In remarks made last weekend, Ukrainian Minister of Defense Oleskii Reznikov implied that a Ukrainian spring offensive could be imminent. Zelensky said the weapons, ammunition, and training provided to his troops from the West was crucial to enabling his country to continue resisting, but also cautioned that without more, Ukraine might lose the war. The bigger question: might even a successful spring offensive set the stage for a Ukrainian defeat?
At the moment, the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) are reported to be up to 700,000 strong. The Russian army in Ukraine could be up to 300,000. But that numerical advantage for Ukraine is deceiving. As of today, the UAF has to put meaningful numbers of troops to defend the northwest quadrant of its country opposite the Belarus border. The lifeline for the entire Ukraine society and army is dependent on keeping the western corridor open from Poland through which NATO supplies and arms flow.
If that path is cut off, the war is all but over for Ukraine. Since Russian troops stationed in Belarus might launch a surprise attack south, Kyiv is required to keep a strong defense there. Likewise, Zelensky must keep a strong defensive border manned against a new Russian incursion in the Sumy and Kharkiv border regions. Large numbers of troops are also assigned duty to defend Kyiv.
Meanwhile, there is an approximate 1,000km long frontline that absorbs the lion’s share of all Ukrainian troops and supplies. There are three main directions that are in round-the-clock defensive battles with Russian troops: Svatovo-Kreminna in the northeast, Bakhmut/Donbas in the central east, and Avdiivka in the south. Positioned in a safe zone in central Ukraine is approximately 80,000 UAF troops who are reportedly equipped with mostly NATO-supplied kit, have received some training from NATO countries, and are well-rested.
Beyond the frontlines to the east, Russia continues to build elaborate defensive works. One of Russia’s biggest failures in the first year of war was their failure to prepare any defensive positions behind the frontlines. In September, Zaluzhny launched a surprise counterattack in the Kharkiv region that caught Russia completely unaware, and routed them, pushing Russia back more than 100km to the east.
Putin’s forces had only a small number of troops in the north and had built no defensive positions in case of a counterattack. That lesson appears to have been learned. Attacking in open terrain, into well-constructed defensive positions, is a very costly affair for any attacker. Russia found out the hard way how expensive such operations are (as Wagner in Bakhmut), and Ukraine would likewise face the same challenges if it attacks Russia’s defense lines.
But as the Washington Post pointed out in a recent analysis, the majority of the Ukrainian army that had been trained by the West from 2014-2022 has been killed or wounded, leaving a largely conscript army to do the fighting. The Ukrainians have fought ferociously and bravely thus far, which is why Wagner has yet to completely take Bakhmut. But defending trench lines and bunkers requires far less skill than an offensive. We should not be surprised if Ukraine turns out to be less effective in the offensive and to suffer more casualties than they have in the defense.
What May Come Next
Russia is in the process of seeking to expand its active force by 400,000 by year’s end. Ukraine, in contrast, as the Wall Street Journal reported, has nearly exhausted its effective pool of military manpower. It simply does not have hundreds of thousands more capable fighters to mobilize. The painful reality is clear: even if Ukraine conducts a successful offensive this spring or summer, they have likely used the last major offensive capacity. Czech President Petr Pavel appears to have reached the same conclusion.
On March 19, Pavel said Ukraine will have, “only one attempt to carry out a major counteroffensive… (i)f (Ukraine) decides to launch a counteroffensive and it fails,” the Czech president warned, “it will be extremely difficult to get funding for the next one.” An unnamed NATO official seemed to echo that concern, adding that the “next six months will be a key period in the war.”
Zelensky has been adamant, from the outset, that he will not negotiate any Ukrainian land for a peace deal. As recently as last Monday, the Ukrainian president declared “we will liberate every city, every village of our state,” and defiantly vowed he would drive Russia out of Crimea as well. If Ukraine continues to push its men to make offensive strikes and refuses to consider any negotiated settlement that results in some territory remaining in Russian control, there exists the possibility that the Ukrainian Army, as an institution, could collapse, putting Kyiv again at risk of Russian attack.
Best Case Scenario for Ukraine’s Spring Offensive
Zelensky’s spring offensive could succeed in punching a hole in the Russian lines, potentially driving a deep wedge into the current Russian lines in the direction of Melitopol. The intent would be cut the Russian supply lines in half, cutting off the land bridge to Crimea. Attaining that objective would also trap considerable numbers of Russian troops in the south between Melitopol and Kherson.
While that end state sounds impressive and positive for Kyiv, few analysts consider the “what next” aspect of the war. Russia still has at least 100,000 troops that have not yet been deployed to the lines, and are attempting to add hundreds of thousands more troops to their army before the end of the year. In the event Ukraine were to successfully plow through the current Russian lines to capture Melitopol, the UAF would have depleted their offensive strength and have little more than a small theater reserve and the territorial border troops available for future operations.
Kyiv would need to immediately begin digging in against the expected Russian counterattack, which would pit fresh troops against a spent Ukrainian force. It is uncertain Ukraine could hold the lines against a concerted counterattack. But the bigger problem: Ukraine will have spent its last theater-level offensive force and would have to create yet another offensive force to have any hopes of driving Russia out of the remainder of the Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporezhia, and Kherson oblasts.
As the Wall Street Journal reported in late March, Ukraine is already critically low of available manpower and having difficulty mobilizing additional troops. It seems very unlikely that, after the losses they would incur conducting a spring or summer offensive, they would be able to muster another massive force with which to force Russia out of the remainder of their lands.
Moreover, in the event its forces were driven back to Melitopol, Putin could finally choose to declare martial law and full mobilization to bolster his army, not waiting for 400,000 volunteers to sign up. There would be too few Ukrainian troops left to even defend their gains, much less to be able to offensively force yet more Russian troops out of Ukrainian lands. In the event of a Ukrainian successful drive to Melitopol, it is unclear where Kyiv would ever find the manpower to drive the remainder – and growing – Russian army out of Kyiv in any subsequent phases of the war.
And that may represent a best-case scenario. If the Ukrainian offensive sputters or doesn’t gain much traction, Ukraine may not be able to inflict a severe enough wound on Russia and could then be in danger of a strong enemy counterattack. Either way, whether successful or unsuccessful, there is no clear path to Ukraine winning its war and driving Russia out of its land.
Nothing in life is ever guaranteed, and at least theoretically, it’s possible Ukraine, with support from the West, could somehow have a very successful spring or summer offensive and shove Russian troops back to the west. Yet as this analysis has revealed, the fundamentals that would exist even in the aftermath of a Ukrainian success could leave Zelensky’s army so weakened that it cannot defend even the new frontline, let alone muster the future manpower necessary to drive the remainder of the Russian army out of Ukraine.
A future analysis will examine the prospects for a Russian offensive in 2023, but Putin’s forces will also face steep challenges to try and achieve a military victory. Yet it should be clear to all by now that short of a direct intervention by NATO ground forces, Ukraine almost certainly lacks the capacity (especially in human resources) to ever drive Russia from its territory.
Given that probability, it seems unwise to continue trying seek an outcome that is likely militarily unattainable and instead seek the best diplomatic end that ends the pointless death of Ukrainian people, stops the needless destruction of Ukrainian cities, and preserves as much Ukrainian sovereignty as possible. Ignoring the balance of power that strongly favors Russia while hoping that Ukraine can muster the required strength to win a decisive victory on the battlefield – while refusing any consideration of a negotiated settlement – could ultimately lay the foundation for a much steeper cost to Kyiv to end the fighting, and on terms more favorable to Moscow.
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.