If it wasn’t clear already, the Ukrainian military’s operations will not be as described by many eager battlefront-development watchers. 

Let’s start with the “spring counter-offensive.” There are numerous definitions of the northern hemisphere’s post-winter season, with most ending in late May or mid-June. It has been clear for some time that Ukraine’s warm-weather campaign may come later. As the US Army’s former Europe commander Lt-Gen (rtd.) Ben Hodges said: “I would not refer to it as a spring offensive because I don’t think the dates are the key.  What matters most is that conditions are established to ensure the best chance of success at the lowest possible cost in casualties.” 

Yet it is also very likely the case that so-called shaping operations are already underway. Modern warfare does not begin with a World War I-style artillery barrage followed by soldiers clambering from trenches and walking toward the enemy. It begins with behind-enemy-lines attacks by special forces and partisans to disrupt transportation networks and cause confusion (see also the anti-Kremlin volunteer incursions into the west of the country on May 23-24), and to gather intelligence. Drone strikes, artillery and HIMARS attacks are also being supplemented by Ukraine’s new longer-range Storm Shadow missiles. 

More broadly, the attractive idea of Western-supplied tanks and infantry fighting vehicles cutting through Russian lines like a knife through warm butter is — to put it gently — setting expectations too high. Although war is often unpredictable and miracles sometimes happen, Ukraine’s counteroffensive is likely to have some influence, but not a decisive influence, on the course of the war. And given that this is the case, it is wrong and dangerous to view the campaign as the “last chance” for Ukraine to liberate its territories.  

Three purely military considerations should moderate expectations. 

The first is mathematics. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has said the alliance has prepared nine brigades of the Ukrainian “assault guard”, which means roughly 25,000 soldiers. Certainly, this information may not be exact, and may even be designed to mislead Russian commanders. Yet, even if multiplied by three, this would yield a figure of 75,000; this is probably insufficient bearing in mind two basic ratios: military experts say attacking forces should outnumber defenders by at least 3:1, with about 50-60 % of the attacker’s troops in reserve to cover the flanks. Of course, the question is how many Russians are now in Ukraine? The answer is bleak — anything from 400,000-500,000.  

Get the Latest
Get regular emails and stay informed about our work

Personnel. One can certainly object that not all Russian forces will stand in the path of the Ukrainian thrust. And that the most critical parameter is not quantity but quality. This is of course an issue where it’s hard to quantify, and yet it clearly matters. There are many historical examples that prove it. Everybody knows the story of 300 ancient Greeks at Thermopylae, or of Roland at the pass. In reality, while Ukraine’s assault guards are highly motivated and trained by NATO instructors, they are mostly non-professional military personnel. Unlike the Spartans, they have not been raised as warriors since childhood. These are former workers, teachers, and office employees who have only around two to three months of basic military training; very few have real battlefield experience. These are fine people with sophisticated modern military equipment and tactics, and they will give a good account of themselves. But it is unrealistic to expect too much of them.  

Geography. The war is taking place on a huge territory of approximately 110,000 square kilometers (without Crimea.) That’s the same land area as England (without Scotland and Wales.) During World War II, Eastern Ukraine was a battlefield for four million soldiers. Most of this territory is the so-called Southern Ukrainian steppe, a huge, flat area of open space. Knowing this basic fact, it becomes clear why Ukraine is so desperate for the promised F-16 combat aircraft (which are unlikely to be operational for four-to-six months.) Air superiority — or supremacy — is regarded by Western commanders as key to the success of any offensive operation. It is unlikely that the current inventory of older Russian-made aircraft in Ukraine’s possession will provide this. 

Anything might happen once the big operation begins and Ukraine’s new brigades are engaged in combat. My nation, and many of its supporters in the democratic world, will pray for success. But assumptions are dangerous in war, and too many have already been made. 

Oleksandr Moskalenko is an academic researcher  focusing on European politics. He is  an In-resident Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA, Washington, DC). He is a Ph.D. in European Law  and previously lived in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. 

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.

Read More From Europe's Edge
CEPA's online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
Read More