A Blog by Jonathan Low


May 12, 2023

Why the Russians Believe Ukraine's Counteroffensive Has Begun

The disparity between Zelensky's stated caution this week about the counteroffensive's timing  contrasted with reports of Ukrainian gains around Bakhmut and other areas of the Donbas can best be explained by tactical breakthroughs at the local level due to Russian ammunition, equipment and morale failures.

The Ukrainians have proven adept at adaptation in order to optimize unexpected opportunities. The most logical explanation is that Ukraine hasn't planned to start the counteroffensive until, among other events, it has all the Leopard tanks it has been promised. But if Russian retreats turn into more widespread panic, the Ukrainians may well seize the opening they are given. JL

Daily Kos reports:

The Russians seem to believe the counteroffensive has already begun. Some online voices have been claiming that action has begun (although) Zelenskyy noted that the Ukrainian military is “ready” after months of training. However, more equipment continues to arrive “in batches.” Perhaps the best reason to wait at the moment is that at least 80 Leopard 1 tanks are expected to be delivered between now and the first of June. Zelenskyy appears set on making sure that Ukraine has everything it needs not just to break through Russia’s frontline defenses, but to liberate a significant area, hold onto the territory it gains, and do so while losing a minimum number of troops.The Russians seem to believe the counteroffensive has already begun.

Prigozhin is in full hysteria mode.
Yes, the panic is contagious. Are they digging trenches around Moscow yet?

(Meanwhile), in a Thursday interview with European journalists, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that Ukraine needs to wait before launching its long-expected counteroffensive. While some analysts have been expecting the next phase of Ukraine’s military action against Russia’s unprovoked invasion to come at any moment—and some online voices have been claiming that action has already begun—Zelenskyy said that while Ukraine could go ahead with a counteroffensive right now, it shouldn’t. Not if it wants to ensure its success and limit its losses.

As reported by the BBC, Zelenskyy noted that the Ukrainian military is “ready” after months of training. However, more equipment continues to arrive “in batches.” Perhaps the best reason to wait at the moment is that at least 80 Leopard 1 tanks are expected to be delivered between now and the first of June. Zelenskyy appears set on making sure that Ukraine has everything it needs not just to break through Russia’s frontline defenses, but to liberate a significant area, hold onto the territory it gains, and do so while losing a minimum number of troops.


"With [what we already have] we can go forward, and, I think, be successful," said Zelenskyy, “but we'd lose a lot of people. I think that's unacceptable. So we need to wait. We still need a bit more time."

The good news about Zelenskyy’s statements is that he expressed confidence Ukraine not only can be, but will be successful. While some other officials have spent the last few weeks trying to tone down expectations for what the counteroffensive will bring, Zelenskyy spoke firmly about moving Russian forces out of Ukraine.

Recent statements and widely read analysis suggest that even if Ukraine’s counteroffensive is successful, it’s unlikely to dislodge Russia from a large part of Ukraine. Instead, recent articles have suggested that the best outcome is “a grinding war of attrition” lasting years, in which Russia’s population advantage is offset by the flow of Western weapons into Ukraine. That is, if such a flow can be maintained. Many recent articles urge Ukraine toward some kind of negotiated settlement, leaving Russia in control of Ukrainian territory based on the idea that without a string of victories, Western allies will lose interest in providing assistance to Ukraine.

Many of those articles boil down to the same thing: Ukraine should take what it can get before either Republicans in the U.S. or conservatives in Europe decide that they are better served making an alliance with Putin. There is even speculation about what the U.S. will do if Ukraine’s counteroffensive turns out to be a total failure.

Ukrainian forces training in western Ukraine
Ukrainian forces train for counteroffensive.

But Zelenskyy doesn’t seem to be counting on a long war of attrition, or to be worried about how the fate of Ukraine might swing on upcoming elections elsewhere. Asked about what might happen if Trump were to return to power, Zelenskyy’s answer was quick.

"Who knows where we'll be [when the election happens]?" he said. "I believe we'll win by then."

Declaring a belief that by November of 2024 the war in Ukraine will be over stands in stark contrast to the “we’ll need to nibble away at them for years” attitude surfacing from other sources, including officials inside Zelenskyy’s own Cabinet. Both the idea that Ukraine is not going to move right now, and that when it does move, its actions will be decisive, defy a lot of the chatter in media of all types.

Granted, there’s no rule that says presidents have to be completely honest. That’s especially true when describing upcoming military plans. Zelenskyy’s statement that Ukraine won’t launch a full-on counteroffensive for some time may only be cover for troops massing outside of Kreminna or Donetsk for an attack on Friday afternoon. His confidence that Ukraine can score a significant blow against Russian forces may disguise knowledge of weakness.

However, there are absolutely no weapons in this war that have been more valuable to Ukraine than the public trust Zelenskyy has engendered both at home and around the world. The trust and faith people have laid on him can’t be replaced by 1,000 shipments of ammo or all the Leopard tanks in the world. Zelenskyy is likely to understand that if he burns bridges in terms of either spreading misdirection about Ukraine’s next actions or the expected outcome, it’s one of the few things that really can affect that pipeline to fresh materiel in support of Ukraine.

Zelenskyy is, once again, the voice of cautious optimism. He’s making a disappointing decision to those who would like to see Ukraine move now. Right now. Pretty please.

But the Ukrainian president appears more concerned with making sure Ukrainian forces are successful at the lowest possible cost in terms of lives, and while he’s open about his belief that Ukraine can succeed, he’s playing the actual plans for that counteroffensive very close to the vest.

None of that seems like a bad approach.


When it comes to believing that a properly timed, equipped, and targeted Ukrainian counteroffensive can generate substantial gains—delivering a massive blow to Russian forces—Zelenskyy is not alone. A new article published by the Modern War Institute at West Point looks at the possibility that Ukraine’s next action could absolutely blow Russia off the map of Ukraine. It also worries that such an event could result in chaos that the U.S. and other Western allies are unprepared to address.

What if Ukraine ends up routing Russian occupation positions relatively swiftly and effectively, with the Russian military in a hopeless retreat?

Given recent reporting, it is not altogether clear that the United States and its allies are fully prepared for such a contingency, which, although perhaps less likely than the alternatives, is not as unlikely as many may think; and if leaders are not prepared, they should start preparing now, so as to avoid finding themselves on the back foot in a crisis of significant consequence.

The article lists a number of reasons why Ukraine can outperform the expectations so many have been working to lower. That includes the 230 new tanks, 1,550 armored vehicles, numerous air defense systems, and uncounted drones provided to Ukraine in the last few months. (The report notes that one thing missing is longer-range missiles—but they’re not missing anymore. More on this later.)

Not only does Ukraine have all that new gear, it also has new units trained in combined-armed techniques, and new communications gear that can overcome Russian jamming to make larger, more complex maneuvers easier to achieve. If Ukraine works through or around the defensive lines that Russia has constructed, it could surprise Russian forces that are unprepared to defend the occupied areas in southern and eastern Ukraine.

Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, has confidently emphasized that because it enjoys numerical advantages in personnel and equipment, Russia will eventually prevail. However, this is the same failed logic that underpinned expectations of a quick Russian victory at the beginning of the war. A sole focus on personnel and equipment neglects an adequate accounting of training, morale, logistical support, and leadership.

The report also notes that if there’s one thing Ukraine has done throughout this war it is surprise the world through its “will to fight, its societal resilience, and its leadership.”

Rather than just preparing for a stalled situation that leads to negotiations where Russia gains more territory, the institute suggests that the U.S. also needs to plan for the opposite outcome. For “the event of a quick and cascading Russian loss.”

The emphasis of the report is that faced with a massive and decisive loss, Putin is likely to respond by escalation in the form of throwing still more bodies into the fight. Russia has a willingness to sustain huge losses and a population that can be forced into battle essentially (or literally) at gunpoint. Even so, “as was recently seen in Bakhmut and elsewhere, new Russian soldiers are poorly trained. Conscripts are thus often killed in droves—and not even the Russians have an infinite supply of human lives.”

Black smoke billows from a fire on the Kerch bridge that links Crimea to Russia, after a truck exploded, near Kerch, on October 8, 2022. - Moscow announced on October 8, 2022 that a truck exploded igniting a huge fire and damaging the key Kerch bridge -- built as Russia's sole land link with annexed Crimea -- and vowed to find the perpetrators, without immediately blaming Ukraine. (Photo by AFP) (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)
Kerch bridge following truck explosion on Oct. 8, 2022.

That, unfortunately, brings the article back to the place where so many others have gone before: the idea that Russia would drag out a nuclear weapon to defend occupied territory in Crimea. How such a threat might be expected to work is beyond anyone’s reasoning. MAD, after all, only works so long as no one actually pushes a button. Once anyone does, the hollowness of such a concept is instantly revealed. Fortunately, the article starts by suggesting that the U.S. should take steps to clarify to Putin why ever reaching for that button is a bad idea.

However, among those steps is both the idea that the U.S. should dissuade Ukraine from stepping into Crimea before conditions are in place for a negotiated settlement, and seeing that China is part of the deal.

There’s reasoning behind this last step. China’s cooperation is meant to ensure that Russia sees no alternative to not picking up a pen and signing. However, all of it comes back to the central point of contention—and to the idea that Ukraine should be expected to give over Crimea because not doing so makes us nervous.

Prominent media voices such as journalist Anne Applebaum and retired Lieutenant General Ben Hodges have consistently advocated for the retaking of Crimea, arguing that such a move would effectively end the war. This may or may not be true, but the risks of nuclear escalation do not today warrant such an aggressive strategy.

I’ve made it clear before that on this point, I definitely side with Applebaum and Hodges. Should Ukraine successfully punch through Russian forces elsewhere and enter Crimea, there is exactly nothing Russia might gain by hauling out a nuclear weapon. Nothing. It’s the one step that would, with absolute certainty, turn a defeat in a war outside its own territory into a multigenerational disaster that would likely end Russia as a nation.

Considering that this thought comes from very smart people connected to West Point and I’m an armchair analyst who was kicked out of the Air Force two weeks into basic training, any objective observer might reasonably conclude that the answer is: listen to the West Point guys.

I am. And it definitely concerns me that they’re dragging the nuclear scenario onto the table again. However, my concern is diminished because they don’t seem to have anything behind it other than this:

One aspect of doctrine Russia has been consistent on is that Russia would at least consider the use of a nuclear weapon if Russian territory is being attacked. Since its annexation of Crimea almost a decade ago, Russia very much considers Crimea part of the Russian homeland.

Russia has also officially annexed Kherson. And Zaporizhzhia. And Donetsk. And Luhansk. The “now we nuke ‘em” argument could have just as easily been applied at the beginning of the Kharkiv counteroffensive, or as Ukraine was ammo-starving Russian forces out of Kherson. In fact, it might have made more sense in either of those situations than saving such a threat until the point where the Russian military had been turned into paste and the only thing left in the Kremlin basement were those moldering bombs.

The problem with the “if Ukraine tries to get all of its territory back, Russia might use nukes” argument is that it is fundamentally the same as “if Ukraine tries to get any of its territory back, Russia might use nukes.”

A policy that says we should require Ukraine to make concessions before it goes into Crimea is all too readily one that says the same about the whole of Donetsk, eastern Luhansk, or cities like Mariupol. Yes, Vladimir Putin has a special, fractionally warmer spot for Crimea in his otherwise frozen heart, but that doesn’t matter one iota in either how it fits with Russian military doctrine or how blindingly stupid it would be to drop a nuke anywhere in Ukraine.

I don’t care if you can get your article published by the Modern War Institute. Ukraine is already on territory Russia claims as its own, and if that’s all you’ve got, any point you’re trying to make is already invalid.

Maybe there really is a reason that we should tell Ukraine to hold back from crossing the line into Crimea. I haven’t seen it.



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