Military Affairs Strategic Thinking

Ukraine’s counteroffensive: operational opportunity or political choice?

Raul Bertoldini

For weeks, many people following the conflict in Ukraine have been waiting for a counteroffensive that would shift the initiative back into Kyiv’s hands. When a few soldiers crossed the Dnipro River near Kherson, many news sources welcomed it as the beginning of a new, epic endeavour. Undoubtedly, the world’s eyes are on Ukraine, and in recent weeks, numerous analyses have attempted to predict the next move.

Theoretically, it is easy to identify which cities Ukraine should reconquer to win, how many troops they would need, and when they should attack. However, the situation is incredibly complex in practice, involving numerous environmental, political, and military factors. After a conflict that has already defied most predictions, it is challenging to understand the actual state of the involved actors, with only the officials directly involved having a clearer picture. Amid the hype for the new offensive, some fundamental questions are often neglected: why should Ukraine counterattack, and why now?

From a military perspective, a commander would initially answer that wars are won by taking the initiative. This is what history and army doctrine teach. However, as previously mentioned, all these theoretical principles face reality on the ground. The surprise effect of an initiative is virtually gone, with the Russians fortifying their defences along most parts of the frontline. Weather conditions are yet to be favourable, and even with significant Western aid, Ukraine’s offensive resources are limited, necessitating an adaptation of objectives.

Therefore, if the decision to take the initiative is based mainly on military reasons, the goals will likely be limited unless Ukrainian commanders reckon that the Russian army has significant weaknesses that can be exploited. Some elements could play in Ukraine’s favour: the most recent Russian offensive can be considered culminated, its troops are scattered along the extensive frontline, but most of Moscow’s best soldiers are focused in one spot, Bakhmut, which is among the most exposed. Thus, from an operational perspective, the attack could aim either “at land” or “at the enemy”, prioritising respectively the reconquering of strategic locations or the annihilation of relevant parts of the enemy army. These decisions depend on available information and are up to the Kyiv commanders, their advisors from other countries, and, at the top of the ladder, the Ukrainian political leadership.

Indeed, as the news constantly reminds us, the political aspect of this conflict is as important as the military one, if not more so. The long-term strategy of any actor would only be sustainable with a favourable political background. In Ukraine, the government likely feels pressure to take some initiative domestically and internationally. Indeed, this would boost the motivation of its troops and citizens, some of whom are starting to feel uneasy with how this emergency situation is being handled. Recently, problems have arisen even with some of Kyiv’s closest allies, such as the dispute over grain imports with neighbours like Poland and Slovakia. Furthermore, US President Joe Biden has made a political bet by making his country the leading supporter of Ukraine. This bet would need to pay off before the 2024 presidential elections in the US. Therefore, from this perspective, the conclusions differ from purely military considerations. Politically speaking, a Ukrainian counteroffensive must be swift, impressive, and easily creditable by the partnering states and their public opinions. This would likely mean relying on the reconquest of significant land portions (as in the last year) or aiming for a symbolic goal like Bakhmut. However, in the event of failure, this could be the last potentially decisive move available to Kyiv’s side, at least within this year, as recently affirmed also by Petr Pavel, Czech president and former NATO General. Indeed, further Western supplies struggle to arrive, and most country already faces limits in regenerating resources and manpower.

Understandably, Ukrainians, from their leader to the citizens, would like their lands back as soon as possible. Many in the West also share this feeling, having committed increasing resources to this cause. An endless, static, draining conflict protracting for years would benefit none of these actors and would likely become unsustainable in the long term. The sizes of Russia and Ukraine are incomparable, and a bet exclusively on Kyiv’s resilience sounds too risky for politicians in Europe and on the other side of the Atlantic. Therefore, all of these factors make it clear that action should be taken to break the stalemate in the conflict. However, pragmatism is essential in understanding the situation. Whether it be a significant counteroffensive or a more limited counterattack, war is a dangerous game to play. Finding a balance between emotional politics and military strategy may be the key to future success for Ukraine.

Photo credit: President Of Ukraine_flickr.com

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