by Lindsay Maizland

Council on Foreign Relations

Sept 29, 2023


How is the Ukrainian counteroffensive faring so far?

The Ukrainian military has been doing extraordinarily well given the limitations it faces in equipment and training as well as the ability of Russian occupiers to dig in and entrench their positions. In July, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted that the Ukrainians had retaken roughly 50 percent of the territory seized by Russia since its 2022 invasion. Since then, the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the Zaporizhzhia province has gained more ground as Ukrainian troops have penetrated at least the first Russian defensive line. But the Ukrainians are still not close to reaching the Sea of Azov, which would allow them to sever the “land bridge” between Russian-occupied Crimea and the Russian-occupied Donbas in eastern Ukraine.

The Ukrainians appear to be readjusting their expectations to reach, at a minimum, Tokmak, a major hub of Russian operations located around sixty miles from the coast. The closer the Ukrainians get to the Sea of Azov, the greater their ability to interdict Russian supply lines. If the Ukrainian troops can bring the coastal roads and railway lines under bombardment using their High Mobility Artillery Rocket System launchers (HIMARS), which have a fifty-mile range, they can put pressure on the Russians over the winter and set the stage for another potential counteroffensive next year.

What would Ukraine need in terms of Western weapons and training over the next several months for a more successful counteroffensive?

Kyiv needs more of everything, including air defense ammunition, artillery shells, tanks, and long-range missiles (such as the Army Tactical Missile System, or ATACMS) to continue targeting Russian bases in Crimea. So far, the West has provided most of what Ukraine has asked for, but much more slowly and in much smaller quantities than necessary. The United States, for example, has just delivered the first M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine and eventually aims to provide thirty-one tanks, which will be sufficient for just one Ukrainian battalion.

The West would be well advised to step up weapons deliveries and to expand combined arms training for Ukrainian battalions and brigades, preferably by sending trainers to Ukraine (perhaps retired Western officers) to accelerate the process. The West is ramping up munition production (the U.S. Army increased artillery production from 14,000 shells a month to 28,000 shells a month and aims to produce 100,000 per month by 2025), so the weapons will be available. It’s simply a matter of the will to provide them—and in sufficient quantities.

The United States and NATO allies seem to be approving more powerful systems at an incremental pace to avoid a dangerous escalation with a nuclear-armed Russia. Is this the right strategy?

The allies’ caution about providing more sophisticated weapons systems to Ukraine may have been initially justified amid fears that Ukraine would quickly fall to the Russians, that its military might be incompetent or corrupt, or that an unhinged Russian President Vladimir Putin might launch World War III. But more than a year and a half of combat should have put those concerns to rest. The Ukrainians have shown that they will not surrender and that they are effective fighters with the ability to integrate all sorts of Western weapons systems quickly into their own armed forces. Meanwhile, Putin has been quite restrained in response to growing Ukrainian attacks on Russia and Russian-occupied Crimea, which have included numerous drone strikes on Moscow. Putin has not been issuing nuclear threats lately either, perhaps because Chinese President Xi Jinping has signaled his displeasure at this.

Therefore, it makes sense for the West to relax its restrictions on what kind of armaments it is willing to provide to Ukraine—and that has been happening, albeit far too slowly. At the beginning of the year, the U.S. and its allies began providing tanks and armored vehicles to Ukraine. Britain and France followed by sending long-range cruise missiles. In the summer of 2023, the U.S. approved a request by European nations to provide F-16s to Ukraine, although the first aircraft have not yet arrived. Most recently, the Biden administration has reportedly agreed to provide cluster munitions and ATACMS.

The ramp-up in Western weaponry for Ukraine needs to be accelerated. Ukraine needs all the weapons it can get if it is to have any hope of ending the war on favorable terms anytime soon—and the best bet for avoiding a dangerous escalation is to end the fighting. Failing to send sufficient weaponry to Ukraine simply increases the odds of the conflict dragging on indefinitely, at a horrendous cost to both Ukraine and Russia, and a growing risk to the whole world.

What are the prospects for the war over the next several months?

In the first few months following their invasion in February 2022, the Russians were on the offensive. They have since been on the defensive as the Ukrainians have been clawing back lost territory. If Ukraine’s counteroffensive gains momentum in the coming weeks, there is always the possibility of a larger collapse of Russian positions. But Russia will almost certainly retain control of a large chunk of Ukrainian territory at the end of the year. Next year, with the aid of new weapons such as ATACMS and F-16s, the Ukrainians have a chance to liberate more territory, finally breaking the land bridge in southern Ukraine.

While much of the world hopes Kyiv could go faster or that they could reach a deal with Moscow to stop the fighting, neither prospect is realistic at the moment. Putin has shown no interest in compromising or ending his invasion, and he clearly hopes that Donald Trump will win the 2024 U.S. presidential election and cut off U.S. aid to Ukraine. As long as the West remains staunchly supportive of Ukraine, the Ukrainian armed forces can continue to make progress on the ground, putting more pressure on the Russians to pull back. When there is a substantial shift of fortunes on the battlefield, forcing Putin to give up his mad dreams of conquest, a negotiated solution might finally be possible—but that hasn’t happened yet.