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Zelensky’s Gamble: Why Ukraine Had to Launch an Offensive Against Russia

Image Credit: Ukrainian Military.

Zelensky Took a Huge Risk in Ordering Twin Offensives – evidence shows Ukraine had little choice

As events have continued to develop since the opening of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s twin offensives in Kherson and Kharkiv, we’re starting to get a clearer picture of both Ukraine’s strategy and the reasons for Russia’s losses. The West might want to temper its exuberance over Zelensky’s successes; however, as a comprehensive analysis indicates, little has fundamentally changed in the overall war since the offensives began.

That flies in the face of conventional wisdom, I understand, as many have been hailing Ukraine’s advances as incontrovertible evidence that the tide of war has shifted to Kyiv’s favor and that soon Putin’s forces will be driven out of more territory. As will be discussed in detail in this analysis (and a second part tomorrow), Ukraine’s Kharkiv offensive employed a fairly large number of troops against a small number of inexperienced Russian troops and wasn’t the resounding victory in a clash of titans as some have characterized it.

How the Kharkiv Offensive was Publicly Conveyed

Zelensky sought to characterize the fight as one between equal forces to give the impression that Ukraine as a force had turned the corner, and now could launch offensives across the country to drive Russia out. On Wednesday, he doubled down on this effort, going to the just-liberated town of Izyum, just a few kilometers from the new Russian front lines, and proclaimed before a host of media recording the carefully scripted event with video and still images, “We should send signals to our people…in Crimea,” he declared, “We will return there.”

His efforts to give the impression of a major military success to Western audiences have been remarkably successful. Ann Applebaum declared it was now time to “prepare for a Ukrainian victory.” John Spencer praised the Ukrainians, saying they had “launched the greatest counteroffensive since World War II.” A third commentator said Kyiv’s “stunning counteroffensive against Russia” will be “written about and studied for decades – if not centuries – to come.”

Yet when the actual details of the battle are examined, it becomes immediately apparent the Western claims are wildly overblown. As this analysis will illuminate, the fundamentals that undergird each side in this war portend a long slog rather than a quick resolution, and presently neither side can make a case it is headed to victory.

Most in the West are viewing this war as they might a sports contest. When Russia invaded, many feared Putin’s forces would swamp the smaller Ukrainian side. Then when the Ukraine side stiffened and forced Russian troops to withdraw from Kyiv and Sumy, the West was jubilant believing that Putin was now on the run and would soon be driven out.

But then Russia began its methodical destruction and capture of Mariupol, Severodonetsk, and Lysychansk, and again there was fear of a Ukrainian collapse. Today, following the Russian losses north of Kharkiv, public opinion has pinballed back to optimism, believing Ukraine may win the war by the end of the year.

An unemotional analysis of the combat, economic, and personnel fundaments, however, reveals that such optimism is not well founded, and the most likely result is a war that will continue for the foreseeable future, much like a heavyweight boxing match, with one side landing body blows on the other, then reeling from counterpunches – continuing on round after round.

Both sides still have significant capacity to continue supporting combat operations, and neither population nor leadership appear to have any interest or motivation in seeking a negotiated solution on anything but maximalist terms for itself. That virtually guarantees the war is going to continue its bloody, inconclusive path for the foreseeable future. This current phase highlighted by Zelensky’s Kherson and Kharkiv offensives illustrate why.

Why Zelensky Had to Launch an Offensive

Through the first six months of the war, the initiative had rested almost exclusively with Moscow. Putin invaded on 24 February and flooded the country with forces on four axes. Ukraine went into immediate reactive mode, trying to stem the tide in each and to push back where they could. Even towards the end of March when Russia withdrew its armored formations from north of Kyiv, Sumy, and Kharkiv, it was Putin’s choice to move (the alternative was to press an unfavorable position or send more reinforcements there instead of the Donbas); at the time, Ukraine didn’t have an offensive capacity and could only inflict defensive wounds on the invaders.

Beginning in late April the Russian offensives in the Donbas began methodically, if slowly, to grind out wins and capture/destroy cities such as Mariupol, Izyum, Krasny Leman, Poposna, Severodonetsk, and Lysychansk. Though the pace eventually slowed, Russia continued making advances in Donbas through early August. Ukrainian troops continued inflicting a bloody price on each meter of ground on Russia, but so too did the UAF suffer casualties in the process. If Ukraine was ever going to entertain the slightest hope of winning its war, however, it would have to find a way to go on the offensive.

As I detailed in an analysis earlier this year, the ideal way for Ukraine to build an offensive combat capacity would have required getting considerable modern military gear from the West and then spend between nine months and a year recruiting, forming and training a 100,000 man force capable of launching theater-level offensive operations. Zelensky apparently determined Ukraine could not hold out a year and opted to attempt an offensive under less-than-ideal conditions. Its hard to blame him for coming to that conclusion, as the UAF was under strain from multiple sources.

First, Russia was planning to conduct a sham plebiscite in September for much of the occupied territories in the east and south, especially Kherson, as a first step for Moscow’s annexation of more Ukrainian territory into the Russian Federation. Though the action would not be recognized by Kyiv or likely any nation, as was demonstrated in 2014 with Crimea, once an annexation takes place, it is extremely difficult to reverse.

Second, Western defense ministers were days away from meeting in Ramstein Air Base to discuss what more aid should be given to Ukraine. Some in the West were beginning to question whether it made sense to continue providing modern weapons to Ukraine when they had not demonstrated they could win territory with what Kyiv had thus far received. Zelensky apparently calculated that taking an offensive risk prior to both the sham elections and the Ramstein meeting was necessary to stave off defeat.

It was crucial, however, that Zelensky be successful in any attack. Launching an offensive that utterly failed could have had a catastrophic effect, both for his immediate security and for the long-term effort to get more and heavier weapons from the West. We now know the Ukrainian leader chose a multipronged attack into two lightly defended zones that would give his troops the best chance of success. Given the circumstances, he chose well.

Part II of this series examines the preparation and execution of both the Kherson and Kharkiv offensives and considers where the two sides go from here

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis

Written By

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1.