Mid-May is here and with it, the much-anticipated Ukrainian spring counter-offensive seems imminent. It is perhaps only days away.
Ukraine must attack, because political imperatives are driving its decision-making. Success will justify further expenditure by the West on Ukraine’s behalf and give its people the belief to keep fighting until concessions are extracted from Moscow.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his aides know this better than anyone. They remember the course of events since February 24, 2022, when no one gave Ukraine’s armed forces a chance against the supposed Russian military behemoth.
And they will have in their minds what happened next. Ukrainian successes generated further American support. In early March 2022, Ukrainians stopped the Russian advance on Kyiv. The next week, they received US weapons to counter “airborne and armored threats”, which was followed with more equipment together totaling $1bn. After Ukraine’s successful counter-offensive at the end of March 2022 drove the Russians back from Irpin and uncovered the atrocities at Bucha, the US authorized another $300m and UAVs. In late September, after Ukraine’s first major (highly successful) counter-offensive, the United States announced another $1.1bn in aid.
Unlocking more assistance is unlikely without new successes. The opposite is also true. Setbacks in the field will provide political cover for those in the West who already believe that Ukraine has received enough and that the time has arrived for negotiation and peace involving the sacrifice of large chunks of Ukrainian territory. In the coming days, everything will be at stake.
Warmer weather has dried mud in the countryside that would have slowed the advance; Ukrainian vehicles will now be able to operate cross-country. Russian long-range weapons are targeting supplies being prepped for the offensive. Ukraine has in turn targeted infrastructure in the occupied territories, and taken other measures to “shape” the battlefield ahead of the assault. There has been the first use of British-supplied longer-range Storm Shadow missiles by Ukraine.
On paper, these preparations look promising. Ukrainian forces have a great deal of technologically superior equipment and other tangible Western support (including targeting and intelligence.) Their morale is high. Russian morale, on the other hand, seems quite low, exacerbated by ugly (and public) infighting between the Kremlin and the commander of the Wagner mercenaries battling for control of Bakhmut.
It would be dangerous, however, to overestimate Ukrainian capabilities and raise expectations beyond what is reasonable. From a military perspective, the current situation does not conform to many of the tactical and operational requirements for an offensive.
Ukraine does not enjoy the two or three-to-one numerical superiority that most military minds would like before launching an offensive of this scale. Ukraine does not have air superiority (Western jets remain a request that has not been fulfilled.) The enemy is well entrenched and expecting an assault. But these are military considerations, and as we know from one of the strategy’s most famous clichés, war is a continuation of politics. In that sense, Ukraine’s offensive is political. Its primary goals are political as much as they are military because military and political aims are inseparable.
The politics of Ukraine’s offensive run deep. That is why President Zelenskyy has visited Italy, France, Germany, and Great Britain, in a whirlwind tour to May 15 designed to reassure European leaders of both Ukraine’s capabilities and its intentions. Ukraine has promised it will not target Russian territory, in spite of sensible military reasons for doing so. Zelenskyy is also, undoubtedly, walking a fine line during these high-level meets, attempting to temper expectations while being positive enough to ensure continued support. This political battle will be as hard as the military one once the assault begins. In Washington, policymakers are already thinking of how to manage and spin marginal gains for the offensive.
On the front line, the politics and the military situation are also challenging for Ukraine. The front has remained relatively stable for months. There are two primary reasons for this. The first is Russia’s lack of capability to conduct large-scale offensive operations, but the second is that Russia is currently in possession of much of what it came for.
Russian forces control most of Luhansk, much of Donetsk, significant portions of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, and continue to occupy all of Crimea. All five of these regions have been formally annexed by Russia. Politically, Russia’s military has done just enough (although far less than they aspired to in February 2022) taking and holding nearly 20% of Ukraine’s territory, biting off the eastern and southeastern areas of the country, and creating a land bridge between Russia and Crimea.
This status quo favors Russia. Russia has the territory and Ukraine must come and get it. Ukrainian forces are proceeding deliberately, and no doubt nervously, but the political clock is running out. They must act now and decisively. Ukraine’s future is to be decided on the battlefield.
Andrew R. Novo is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with CEPA’s Transatlantic Defense and Security program. He is a Professor of Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, Washington, DC, and an adjunct at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. The views here are entirely his own and do not represent the Government of the United States, the Department of Defense, or the National Defense University.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.