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The Coming Ukraine Counteroffensive

Everyone’s attention seems to be on when and where Ukraine’s counteroffensive will begin and whether it will be successful. But this campaign, like all others in war, is not an end in itself. It is a means toward achieving Ukraine’s strategic aims: political sovereignty, territorial integrity and economic prosperity. We should place our attention on what Russia, the allies and Ukraine are doing to achieve their aims.

The war is not dragging on. There’s a lot more going on than meets the eye.

Russia is flailing about, trying desperately to hold onto the territory it seized through its illegal and war crime-filled aggression, first in 2014 and then in 2022. Russian troops are stalled on the ground. Their World War I-type of frontal assaults have failed. The troops are demoralized, probably with little cohesion, and likely unable to withstand a strong attack. But they still have some fight left in them.

Russian military leaders have two options: prepare defensive positions and attack by air. Vladimir Putin, however, has three options: hold onto the territory he has taken, in the hope that he can outlast Ukraine and the allies; widen the war by attacking a NATO country; or escalate the war by using nuclear weapons. The allies should prepare for all of these options, even though the latter two are unlikely.

Putin’s strategic objective is to subjugate Ukraine as step one toward re-establishing a Russian empire in Central Europe. Widening or escalating the war will not accomplish this objective. More likely, it would result in Putin’s demise and even further reduction of Russian stature. Putin will talk big but is unlikely to take those risks. His behavior points to the first option: hold onto what he has. If he can do this, it’s a win for him.

The allies have multiple objectives, so their first order of business is to clarify what they want to accomplish and to stay together. The allies have succeeded in two of their main objectives already: strengthening and defending NATO. Their third strategic objective, however — assisting the Zelenskyy administration in defeating Putin’s aggression and retaining Ukraine’s independence — is not yet accomplished. And it’s not a foregone conclusion that they will achieve this objective.

Allied assistance has been enough to defeat Russia’s initial attempt at quickly defeating Ukraine, and enough to reclaim some of the territory Russia seized. But, Ukraine’s independence is still at risk; Russian forces occupy enough territory to limit Ukraine’s political sovereignty and to choke Ukraine’s economy. The allies must do what they should have done last year: provide Ukraine with the training, equipment, ammunition and other logistics to defeat Putin’s invasion.

Over the winter and spring, the allies appear to have finally changed from their “give them part of what they need, slower than they need it” approach to full support that increases the probability of a Ukraine victory.

Under current conditions, full support means providing Ukraine with what it needs to break through Russian defenses in multiple places, and to follow those breakthroughs with sustained offensive operations that have strategic effect — that is, to sustain the momentum of the offense for months, or until Russian forces no longer threaten Ukraine’s political sovereignty, territorial integrity or economic prosperity. All indications are that the allies have made and are trying to make good on this commitment.

Getting the equipment, ammunition and other supplies to Ukraine is one thing, but it’s quite another for the Ukrainians to be able to use them in time for a counteroffensive. Hence, the Ukrainian forces are busy scrambling to receive the increased flow of all forms of logistics, while also organizing and training their forces — and, simultaneously, setting the conditions to sustain a complex, offensive campaign. Those conditions include attending to intelligence requirements; expanding air defense; making command and control arrangements; positioning units and supplies and managing roads and terrain; rehearsing parts of the plan; and war-gaming not just the base plan but also branches and sequels that likely will be necessary to sustain momentum.

All this takes time and would test the very best political and military leaders.

The future of Ukraine is at stake, of course. A failed counteroffensive may mean a rump Ukraine for years, perhaps forever. It’s not an exaggeration to say the future international environment is also at stake. Russian success in using naked, war crime-filled aggression will have a global effect. Other international actors with territorial ambitions and the military means to realize them are watching closely. What happens in Ukraine will not stay in Ukraine.

Even if successful, the Ukraine counteroffensive campaign alone will not secure Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s or the allies’ objectives. Major combat operations may end but the conflict and some fighting will continue. Even if his forces are routed in many or all areas, Putin will use any negotiation period to continue to pressure Ukraine. Negotiations, when they start, will not go smoothly.

Neither Ukraine nor its allies should view formal talks as the end of the conflict. Putin will obstruct every diplomatic effort. Even as negotiations go on, he'll continue to skirmish using deniable “little green men” to destabilize areas he wants to control. He'll threaten a return to major combat. He'll use the Americans he has taken hostage as leverage, and maybe take other hostages to increase his bargaining position. In sum, he'll use any measure, however illegal or unsavory, to prevent the return to normalcy.

This is basic Russian negotiation tactics. Ukraine and the allies should prepare for such an “end” to the Ukraine War.

So, no, the war is not dragging on. All sides are preparing for the next surge of combat. And all sides seem to recognize the importance and the potential consequences of the next surge. Historians may look back at the Ukraine War as the end of the post-Cold War period. What this next time period will be called remains unknown, for now. But one thing is for sure: The outcome of this war will help shape whatever future is unfolding.

James M. Dubik, Ph.D., a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general, is a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War. His military command and operational roles were in Bosnia, Haiti and Iraq and he has trained forces in many countries.


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