Vladimir Unkovski-Korica examines the coming Ukrainian counter-offensive against Russia. He argues outright military victory is unlikely for either side, and continued fighting will only result in more death and destabilisation.
‘One more heave’ was the phrase the generals of the First World War used as offensive after offensive gained or lost a few yards or territory. Its ghostly, grisly echo is haunting the killing fields of the Russo-Ukrainian war. Ukraine is mounting a summer counteroffensive, designed to regain the military initiative after months of grinding deadlock. Armed and backed by the West, the armed forces of Ukraine are moving from defensive to offensive operations in an attempt to break the deadlock.
As every previous phase of the conflict, this one will bring with it more death, uncertainty and risk. Initiated by Russia now well over a year ago, the war has been brutal. The meat-grinder in Bakhmut in recent months has seen thousands on both sides perish as Russia inched forward in the small Donbas town. But as fresh Ukrainian troops arrive from the rear, the situation is certain to get worse yet.
Even before the start of major operations, we are already seeing the first steps of the counteroffensive. The Ukrainian army is regularly hitting Russian positions and infrastructure well behind the frontlines in an attempt at degrading the Russian military’s ability to re-fuel and re-arm. With the aim of sowing confusion as it prepares to attack, the Ukrainian army has also increased the use of drones to hit enemy targets in occupied Ukraine and in Russia.
Some of these targets are clearly chosen as part of what is best understood as psychological warfare. Attacks on fuel depots in Crimea serve a military purpose, for instance, but are also intended to demonstrate the vulnerability of Russia’s major war aim: consolidating its control over the strategically significant peninsula on the northern coast of the Black Sea.
Furthermore, the drone attacks on the Kremlin, dismissed by many Western media as a hoax, and denied by Kyiv, have all the hallmarks of a Ukrainian operation. Within hours of the attack, the Ukrainian Post Office issued a stamp showing the Kremlin on fire with a drone in the skies above it, while the head of the Ukrainian president’s office had tweeted a picture of a rocket without any comment hours before the attacks.
Following similar operations like the assassination of pro-war propagandists in Russia like Darya Dugina (daughter of Alexander Dugin, a key right-wing ideologue close to the Kremlin) in a car bombing and Vladlen Tatarsky in a St Petersburg café bombing, there can be no doubt that there has been a pattern of Ukrainian covert attempts at destabilising the Russian regime.
Western leaders appeared to condone such attacks. In response to questions about the Kremlin drone incident and whether the US deemed assassination attempts on Russia’s leadership to be legitimate, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken responded that he thought it was a matter for Ukraine.
By contrast, Russian responses to the attack were predictably furious, with former president Dmitry Medvedev re-issuing his now standard threats of using nuclear weapons in the war. These remain threats, but the overall pattern in the past has seen the Kremlin prepared to meet any escalation by Kyiv with an escalation of its own. We should expect no change to this pattern now.
The dangers of the counter-offensive
Indeed, the Russian response to Ukrainian preparations for the counter-offensive has involved waves of rocket and drone attacks on targets across the country. These have hit critical infrastructure, transport hubs, arms storage facilities, fuel and ammunition depots, and, tragically, civilian targets. Meanwhile, Moscow is preparing for a multi-pronged offensive across the frontline. Even as its troops continue to grind down the Ukrainian army in Bakhmut, with continuing very heavy losses on both sides, its army elsewhere has been digging in deep.
And there is a level of predictability about what will come next. While war can throw up many surprises, some Ukrainian war aims are very easy to determine by looking at the geography of the war. Crimea remains a central node in the fighting because of its importance to Russia. Thus, cutting the land link to Crimea, Russia’s main achievement in the war so far, would be the only obvious point at which Moscow may be forced to the negotiating table. This would involve the Ukrainian army storming the area leading to Melitopol and simultaneously bringing itself into the position of being able to threaten the Kerch bridge with long-range missiles.
Such a thrust would very likely also encircle Russian troops to the west of Melitopol, leading to major pressure on Moscow to negotiate, because of the implications for the morale of its army and the threat to its strategic gains. We have seen how fragile the morale of Russian troops has been in recent days when the 72nd Motorized Rifle Brigade of the 3rd Army Corps abandoned its position near Bakhmut, under fire from a Ukrainian counter-attack, leading to heavy Russian losses.
Precisely because it is so predictable, though, Ukraine’s goal of cutting Russia’s land link with Crimea may be very hard to achieve. Russian forces are numerous and have dug major defences around the area in anticipation of any Ukrainian moves in the region.
Consequently, both Western and Ukrainian officials have been careful to temper expectations about what the Ukrainian offensive can achieve. In late April, for instance, General Mark Milley, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the war would likely last for many years. Several months ago, he warned it was unlikely that Ukraine could dislodge the 300,000 Russian troops in Ukraine this year.
Similarly, Ukraine’s defence minister, Oleksiy Reznikov, said in a recent interview that Western expectations are ‘overestimated, overheated’. That was followed by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s lament to the BBC that Ukraine’s counter-offensive would need to start later, rather than sooner, as Ukraine needed more Western weapons to prevent ‘unacceptable losses’.
The trouble for Kyiv is that it is caught between two imperatives. Being dependent on Western aid to sustain its war, it has to demonstrate results to justify continued support. Being weaker than Russia, it has to ensure it does not stretch its forces too thin, opening itself to a Russian counter-offensive.
Either way, both imperatives see Ukraine ever more dependent on the West. Hours after Zelensky’s call for more weapons, Ben Wallace, the UK defence secretary, announced Ukraine would receive long-range Storm Shadow cruise missiles. The provision of such weapons constitutes yet another escalation of the conflict, and will no doubt raise the stakes for Moscow.
The need for diplomacy
There is great nervousness in Western capitals as a result. Sustaining Kyiv in a long war may become politically unpalatable, and it may prove too a drain on resources, just as the Western economies are dealing with major economic problems and a rising China. With the Republicans in control of the House of Representatives and elections in autumn 2024 in the US looming, US president Joe Biden will not be keen on a protracted war. In Western Europe, we have seen major demonstrations for peace, and there will be extreme anxiety in the ruling classes about the consequences of another winter of war.
Thus, we may see more limited aims in the current Ukrainian offensive effort, which may have more propaganda value and may be more achievable than cutting the land link to Crimea. For example, the recapture of Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station would be a major prize, or a counterattack within Bakhmut may have symbolic value.
Such an approach would be calculated to keep as much Western support as possible, while improving any Ukrainian position at the negotiation table, should peace talks emerge. There is also increasing speculation that Western economic pressures on China may convince Beijing to dissuade Russian president Vladimir Putin from pursuing the war beyond the summer.
But there is currently little indication that Moscow is prepared to sue for peace. Putin still believes that time is on his side, and that Western support for Ukraine will dwindle. Should Ukraine’s counter-offensive achieve next to nothing, the pressure will indeed be on Kyiv, not on Moscow. And, so far, the Russian regime has managed to conscript hundreds of thousands without much political fallout and its economy is still far from collapse.
That could change over time. While a law has been passed in Russia making it easier to conscript soldiers via an electronic call-up system, the Russian authorities are visibly reticent about mobilising a new wave of recruits. Moreover, prolonged economic sanctions may cause lasting damage to the Russian economy and begin to turn sections of the population against the regime.
The truth is that the war is likely to be a protracted, bloody and expensive stalemate. It is also a stalemate which, for all its dangers, is unlikely to end in a decisive victory for one or other side. Even as the pro-war factions in the West and Russia decry negotiations, or any compromise with the enemy, a negotiated peace settlement in which both sides make concessions still remains the most likely outcome of the war, whenever it ends.
So why not end it now? And why not forestall further escalations, which could make the world more dangerous for us all, including the threat of nuclear war? Why not fight for peace and refuse to have ordinary people, East or West, or in Ukraine, pay for the war being fought by establishments that have no interest in the welfare of ordinary people?
This article was first posted at Counterfire