The San Juan Daily Star
Ukraine’s spring offensive comes with immense stakes for future of the war
By Julian E. Barnes, Eric Schmitt, Adam Entous and Thomas Gibbons-Neff
UUkraine is preparing to launch a counteroffensive against Russian forces as early as next month, U.S. officials say, in the face of immense risks: Without a decisive victory, Western support for Ukraine could weaken, and Kyiv could come under increasing pressure to enter serious negotiations to end or freeze the conflict.
U.S. and NATO allies have supplied Ukraine with extensive artillery and ammunition for the upcoming battle, and officials now say they are hopeful the supplies will last — a change from two months ago when weapons were only trickling in and U.S. officials were worried that the supplies might run out.
At the same time, 12 Ukrainian combat brigades of about 4,000 soldiers each are expected to be ready at the end of April, according to leaked Pentagon documents that offer a hint of Kyiv’s timetable. The United States and NATO allies are training and supplying nine of those brigades, the documents said.
Although Ukraine shares few details of its operational plan with U.S. officials, the operation is likely to unfold in the country’s south, including along Ukraine’s coastline on the Sea of Azov, near the Russian-annexed Crimea.
“Everything hinges on this counteroffensive,” said Alexander Vershbow, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia and senior NATO official. “Everybody’s hopeful, maybe over-optimistic. But it will determine whether there is going to be a decent outcome for the Ukrainians, in terms of recovering territory on the battlefield and creating much more significant leverage to get some kind of negotiated settlement.”
While Ukrainian officials have said their goal is to break through dug-in Russian defenses and create a widespread collapse in Russia’s army, U.S. officials have assessed that it is unlikely the offensive will result in a dramatic shift in momentum in Ukraine’s favor.
Ukraine’s military faces many challenges — one reason that a stalemate remains the most likely outcome. Fighting in Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine this past winter has drained ammunition reserves and led to heavy casualties in some experienced units.
And yet U.S. military officials say it is possible that Ukraine’s army could once again surprise them. They are now armed with European tanks and American armored personnel carriers and have new units trained and equipped by Americans and NATO forces.
“I’m optimistic that between this year and next year, I think Ukraine will continue to have the momentum with it,” British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace told reporters during a visit to Washington last week. “I also think we should be realistic. There is not going to be a single magic-wand moment when Russia collapses.”
Although Ukraine has deviated from the usual secrecy surrounding military plans by talking openly about the coming battle — in part because Ukrainian leaders need to drum up morale and pressure the West for weapons — U.S. officials expect Ukraine’s army will use deception and feints to throw the Russians off balance.
Ukraine’s best chance of making a dramatic show in the counteroffensive will also depend on U.S., NATO and Ukrainian intelligence. If the United States and its allies can identify significant weaknesses in Russian defenses, Ukraine can exploit them with the speed and protection of tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles.
Still, big gains are not guaranteed, or even necessarily likely. The battlefield is heavily mined by the Russians, and the Ukrainian advance will depend on whether Kyiv’s forces can effectively deploy mine-clearing equipment, much of which the West has provided.
Ukraine built the new combat brigades by pairing raw recruits with a small core of experienced veteran soldiers. Beginning in January, the units went to U.S. training grounds in Germany to learn how to use their new equipment and how to conduct what the U.S. Army calls combined arms maneuvers — using effective communication to coordinate advancing troops with supporting units such as tanks and artillery.
Training on those tactics has gone well, according to multiple U.S. officials, and a motivated Ukrainian force has shown itself to be a quick study. But employing new tactics is often easier in training exercises than it is on the battlefield, especially with the Russians so dug in.
Soldiers fighting in Ukraine have said that, so far, sophisticated maneuver warfare has been all but impossible to execute. They have struggled to coordinate their operations because they require strong communications, which is difficult because radio equipment differs unit to unit and is susceptible to Russian jamming. One soldier in Ukraine who participated in a recent failed attack in southern Ukraine said that coordinating anything above the platoon level — a unit of about 30 soldiers — remains extremely difficult.
If the Ukrainians succeed in using these new tactics, even to a small degree, they may be able to overcome the numerically superior Russian forces.
“If they can break through, then I think they can change the dynamic on the battlefield,” Adm. Christopher W. Grady, the vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a brief interview.
Major questions about Ukraine’s artillery and other ammunition supplies remain. Kyiv’s supplies of air defense missiles and artillery rounds, critical to sustaining any push and to defend against Russian air attacks, could run dangerously low if its forces continue to expend ammunition at their current pace. After the offensive is over, there is little chance that the West can re-create the buildup that it did for Ukraine’s coming assault for the foreseeable future, because Western allies do not have enough supplies in existing inventories to draw from and domestic production will not be able to fill the gap until next year, experts say.
The Ukrainian military has been firing thousands of artillery shells a day as it tries to hold Bakhmut, a pace that U.S. and European officials say is unsustainable and could jeopardize the coming offensive. The bombardment has been so intense that the Pentagon has raised concerns with officials in Kyiv, warning them that Ukraine was wasting ammunition at a key time.
While Ukrainian forces can use drones to strike behind Russian front lines, they have not been given missiles with a long-enough range to hit Russia’s logistical hubs, a tactic that proved important in last summer’s offensives outside Kharkiv and Kherson.
The Russians have challenges of their own.
Since the beginning of the invasion, there have been major doubts about the basic competence of Russian commanders and their supply of well-trained soldiers, artillery shells and equipment. The Russians have expended many of their cruise missiles, lost thousands of people in Bakhmut alone and drained their stores of ammunition much faster than they can replace them with their domestic production.
But Russia is working to address those gaps. Russian troops have honed their ability to use drones and artillery to target Ukrainian forces more effectively. They have recently started using glide bombs — which use gravity and basic guidance devices to reach their targets without making any noise — to show they are still capable of deploying newer weapons on the battlefield. The efforts mean the window to make significant gains against Russia’s depleted forces may not remain open indefinitely.
In private meetings, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has told other officials that he believes Russia has the numerical advantage on the battlefield because it has more planes, tanks, artillery pieces and soldiers than the Ukrainians, according to a senior European official aware of the discussions. In these conversations, Shoigu came across as supremely confident that Russia will eventually prevail.
U.S. intelligence officials have repeatedly warned that President Vladimir Putin of Russia thinks that time is on his side. Given Russia’s bigger reserves of equipment and manpower, the officials say Putin believes he will ultimately emerge victorious as the West’s appetite to support Ukraine subsides.
U.S. and European officials say Russia is preparing new rounds of mobilizations to bolster the ranks of its military without creating the same exodus of young men from the country, which occurred last year when a partial mobilization was announced. Some of the leaked Pentagon documents also outline how Wagner, Russia’s biggest military contractor, had restarted recruiting troops from Russia’s prisons.
U.S. officials say that Putin faces a political cost for any mobilization, and even if he is willing to bear those costs, it will take Russia time to conscript those forces, train them and send them to the fight. Forces that were rushed to the front, like Wagner’s prison recruits, quickly became cannon fodder.
Still, Russia’s capacity — and willingness — to absorb losses remains large, allowing it to mobilize more conscripts. But some analysts have raised doubts that Moscow has enough soldiers to fill the trenches they have built across their front lines.
A key focus of the United States and the West has been trying to stop Russia from finding new supplies of weaponry. U.S. and NATO officials have hindered Russia’s domestic manufacturing with sanctions and export controls, and put diplomatic pressure on countries to reject Russian requests for arms.
China appears to have been deterred, at least for the moment, from providing ammunition or other lethal aid to Russia. U.S. officials publicized intelligence about Beijing’s private discussions with Moscow, and they have not seen any evidence since that China is sending arms. Similarly, Russian efforts to acquire guided missiles from Iran have not borne fruit so far.
Another apparent success has been Egypt. While U.S. officials were quietly pressing Cairo to supply artillery shells to Ukraine, U.S. intelligence agencies gathered information, first reported by The Washington Post, that Egyptian officials might also supply weaponry to Russia.
After a diplomatic push by the United States and Britain, the Egyptians appeared to side with the Americans. According to a subsequent intelligence report, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt rejected the idea of Cairo supplying the Russian side.
U.S. officials said a production contract has been agreed with Egyptian state-owned arms makers to produce artillery shells for the United States and American contractors, who, in turn, will send them to Ukraine.
Some European countries, including France, are pushing for negotiations. For now, Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy are dug in, and peace talks appear to be nowhere in sight.
For the Ukrainians to force a real negotiation, they must make sure “Vladimir Putin’s hubris, his arrogance, is punctured,” CIA Director William Burns said at a speech at Rice University earlier this month.
The Ukrainians have said they would not agree to any peace talks until they push back the Russians and gain more territory.
The chances that Putin will back down or cut his losses in response to a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive, the senior European official said, were “less than zero.” Instead, the official said, Putin will likely opt to call up more soldiers and send them in.
Celeste A. Wallander, the U.S. assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, said there is no sign that Putin is ready for a compromise. “There is very little evidence and little reason to believe that Putin will give up on his strategic goal of subjugating Ukraine politically, if not fully militarily,” she said in an interview. “It’s been his goal, not just for a year, but it’s been going on for nearly a decade. So there’s no sign he’s giving up on that.”