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Wednesday 29 November 2023 Dublin: 2°C
Alamy Stock Photo A man wades through water in flooded Kherson following the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam

Tom Clonan Ukraine must now use the summer to mount its counter-offensive and push Putin back

Independent senator and defence analyst Tom Clonan examines what will happen as Ukraine launches its counter-offensive.

THERE IS VERY heavy censorship of Kyiv’s counteroffensive and in the ‘fog of war’ it is difficult to determine precisely what is underway in Ukraine at the moment. 

However, it is clear that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s long-awaited counter-attack has begun in earnest in the last 72 hours.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces have released video footage of a column of Ukrainian armour of the 47th Mechanised Brigade coming under heavy artillery fire near Novopokrovka, southeast of Orikhiv in the Zaporizhzhia Oblast. The footage appears to show the destruction of a NATO-supplied Leopard 2 main battle tank.

Kremlin spokespersons have confirmed that they halted a major Ukrainian attack in this area – inflicting heavy casualties on Ukrainian forces, claiming over 200 were killed in action. The destruction of the German-manufactured Leopard tank is the first evidence of one of President Zelenskyy’s newly formed NATO-equipped armoured brigades on the front line.

Nova Kakhovka dam

This timeline of events coincides roughly with the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam – flooding hundreds of square kilometres of territory in the adjacent Kherson Oblast. 

Whilst it is as yet unclear as to who destroyed the dam – footage of the damage suggests it was inflicted by pre-positioned explosives or mines within the structure of the dam itself. 

It would have been very difficult for Ukraine to have mounted a ‘dam-busters’ style missile or air attack on the dam. Nor would it have benefitted Zelenskyy’s armoured forces, who would now be bogged down if they attempted to push south into the Dnipro delta.

In all likelihood, Putin’s generals, responding to probing attacks south of Kherson, ordered the blowing of the dam to deny Zelenskyy’s forces an avenue of approach southwards and to frustrate Ukrainian efforts to cross the Dnipro river and to attack in strength in this area.

The destruction of the dam, with the humanitarian and environmental disaster that it has prompted, signals a growing level of anxiety among Putin’s forces about the imminent and much-hyped Ukrainian counteroffensive. 

The destruction of dams is explicitly prohibited under the international laws of armed conflict. The destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam – if perpetrated by Putin’s troops – represents yet another war crime in this appalling conflict. 

It hints at a certain level of panic on the part of Putin’s general staff – and at their disinhibition when it comes to the use of non-conventional means and the criminal targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure when confronted or threatened by well-armed Ukrainian forces in the field.

Counter-offensive begins

Further east, in Zaporizhzhia Oblast, Ukrainian forces have been attacking on an apparent axis of advance via Orikhiv, Velkya Novosilka, Mala Tokmachka and Novopokrovka. This probing mechanised assault – meeting stiff resistance – suggests an assault south on the heavily defended Russian hub of Tokmak.

If this proves to be the case – and further combat operations over the weekend will reveal Ukrainian intentions in this area – it would appear that Zelenskyy is attempting to probe south, towards Melitopol towards the coast.

If successful, this would have the effect of severing Putin’s land corridor from Russia – cutting off and severing direct supply lines to Russian occupied Crimea.

However, at this point in the renewed offensive, it is impossible to say with any certainty if this is indeed Zelenskyy’s intended operational strategy. It could be a ‘feint’ or diversionary attack – designed to draw Putin’s forces away from other sectors on the front line. However, it does represent the shortest route from Ukrainian held territory to the coast – and the key to splitting Putin’s forces in two and isolating Crimea.

Whatever the intention, combat in this area will be intense as it is very heavily defended – in depth – by Russian forces. Putin’s General Shoigu has had ample time to prepare layer upon layer of fortified trenches, tank traps and minefields on what has been a much-anticipated and likely avenue of approach for Zelenskyy’s forces.

Military options

The military tools available to Zelenskyy at this point are formidable but limited. His options, therefore, are also limited.

He has amassed a force of approximately 12 armoured brigades for this Summer offensive. Three of these brigades – the equivalent of one armoured division – are equipped with older equipment, including upgraded Ukrainian and Russian T-72 tanks. 

However, the other nine brigades are NATO equipped and NATO trained. This gives Zelenskyy the equivalent of three armoured NATO divisions to punch a hole in Putin’s defences. Ukrainian experiences on the battlefield to date have shown that they can make rapid advances – such as their spectacular armoured break-out in Kharkiv Oblast in September – and can mount dogged, attritional advances against heavily fortified Russian defences as was the case in their liberation of Kherson in November.

Given the forces available to Zelenskyy – and the time frame for this Summer offensive – he will have four months to force their way to the coast and the Sea of Azov.

The skirmishes seen south east of Orikhiv are the equivalent of probing reconnaissance attacks mounted by the forward elements or ‘screen’ of Zelenskyy’s new armoured formations.

Once an axis of advance has been identified – a fault line, or vulnerable sector in Putin’s defences – they will assault in earnest.  The initial assault will involve heavy artillery and long range missile strikes on Russian command and control centres, logistics, ammunition depots and troop concentrations. Combat engineers will work to dismantle and breach tank defences and fortified positions. 

Once this phase is complete, Zelenskyy’s forces will seek to penetrate and exploit an advance south to the coast and drive a wedge through Putin’s forces. This will require a highly coordinated and rapid combined arms manoeuvre – a kinetic and relentless assault on Russian forces.

Such an attack will involve very heavy losses on both sides – but for Zelenskyy and his generals, it will represent a one-shot opportunity to inflict a rapid reversal on Putin’s mobilised troops. 

The ‘meat-grinder’ approach

Thus far in the conflict, the Russian military has shown itself vulnerable to dynamic combined arms operations. They have also demonstrated an inability to respond rapidly or to counterattack – often abandoning positions and vast stockpiles of equipment when routed. 

However, they have also demonstrated a preparedness to pour tens of thousands of poorly trained troops into the forward edge of the battle area as a ‘wall of meat’ or ‘meat-grinder’ approach to defence – with catastrophic loss of life.

Wherever Zelenskyy finally commits his three NATO style armoured divisions – two in the vanguard and one in reserve to reinforce and exploit the advance – the summer offensive, when it does reveal itself, will be extremely violent in order to gain the critical mass necessary to inflict a decisive defeat on Putin’s forces.

If successful, this will force Putin’s hand. Having announced today that he is sitting on ‘tactical nuclear weapons’ in Belarus, it is anyone’s guess how he will respond to humiliation on the battlefield in Ukraine. The reckless destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam demonstrates little regard on the part of the Kremlin, for the humanitarian or environmental consequences of their actions.

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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