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The shape of things to come The imminent Ukrainian counteroffensive in four scenarios (and four maps) from Meduza’s military analysts
To believe Wagner Group founder Evgeny Prigozhin, the long-awaited Ukrainian counteroffensive is already happening, even though the evidence of this reversal comes mostly from Bakhmut. There, the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) appear to be conducting a localized (and somewhat belated) offensive, aimed at unblocking the semi-surrounded quarters of the city. After seeing some initial success, this operation has now ground to a halt. Nevertheless, a larger counteroffensive is very likely to unfold in the coming days. According to reports from Kyiv, 20 AFU and National Guard brigades have been formed, trained, and fully armed for this purpose. Open sources don’t let us determine where exactly Ukrainian forces plan to strike or what their strategy is likeliest to be. And yet, it is the shape of this operation that will determine the outcome of the war’s current phase. Meduza’s military analysts propose four possible scenarios for Ukraine’s imminent counteroffensive.
The starting conditions of the expected counteroffensive differ from the Ukrainian army’s conditions when it launched an earlier counteroffensive last year:
- In early fall, last year, the AFU had a significant numerical advantage over the Russian army, which had not yet been replenished by mobilization after taking big losses over the first six months of the invasion.
- This spring, Russia completed the first stage of mobilization. Some of the newer units have since taken combat losses; overall, their capacity to advance wasn’t impressive.
The new Ukrainian formations, also created mainly from the mobilized, are yet to be tested in combat. Their task, meanwhile, will be to rupture a well-prepared Russian defense system, which is a key difference between the present and last fall. One potential direction of the AFU’s main thrust in the Zaporizhzhia region, for example, would present them with up to six fortified lines of Russian defense, complete with trenches, long-term fire positions, anti-tank fortifications, and mine fields. Similar positions have been established by the Russian military in the north, by Svatove and Kreminna in the Luhansk region, as well as behind the grouping now assaulting Bakhmut.
These defense lines are likely to be occupied by well-prepared units from Russia’s reserves. Russian combat aviation, meanwhile, has received mass guided and long-range ammunition this spring, and is now ready to strike the advancing Ukrainian forces from above.
Another factor in preparing a counteroffensive has to do with politics. The Ukrainian command cannot possibly afford a failed offensive operation, since this could plausibly result in diminished support from partner countries in the West. This means that the AFU must, at the very least, liberate a significant swath of Ukrainian territory, even if it falls short of decimating the invading army.
Still, the Ukrainian army is in position to deal with these obstacles. It can still count on better coordination and management in its units and on the advantages of a good operative plan. The importance of a plan became especially clear last fall when the Ukrainian command outsmarted its Russian adversaries by announcing and then launching an offensive at Kherson. The Russian command shifted reserves from other segments of the front to Kherson. The Ukrainian offensive on the West bank of Dnipro wasn’t effective at first, precisely because of the fresh, combat-ready Russian paratrooper units standing in its way. But then, the AFU dealt another blow to the weakened Russian positions in the Kharkiv region, changing the dynamic.
The shape and direction of the impending counteroffensive will evidently depend on Kyiv and its political goals. Its aim appears to be two-fold:
- The positive aim is to liberate as much Ukrainian land as possible.
- The negative aim is not to let the Kremlin get any closer to any state of affairs it could call a “victory.”
Although the Kremlin has been evasive about the invasion’s aims and what might constitute “victory” for Russia, no victory would be possible without gaining full control of the Donbas (whose Russian-speaking population supplied a pretext for the war), as well as depleting the Ukrainian army and diminishing the West’s readiness to support it.
Ukraine’s political goals will dictate military decisions, including the choice of the new offensive’s main thrust. To begin considering this choice, let us mentally divide the entire 1,000-kilometer (600-mile) stretch of the frontline into three operative segments:
- The South: This stretch of the front reaches from the Dnipro delta to Vuhledar in the Donetsk region. The AFU may try to puncture the Russian defense here by striking towards the Azov Sea, or else to make its way straight to the Crimean isthmuses, paving the way for a potential offensive on the Crimea.
- The Donbas: It’s unlikely that the AFU would strike directly at Donetsk since this would lead to protracted urban warfare. Instead, they could try to decimate the Russian grouping in the Bakhmut area, wedging themselves between Donetsk and Luhansk. Another possibility is to strike from Vuhledar towards Volnovakha, and then envelop Donetsk from the southwest. The Ukrainian command tried a similar operation in the summer of 2014, but was unable to complete it then.
- The North: Here, the AFU might try to finish what they had started last fall, namely liberating Kreminna and Svatove. Once they do this, they could proceed towards the Sievierdonetsk–Lysychansk urban agglomeration (which the AFU had lost last summer), and possibly even towards Starobilsk and Luhansk.
The southern direction offers more opportunities for liberating territories, bringing Ukraine closer to its “positive” objective. The central and northern directions are more useful for achieving the “negative” goal of preventing the Kremlin from claiming victory, which it cannot do without capturing the Donbas.
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The Ukrainian offensive in four scenarios
Scenario 1 — A breakthrough to the Crimean isthmuses
The AFU could deal a main strike in the west of Zaporizhzhia and in the eastern part of the Kherson region, directing the impact towards Crimea and complementing it by forcing a crossing of the Dnipro River. This would resemble their Kharkiv operation last fall, when they dealt their main strike by Balakliya, along the frontline leading to Kupyansk, while their second, supporting strike went across Siverkyi Donets towards Svyatohirsk. As a result, the imperiled Russian grouping was forced to retreat. Later, the Ukrainian formations that forced the crossing of Siverkyi Donets captured an important logistical hub in Lyman.
Applying this plan to the current situation might include puncturing the Russian defense by Orikhiv in the Zaporizhzhia region and creating several bridgeheads on the Dnipro River, in order to destabilize the core of the Russian grouping and to drain the adversary’s reserves.
The upside: If successful in realizing this scenario, the AFU could cut off the Russian military’s supply line from Crimea. They could also liberate Melitopol, as well as the Zaporizhzhia NPP, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, located in Enerhodar. They could push the invading forces back from their advantageous positions along the Dnipro. Another advantage of this direction is that it would give the Ukrainian command the best chance of neutralizing Russian aviation. Both Britain and France, which supplied Ukraine with long-range cruise missiles, insist that Ukraine shouldn’t launch them at targets inside Russia (including even military airbases), but this limitation doesn’t apply to Crimea. And it’s in Crimea that Russia bases the air force that backs its ground forces in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions.
The downside: In the Orikhiv area and by the Dnipro River in the Zaporizhzhia region, the Russian military has built a graduated system of defensive fortifications. This is probably because the Russian command expects this to be the main direction of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. Forcing the Dnipro is far more challenging than crossing Siverkyi Donets. The eastern bank of Dnipro is very swampy, and it would be difficult to supply any bridgeheads established here. The river is about a kilometer wide, no bridges are left intact in this area, and in the spring, it has also risen, flooding the banks.
Scenario 2 — A push towards the Azov Sea
Ukrainian command could direct the main thrust of its counteroffensive towards Mariupol and Berdiansk. If the AFU succeeds in penetrating towards the Azov Sea, they can rupture the “overland bridge” connecting Russia’s Rostov region with Crimea, which would disrupt Russian shipping over the Azov Sea and allow the Ukrainian defenders to gain new positions for strikes into Crimea with HIMARS missile systems.
The upside: Apart from the strategic improvements just mentioned, Kyiv might here achieve an important symbolic and political goal of liberating Mariupol. This option would also enable the AFU to prevent a Russian breakthrough west of Donetsk, in Marinka and Vuhledar, which would make “victory” unattainable for the Kremlin.
The downside: The Russian side has already set up a powerful fortified cordon in the Hulyaipole and Velyka Novosilka vicinity, in advance of the AFU’s anticipated assault. The presence of Russian reserves has also been noticed in Mariupol. In the event of an offensive by Volnovakha, Ukrainian forces would have to be constantly on the lookout for Russian counterattacks from the Donetsk direction, where additional reserves can easily be sent (a convenient railroad being right there). Disabling the large Russian airbases in Yeysk and Taganrog would present another difficulty for the Ukrainian command in this scenario.
Scenario 3 — A series of assaults along the entire frontline
In theory, the AFU could also follow the Russian command’s example. Instead of picking one or several directions for a concentrated and powerful offensive, they could opt for a diffuse series of lesser strikes along multiple segments of the frontline, from the Bryansk border to the Dnipro River by Kherson.
The upside: The main upside of this scenario is that lesser strikes cannot result in one huge failure. Instead, some segments would produce better local results than others. We’ve already seen this happen by Bakhmut, at the flanks of the Russian grouping, formed, as it turned out, by the less combat-ready units of the regular army, sent there to help the Wagner Group mercenaries. Where the initial assault proves successful, it can be developed and compounded. This type of warfare makes it harder for the adversary to respond by maneuvering its reserves as needed. The reserves then end up dispersed across different areas: this was the AFU’s own problem during the invading forces’ winter offensive. Another advantage of this strategy is that smaller combat formations of a few brigades or so are easier to coordinate than a large-scale operation with major forces.
The downside: The Russian army’s winter offensive has demonstrated that, in place of one huge disaster, this strategy can result in multiple little disasters, which is hardly better. Capitalizing on local successes requires power that some formations may not have. This is even more of an issue given the Russian side’s numerical advantage in both artillery and aviation. The composition of the newly-created AFU brigades suggests they were formed for maneuvering and for rapid strikes disabling the supply lines deep in the enemy grouping. Such strikes, though, are only possible once the defense has been ruptured. In the course of this war, this approach has been the Ukrainian command’s preferred strategy, and it cannot be implemented through serial lesser strikes. What serial attacks can achieve, instead, is exhausting the adversary — but also, potentially, the defending army. By following the same approach last winter, the Russian army has, in fact, ultimately depleted itself.
Scenario 4 — A two-stage offensive
The AFU could try to repeat a two-phase operation they already conducted last fall. In its first stage, the Ukrainian army drew Russian reserves towards Kherson, next rupturing the entire depth of the Russian defense by Kharkiv. Short of reserves to stop this offensive, the Russian command was forced to withdraw its troops from Izyum, where they’d been looming over the Ukraine-controlled part of the Donbas just south.
The Ukrainian command could switch the order of these stages, striking first in the north of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and then (once the Russian reserves shift as expected) attacking the Zaporizhzhia area, along the lines of Scenarios 1 and 2. In this case, the AFU’s counterattacks by Bakhmut will prove to have been the start of a larger concerted Ukrainian counteroffensive. We could then expect action along the entire frontline from Kreminna and Svatove in the north to Toretsk in the central Donbas. Even if the first stage of this operation isn’t immediately successful, after a strike into Zaporizhzhia the AFU could shift the main offensive thrust back to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. We have seen a similar pattern last fall when it culminated in the Ukrainian recapture of Kherson.
The upside: This strategy produced very good results for Ukraine last fall. It would also allow the Ukrainian command to make use of the older brigades alongside the newer ones, created only last winter. The older brigades now fighting by Bakhmut would have to be reinforced. The strikes on Bakhmut, Soledar, and Kreminna (places of Russia’s greatest gains during last winter) will probably force the Russian command to draw on its reserves, since it can hardly be expected to part easily with everything it gained through so much effort and sacrifice in recent months. And yet, they haven’t had time to build any powerful fortifications around either Bakhmut or Soledar. On this segment of the front, Russian fortifications are located in the far back of the action, near Popasna and Lysychansk.
The downside: The Russian command is unlikely to repeat the same mistakes it made last fall. Judging by the fragmentary available open-source data, it’s likely instead to have already amassed substantial reserves on all critical segments. Russian units that previously took part in combat by Svatove and Vuhledar are now moving to Bakhmut. No movement of troops from Zaporizhzhia has yet been noticed. Apart from that, the Russian offensives in the urban areas of the Donbas have demonstrated that those areas present the defense with a significant advantage. Meanwhile, despite the Ukrainian counterattacks, Evgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group is moving towards a complete capture of Bakhmut, whose residential and industrial developments can all turn into effective anchor-points for the Russian defense on this segment.
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