Seemingly unconnected military engagements across Ukraine in recent weeks — including Russian missile strikes and Ukrainian attacks on Russian logistical installations — signal that the much-anticipated Ukrainian spring offensive is likely imminent.
The last remaining variable seems to be the weather, with the Ukrainian military waiting for a prolonged dry spell to ensure that its mobility is not hampered by spring mud. Media reports suggest most of the armor and munitions promised to Ukraine are already in the country, and that crew training on new Western equipment is near-complete.
The Ukrainian armed forces are poised to move, and once they do the outcome of this battle may have a decisive impact on the politics of the war.
A number of Western analysts have argued that given the depletion of Western weapons and ammunition, there may not be enough to replenish Ukraine’s losses in this coming fight without breaching the critical stockpile requirements for NATO’s own forces. Moreover, for the most part — save for the Poles, the British, and the Finns — governments have been slow to issue contracts and move to wartime production of weapons and especially munitions.
The low level of military readiness among NATO’s European allies is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that without US stocks, the alliance would have little to give Ukraine to fight on. For example, when it comes to armor, Europe has no more than 2,000 Leopard 2 MBTs, of which perhaps half are operational. The arithmetic in this fight is relatively straightforward: Ukraine needs to achieve a significant breakthrough on the battlefield, for another stalemate could prove too much for some NATO allies, whose commitment to aid Ukraine for “as long as it takes” may reach a breaking point sooner rather than later.
The two extremes in the coming offensive are as follows. Firstly, a strategic win for the Ukrainian forces that would enable them to break through Russian lines, encircle and liquidate pockets of forces and, ultimately, render the invading army in Ukraine combat-ineffective.
The other extreme would see the offensive fail completely, with Russians blunting the Ukrainian advance and then effectively counter-striking and turning the tables to take even more territory than they already have (estimated at around 50,000 square miles, or 17% of Ukraine.) The former would inject a sense of optimism across the West, firming up the allies’ continued military and economic assistance; the latter would likely generate an almost irresistible pressure on Kyiv to seek a negotiated pause.
While most analysts discount the first scenario, I would argue that the Ukrainians have repeatedly surprised when it comes to morale, political and military acumen, and sheer grit; any calculus that looks only at units of equipment and troop numbers may be proven wrong by Ukrainian intangibles once again.
The other extreme, namely the outright defeat of the Ukrainian forces and a successful Russian counter-offensive — while possible — seems unlikely considering the performance of the Russian military up to this point in the war.
While neither scenario can be ruled out, the most likely outcome will fall somewhere in between these two extremes. The question is: what must be done to keep Ukraine in the fight?
For Western aid to continue, the Ukrainian military must demonstrate its ability to move forward and reconquer at least some of the territory currently occupied by Russia. It must show momentum; this is less a matter of liberating specific towns and cities than about proving that its armed forces can dominate the battlefield, put the Russians on their heels, and score wins.
As in any military campaign, much will hinge on perceptions when it comes to which side is poised to achieve a strategic breakthrough, but this battle needs to break out of the current war-of-attrition paradigm. Most Western observers agree that if Ukraine continues to fight on Russia’s terms, it will run out not only of equipment and munitions but also people given Moscow’s four-fold population advantage. The coming Ukrainian offensive must therefore show that Kyiv can impose its own way of war on the Russians, with mobility and skill offsetting troop numbers.
Finally, for Ukraine, there is a domestic factor at play as its population continues to suffer from relentless Russian missile terror. Ukrainians need to feel that their forces can bring relief. To that end, the military must destroy the sources of constant attacks against Ukraine’s cities and critical infrastructure. Simply put, the armed forces need to reassure the public that victory is possible.
The outcomes of large military actions cannot be predicted. Yet Ukraine has the conditions in place to make this a potentially decisive turning point. Advanced Western weapons will help but the quantities are relatively small; the outcome will rest largely on the competing militaries’ morale, and, perhaps most of all, on the ability of the Ukrainian military to employ the new tactics it has practiced.
The Ukrainian nation’s will to continue is unquestioned. But it is suffering persistent human and material losses, with close to 30% of its GDP eradicated so far. A peace agreement at this point poses a real risk though it would be unlikely to hold since Russia is far from achieving its war aims.
Ukraine is approaching a critical moment in its history. The endurance and fortitude shown by the Ukrainian nation have been nothing short of inspiring, but now comes the difficult bit. The coming weeks and months will test the country’s military to the limits, and similarly, a political leadership that knows just how high the stakes are.
Ukraine is likely to fight on regardless. Nonetheless, the offensive may reshape the conflict, and go a long way toward determining what the West will do next.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Army, the US Department of Defense, or the US government.
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.