After months of anticipation, Ukrainian forces – newly trained in complex warfare tactics and armed with billions of dollars in sophisticated Western weaponry – launched multi-pronged operations last week in a bid to dislodge Russian military units entrenched, a counteroffensive that many officials in the United States and Europe say could be a turning point in the 15-month war.
Much depends on the result. There is no doubt that the new military dynamic will influence discussions on future support for Ukraine as well as debates on how to secure its future. What remains unclear, however, is exactly what the United States, Europe and Ukraine consider a “successful” counteroffensive.
Publicly, US and European officials leave any definition of success to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. So far, Mr. Zelensky has not set any public goals, beyond his oft-spoken demand that Russian troops must leave all of Ukraine. He is known as a master communicator; any perception that he is giving up on this vast ambition would risk undermining his support at a critical time.
Privately, US and European officials admit that it is highly unlikely that all Russian forces will leave occupied Ukrainian lands. Yet two themes emerge as clear ideas of “success”: that the Ukrainian military recapture and retain key swathes of territory previously occupied by the Russians, and that Kiev delivers a debilitating blow to the Russian military that forces the Kremlin to question the future of its military options in Ukraine.
Some success on the battlefield, whether in decimating the Russian army, claiming territory or both, could help Kiev secure additional military aid from Europe and the United States. It would also bolster the confidence of Allied capitals that their strategy of reshaping Ukrainian forces into a Western-style army is working. Above all, such an outcome would bolster support in Europe for some sort of long-term security guarantee for Kyiv and strengthen Ukraine’s hand at a negotiating table.
Success is not guaranteed. Throughout the war, the Ukrainian army, with deeply motivated troops, creative military operations and advanced Western weaponry, outperformed Russia. military. But the Ukrainians have also struggled to dislodge the Russians from their entrenched defensive positions in recent months, with the front lines barely moving.
Nevertheless, Ukraine has shown that it can launch successful offensives, such as last year’s in which it took much of the territory east of Kharkiv and, after a long fight, regained the southern city of Kherson.
US intelligence agencies believed that the most likely scenarios were small Ukrainian victories at the start of the fighting, such as the recapture of parts of Donbass or the expulsion of Russia from agricultural and mining areas in the south-east. Ukraine.
Seizing the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant would be both a symbolic and strategic victory, handing one of the world’s largest nuclear power plants and an important source of electricity into Ukrainian hands.
US and European officials say it is essential for Ukraine to cut, or at least squeeze, the so-called land bridge: the vast swath of territory Russia has seized between its border and the Crimean Peninsula, which became a main supply route for the military stronghold he built there.
kyiv wants to reconquer its southeast coast on the Sea of Azov. If Ukraine can drive its forces to the coastline, cutting off Crimea, Mr Zelensky could consider that a huge victory. But even if Ukrainian forces did not reach the sea and instead took medium-sized towns in southern Ukraine, it would effectively reduce the land bridge.
From these positions, Ukrainian forces could use medium-range artillery to threaten Russian command posts in Crimea and any military supply convoys sent by Russia along the coast. While Russian forces in Crimea are currently well supplied, US officials said, besieging the land bridge would make winter hard on them.
Retaking land is one thing, but what is crucial, according to US officials, is that Ukrainian forces hang on to it.
Essentially, the United States and its allies will look at the counteroffensive to prove that their plan to overhaul the Ukrainian military into a modern force that fights with NATO tactics and can use complex maneuvers and advanced equipment to allow a smaller force to defeat a larger one, is sound.
A good performance by Ukraine will have the added benefit of further eroding Russian troop morale. Currently, the Russian military faces a severe shortage of weapons and personnel – Moscow was forced to retire decades-old tanks for use in combat and relied on conscripts to barely trained. These shortages should prevent Russian forces from capitalizing on Ukrainian missteps or mounting their own offensive in the coming months.
“Moscow has suffered military losses that will require years of reconstruction and will make it less capable of posing a conventional military threat to Europe and operating confidently in Eurasia and on the world stage,” said Avril D. Haines, Director of National Intelligence. Senate last month.
Yet the Russian forces are beginning to improve – they are improving their tactics and practicing better defensive operations. War always favors defenders, which the entrenched Russians could use to their advantage when counterattacking Ukraine.
So far, the Russian Air Force has been largely absent from the war, with Ukrainian air defense batteries threatening Russian bombers and fighter jets. The United States and its allies have attempted to fill Ukraine’s air defense equipment shortages. But if Russia launches more aggressive bombardments on Ukraine, it could pose a challenge in the counter-offensive.
US and European officials say a vital goal of the counteroffensive should be to further weaken the Russian military. Russian forces have suffered a large number of casualties in this year’s fighting in Bakhmut, eastern Ukraine. Success, as a NATO ambassador said, would be to push Russia back and kill a lot of Russian troops.
Another potential scenario, according to US intelligence agencies, is that the Russians make a mistake, such as placing their troops in the wrong place or defending a trench line too lightly, which could allow Ukraine to break through the lines and execute a devastating blow. to Russian troops.
Of course, some Allied officials worry that Ukraine is doing too well. A huge loss of soldiers could force Mr. Putin to mobilize more of his population to strengthen his army.
And while US officials have said the risk of Mr Putin using a nuclear weapon has diminished, US intelligence agencies say a total defeat in Ukraine or loss of Crimea are two scenarios in which Mr Putin could potentially order the use of a nuclear weapon.
A failed counter-offensive is easier to measure. If the battle lines remain relatively unchanged or if Ukraine is unable to retake a major city, some officials in Allied capitals or Congress will likely raise doubts about the war, especially if the Ukrainians lose too many troops and many equipment is destroyed.
The United States, NATO allies and Ukraine have trained around 30,000 soldiers in combined arms maneuvers – a complex style of warfare that involves constant communication between tanks, artillery, fighter jets and forces infantry – for the express purpose of leading the counter-offensive.
If the Ukrainians fail to make significant gains using these maneuvers, it could jeopardize the long-term US strategy of bolstering Ukraine by giving them even more sophisticated weapons and complex training.
Essentially, according to European diplomats, failure would look like a Ukrainian army that did not learn to fight, lost the equipment given to it in recent months and gained no territory to show for it – with a Russian army ready to renew its training.
Despite some early losses and strong Russian defenses to the east, US officials are optimistic that Ukraine will make enough gains, even incremental ones, to call the fighting a success.
Ukraine and the Western allies have invested in the counteroffensive because, whatever the precise outcome, it will set the stage for the next phase of the war. The US and UK plan to help secure Ukraine includes bolstering support for strong security assurances from the US and NATO nations, as well as promoting a plan to strengthen economic ties between Kyiv and European countries.
Crucially, if the counteroffensive leaves Russia weakened, it could be forced into meaningful dialogue with a stronger Ukraine.
Biden administration officials are careful to say that their support for Ukraine will not hinge on the success of the counteroffensive.
Speaking to Rishi Sunak, the British Prime Minister, on Thursday, President Biden dismissed questions of future funding for the fight against Ukraine.
“I think we will have the funding to support Ukraine for as long as it takes,” Biden said.
But realistically, success or failure could impact support within a restless US Congress, which must authorize any additional funding for Ukraine, as well as in Europe, where there are similar concerns. about how long the war will last, how much it will cost, and what effect that will have on longer-term energy and food prices.
Whatever the outcome of the counter-offensive, US and European officials agree that for now, Mr. Putin is in no mood to negotiate. But Mr. Putin understands raw power, and that’s what makes the counteroffensive so important. If followed by continued Western support and security guarantees, this at least has the potential to change the calculus in Moscow.
David E. Sanger contributed report.