When and how will Ukraine launch a counteroffensive against Russia

When and how will Ukraine launch a counteroffensive against Russia? – Al Jazeera English

Kyiv, Ukraine – As spring begins in Ukraine, an ominous lull in hostilities has fallen across the battlefields of the war Russia began last year.

Moscow’s winter offensive never quite materialized, despite the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of mostly untrained men. Many were shipped straight to the front, only to be killed in so-called “cannon fodder storms”.

With critics and an American journalist jailed, the Kremlin appears to have won more victories against dissent and fragmented domestic opposition than in Ukraine, when Russian forces were making little headway in the besieged eastern city of Bakhmut.

At the same time, Ukraine has not gained any ground in the months following Russia’s withdrawal from key areas in the southern Kherson region or eastern Kharkiv region.

As the spring rains turn the ground to mud, impassable to troops and heavy weapons, Ukraine is rallying new forces trained to use new Western weapons, and its long-promised counteroffensive seems imminent.

“We are confident that the counter-offensive will take place in the near future,” Prime Minister Denys Shmygal said last week. “The US supports us absolutely.”

But where and how will it begin?

A western military analyst said he thinks Ukraine has enough manpower and equipment to call the shots.

“Whenever they decide to launch their counteroffensive, they will have an adequately trained and equipped manpower,” retired US Army Major General Gordon Skip Davis told Al Jazeera

Kiev’s one major handicap, a dismal lack of air force, can be offset by improved air defense capabilities, he said, and US-made Patriot air defense systems arrived in Ukraine on Wednesday.

“The counter-offensive will be a boost”

More importantly, Kiev can take advantage of the Russian armed forces’ low morale and lack of weapons and ammunition.

“They have a pretty good knowledge of Russia’s concerns and are likely to plant their fears to their advantage,” said Davis, who frequently visited Ukraine from 2014 to 2019 and met with its leaders and top figures.

Ukraine also needs a triumph or two to ensure continued supplies of Western military and financial aid as Western public support for its cause dwindles.

“The counteroffensive will buoy all political leaders who support Ukraine and say this is the sacrifice we must make to keep Ukraine free,” Davis said.

The current crescent-shaped front line stretching east to south of Ukraine is hundreds of kilometers long, so Kiev must carefully choose where to counterattack first.

“I don’t think they’re going to run two lines of attack,” Davis said. “You will only use a large concentrated area.”

One of the most viable options for Ukraine is to dissect the land bridge that Russia created to the Crimean Peninsula when it seized large parts of south-eastern Ukraine earlier in the war. This land bridge runs across separatist-controlled parts of the eastern Donbass region, as well as through Mariupol and Berdyansk, both cities on the Azov Sea.

But a threat to Crimea could escalate further as Putin sees the annexed peninsula as the jewel in his crown.

Another option is an attack on Separatist-held areas to the east that are “the least prepared in terms of defense and depth,” Davis said.

However, many of those who remained there have been firmly opposed to Kyiv since 2014, largely thanks to the proliferation of Russia’s state-controlled media and economic isolation, which has left the poor separatist microstates completely dependent on Moscow, he said.

According to another analyst, the most anticipated strike is a strike south towards the Russian-held cities of Mariupol and Berdyansk and the Isthmus of Crimea. It could start at the beginning of May.

“It seems to be the shortest and surest route to a successful offensive operation,” Nikolay Mitrokhin of Germany’s University of Bremen told Al Jazeera.

To divert Moscow’s attention and disperse Russian reserves, Kiev has signaled its readiness to attack in other directions.

One of these signals is the decision by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in mid-April to appoint new heads of government in the Russian-occupied cities of the Luhansk region.

However, the map is full of hotspots where counterattacks are widely expected, Mitrokhin said.

These include the eastern cities of Svatovo and Kreminna, any location in the southern Zaporizhia region, and the delta of the Dnipro River (called Dnieper in Russia) south of the city of Kherson.

“But the strategic goals are only achieved by everyone if you take them [eastern] Lysychansk-Severodonetsk agglomeration, a strike on the Zaporizhzhia front towards Mariupol and the crossing of the Dnieper as a supporting strike,” Mitrokhin said.

“Ukraine must break apart Russia’s southern positions”

Ukraine’s leading war analyst says an attack between the eastern cities of Severodonetsk and Kreminna could be crucial in reversing Russia’s push to seize the entire Donbass region.

“If we act there, the enemy would have to leave Bakhmut,” Lt. Gen. Ihor Romanenko, a former deputy chief of staff of Ukraine’s military, told Al Jazeera.

A push south could prove more difficult – but could herald the gradual liberation of Crimea, he said.

Russia’s positions in the south “have been strengthened, and Ukraine must break them apart to reach the Crimean peninsula and turn it into an island in terms of logistical supplies,” Romanenko said.

In recent months, Kiev has intensified its drone and artillery strikes on Russia’s western regions bordering Ukraine.

Invading those regions, especially Bryansk, could distract a large portion of Russian forces and sow panic among average Russians, Romanenko said.

But the West rejects such a bold move.

“It would be rational, but there is a military-political aspect,” Romanenko said.

Western allies do not want Kiev to invade Russia to avoid further escalation and prevent Moscow from using nuclear weapons.

Ukraine is too dependent on Western supplies to ignore these fears, he said.

Meanwhile, Moscow’s current goals differ radically from its original calculations.

The Kremlin failed to carry out its plans to seize Kiev and overthrow Zelenskyy’s government within days of the invasion.

It learned the hard way how poor its decision-making was based on outdated Soviet-era stratagems, logistical supplies, and battlefield coordination.

The Kremlin just wants to buy time these days.

“It is important for Russia to freeze the conflict, get a better grip on the occupied territories, rebuild the economy,” just as Iran modified its economy under Western sanctions, Kiev-based analyst Aleksey Kushch told Al Jazeera.

Moscow wants “to bleed Ukraine dry by risking a resumption of war, which would scare off investors and cause people to flee. And then attack again,” he said.