Kyiv’s upcoming counteroffensive, touted as one of the most anticipated military actions in modern history, is now imminent. The vast majority of Western weapons have reached Ukraine, the new brigades are complete, and the ground is now reliably settled to support the maneuver. If the past three weeks of “shaping operations” were not sufficiently indicative that the counteroffensive is technically underway, the forthcoming weeks will leave not doubt.
DISCLAIMER: The following analysis and map do not compromise Ukrainian operations security (OPSEC). The analysis is based solely on openly available information and presents theories that have been well-established and debated in the media. Additionally, the published version of the map contains less information than originally intended to safeguard potential Ukrainian tactical and operational realities.
OBJECTIVE: CUTTING THE LAND BRIDGE
Ukraine’s counteroffensive will most likely seek to cut off the “land bridge” linking Crimea to Russia. The liberation of Melitopol is the most probable objective since it is closest to the Ukrainian-held frontline (76 km) and farthest from the Russian flanks (occupied Crimea and Donetsk oblast).
A maximalist scope of this campaign will likely also include the liberation of Berdiansk and Mariupol, along with the entirety of Zaporizhzhia oblast and parts of southwest Donetsk, including the Azov coastline.
Such a success would mean the liberation of a big chunk of the remaining 15% of Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory. But make no mistake; this will be a Herculean task.
Ukraine will need to advance at least 70-80 km deep into a wide frontline that is topographically diverse, ranging from a mosaic of river valleys to hills and vast plains. Ukrainian forces must do so while fighting the enemy to the south, east, and west. The upcoming counteroffensive will vary greatly from Ukraine’s last major operation that saw a swift liberation of Izium and most of the Russian-occupied Kharkiv oblast.
Depending on the degree of success- which should be viewed as a spectrum- Ukraine may also “activate” other smaller flashpoints that have been diversional or fixing actions, such as the Dnipro crossings in Kherson, the Belgorod raids, and the ongoing attempt to semi-encircle Bakhmut.
WAYPOINT TO VICTORY BUT NOT WAR-ENDER
Success in the counteroffensive will bring Ukraine closer to victory, but it is unlikely to end the war.
By liberating Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine will largely isolate Crimea from Russia, laying the groundwork for a follow-on campaign to retake the peninsula. Without getting ahead of ourselves, it’s important to emphasize that Crimea is the decisive battlefield of this war, as Lt-Gen Ben Hodges (Rtd.) said many times.
Without the land bridge, Crimea’s only ground line of communication (GLOC) with Russia is the Kerch Bridge, which is extremely vulnerable to destruction. It was bombed last October and will likely be attacked again – and this time, Ukraine has the 250-km range StormShadows with infrastructure-busting penetrators. Ukraine could also bring the bridge within HIMARS range if it takes the Azov coast.
PREPARATIONS FOR THE BIG SHOWDOWN
Russia has been fortifying its positions and building up reserves to withstand the anticipated counteroffensive. But Russian forces have also gone on the offensive over the winter, which left them exhausted and with little to nothing to show for it.
In contrast, Ukraine has been diligently training and arming for its spring/summer counteroffensive.
With over 250 new battle tanks, 1,500 armored vehicles and infantry fighting vehicles, and an unquantifiable stockpile of artillery, rocket, and air-launched munitions, Ukraine has significantly bolstered its military capabilities. Engineering equipment specially designed to overcome Russian fortifications will play a crucial role in clearing obstacles on the path to victory.
The nine newly-formed “Storm” brigades, comprising over 40,000 troops trained and equipped by NATO states, have been set aside for the forthcoming battle. Three other brigades have been established internally by Ukraine, in addition to a variety of battle-hardened units that have been regenerated over the winter.
TRANSITION TO ASSAULT
The counteroffensive has technically began over three weeks ago in the form of shaping operations. Ukraine has slowly been setting the conditions for success through long-range attacks on Russian logistics nodes and command posts, as well as conducting fixing actions, diversions, and psychological operations. Diversionary actions include the Dnipro crossing in Kherson, the Belgorod raids, and even the ongoing attempt to semi-encircle Bakhmut. The latter may return as a fixing action opportunity.
It is very likely that Ukraine is currently in the process of transitioning to assault operations in Zaporizhzhia- this could be simplistically referred to as “starting the actual counteroffensive.”
Ukraine will likely complete its transition to the assault phase of the counteroffensive either this or next month (June-July 2023). The first signs of clear offensive actions in Zaporizhzhia have already emerged and will likely gradually intensify in the weeks ahead, marking a complete “gear shift” from shaping operations.
June is also the first month when the ground can be considered settled for maneuver after months of “rasputitsa.” In addition, the weather forecast shows a dry and warm spell for southern Ukraine over the next two weeks.
DELAYS ARE POSSIBLE
However, delays may occur for a host of reasons. Further training requirements, enemy dispositions, tactical changes on the battlefield, deteriorating weather, and equipment deliveries are strong reasons to postpone the launch window.
NEW WEAPONS DELIVERIES
The issue of equipment delivery is particularly important as there are still a few outstanding big-ticket items. Examples are the over 100 refurbished Leopard 1A5s from Denmark, the Netherlands, and Germany, which have only recently started deploying (or will deploy soon) to Ukraine. Also, Ukraine may choose to wait for the fast-tracked Abrams delivery if there is a chance to receive them this summer.
In addition, new lethal aid packages are pledged every month, such as Denmark’s plan to buy 96 additional retired Leopard 1As for Ukraine, requiring overhauls, new crew training, and integration into existing plans.
It is even possible, although unlikely, that Ukraine may decide to wait for the F-16s, even if this pushes the counteroffensive kick-off to Q3/Q4 2023 or even Q1 2024.
AIR DEFENSE SITUATION
Russia’s months-long missile campaign against Ukrainian cities and power grid drew Ukrainian air defenses away from the frontline and forced them to expand interceptors at unsustainable rates. This resulted in more permissive airspace over the frontline for Russian bombings, while Ukraine was forced to ration air defense munitions. Ukraine’s air defense gaps over the frontline and overstretched systems may pose a weakness for the counteroffensive.
Solving the air defense issues by receiving more systems (e.g., 64 more Gepards from Jordan) and ammo is worth waiting for.
THE ZNPP QUESTION
The Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) is a wild card with disruptive potential for Ukraine’s counteroffensive. Russia may exploit the ZNPP for nuclear blackmail, using the threat of a catastrophic event to deter or hinder Ukraine’s counteroffensive in Zaporizhzhia.
Moscow would conveniently blame any accident at ZNPP on “Ukrainian shelling.” This threatcast is in line with the recent intelligence declassified by Ukraine, alerting that Russia might stage provocations around the ZNPP in light of the upcoming counteroffensive.
The ideal solution would be a swift Ukrainian air-naval raid across the Dnipro to encircle the ZNPP and force the Russians to surrender the power plant peacefully. However, such an operation would be very risky and complex given that Russia transformed ZNPP into a military base.
The full-scale assault will commence when the battlefield has been effectively shaped, the time is right, and all necessary conditions for success have been met.
Ukraine’s leadership will likely exercise strategic patience and avoid rushing into the counteroffensive to appease external pressures.
by Vlad Sutea
DISCLAIMER: This report first appeared on Linkedin on 5 June 2023.