Prepare for Ukraine’s counter-offensive to falter

Article published in The Sunday Telegraph, 17 June 2023. © Richard Kemp

Nato needs to brace itself for the prospect of Ukraine’s counteroffensive failing to achieve major success. Indeed, so far, Kyiv has attained only limited gains. But those who expected a lightning breakthrough were always going to be disappointed. This is not German panzers against Polish horse cavalry, nor is it American shock and awe against demoralised Iraqi forces in antiquated tanks with no air cover.

Instead, we are seeing something closer to an attritional style of warfare, with attacking forces battering against heavily fortified defences. Current operations are at the stage of reconnaissance-in-force along four separate axes of advance, with Ukrainian units probing Russian positions to identify weak spots that can then be softened up with artillery and exploited by armoured reserve forces. Commandos and partisans are said to be working behind enemy lines to create confusion and disrupt command and control centres. Long range strikes are being used to hit headquarters.

Critical here is deception, attacking in as many areas as possible to keep the Russians guessing where the major thrusts will come. But in war, operations rarely go to plan and the odds are stacked against Kyiv. Russia’s General Valery Gerasimov has had a lot of time and resources to prepare effective defences in multiple lines .The Russians also have numerical superiority in pretty much everything, from men and tanks to, perhaps most critically, artillery.

Then there is air power. Almost every attacking force from the Second World War onwards has succeeded only with air superiority or supremacy. This the Ukrainians do not have, and we have already seen the cost of that with battlefield footage apparently showing American-supplied Bradley fighting vehicles and German Leopard 2 tanks picked off by attack helicopters.

So this counter offensive could go either way. But one thing is certain: a Ukrainian victory is very far from guaranteed. We can already see this concern reflected in notes of caution from the White House, where President Biden is presumably contemplating the damage to his political programme that might result from anything other than decisive gains on the battlefield.

1 Corinthians tells us: ‘If the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?’ At the Vilnius Nato summit next month, if members are peering into the abyss of a failing counteroffensive, there will certainly be many uncertain voices. Those who were already reluctant to send weapons will have a new excuse: Ukraine doesn’t have the fighting power to achieve victory. Never mind that, over the last year, we have seen a far less determined response from many countries than this crisis called for. Kyiv could be fielding far more Leopard tanks now if Berlin had not obstructed their deployment, and it would even be possible to have F-16s in the skies if the decision to supply them – still not yet made – had been taken in Washington a year ago.

The risk is that the likes of Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz will renew their lobbying to press Kyiv towards a peace treaty before the year is out. Wavering of that sort in Europe would undermine Biden’s position with Congress, with every prospect of House Republicans trying to thwart additional funding for Ukraine. But that would be exactly the wrong response. If the offensive falters, the West will need to turn in earnest to the question of how to expand Ukraine’s offensive capability. And that hard support will have to be backed up by announcing a definitive path to Ukraine’s membership of Nato. The leaders at Vilnius should ask themselves a question: if Ukraine with the might of the Atlantic alliance at its back cannot prevail against Russian aggression, then what is the point of Nato?

Image: Bureau of Global Public Affairs