Over the past two months, Russian forces have undertaken a series of thrusts in eastern Ukraine to capture territory and weaken Ukraine’s armed forces. In regions around Kreminna, Bakhmut and Avdiivka they have made some gains, but at high cost in soldiers, equipment and munitions. In other locations, such as Vuhledar, they have made almost no progress while suffering catastrophic defeats against well-prepared Ukrainian defensive positions. Soon, it will be the Ukrainians’ turn to resume offensive operations. It is important to explore the purpose of these offensives because those planning them will have to balance multiple political, strategic and military imperatives.
Purpose in these circumstances is vital. It provides the starting point for strategy, and operational planning. But it also ensures that those who will participate in these offensives understand why they do so. Soldiers will always follow orders. But it is purpose that inspires them, provides the foundation for extra exertions and often is the reason why so many offer their “last full measure of devotion” on the battlefield.
What are the elements of purpose in Ukraine’s forthcoming offensives?
First, Ukraine wants to re-seize the initiative in this war. Their Kharkiv and Kherson offensives grasped the initiative from the Russians and forced them onto the defensive over winter. However, for a variety of reasons — including slow arrival of Western support and the injection of Russian mobilised troops — Ukrainian momentum seeped away over the Christmas-New Year period. Now, with the Russians generating momentum with their Easter attacks, the Ukrainians will be keen to reverse it and regain their battlefield advantage, demonstrating to Russians that nothing they do can destroy Ukrainian resolve.
In this battle of wills, destroying Russian morale will be an important objective. Related to this is the desire to demonstrate to the Russians — from Putin to the bottom of their army — that they cannot win this war. Defeat always causes problems with morale and cohesion. The Ukrainian armed forces will be hoping to achieve surprise, generate shock and, in the process, destroy Russia. Ukraine will want to spread the word to the entire Russian invasion and occupation force that their days in Ukraine are numbered. This psychological aspect of offensive operations is very important.
The Ukrainians also want to take back their territory. This is an obvious and important goal, and one Zelenskyy frequently refers to in his speeches. Large parts of eastern and southern Ukraine remain under the oppressive fist of Russian occupation. It is hardly an enlightened Russian presence. Instead, it provides the foundation for the kidnapping of Ukrainian children, the subjugation of civilians and press-ganging of Ukrainians to fight against their fellow countrymen. For those in Ukrainian areas still occupied by the Russians, the Ukrainian offensives will provide a ray of hope that their turn for liberation will come soon. Such hope is vital as they look forward to return of Ukrainian forces.
Another obvious purpose of the offensives is to continue degrading the Russian Army. The Ukrainians will want to destroy as much of the Russian army as possible, although this will be subordinate to recapturing territory.
The Ukrainian offensives will also be a vital message to the West that the Ukrainian armed forces are able employers of the military assistance provided over the last few months. If they can show that they can absorb and use it quickly and competently, more aid will flow. And, like the Kharkiv and Kherson offensives, there will be some hope that the Ukrainian offensives will reignite Western attention on the war and ensure that both politicians and populations support continued aid.
Finally, the offensives matter a lot to the Ukrainian people at home and those who remain refugees abroad. Since 2014, Russia has occupied its territory and conducted a sustained information campaign against the notion of Ukrainian sovereignty. Since February 2022, the people of Ukraine have endured rape, murder, the abduction of their children, destruction of their cities, the death of their sons and daughters in battle, and deliberate attempts by Russia to eradicate Ukrainian culture, symbols and nationhood. Every Ukrainian I have spoken to wants some measure of justice for the horrors visited upon them. The forthcoming Ukrainian offensives are another opportunity to free more of their citizens from Russian rule, and to again show the Russians that their form of vicious, authoritarian government is not welcome in Ukraine.
The offensives launched in the next few months will be heartbreakingly bloody, and may not be the final blow that destroys the Russian Army in Ukraine. But if the West holds its nerve, and the Ukrainians steadfastly apply their fighting power against the Russians while taking back large swathes of land, the offensives may be the beginning of the end of this war.
Comment: This is the latest essay by Mick Ryan, a recently retired Australian Army major general. He commanded at platoon, squadron, regiment, task force, and brigade level. He also commanded the Australian Defence College in Canberra and was an adjunct scholar at the Modern War Institute prior to his active duty retirement. This essay addresses the why rather than the how. In my opinion the question of why is more important than the questions and mechanics of how. The why encompasses the idea of morale, a factor that often compensates for shortages in manpower and equipment. But what morale can’t compensate for is a surfeit of ignorance and stupidity.
But on the question of how, I find it interesting and heartening that Ukraine is organizing her newly formed and equipped brigades into three corps. I doubt this is merely for accounting purposes. Each of these corps headquarters has planning and operational staffs and control logistical and combat support forces that augment the capabilities of the new brigades. With all the focus on Western tanks and IFVs, the arrival of significant amounts of engineering equipment was largely unnoticed. Russian defensive lines may be shabbily constructed, but they still must be breached. We also don’t hear about the arrival of trucks and fuel tankers that will be part of these corps support units. The three corps headquarters will give Ukraine the flexibility to launch more than one offensive effort and to rapidly respond to changes and opportunities on the battlefield. It will also make it easier to incorporate veteran units into the offensive as required.