June 14, 2023
IntelBrief: Ukraine’s Counteroffensive Will Determine the Future Shape of the Conflict
The long-awaited Ukrainian counteroffensive has commenced, reflected by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s comments that appear to confirm this, as he noted, “relevant counteroffensive defensive actions are taking place in Ukraine.” While he chose not to elaborate, it has been clear for weeks that a counteroffensive was indeed imminent, and Ukrainian forces have been conducting shaping operations to soften Russian frontlines. This includes information warfare, as well as kinetic operations aimed at disrupting Russian logistical networks, destroying fuel and resupply infrastructure, and attacking ammunition depots. Armored vehicles are being sent to break through Russian supply lines to choke off critical resources. Bridges and rail lines are being attacked to force Russian military units to traverse minefields. According to an intelligence assessment from the United Kingdom’s (UK) Ministry of Defence, the early results have been “mixed” in terms of military progress by both the Ukrainians and the Russians. Both sides suffered substantial casualties during the Battle of Bakhmut, with the private military company known as the Wagner Group playing an important role on the Russian side. Infighting between Wagner’s leader Yevgeny Prigozhin and high-ranking members of the Russian military continue to serve as a distraction. More recently, Prigozhin railed against an order that would compel his fighters to sign a formal contract, along with dozens of other “volunteer formations,” with the Russian Ministry of Defence, a move by the Russians to streamline the Kremlin’s manpower.
Ukraine announced some hard-fought, yet modest, gains earlier this week, in taking back four villages in the eastern Donetsk region. Given Ukraine’s impressive military performance up to this point in the conflict, where a far smaller, less experienced fighting force has taken the fight directly to the Russians, one major issue surrounding the counteroffensive will be strategic communications and expectation management. If Kyiv continues to make further gains, as many expect, they will likely be incremental and subject to reversal. New weapons systems provided by Western countries, including Storm Shadow cruise missiles from the UK, Leopard tanks from Germany, and Bradley fighting vehicles from the United States, will certainly help, although it remains too early to tell which systems may be the most decisive in battle. Patriot air defense systems have enabled Ukraine to defend itself against aggressive Russian bombardments. If the counteroffensive stalls and the conflict bogs down into a prolonged insurgency, there are serious questions about whether Western countries will have the fortitude to continue supporting Ukraine at current levels with military aid packages. Upcoming elections in some Western countries, but particularly the United States, pose another potential pitfall for continuing to supply Ukraine with much-needed training and equipment.
Significant challenges abound, particularly after the destruction of the Nova Kakhova dam, which Kyiv insists was done by the Russian forces occupying the area where the dam is located. The dam’s collapse is one of the biggest industrial and ecological disasters in Europe for decades, with both Russia and Ukraine noting the extreme humanitarian and environmental consequences of the destruction. Flooding has complicated Ukraine’s advance in the Kherson region and has proven to be a humanitarian catastrophe, with flooding along land flanking the Dnipro River. Agriculture and livestock have been decimated by the inundation, which has also deprived fresh drinking water to residents of towns and villages throughout the broader region. Further compounding the challenges facing Ukraine’s counteroffensive is robust Russian defense and fortifications, including heavily mined areas, ditches, trenches, razor wire, and various types of anti-tank obstacles designed to slow Ukraine’s advance in the south and east of the country. Ukraine may seek to focus on southern Zaporzhzhia in an effort to disrupt a land bridge between the Donbas and Crimea, two areas occupied by Russian forces dating back to 2014, following Moscow’s initial invasion.
If Russia can blunt Ukrainian advances during the counteroffensive continuously, it could prove a morale boost to a bedraggled force that has faced ongoing criticism for its myriad shortcomings. On the other hand, if Ukraine can muster a series of tactical victories and string them into successive pivot points, Kyiv might be able to force Moscow’s hand. “Ukraine’s success in the counteroffensive would do two things: It would strengthen its position at any negotiated table that emerges, and it may have the effect as well of actually causing Putin to finally focus on negotiating an end to the war that he started,” said U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to a group of reporters in Washington D.C. earlier this week. Given his detachment from objective assessments, getting Russian President Vladimir Putin to contemplate a negotiated settlement to the current conflict could be a longshot. With the underwhelming performance of Russia’s military, crushing sanctions against Russian oligarchs and other political elites, and constant infighting between Prigozhin and Russian Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu, Putin finds himself more vulnerable than at any point in recent memory. The window for Ukraine’s counteroffensive to succeed is limited, at best, so the next several months will be a harbinger for the future of this conflict, particularly whether it conclusively ends and, more specifically, how.