The Word From Ukraine's Frontline: Counteroffensive Expectations Are Too High
In the West, many expect Kyiv's counteroffensive to be a swift and brilliant success. But Ukrainian soldiers on the ground know better.
BAKHMUT — Almost as the first Leopard tanks roll out on the Ukrainian front, some already see the collapse of the Russian military. Former U.S. General Ben Hodges, who is usually very optimistic, considers the capture of Russian-occupied Crimea by the end of August to be realistic, under certain conditions.
Worldwide, expectations for the recently begun Ukrainian counteroffensive are huge, fueled in part by Ukrainian representatives themselves: Commander-in-Chief Valery Salushniy announced that the nation would "take back what belongs to us." Secret Service chief Kyrylo Budanov released a video in which he stares silently into the camera for 20 seconds, before the words "Plans value silence" appear on screen.
We are at the beginning of a long summer which may have a significant impact on Ukraine's future. For now, it may be the last chance for Ukrainian forces to retake large areas of their country, with the full backing of Western supporters. The U.S. election is next year, and already, calls are gaining support there to curb military aid to Ukraine. In Germany, too, this debate could intensify in 2024, ahead of state elections.
Currently, tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers, some trained in Germany and equipped with Western equipment, are waiting for the order for the big assault.
They are young men like Wadim Adamow, 19, who had wanted to become a filmmaker before the war and fought in Bakhmut until the fall of the city. Or Igor Sirosh, 32, who last year abandoned his training as a nurse in Magdeburg to defend his homeland. Or Marc, code name "Egoist," 33, who dreams of taking part in the Dakar Rally and is currently on assignment in Zaporizhzhya.
A long summer
Anyone who talks to soldiers like them hears a great deal of humility on the ground. After 15 months of war, many are exhausted, both physically and mentally. Almost everyone now knows someone who has died on the battlefield, and they all know that thousands more are likely to follow in this offensive.
Their will is unbroken.
At the same time, the will of the vast majority of Ukrainian fighters is unbroken.
Only when the last "orc" or "f***er" has been driven out — as Russian soldiers derogatorily call them — will there be time for peace, they often say. Nevertheless, I have the impression that many Ukrainian soldiers do not share the exuberant optimism of some experts for this summer, for three reasons.
First, the major weakness of this Ukrainian offensive is the air force. For the time being, until the expected delivery of modern F-16 jets later this fall, the military has to cope with a small number of obsolete Soviet models. This leaves Ukraine without air superiority to protect its ground forces.
While Western air defense systems are available, some of them are needed to protect civilians and cannot be moved to frontline regions. The fact that Western backers have delayed jet deliveries for so long is a failure and will result in Ukrainian losses.
Markus Reisner, Colonel of the Guard of the Austrian Armed Forces, believes the hesitation over arms deliveries is a strategy: "The Americans are trying to send a clear signal to the Russians and Putin that continuing the war has no chance of success. Because they always provide the Ukrainians with just enough to defend themselves. But not much more, either. And that's the key thing: the U.S. is not cornering the Russians, because it wants to avoid escalation."
Indeed, even the highest-ranking U.S. General Mark Milley had recently called a Ukrainian recapture of all territory this year unrealistic.
Hiding from drones, Ukrainian soldiers stay under cover to prevent artillery fire.
Secondly, the Ukrainian military held on to the heavily contested town of Bakhmut until the spring. Then Russian troops took the last neighborhoods as well. There and at other front-line locations in the Donbass, not only did the Russian military lose many soldiers, but also Ukraine.
According to WELT information, some units in Bakhmut, consisting of about 100 soldiers, had casualty rates of more than 80% dead or wounded. Ukrainian commanders have argued that Russia has been more weakened by the fighting. Whether this calculation works out, and what the consequences of possible personnel shortages on both sides might be, will become clear in the summer.
Third, while Russia has made many military mistakes in this war, their army is also learning. In recent months, Russian forces have been digging deep defensive positions in the frontline regions, with minefields, armored trenches and other obstacles.
Ukraine has received special equipment for this, including German mine-clearing and bridge-laying tanks, although not on a large scale. One risk is that the defensive wall could slow down the Ukrainian offensive.
Despite all this, I personally firmly expect that the Ukrainian military will break through the Russian defense lines at some sections of the front. I think it is realistic that we will again experience a kind of "Kharkiv moment," as in autumn 2022, when Ukrainian forces drove deep into occupied territory and left Russian troops suddenly exposed along certain sections. We should not forget that Ukraine is not only receiving Western arms, but also information from intelligence services such as the American CIA and the German Federal Intelligence Service (BND).
Hopes of an overwhelming Ukrainian advance leading to the retaking of large parts of the previously occupied territories in a few months' time seem unlikely to me at present. In fact, there is only one scenario in which this would be conceivable: if panic breaks out among Russian soldiers on a broad front, and discipline is lost. In a static battle, as has been shown time and again, the Russians are superior due to massive artillery fire.
Germany, Europe and the U.S. must fundamentally clarify what they see as the goal of this counteroffensive. Is Ukraine supposed to somehow survive at the end of all the fighting, or is it really supposed to win by retaking large parts of the occupied territories? For the latter, we are delivering too slowly, and not enough.
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