraught with difficulty.
The Dnipro is a mighty obstacle and there are few more difficult military operations in war than an opposed river crossing, and opposed it would definitely be. This one may be too risky.
Alternatively, the UkrAF could choose to batter away in the central Donbas, perhaps around Bakhmut where so much blood has been shed and where there appears to be the possibility of encircling the Russians.
It might recover some Ukrainian territory but is pretty unimaginative stuff.
Which brings me to the wildcard option. Readers will, I suspect, have noted the recent incursion into Russian territory near Belgorod, where pro-Ukrainian disaffected Russian nationals mounted a raid which temporarily captured some Russian settlements and embarrassed the Kremlin until they withdrew.
This took place outside the 900 km fortified frontline between Ukraine and the occupied areas, and on a part of the Russo-Ukraine border where there has been little military activity to date. It showed, however, how lightly guarded this part of the Russian frontier is and how poorly prepared the Russians are to defend it.
What if the Ukrainians exploited this weakness and delivered a wide left hook which struck into Russian territory in the Belgorod region and then turned south? It would outflank the Russian “Maginot Line” along the contested demarcation zone and catch them in the flank – as the Germans did with the Allies through the Ardennes in 1940 during the Second World War.
This indirect approach has much to commend it. If the Ukrainians are bold enough, and the west not too squeamish about “escalation”, then it obviates all the difficulties of the direct assault in prepared Russian positions.
The big question is whether the UkrAF have the wherewithal to carry it out. Intellectually they probably have; materially I’m not so sure. But if they can manage it then perhaps we’ll be looking at a Ukrainian strategic victory before the year is out.
And then what for Putin?
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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