Finally, the wins of final yr’s counteroffensives have been straightforward to identify. After Ukraine stealthily maneuvered its forces to the Kharkiv region in September, they have been in a position to displace invading Russian forces who had been anticipating the counteroffensive to start a whole lot of miles south within the Kherson area. The Russians have been flummoxed. Within the ensuing strategic disarray, Moscow’s forces have been quickly additionally pressured to retreat within the south, with Ukraine finally liberating the town of Kherson and the encircling space in November.
Nonetheless, the panorama of the conflict has essentially modified since final yr. There are a number of causes that this yr’s efforts could not show to be a straightforward repeat of 2022’s counteroffensives for Ukraine — for higher or worse.
1. The battle map has been redrawn. Final yr, Ukraine was in a position to retake vital areas of land within the Kherson area, however solely on the west financial institution of the Dnieper. This mighty, sprawling river serves as a dividing line between Ukrainian forces and Russian occupiers, who’ve destroyed bridges that might be used to cross it. Crossing the Dnieper is feasible — small teams of Ukrainian soldiers have already done just that — however it presents a big tactical drawback.
That drawback could have been made extra extreme this week by the collapse of the Russian-controlled Kakhovka dam and hydroelectric power plant, which resulted in monumental flooding, with hundreds of houses caught in rising waters. The flooding has already reshaped the battlefield, reducing off one of many few remaining routes throughout the river.
Within the neighboring Zaporizhzhia area, in the meantime, the comparatively flat expanses of largely agricultural land make for a far riper goal. Many count on the counteroffensive to happen on this course because it might sever the “land bridge” to Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula occupied by Russia since 2014. However Russia is aware of this too and has spent greater than six months closely fortifying the realm with trenches, minefields and antitank obstacles. Getting by means of these strains will take time, effort and tools — doubtlessly permitting Russian reserves to regroup and counterstrike earlier than Ukraine’s forces can break by means of.
2. New weapons are on the battlefield. The US has offered vital quantities of latest weapons to Ukrainian forces since final November, together with the Bradley infantry combating automobile, the M1A2 Abrams battle tank and Patriot air protection missile programs. Different allies have stuffed within the hole, with European allies offering Leopard 2 battle tanks and Britain supplying the Storm Shadow long-range missiles. (The US additionally lately gave approval for the availability of F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine, although just like the Abrams tanks, it is likely to be many months before they are used).
Many of those weapons will mark a change for Ukraine, which initially of the battle was counting on older machines largely of Soviet-era design. The Bradleys, for instance, are usually sooner and have higher armor than the autos they’re supplanting, whereas the addition of long-range missiles just like the Storm Shadow might drive Russia to maneuver its reserves farther from Ukrainian-controlled territory, making them slower to reply.
Simply as vital, nevertheless, are the troops themselves. Models just like the newly created 47th Separate Mechanized Brigade should not solely armed with Western weapons however educated in Western navy techniques, too. They’ve been educated in offensive maneuvers — remarkably, uncommon in Ukraine’s navy till the invasion — in addition to combined-arms warfare, which calls on various kinds of weapons and items to work collectively to maximise their affect.
3. Morale might show to be an enormous difficulty for either side. Russia’s navy has been beset with issues for the reason that conflict started — one motive for the hasty retreats seen final yr. Russia’s deliberate winter offensive earlier this yr by no means took off, whereas no matter features there have been are at greatest pyrrhic victories. Bakhmut, for instance, was taken on the huge value of each the strategically unimportant city itself and hundreds of Russians — many convicts recruited as mercenaries — who died there. Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the Wagner mercenary chief who positioned himself on the middle of that battle, is now in a confrontation with Russia’s navy, additional proof of deep and doubtlessly harmful inside divisions.
By comparability, the fissures in Ukrainian morale are restricted. On the whole, Ukrainian troopers and officers preserve a remarkably constant patriotic tone, even after the setback in Bakhmut, with few studies of rifts over navy technique or different points with President Volodymyr Zelensky’s management. However this implies the burden of expectations bears down on Ukraine’s counteroffensive. Final month, Protection Minister Oleksii Reznikov told reporters from The Washington Submit that the counteroffensive could also be “overestimated” given Ukraine’s power over the last push and its exceptional resilience over 14 months of the conflict. He warned of “emotional disappointment” if one thing enormous wasn’t achieved.
Reznikov could not simply have been speaking about home disappointment in Ukraine, the place many are prepared for some sort of return to normalcy even when they don’t wish to hand over the battle in opposition to Russia. If Ukrainian forces should not in a position to sustain the momentum seen in earlier counteroffensives with all the brand new navy tools and coaching they’ve lately obtained, some Western allies could start to push for negotiations as their very own morale is sapped. It’s another reason Ukraine has left many ready for the counteroffensive: They should get it proper.