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Ukraine Wants to Go on the Offensive Against Russia. It Could Be Risky

What if Ukraine launches its own offensive against Putin and it fails?

Ukraine
Russian T-90M tank. Image Credit: Twitter.

Will Ukraine Go on the Offensive Or Not? Expert Analysis by Dr. Robert Farley: Observers of the Russia-Ukraine War have been aflutter for weeks about the prospect of a Ukrainian offensive to retake some of the territory seized by Russia in the first months of the war.  To some extent, this reflects frustration with what has become a static struggle of attrition, with front lines moving only a few kilometers and (in recent weeks) slowing to a crawl. For a variety of reasons, however, onlookers have been disappointed.

Despite some feints and some apparent early moves, Ukraine has not engaged in a serious effort to dislodge Russia from any of its conquests.

There are good reasons why Ukraine would resist the call for an early offensive from foreigners who’ve grown bored with the war. A failed counter-offensive would be a dramatic defeat for Ukrainian prospects.  In addition to the political effects (which would include an increase in Russian morale and the potential loss of support in the West), a failed offensive could open gaps and vulnerabilities in Ukraine’s defensive position, enabling Russian counter-attacks that could seize additional territory. A failed counter-offensive could also result in a Russian cease-fire offer on extremely advantageous terms to Moscow, a prospect that Kyiv would prefer to avoid.

There is little question that the Ukrainians are inflicting serious damage on the Russians, including both fielded forces and logistical systems. Simply attriting Russians forces will not obligate them to evacuate Ukraine. Armies do not generally collapse from attrition alone; the threat and practice of maneuver warfare must force them to engage, at which point the extent of the damage inflicted becomes clear.  An army defending from static positions can endure logistical shortcomings and the slow grind of combat, but may fall apart when attacked with intent to overrun or encircle. To enjoy strategic success, damage to Russian forces must be accompanied by liberation of real territory of strategic importance.

Eyes have focused especially on Kherson, which is both geographically vulnerable and strategically critical, but despite a range of preparatory action and a lot of discussion, an offensive has not ensued. Russian reinforcements, deployed either defensively or in preparation for another drive towards Odesa, have complicated the situation. The terrain does not favor offensive action, especially for a military that continues to struggle to integrate new equipment.  Combined arms offensive operations against a determined opponent in open country require extraordinary skill and coordination, and neither the Ukrainians nor the Russians have demonstrated this capability thus far.

However, the ability to demonstrate an offensive capability may be politically important to the Ukrainians. During World War II, the Roosevelt administration authorized early, under-prepared offensives in North Africa and the Solomon Islands out of a political need to demonstrate to international and domestic audiences that the United States was willing and able to carry the war to the enemy.

Bayraktar TB2 Drone

Bayraktar TB2 Drone of the Ukrainian Air Force.

Thus far, heralds of Western disunity over Ukraine have largely proven wrong, as many Western countries have continued to provide material and rhetorical support to the Kyiv government.  Indeed, there’s little hard evidence that enthusiasm for supporting Ukraine has waned significantly, despite a few hazy indicators from polling. However, demonstrating some degree of offensive success may also become important domestically for the Zelensky regime, which has maintained high levels of approval in the face of the Russian invasion.  The same polls that indicate high support also indicate great confidence regarding the future of the conflict, confidence that may eventually require some demonstration of effectiveness.

Granted, offensive operations are a tough sell for an army that has been badly mauled over the past six months. Simply integrating all of the equipment that Ukrainian forces have received is a titanic organizational task; forging a sufficient number of Ukrainian units into a maneuver-capable combined arms force is an exceedingly tall order. Ukrainians can surely be forgiven for resenting Western advice on when and where they should launch risky, costly military operations. Nevertheless, if the war is to end in anything other than a stalemate that leaves Russia in control of a huge portion of the country, the Ukrainian military needs to demonstrate its ability to defeat the Russians in the field and retake captured territory.

TB2

TB2 drone similar to the one fighting in Ukraine.

A 19FortyFive Contributor, Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph. D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

23 Comments

23 Comments

  1. Goran

    August 25, 2022 at 7:26 pm

    Ukraine wins by Russia not advancing, counteroffensive is too risky. Train more men, keep softening targets around Kherson and wait. Either way, Putin lost, the element of surprise is gone, his economy is in the process of decoupling from Europe and India has him over the barrel when it comes to rerouting the oil exports. There is no reason to try and storm Kherson, a few months from now those troops might decide to evacuate on their own.

  2. TG

    August 25, 2022 at 7:44 pm

    Interesting. As always, none of us here really know what’s going on.

    But: the Russians did not evacuate Snake Island because the Ukrainians launched a direct attack. The Russians evacuated Snake Island because the Ukrainians had strangled their resupply, and could inflict enough consistent damage that it simply became untenable for the Russians to remain.

    Things may have changed: the combination of high levels of surveillance with long-range precision ammunition may mean that yes, a siege can win without manuever warfare. If the Russians are just sitting around Kherson, and every day they take non-trivial damage in depth across their entire army, and they cannot advance, well, eventually they will leave. If the Ukrainians and their western allies don’t get exhausted first, of course.

  3. GhostTomahawk

    August 25, 2022 at 11:34 pm

    To quote Admiral Akbar

    “ITS A TRAP!!”

  4. Error402

    August 26, 2022 at 2:05 am

    Ukros, hugely & greatly misled by brilliant ensteinque joe biden, are begging to russia “Use ya nukes now if ya’ve thr balls.”

    Very soon, biden the great will be celebating Xmas in the comfortable knowledge he’d set off ww3 in europe.

    “Dang the dumb europeans. They’re the red injuns of NATO organization. From now on, NATO gonna under sole US control alone. “

  5. Petr

    August 26, 2022 at 4:13 am

    “Ukraine wins by Russia not advancing”

    Russia is already controlling 100% of LNR and 50% of DPR in the East, as well as 2 regions in the South, including nuclear power station in Zaporizhye, which is the biggest such plant in Europe, and provides up to 40% of Ukrainian electricity.

    The thing is – Russia does not need to advance that much more. After DPR us taken (and it will be taken, the progress there is slow, but steady), the initial goals, stated by Putin, will be met, and even overfilled, considering the South. Then, all Russia needs is to fortify these poditions over the winter, and hold referendums to incorporate these regions into Russia. After that, Ukraine can effectively kiss all these lands goodbye.

  6. aldol11

    August 26, 2022 at 5:09 am

    Putin will end like Gaddafi and Russia like Yugoslavia
    History shows that losing wars has serious consquences

  7. fugovi

    August 26, 2022 at 5:24 am

    Ukraine every month prints 5 billion usd (annual budget fo 2021 was 48), how long country can print such amount of money before inflation will skyrocket, and who`s economy has more chances to collapse?

  8. Dan

    August 26, 2022 at 5:24 am

    There are no real scenarios of Ukraine’s victory. And the further spread of these myths only leads to additional victims.

  9. Pitosga

    August 26, 2022 at 8:09 am

    If Ukraine were to carry out a counter-offensive, it would not announce it, because it would lose the surprise effect, which I think it is doing, is something that Portugal did in 1762 when 8,000 peasants, and some soldiers, defeated the armies of Spain and France together (42,000 soldiers). No fighting…
    In what is called the fantastic war, only 14 Portuguese soldiers died (yes! only 14), but 20,000 Spanish and French soldiers died.
    Being vastly outnumbered, they used intelligence against brute force. An army is made up of soldiers, who have to eat. What they did was block the advance of the troops and attack the food (they did not attack the soldiers, but the food).
    They destroyed and stole food supplies. And 42,000 soldiers need a lot of food every day.
    An army without food, after some time, collapses. Hunger and disease are the weapons of the Portuguese army.
    But for that it is necessary to give time to time.
    By announcing a counteroffensive, you are extending supply lines and complicating logistics.
    Longer supply lines, more possibility of attacks.
    Attacks on food aren’t spectacular, but they do the same damage as bullets, especially if soldiers don’t expect to fight hunger.

  10. Gary Jacobs

    August 26, 2022 at 9:21 am

    Plausible Prediction: Ukraine will grind down Russian forces through the winter with continued precision strikes. Meanwhile the training program in the UK and elsewhere will proceed through the spring so Ukraine has 30,000+ fresh western trained troops ready to aid Ukraine going on offense in the spring.

    Biden will follow his ramp up strategy and continue to provide Ukraine with more and better weapons as Russia grows desperate and continues to lash out like a spoiled child bullying others because it cant get its way on the battlefield.

    By the spring, Ukraine has 60+ HIMARS and/or M270s, and Biden strikes a deal with Ukraine to provide ATACMS that will not be used to strike territory in Russia proper. ATACMS are then used to pummel Russia forces and create momentum for Ukraine to sweep them out of most of the occupied territory and bring Russia to the negotiating table. And if Russia persists at firing at border towns like Kharkiv and Sumy from Russia, Biden tells Putin he will authorize Ukraine to strike in Russia from where Russia is firing at Ukraine.

    The eye on spring allows the US to drag the EU through the winter and keep the risk of a gas cutoff to a minimum. Although the way NatGas pipes work Russia has just as much to lose by shutting of the gas as the EU does. The political extortion from Putin could damage the pipes so badly they may be unusable in the future. They were not designed to sit idle. Putin is quite stupid, and if Biden has the balls to win there is ample opportunity to press the advantage at just the right time

  11. Curly

    August 26, 2022 at 12:55 pm

    Monday quarterbacks have no reason to think that Ukraine should do as they say because these quarterbacks don’t have all of the information. I know that I don’t however as I have said earlier what would be happening is that Putin is now in a phase of rebuilding his military since he has invaded Ukraine. Putin just gave the order to do rebuild his army. The replacement of the soldiers will be the easiest while the replacement of the fighting equipment will be harder and take longer. One day maybe next spring if the have enough equipment Putin could be ready for an all out war against Ukraine. When he does I expect that he will be ready do destroy thing there until the nation surrenders to him. If it does not surrender he will destroy everything above ground. Now he may leave the areas under his control undamaged except where there are Ukrainian sympathisers, those he will destroy to the last man, woman and child.

  12. a l

    August 26, 2022 at 12:59 pm

    Russia “sends” 10,000 artillery shells a DAY to Ukrainian forces….Ukraine “sends” 10,000 artillery shells a MONTH to Russian forces…..it’s a done deal, Ukraine is BLEEDING manpower at a ferocious rate, and has lost, only be propped up by money and corruption.

  13. Jacksonian Libertarian

    August 26, 2022 at 1:02 pm

    Ukrainian Offensive:

    Logistics is the Russian Achilles Heel. When Ukraine has sufficiently degraded the logistical support to Kherson such that there are Russian shortages of fuel and ammo. The time to drive an attack South to the Azov sea, splitting the Russian force in half (land communications cut between the East and South attacks) will occur. The threat to cut off all logistical support from the Russian forces in Kherson will force them to abandon their positions and retreat to Crimea.

    Unlike the Russian military made up of Armored vehicles and Artillery, all requiring a logistical nightmare of supplies to keep fighting. A Ukrainian force built on smart weapons (HIMARS, Javelins, Harpoons, etc.) will be highly mobile, with a light logistical tail, and have local Partisan support.

    Harpoon anti-ship weapons ranging the Azov sea/Kerch bridge will set up Ukraine for a Crimea offensive. Smart weapon combined arms experience will serve Ukraine in retaking Crimea and the East.

    Combat Power rule of thumb: 1 smart weapon = 500 dumb weapons

    Note: After 6 months of war, how large is Ukraine’s army?

  14. Bob Jackson

    August 26, 2022 at 1:21 pm

    Go for it so the USA can dump billions more into the 4Th most corrupt nation in the world.

  15. marcjf

    August 26, 2022 at 1:53 pm

    “Ukraine wins by Russia not advancing.” Only in a narrow sense. Seems to me the RF’s objective now is not so much taking ground as demolishing the UAF – physically and in morale terms. If they do that enough they can advance where they want.Relative loss and replacement rates are opaque, but I’d assess them agains the UAF, and they have been now for around 4 months. Unless of course all that fire and air power advantage simply doesn’t count in this situation. My assessment is that IF the UAF have any significant mobile reserves left, they are in reserve and they intend to keep them there. And that would be wise IMHO.

  16. Roger Bacon

    August 26, 2022 at 2:10 pm

    Ukraine seems to be getting better and better at hitting logistical tagets (ammo and supplies) behind Russian lines. Russian forces are going to be even more demoralized than they already are after a few months of low supplies. By the one year anniversary of the invasion I think Ukraine will be in a better position than they are now. No need for a counter-offensive at this time.

  17. Shosholoza

    August 26, 2022 at 3:26 pm

    Instead talking truce and jaw jaw Joe Biden and NATO urge Kiev to fight Moscow till the last Ukrainian and last city intact. Smart way to go.

  18. Smerch

    August 26, 2022 at 5:21 pm

    Winter is coming.

  19. truthalwayswinsout

    August 26, 2022 at 8:59 pm

    Their strategy is to survive and to inflict unacceptable casualties on the Russians. A war of terror and attrition and the destruction of Russian troops, leadership and equipment is the way to win.

    They have to play the long game until they can deal a massive blow which will not be for another 2-3 years.

  20. mcswell

    August 26, 2022 at 10:00 pm

    Bob Jackson claims the US is sending “billions more into the 4Th most corrupt nation in the world.” Hmm…depending on whose list you look at, that could be Venezuela, Lebanon, Sudan, Brazil, Yemen, North Korea, or Syria. So Bob, which of these countries is the US sending billions to?

  21. Ezra Teter

    August 27, 2022 at 11:02 am

    Do you have evidence to back up that fantasy?

  22. Beau Geste

    August 27, 2022 at 2:59 pm

    Could be impossible, Could be Ukraine will lose Its underbelly to include Odesa all the way to Transnistria. Could be they lose Black Sea access. Could be time to deescalate and negotiate, like before this operation started.

  23. Igorka

    August 30, 2022 at 10:21 pm

    The counteroffensive failed. 2,000 Ukrainians killed in two days. And you’re wrong. The Russians will not leave the occupied territories. If they do, the Russian people will sweep away the government for betrayal

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