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A Ukrainian soldier covers his ears while firing a mortar at Russian positions on the frontline near Bakhmut, Donetsk region Alamy Stock Photo

Tom Clonan Ukraine's counter-offensive is imminent - but success will come at a terrible cost

The burning question over the coming days will be where, precisely, Zelenskyy’s forces will launch their attack.

LAST UPDATE | 1 Jun 2023

A MAJOR UKRAINIAN counter-offensive is now imminent.

With the arrival of June, spring has turned to summer and President Zelenskyy’s forces are poised to seize the initiative after months of almost static and brutal attritional warfare around the eastern city of Bakhmut.

According to Nato’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, the alliance has supplied almost 100% of the equipment and weapons necessary for what may prove to be a significant turning point in the war.

Over the winter, Nato has given Ukraine more than 1,500 state-of-the-art armoured fighting vehicles and armoured personnel carriers – including 230 main battle tanks.

In addition, Zelenskyy’s forces have stockpiled a vast amount of ammunition – including quantities of heavy artillery and long range missiles which are necessary to punch a hole in Putin’s defences.

Statements attributed to Zelenskyy’s normally tight-lipped chief of staff General Valerii Zaluzhnyi and his commander of land forces Colonel General Oleksandr Syrski say that Ukraine now has a force of up to 12 brigades ready for a highly mobile operation to sever Putin’s ‘land corridor’ from Russia to the Crimean Peninsula.

This force – with levels of armour equivalent to almost two Nato divisions – will be expected to take the offensive to Russia’s troops in the coming days.

Zelenskyy’s field commanders will be hoping to deliver a decisive blow via a highly kinetic and fast-moving combined-arms manoeuvre, designed to overwhelm, outflank and rout Putin’s forces somewhere along a front that stretches from Kherson in the south-west to Kupiansk in the north-east.

The burning question over the coming days will be where, precisely, Zelenskyy’s forces will launch their attack on this almost-1000km front.

The ‘deception plan’

To this end, Ukraine has succeeded in masking its intentions so far.

In doing so, it has borrowed from Russia’s classic military strategy of ‘Maskirovka’ (or ‘deception plan’), and has not concentrated its forces in such a way that could reveal its battlefield intentions. We simply do not know where the offensive will take place.

Zelenskyy’s government and general staff have, as part of this deception, been involved in a campaign of propaganda and psychological operations designed to throw Putin’s forces off balance.

Long range drone strikes have in recent days and weeks targeted fuel dumps – including the oil refinery at Krasnodar – command and control points, transport hubs, ammunition depots and troop formations located far to the rear of Russian frontlines.

Ukraine has also launched a maritime drone attack on a Russian surveillance vessel, the Ivan Khurs, in the Black Sea as part of an attempt to thwart Putin’s ‘eyes and ears’ on the battlefield.

Earlier this week, Moscow was also targeted in an apparent attack by up to eight drones in its Rublyovka, Nova Ogaryovo and Novaya Moskva districts.

These operations – including a cross-border incursion into Russian territory at Belgorod – are designed to unsettle Putin’s general staff and to inflict a ‘moral victory’, or to sow doubt and fear about the war among Russian citizens.

Recent Ukrainian ‘grey zone’ operations – in the air, sea and on the ground – will have an impact on the command, control and coordination functions of Putin’s forces.

This has been the Russian military’s weakest point in the war so far, particularly their inability to mount effective, fast-moving and fluid operations in Ukraine.

The lack of manoeuvre capability, which is an essential art of war, on Russian General Sergei Shoigu’s part, has been characterised by unimaginative full-frontal and catastrophically costly attacks by Russian troops on Ukrainian positions in the battle for Bakhmut.

The Wagner Group of mercenaries has withdrawn from the city and admitted losses of 20,000, killed in action over the last few months, with tens of thousands more injured.

They are now being replaced by a mix of regular Russian ‘Special Forces’ units and local militia troops from the newly declared Luhansk and Donetsk Republics.

All-out assault

As Putin’s units rotate and re-position themselves, preparing for Ukraine’s ground assault, Moscow has unleashed wave upon wave of drone and missile attacks on Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities.

These included the largest drone attack in the war so far, in which over 90 Iranian manufactured Shahed 131 and 136 drones, along with up to 40 Russian Kh-101/Kh-555 air cruise missiles, fired at Kyiv during two nights this week.

Unable to shape the battlefield on the ground, these terror attacks have targeted civilians and civilian infrastructure, in gestures which are vindictive and impotent in equal measure.

The coming days will be incredibly tense on the battlefield in Ukraine and the prelude to an all-out assault.

Zelenskyy’s head of military intelligence, Major General Kyrylo Budanov, has weighed in on the psychological operations front – describing what is to come as Ukraine’s own ‘special operation’ in the Donbas.

The Ukrainian general staff have warned Russian troops that the coming onslaught will be particularly unforgiving and that those who survive it will “envy the dead”.

In terms of what might be militarily possible with the assets at Zelenskyy’s disposal, my guess is that his forces will attempt to sever Putin’s land corridor in the south of the country, with a form up and start line somewhere in the Kherson Oblast, moving south and east towards the Sea of Azov, before reaching the coastline somewhere south of Melitipol. However, this is just a guess on my part.

Whatever Zelenskyy attempts will be costly in young Ukrainian lives, with among 50,000 young women set to be deployed to front line areas in the coming days and weeks.

Possible nuclear escalation

Consistent with Ukraine’s deception plan to date, the coming offensive may begin with a series of feints and diversionary attacks to disorient and fragment Putin’s defences.

If Zelenskyy is successful – with a rapid advance and a clear strategic victory in the coming battle – Putin will come under severe pressure to respond meaningfully.

It is anyone’s guess as to how he might respond to a dramatic setback; he might respond with the threat of nuclear escalation or with further partial or full mobilisation of the Russian military. He might also seek to negotiate.

In any scenario, Russia’s leader will come under ever-greater pressure in the Kremlin, with allies such as Yevgeny Prighozin becoming more openly critical of the country’s handling of the war.

But if Ukraine’s forces fail to deliver a clear and unambiguous victory in the coming days, it will lengthen this war considerably.

It will become a deadly stalemate – a war of attrition with the ever-increasing risk of a nuclear disaster at the Zaporizhzhia power plant.

Based on the order of battle – the equipment and standard of troops available to President Zelenskyy – I believe the balance of probability lies in a symbolic and strategic victory for Ukraine in the summer months.

This, however, will come at a terrible cost in human life.

Hopefully, it will hasten a just end to the war and in which those responsible for it will face the consequences of their actions and crimes in Ukraine.

Dr Tom Clonan is a retired Army Officer and former Lecturer at TU Dublin. He is currently an Independent Senator on the Trinity College Dublin Panel, Seanad Éireann. 

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