Ukraine is widely reported to be in the final stages of preparing for a spring offensive against Russia. Whether it ends in success or failure, this will likely mark Ukraine’s last chance to launch a large-scale offensive operation for a half year or more. This is true regardless of how many NATO weapons and ammunition are subsequently delivered.
After this operation, Ukraine will have expended the majority of its remaining Western-trained and experienced combat formations. Russia, on the other hand, still has substantial manpower resources from which to draw, as well as an industrial capacity that is producing war material now and will increase its output over time. This assessment stands in stark contrast to what many military experts have led Western publics to believe.
Western analysts overwhelmingly base their claims of Ukraine’s chances to drive back Russian forces on Kyiv’s acquisition of modern NATO equipment and an upsurge in NATO training for the Ukrainian Armed Forces. It is debatable how much NATO weapons and quick training can improve Ukraine’s offensive capacity, but even if the improvement is as notable as advertised, few Western analysts have addressed the most crucial question: What comes after the offensive?
Near-Term Possibilities of Ukraine’s Spring Offensive
It is entirely possible that this offensive could significantly gash Russia’s forces and recapture a modest amount of territory. For very practical reasons, it is highly unlikely the UAF will repeat the massive success of the Kharkiv offensive last September, during which thousands of square kilometers of territory were recaptured in mere weeks. It is also possible that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s troops — with little to no air power and a dearth in artillery ammunition — could suffer egregious casualties while gaining little.
Yet what matters more is what follows. Succeed or fail, what will the balance of power between the two sides look like, and what could be reasonably expected in the next phase? Too few analysts consider the context of any given action. The tendency is to consider any given offensive in isolation, as though the winner or loser of a given campaign will be the winner or loser of the conflict. That’s not how war works.
Ukraine War: First 14 Months of War Have Seen Many and Dramatic Swings
We don’t have to look any further back into military history than the last year of this very war to understand the dynamics of combat. In the opening round, Ukraine was militarily unprepared for an invasion as Russian troops flooded into the country, and Kyiv suffered the shocking loss of nearly a quarter of Ukraine’s territory. The UAF quickly recovered from the initial blow, however, and gave Moscow a bloody nose, forcing Putin’s tanks to withdraw en masse from Kyiv and Kharkiv regions and greatly boosting the morale of the UAF.
Russia then changed its objectives and reoriented its formations. It plunged its armored fist into the Donbas, capturing town after town, reaching a high-water mark in early July with the fall of Lysychansk. Russia had significant momentum. It appeared Russian forces would continue on to Bakhmut, and then to Kramatorsk and beyond. Instead, Ukraine launched one expected offensive in Kherson region and a surprise offensive out of Kharkiv and shoved the Russians more than 100 kilometers back to the east. Ukraine had seized the momentum and appeared to have Russia on the run.
But Russian reserves were quickly thrown into the lines. By November, they stabilized the front east of the Dnipro River in the south and near Svatovo in the north, halting the Ukrainian offensive. Starting in December, Russian formations, bolstered by a partial mobilization of several hundred thousand men, began to slowly push the Ukrainian forces again back towards the west, capturing a number of small and medium towns, highlighted by Soledar in the north, and putting Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and portions of the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson fronts under pressure.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian General Staff has spent months forming, equipping, and training an offensive force of somewhere in the neighborhood of 80,000 troops. This offensive force has been equipped with many Western armored vehicles, artillery, and rocket launchers, and thousands of them have been trained by NATO militaries.
According to Ukrainian governmental and military leaders, the UAF is in the final stages of preparation to launch a new offensive with which they hope to punch a hole in the Russian lines, seize Melitopol, and potentially cut the land bridge that allows the Russians to keep their hold on Crimea. Those advocating for the UAF’s offensive end their assessments at this point. Virtually none of them have projected what would follow, whether Ukraine succeeds or fails in the spring.
Succeed or Fail = Lose?
The viability of the Ukrainian state could well rest upon the results of this offensive. What obviously concerns Kyiv is that if the offensive fails, they could lose the war. What should worry Ukraine’s leaders the most, however, is that Ukraine could win this offensive battle, but as a result, lose the war anyway.
Math is one of the primary culprits: At battle’s end, Ukraine will have spent its last remaining force with which to conduct offensives. The Washington Post recently revealed that Ukraine has already lost the vast majority of the trained and equipped army that NATO helped it create prior to February 2022. Winning the 2022 winter battles for Kyiv and Kharkiv and the counteroffensives in Kherson and Kharkiv last fall came at a premium cost paid by the UAF’s best troops.
Ukraine, with a population a quarter the size of Russia’s, is already scraping the bottom of the barrel for mobilization. With the launch of a major offensive, the UAF would naturally lose even more of its trained and experienced troops, and the overall casualty rate would be high, win or lose. Russia would likewise lose considerable troops in the UAFs offensive, but Moscow has millions more men from which to launch future mobilizations. Ukraine can never match the manpower of Russia.
Add to the manpower issue the fact that Russia’s domestic military industrial capacity is rapidly expanding to produce weapons and ammunition that could exceed what the cumulative West can provide to Ukraine in the medium term. Thus, in the phase following this looming offensive, as both Russia and Ukraine have to fight with higher percentages of minimally trained mobilized personnel, Putin will be able to put more conscripts into the field with more ammunition. Ukraine, therefore, may not be able to win the war, even after a successful offensive.
Author’s Expertise and Experience
A 19FortyFive 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.