The Russian war against Ukraine is entering a third phase that could prove decisive. The first was Russia’s failed attempt to stage a blitzkrieg that would have resulted in the destruction of the Ukrainian state. During the second phase Moscow tried to seize the entire Donbass. These attempts are still going on, despite the stalemate.
And now, during the third phase, the long-awaited Ukrainian counter-offensive in the south will take place. If Ukraine can regain territories without investing too much in it, this could be a turning point in the war in its favor. If this does not happen, then Kyiv will face a cold winter.
About this in an article for Bloomberg writes Gal Brands, professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. The cold certainly plays a critical role in Vladimir Putin’s strategy. He believes that time is still on Russia’s side, at least in the short term. By the end of this year, Western democracies will run out of weapons and ammunition Kyiv needs. They will also get tired of pouring even more money into the Ukrainian economy, which is already dying.
Meanwhile, the global disruption caused by the disruption of grain supplies from Ukraine will worsen, even if shaky agreement to resume food exports from Odessa will be fulfilled. Europe will tremble as there is not enough gas in the winter. Moreover, Putin is deliberately turning off the taps so that the countries on the continent could not accumulate reserves before the start of the cold season. He is betting that the economic discomfort will force the West to make concessions before economic disaster strikes Russia.
Putin expects that under such conditions the aid Ukraine receives from the democratic world will evaporate. Pressure on Kyiv to agree to a truce will intensify. Moscow will then be able to declare victory on the grounds that it has gained control of more Ukrainian territory than it had prior to February 24. Russia can also use these occupied territories to regroup for a new attack next year or even a few years later, to kick the government out of Kyiv, or to completely destroy the Ukrainian economy by occupying Odessa. This could turn out to be a pyrrhic victory for Putin, given the losses Russia has suffered. But for the dismembered Ukraine it will be a collapse.
That is why the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the south is so important. It is no secret that Ukraine is preparing for an attack in this direction. Volodymyr Zelensky’s government has warned citizens to leave the region and has begun work to isolate Moscow’s forces with long-range artillery. Ukraine has already regained control of several small towns along the road to Kherson, the only major city that Russia has been able to occupy without extremely heavy casualties in a massive offensive.
Although the conflict in Ukraine has slowed to a war of attrition, a counteroffensive in the south is urgent. Ukraine needs to liberate these territories before Russia annexes them, violating international law. If Moscow does this, the return of the southern regions will become less likely. A successful Ukrainian offensive could eliminate the threat of a renewed Russian attack on Odessa. Russian transport links with Crimea, as well as some key military installations, will be within range of Ukrainian artillery.
However, the real imperative of a counteroffensive is psychological. Military analysts Michael Kaufman and Lawrence Friedman stressed that both sides are trying to influence the world’s opinion about where this war is leading. Ukraine needs to show Western supporters that it can win in the end so that they can continue to support Kyiv, providing it with everything it needs for future attacks, despite the fact that the economic and military costs are rising.
If Ukraine can do this, then time will be on its side. Recent studies from the Yale School of Management have shown that government sanctions and the flight of private companies are driving Putin’s economy to the abyss. If the war continues into 2023, the Russian autocrat will have to deal with an exhausted and unmotivated army, unless he announces a large-scale mobilization of Russians, full of political risks for him. But the window of opportunity for Ukraine will not be open forever. With the U.S. mid-term elections approaching and the outbreak of new global crises, Kyiv’s struggle could become yesterday’s issue.
The Zelenskiy government has a good chance of succeeding. Russian forces in occupied Kherson are stuck on the right bank of the Dnieper, which cuts them off from reinforcements in the Ukrainian south. The Ukrainian army can isolate these troops by destroying all bridges across the river with long-range artillery. Deprived of supplies, Russian units will find it very difficult to hold onto the hostile city amid a combination of a well-planned Ukrainian offensive and increased guerrilla violence.
But for Ukraine to succeed, it needs to scale back its ambitions. Even a limited offensive will require the Ukrainian army to master the operations of the combined forces, which means better synchronization of the infantry, mechanized forces, artillery and air force. Excessive pressure can also backfire.
For example, Ukrainian troops may try to cross the Dnieper and go on the offensive to the Crimea after Kherson. And in the end, the peninsula is Ukrainian territory. But attempting to cross a river in the course of a battle against a capable enemy can result in significant casualties. The depleted Ukrainian army may not be strong enough to resist the fortified Russian troops on the other side of the river. Or Kyiv may decide to launch an offensive to the southeast to destroy the land corridor connecting the occupied parts of Donbass and Crimea. But in doing so, Ukrainian forces run the risk of being surrounded themselves, especially since Russia is moving troops from Donbass to the south.
The failure of the offensive, which will end in a retreat, will be a disaster for Ukraine, because its army will be weakened, as well as the diplomatic front. Also, if Kyiv commits too much of its motivated but depleted forces to the south, it could be vulnerable to a renewed Russian offensive in the east. Ukraine has so far fought boldly and intelligently, which has allowed it to hold off a much stronger enemy. The next critical test for Kyiv is to take the lead without losing the balance.