In looming offensive, Kyiv will want Western backers to see it can maintain pressure on Moscow’s forces
By Daniel Michaels and James Marson
April 23, 2023
The Wall Street Journal
KYIV, Ukraine—Ukraine’s armed forces are preparing for one of the most daunting undertakings any military can attempt: dislodging an entrenched enemy. Kyiv’s forces achieved that last fall, but haven’t advanced since. Now their challenge in attacking dug-in Russian forces is even greater because, given the pace of Western arms shipments, its troops are less well-armed than their leaders would like. “The stakes are high,” said Mark Kimmitt, a retired U.S. Army brigadier general who commanded artillery units. “With little battlefield progress and declining attention worldwide, the Ukrainians must break out of the current stalemate or face increased calls for a cease-fire and negotiations.”
But if Ukraine’s army can beat back gains by Russia’s invasion forces and position itself for further advances, it will regain the initiative, boost civilian morale, and win further support and military assistance from the U.S. and its allies.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and others have talked extensively about the looming campaign to push Russian troops from the 18% of the country they control, but its timing, location and shape remain closely guarded secrets—and may even not have been decided yet. Strategists observing the preparations say they expect the push in May or June. How the assault unrolls will be determined by a limited number of variables, say Ukrainian officials. “The counteroffensive is a concrete mathematical calculation,” said presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak in an interview.
Three factors dominate plans, he said: The availability of equipment and troops, and the destruction of Russian assets before a large-scale operation. “The main result is a breakthrough of the defensive line, in any of the directions” Ukrainian forces push, Mr. Podolyak said. Ukraine’s supplies of equipment and troops are improving as deliveries of Western equipment increase and soldiers trained in Western Europe return home.
In recent days, Ukraine and its allies have posted images of newly arrived Bradley Fighting Vehicles from the U.S. and French AMX-10 infantry fighting vehicles. Others have announced additional commitments of equipment, including more German-made Leopard tanks. But their numbers still fall short of what Mr. Zelensky and his team have requested for months.
Since Ukraine won’t have an overwhelmingly superior force in assaulting Russia’s defensive lines, it is likely to employ a mix of deception, complexity and speed, say strategists. The goal will be to undermine Russia’s ability to repel attacking Ukrainian forces. “The Ukrainians have a lot of choices of when to attack, whether to go in one big bang or several punches, and on sequencing,” said Ben Barry, a former commander of a British armored infantry battalion now at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank in London.
Ukrainians could also feint in one place and attack in another, as they did last summer when Kyiv talked up an assault on the occupied city of Kherson but then hit Russian troops on the other side of the country in the Kharkiv region, he said. Only later did they liberate Kherson. “Surprise is the most important element,” said Mr. Kimmitt. “It is important to ensure Russians cannot mass a strong defense along the line of attack, nor quickly react to a Ukrainian penetration.”
Before Ukrainian military vehicles start rolling, Kyiv will seek to disrupt and destabilize Russian defenders in what planners call shaping operations. These can include long-range strikes on radar installations, antiaircraft batteries and logistics hubs, or potentially diversionary tactics to prompt Russia to shift assets. Before D-Day in
World War II, the Allies created a fake invasion force in southeast England, including inflatable tanks, to trick Nazi commanders into diverting defensive resources.
Ukraine in recent weeks has ramped up attacks on Russian electronic-warfare and radar systems, according to open-source intelligence group Molfar. The group found that similar increases preceded Ukrainian pushes in September and last March. Ivan Fedorov, the exiled Ukrainian mayor of occupied Melitopol, said earlier this month that strikes in and around the city had intensified in the past two weeks, hitting 15 military targets, including an airfield and a train depot.
When attacks begin, an initial question for Ukrainian commanders is where to strike. Russians are entrenched in the eastern Donbas region and along the southeast, in what Moscow calls a land bridge connecting its own territory to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014.
Ukrainian forces could stage multiple attacks, which would offer greater chances of finding a weak spot in Russia’s defenses, but would require greater coordination of forces than a single, massed attack. Coordination will be vital because Kyiv has limited numbers of trained troops and equipment to deploy. It won’t want to spread them too thin along roughly 530 miles of active front line.
Once Ukrainian ground troops start moving, they will attempt to breach Russian defenses. Russia has had almost a year in many places to dig trenches, erect barriers and fortify structures. In parts of Ukraine it has occupied since 2014, those defenses are even more extensive. Recent satellite imagery shows lines of physical defenses designed to slow or halt Kyiv’s troops.
If Ukrainian forces achieve an incursion, they will seek to quickly pull reinforcements behind them to secure the breach and fan out. The next step is to find and destroy Russian air defenses, radar installations, ammunition supplies and control centers, with the goal of controlling and retaking even more territory.
A big unknown is how well Russia will defend its lines. While it has invested heavily in obstacles and probably prepared secure firing positions from which to hit Ukrainian forces attempting crossings, nobody knows how resolutely the Russian forces will man those defenses under Ukrainian attack. “Obstacles are not obstacles unless they’re covered by fire,” said Scott Boston, a senior defense analyst at Rand Corp. He noted that Russia’s mobilization of troops last year means it has a greater number of soldiers manning positions in Ukraine now than it did in Kharkiv. “In Kharkiv, the Russians didn’t have sufficient forces and it became a rout,” he said. Now, “they may not be the best trained or coordinated troops, but they’re there.”
Kyiv will also likely hold a significant proportion of its forces in reserve to reinforce a breach or repel a Russian counterattack. How Ukraine orchestrates local tactics to achieve its strategy of evicting Russian forces is a complex organizational undertaking known as operational art. Ukraine’s Western allies have been training its troops and commanders in large-formation maneuvers that they hope will allow them to outflank Russian forces, which have been slow to react throughout the war. Britain’s Ministry of Defense recently posted footage of emotional farewells to Ukrainian troops that had trained there, part of 10,000 the U.K. is hastily preparing for battle. Others are undergoing high-speed instruction in Poland and Germany.
Nimbleness and coordination on the battlefield will also be vital because any initial Ukrainian success will need to be exploited quickly, before Russia can respond and before Ukraine’s own logistical limits impede progress. “You’ve got to maintain momentum,” said Benjamin Jensen, a professor of strategic studies at the School of Advanced Warfighting in the Marine Corps University in Quantico, Va. In an operation involving dozens or hundreds of tanks and other vehicles, coordination isn’t the only challenge. Heavy military equipment needs frequent support and maintenance. “You’ve only got about 72 hours before they start breaking,” Mr. Jensen said.
James Marson leads Ukraine coverage for The Wall Street Journal. He has covered Ukraine for 15 years, chronicling its efforts to establish itself as an independent European democracy through a revolution and a war with Russia. James began writing for the Journal in Ukraine before moving to Moscow to cover oil and gas. He soon switched back to Ukraine, where he wrote about the Maidan revolution and Russia’s invasion in 2014. He moved to Brussels to cover European security in 2019, but shifted his focus back to Ukraine when Russia invaded in February 2022.
Daniel Michaels is Brussels Bureau Chief for The Wall Street Journal. He was previously German Business Editor, also overseeing coverage of the European Central Bank. For 15 years before that, he was the Journal’s Aerospace & Aviation Editor for Europe, covering airlines, aviation and aerospace industries in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Before that, he covered Central & Eastern Europe for the WSJ, based in Warsaw. Before joining the Journal, Daniel worked as a management consultant in New York, Warsaw and Moscow.