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Ukraine's counteroffensive: Goals, opportunities, risks

Roman Goncharenko
May 1, 2023

Ukraine is preparing for what could be a decisive counteroffensive to liberate territories occupied by Russia. The longer Kyiv waits, the better its chances seem to get.

Ukrainian service member surrounded by smoke and fire, firing a howitzer D30
Ukraine is planning a counteroffensive to liberate territories occupied by RussiaImage: Sofiia Gatilova/REUTERS

A Polish highway near the Ukrainian border. On a rainy April morning, a convoy of 12 olive-green army trucks appears. They're driving into Poland from Ukraine, flatbeds empty. "I saw them a week ago, they brought tanks to Ukraine," a taxi driver says. "Very big tanks."

Ukraine is going to need every one of those tanks in the coming weeks and months. At the moment, its leadership is putting the final touches on the much-awaited counteroffensive it announced months ago. It is hoped this will turn around the grueling trench warfare the country is currently locked in and drive Russia out of its occupied territories. It could be a decisive battle, a fight for liberation.

Russia-Ukraine war: Conflict in Crimea

Fighting over Bakhmut to gain time

These days, visitors to Kyiv can witness the proverbial calm before the storm. Russian missile attacks such as those that killed nearly 20 people in the central Ukrainian city of Uman Friday have become rare. On the capital's well-tended streets, trees and flowers are blossoming, cafes bustling. The war seems far away. And yet, there are constant reminders everywhere: Signs calling civilians to volunteer or collect donations for the armed forces line the streets. Almost daily, coffins with prominent fallen soldiers are laid out on the Maidan, Kyiv's Independence Square.

A particularly high number of fighters are currently dying in Bakhmut. For months, the beleaguered city in the Donetsk region has been intensely fought over, and has now largely fallen into Russian hands. But Ukraine's armed forces have refused to back away. Heads of state and the military have explained that this is to protect other nearby cities. Still, Kyiv does not simply want to tie down Russian forces in Bakhmut, but also gain time to prepare its counteroffensive. This is why the Ukrainian armed forces have been sparing their reserves and accepting high casualties — precise casualty numbers are unknown.

Rescue workers atop the rubble of a housing complex destroyed by a missile as smoke rises into the sky
On Friday, April 28, Russian missles heavily damaged a residential building in the town of Uman in the Cherkasy region

Andriy and Maxim (names changed to protect their identities) also fought in Bakhmut. Now, they are back in Kyiv and can finally rest. "I really hope it was worth it," said Andriy when asked about the decision to hold Bakhmut, though he does not seem so certain it was. Maxim talks about Russia's superior number of fighters, Ukraine's ill preparation, and his unit's paltry gear. What do both of them hope to gain from the counteroffensive? "Finally some liberated territories," Maxim replied.

Why is Kyiv waiting?

The planned counteroffensive is a recurrent topic in the Ukrainian media but military representatives remain tight-lipped. When asked, they simply reply, "wait and see." There are many reasons for this approach. For one, the weapons expected from the West have not all been delivered yet. Since early 2023, Ukraine has received a lot of "heavy metal" from NATO, as it's called colloquially. They are receiving much of it for the first time: dozens of modern battle tanks and armored personnel carriers from German and British production, American Patriot air defense missile systems, Soviet fighter jets.

The digital news outlet Ukrainska Pravda estimates the army and the national guard have created at least 16 new brigades, encompassing about 50,000 fighters in total. These new units need time to prepare and familiarize themselves with their new weapons. An additional challenge is coordinating numerous formations for a major offensive. Until now, Ukraine has had little experience doing this. Professional circles in Kyiv say possible scenarios have been simulated on computers.

An aerial view shows damaged and destroyed buildings Bakhmut billowing with smoke
Bakhmut has seen continued heavy fightingImage: RIA Novosti/Sputnik/SNA/IMAGO

In addition, weather conditions are far from optimal. Rains have made many country roads impassable for heavy military equipment. And Ukrainian soldiers need to wait for thicker foliage to grow so they can use it for cover. It will still take a while for their surroundings to become dry enough and green enough.

Main thrust towards Crimea

One of the best-kept secrets at present is where, when, and how Ukraine plans to attack. There are expected to be at least two main directions of impact — in the fall of 2022, the army successfully pushed towards Kharkiv and Kherson.

In September 2022, in his only programmatic paper so far, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Lieutenant General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi offered only a rough sketch of how a Ukrainian counteroffensive might look. In the paper, he spoke of "several resolute, ideally simultaneous counterattacks." One strategically crucial target Zaluzhnyi mentioned was the Crimean peninsula, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014. In Kyiv, all agree this is the main direction Ukraine should focus its efforts. But they are also expecting surprises and deceptive maneuvers. Many, however, doubt Ukraine has enough equipment and fighting power to regain the peninsula.

Others believe the main thrust will be directed towards the Zaporizhzhia region in southern Ukraine. From there, Ukrainian forces are expected to push towards the Crimean peninsula to cut Russian troops off from overland supply routes. This would be a great success for Kyiv, analysts say. But it will not be easy — Russia has built up multiple lines of defense. Also, unlike last year in Kharkiv and Kherson, Russia is now expected to respond with counterattacks of its own. That is one of the risks Ukraine will take with its expected counteroffensive.

Counteroffensive would not end war

Despite such concerns, the mood in Kyiv is cautiously optimistic. "This strike cannot fail. More territories will be liberated," one military expert said. "The question is: How much, and at what cost?" Andriy knows the cost, he's reminded of it every time he looks through the contact list in his phone. "Many comrades have fallen. I can't bring myself to delete their numbers."

What life is like for Bakhmut's civilians

It remains unclear what will happen after the counteroffensive. Many worry the West might pressure Ukraine to negotiate and make painful concessions if it fails to live up to expectations. Top military leaders have already rejected that scenario. "That's not going to happen," Andriy said. Like many in Kyiv, he is expecting a long war that won't end with the counteroffensive. Instead, he's hoping for more convoys from the West, with far more heavy military equipment.

This article was translated from German.