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Ukraine’s Long-Expected Offensive: Why It Won’t Beat Putin

M1 Abrams. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Ukraine has a complex reality it must face: U.S., UK, and EU senior leaders have voiced over the past few days strong support for Ukraine and their widely reported upcoming offensive. Reading some of the off-headline comments they’ve made, however, exposes the growing realization in the West that the hope of Zelensky accomplishing his stated objectives of driving Russia entirely out of Ukraine has a low probability of success.

A change in Western policy, therefore, is urgently needed – before Kyiv suffers more combat losses that are unlikely to alter the fact that the war will most likely end with a negotiated settlement.

Recent Developments in Ukraine War

In just the past few days, a bevy of senior Western political leaders have made strong declarations of support for Ukraine and the embattled country’s looming offensive. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, UK Foreign Secretary James Cleaverly, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg have all issued strongly worded statements of support for Ukraine. The question, however, is whether the West can make good on its claims.

There is growing evidence that for the remainder of 2023, the West in general and the U.S. in particular likely do not have sufficient on-hand stocks of key weapons and ammunition to match what has been provided to Ukraine over the first 14 months of the war. On Tuesday, the United States announced yet another tranche of military support to Ukraine, this time in the form of a $1.2 billion package

What is key about this promised support is that it was not given under the Presidential Drawdown Authority, but the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative. The difference in the two programs is significant and has ominous implications for Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) operations through the rest of this year, especially following the outcome – win, lose, or draw – of the upcoming Ukrainian offensive.

Policy and Timing

The drawdown authority means Biden can order the immediate delivery of existing U.S. weapons and ammunition, meaning they can, in theory, be delivered to the battlefield within weeks. The security assistance initiative, on the other hand, means contracts must be written, publicized, undergo a bidding process, and then defense contracting companies that win bids must produce the ammunition or military gear, sometimes taking years to complete. This means Ukraine will not see the primary benefits of this latest round of U.S. support until at least 2024. 

In an interview on May 5 with Euronews, EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell admitted “If I stop supporting Ukraine, certainly the war will finish soon,” because Ukraine would be “unable to defend itself” and would “fall in a matter of days.” 

Cleaverly optimistically added that since the war’s start, the Ukrainian Armed Forces have “outperformed expectations.” However, he concluded in a sober word of caution, “We have to be realistic. This is the real world. This is not a Hollywood movie.” And it is here that Western leaders would be wise to consider the ramifications of this accurate statement.

It is clear and understandable that those in the West would be against Russia’s violent invasion of Ukraine and would desire to see Kyiv recover all its territories. If we were writing the script of a movie, that’s exactly how this story would end. But, as the British Foreign Secretary points out with painful accuracy, we have to make policy based on the most accurate, realistic, and sober recognition of ground truth and a lot less on our emotionally-charged preferences.

First, we must understand the enormity of the task facing the UAF on the eve of launching its offensive. As one who has fought in a large-scale offensive tank battle and trained over many years to conduct defensive operations in armored units, I can conclusively state that the defensive is the far less challenging and difficult form of war, and a combined arms offensive is the most difficult and complex. 

Ukraine Strategy Evolves

Ukraine has suffered massive casualties over the first 14 months of this war. It is currently staffed with soldiers and leaders who have limited experience in war and only surface-level training in combined arms operations. One must not underestimate the challenge facing the UAF troops in a theater-level offensive that requires tight coordination of every unit over hundreds of kilometers, especially when no soldier, officer, or general in Ukraine has performed such a task of this magnitude.

Second, Russia has been preparing extensive defensive positions for more than half a year almost across the entire 1,000km front. According to some U.S. analysts, the Russians have designed and built an impressive series of defensive belts that would be difficult to breach even for fully-trained Western armies. To succeed, Zelensky’s troops will have to attack this elaborate defense with limited offensive air power, limited air defense, insufficient quantities of artillery shells, and a force that is equipped with a hodge-podge of modern and antiquated armor – staffed by a mix of conscripts with no combat experience and some officers and men with basic training by NATO instructors.

Some Ukrainian leaders are aware of the magnitude of the challenge. Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told the Washington Post last week that he was concerned that the “expectation from our counteroffensive campaign is overestimated in the world,” which he fears may lead to “emotional disappointment.”  The level of success, he warned, could be as few as “ten kilometers.” What the Defense Minister didn’t address, however, is what would come next.

Even if Ukraine again exceeded Western expectations and captured 50 or 100km of territory, the number of casualties they will have suffered would be high under any scenario, leaving the Ukrainian Armed Forces weaker then than they are today. As described above, it is very unlikely the West could replace lost equipment or provide enough ammunition to sustain the Ukrainians for the rest of this year, and according to the Washington Post, in addition to the 300,000 troops Russia presently has in Ukraine, there are another 200,000 poised just across the border. 

Once the Ukrainian offensive has played out – regardless of how successful they may or may not have been – a Russian counterattack would almost certainly follow. Ukraine would then be vulnerable, for many months, to such an attack as they would have even fewer artillery shells, air defense missiles, and troops. As this sober analysis makes plain, these are towering challenges that stand in the way of a victorious and decisive Ukrainian spring offensive.

If that is the case, then the chances of Zelensky ever accomplishing his objectives of forcing Russia out of Ukraine are highly improbable. The most likely outcome is that the war will continue on regardless of this offensive, but over time the conditions will continue tilting in Russia’s direction. Eventually, Kyiv will likely be compelled to seek a negotiated end to the fighting. The West should recognize this probability – now – and begin privately supporting such an outcome with Ukrainian officials. Refusing to take such actions in the hope that Ukraine produces a major battlefield victory could condemn Kyiv to a much worse deal later.

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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.

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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.