The announcement by Ukraine that it is ‘shifting to offensive actions’ heralds the start of a new and potentially vital phase of the war with Russia that could be its only chance to win back territory, a military expert said today.
JUSTIN BRONK, a research fellow at London’s Royal United Services Institute, has analysed the latest situation in an article for MailOnline today and believes it is unlikely Volodymyr Zelenksy’s forces will have a better opportunity to take back control of land occupied by the Russians.
Months of heavy fighting around urban areas such as Bakhmut have the exchange of territory between the opposing armies slow to a crawl. But that time has not been wasted, as Ukraine has replenished its elite brigades and been bolstered by the arrival of equipment from European and NATO allies including German Leopard 2 and British Challenger 2 tanks.
Ukrainian officials have kept Russia guessing about when and where it might launch its long-awaited counter-offensive, with commanders cautious about repeating the mistakes made by Russian forces during their attacks which saw entire brigades scuttled.
Mr Bronk said the task ahead for Zelensky’s troops will be huge as they have to power through extensive Russian defensive lines that have been months in the making by Putin’s troops and feature trenches, minefields and anti-tank defences.
The stakes are high, but after significant Western support and the struggle faced by Russia to adapt to the attritional nature of the war which has left Kremlin troops short of ammunition, spare parts, reinforcements and morale, now could be Ukraine’s best chance to make progress.
An armoured vehicle is driven on a street near the Ukraine-Russia border in Vovchansk on Monday, June 5, as Kyiv announces it has begun ‘offensive actions’
As Ukraine’s Deputy Defence Minister announces that Ukrainian forces are ‘shifting to offensive actions’, it is important to manage our expectations of a quick and decisive result in the West.
Ukraine now has the operational advantage and the strategic initiative in the long gruelling war it has been fighting since Russia invaded in February 2022.
Since its highly successful counter offensive in the northern Kharkiv region in Autumn last year, and its more attritional success in grinding down the Russian Army in the south to finally retake the city of Kherson before Christmas, Ukraine has bided its time.
Russia had mobilised and tried to train some 300,000 new soldiers from September last year that it has tried to form into new units and reinforce existing ones depleted by heavy and sustained casualties.
However, since then it has essentially depleted these forces, over six months of staggeringly wasteful infantry and artillery assaults around Vuhledar, Ardiivka and especially Bakhmut.
Now Russia has just about enough troops to man its trench lines in defence, but nothing significant in the way of a reserve force of mobile armoured units – key to plugging any large-scale breach of those trench lines by a Ukrainian counter-offensive force.
Ukraine had previously suffered significant attrition in its elite brigades which were used heavily in its Autumn counter-offensives due to having received NATO training, the best equipment and thus being capable of combined arms manoeuvre warfare.
Combined arms warfare is where tanks, infantry, armoured vehicles, artillery, electronic warfare assets and logistics are all used together to take ground rapidly.
Drone footage released today shows a burning armoured vehicle in an unidentified location after the Defence Ministry in Moscow said Russia thwarted a Ukrainian offensive in Donetsk
After taking heavy losses in the successful Autumn counter offensives, therefore, Ukraine has been carefully husbanding these units to both rebuild them and form additional brigades with the same capabilities.
Western tanks like the German Leopard 2 and British Challenger 2, for example, have been being used to train and now to equip these elite brigades for offensive combat.
Consequently, less well equipped and trained but more numerous infantry and lightly armoured units were sent to desperately defend Bakhmut and other areas from the waves of Russian attacks since the start of 2023.
As a result, both Russia and Ukraine took tens of thousands of casualties and Russia gained some limited territory in the rubble, but whereas Russia’s elite units were exhausted, Ukraine’s are now ready to try and reconquer large areas this Summer.
The challenge, however, remains formidable. Russian units have not been idle in their trenches away from the main offensive actions.
They have constructed extensive defensive lines consisting of bunkers, anti-tank obstacles and thick minefields densely strewn with both anti-personnel and anti-tank mines.
The fate of the Russian 155th Guards Naval Infantry Brigade at Vuhledar in March shows exactly what the danger is for Ukrainian forces going over to the counter-offensive at scale against these sort of defensive lines.
At Vuhledar, a Russian unit with tanks and artillery support attempted to advance through lanes that their engineers had cleared through defensive minefields.
However, they encountered freshly scattered mines laid the night before that had not been cleared, and once the first few vehicles were hit and had to stop, the force was suddenly trapped in narrow cleared corridors with mines on all sides in daylight.
Ukrainian UAVs quickly directed heavy artillery fire onto the stopped units, along with fire from ground based anti-tank guided missile teams, and the Russian vehicles and dismounted infantry were forced to disperse and retreat through mines under withering fire. The 155th Brigade was functionally destroyed in only a few minutes.
This is why Ukrainian commanders have been so cautious preparing for the counter-offensive.
Any small mistake on a battlefield strewn with mines, watched by UAVs and pulverised by artillery that will accurately be brought down onto any unit caught stationary in the open in 2-3 minutes could easily cost a large part of one of Ukraine’s carefully built elite brigades.
On the other hand, the prize is clear – the Russian Army is at a desperately weak point and this may be Ukraine’s only chance to potentially liberate most if not all of its occupied territory.
Having anticipated a short, easy war of conquest, Russia’s leadership took until the end of last year to start seriously preparing for a long war. Their factories and training facilities are still trying to adjust to a massively increased demand for materiel and troops.
Smoke rises after shelling in the town of Vovchansk in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine on Monday, June 5. A military expert has said the upcoming Ukrainian offensive could be its best change to regain occupied territory
Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on Monday, June 5. Kremlin troops are lacking in ammunition, reinforcements and morale, Justin Bronk says
Therefore, at the front, Russian troops are short of ammunition, spare parts, reinforcements, reserves and morale.
However, this will not last forever – Russia’s leaders have every incentive to sort out their military production and a brutal coercive state apparatus to enforce their will. Western support capacity, too, is not unlimited.
Ukraine is likely as strong militarily at this point as it can sustainably be in the short term. As a result, the stakes are extremely high for the counter-offensive.
Ukrainian troops, no matter how brave, motivated and skilfully led, will face withering firepower and very tough Russian defensive lines. There will almost certainly be set backs and heavy casualties.
However, with no mobile reserves of any significance, the Russian Army faces an extremely difficult situation if Ukrainian forces manage to achieve a significant breakthrough and push mobile forces through at scale.
So far, Russian troops have retreated in largely good order from Kyiv, Kharkiv and Kherson. That saved many of their formations and much equipment that would have been lost in a rout.
However, with the balance of forces at a critical point; if Ukraine can break through at scale we could see a large-scale Russian rout for the first time during this war.