Sizing up Ukraine’s counteroffensiveis difficult in the fog of war

by Daniel DePetris

After months of speculation about when Ukraine’s long-anticipated counteroffensive will begin, we now have an answer: right now. Tens of thousands of Ukrainian troops, many of them trained at military bases in Europe and outfitted with heavy Western armor, are now launching simultaneous operations at several points along the 600-mile-long front line in the country’s east and south. “Counteroffensive and defensive actions are taking place in Ukraine,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy confirmed during a news conference with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last weekend. “At what stage, I will not say in detail.”  

How well those operations are going is difficult to say in the fog of war, when conflicting information causes one to doom-spiral for accuracy. Success, or the lack thereof, depends on whom you ask. The Ukrainians have claimed successes in four small villages in the Donetsk region; whereas, the Russians are triumphantly touting their stiff resistance and publishing photos of destroyed German tanks. The United Kingdom’s Defense Ministry, which publishes daily assessments of the fighting, wrote on Saturday that Ukrainian performance has been uneven depending on which area of the front is being examined. The only thing that is certain in these early days is Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley’s observation last week: “This will be a back-and-forth fight for a considerable length of time.”  

Everything else is a mystery. This includes what “success” actually looks like. Even on this fundamental question, the answer depends on who is being asked. For the Ukrainians, success is straightforward: complete, total military victory over the aggressors. This translates into every Russian boot off every square inch of Ukrainian land, including areas of the country like Crimea that Russian forces have controlled for nearly a decade. Zelenskyy has been unequivocal on this point. Whereas Kyiv may have been willing to discuss Russia’s territorial claims, however unjustified they were, at the beginning of the war, the Ukrainian government’s position has hardened considerably as the fighting has gone on. Look no further than Zelenskyy’s 10-point peace proposal, which equates to a list of surrender terms for Moscow. 

Ukraine’s partners in the West, however, likely have a different definition of what success entails. Kyiv may be aiming for the sky, but countries that have been backfilling Ukraine’s war effort with tens of billions of dollars in defensive equipment view those aims as pie-in-the-sky ambitions that are nice to think about but difficult to realize practically. While President Joe Biden remains publicly effusive to the Ukrainians and deferential to Kyiv’s wants and desires, U.S. officials are nevertheless highly skeptical the Ukrainians can reclaim all of their land and deal Russia an unequivocal military defeat. This has less to do with the Ukrainian army’s talent and capability — the Ukrainians have defied the expectations of pretty much every military analyst on the planet — and more about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s willingness to keep pouring men and resources into the war. 

For Ukraine, victory on the battlefield is the only acceptable outcome; for Putin, defeat is not an option. The result of this equation is a long war that could drag on for years. 

Which leads to yet another question: Are the U.S. and its NATO allies prepared to maintain the present rate of military assistance to Kyiv for years on end? The U.S. alone has provided about $40 billion in military aid to Kyiv, or an average of $2.5 billion every month, since the first Russian missiles slammed into Ukrainian targets about 16 months ago. The pace of assistance has stretched the U.S. defense industrial complex and has reduced the U.S. military’s own stocks, so much so that the Pentagon has asked Congress to appropriate more than $30 billion to refill its munitions stockpile. It will take five years for the U.S. to replace its arsenal of Javelin anti-tank missiles and 13 years to replace all the Stinger missiles sent to Ukraine. 

Is the Biden administration, and any subsequent administration, able to keep this up for years and years? And if the answer is “yes,” then what other national defense priorities will Washington de-emphasize? To date, there is little evidence U.S. officials have pondered these questions, let alone debated them. 

Speaking of queries, here’s another one: What if Ukraine’s counteroffensive does make significant headway and the Russians are forced to withdraw from some of the territory they now control?  

How could this possibly be a bad thing? Well, because nobody can be absolutely certain how Putin would react. Actions have consequences foreseen and unforeseen. We may all like to think Putin would hear the news, finally conclude that his entire war effort was a self-inflicted wound of epic proportions and give the order to withdraw to save himself from further embarrassment. 

But that’s the absolute best-case scenario, and policymakers can’t afford to base their plans on rosy assumptions. It’s more likely Putin would double down on his pursuit to maintain whatever land his forces control and, over time, attempt to reclaim the territory that was lost. Nothing in Putin’s disposition over the previous 16 months points to a man who will back down when confronted with the prospect of defeat. If anything, the opposite has occurred: Putin has mobilized hundreds of thousands of additional men and ordered the systematic bombardment of Ukraine’s power sources, and he was perhaps culpable in the destruction of the Kakhovka dam. 

For those in the middle of it, the counteroffensive will be hell on earth. For those of us trying to make sense of it, clear-cut answers are in short supply.  

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune.