Ukraine’s counteroffensive might halt the fighting, but won’t end the war
According to preliminary reports, Ukraine’s long-anticipated counteroffensive against Russia may have begun. In practice, it likely began some weeks ago with shaping operations across the front and attacks against Russian-occupied territory, to say nothing of the sustained information operations rather masterfully executed by Kyiv.
As Washington and its European allies look on and hope for Ukraine’s success, it is important to keep in mind several factors about this counteroffensive and the war more broadly.
It is unlikely that we will have any near-term certainty or clarity about the conduct of the counteroffensive, or its successes or failures. First, the fog of war is very real, a factor that is compounded by the information operations underway from both Moscow and Kyiv. In the case of the former, Russia is already claiming to have successfully repelled a Ukrainian assault, which, naturally Kyiv denies. In the case of the latter, Ukraine has waged a masterclass in denial and deception operations, while seeking to conceal its own operations — most recently, Kyiv released a video urging operational security, saying “Plans love silence. There will be no announcement of start” of the counteroffensive.
Open-source analysis from groups like the Institute for the Study of War in Washington D.C. and government sources like the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence Twitter account will offer informed analysis based on the available information (and certainly be more reliable than social media punditry), but everything should be taken with a measure of caution and early reports are almost certain to be inaccurate.
What operational success or failure looks like in practice is also based wholly on a matter of perspective and context. Ukraine likely, and understandably, has maximalist strategic aims to return to its February 2022 or 1991 borders. This will necessitate operations aimed at retaking territory and creating favorable conditions for its forces to achieve these strategic objectives. For Russia, success is merely sustaining the conflict and, in the long run, hoping to outlast Ukraine’s Western supporters. Given the long-term equipment commitments of the United States, United Kingdom and others, and the attendant political rhetoric, this may prove to be a bridge too far. This long-term support is, however, by no means certain and should not be taken for granted.
Here, and certainly, in Washington’s success calculus, Ukraine must be seen to make progress — it is far easier to support a Ukraine that is on the offensive and making gains than one that is stalling or being pushed back. There is a small, but increasingly vocal, populist and isolationist element in the United States that questions America’s support for Ukraine. This group could well be emboldened if progress is not readily evident and certainly would use this as a catspaw in the forthcoming presidential election.
This war is also unlikely to immediately end as a result of this counteroffensive. Wars are rarely won because of one overwhelmingly successful operation, and when they are, it is a function of a radical mismatch between adversaries. This is not the case in Ukraine, though the capability balance is markedly shifting in favor of Ukraine due to its Western support. This means that a longer view of the counteroffensive is necessary, and near-term expectations should be managed for what happens on the battlefield. It will likely shape conditions for the next evolution of the war and serve as an indicator of the ability of both Russia and Ukraine to generate forces in the midterm, a far better indicator for the sustainability of operational activity.
In the absence of an unlikely (though hoped for) overwhelming victory for Ukraine, a practical objective may well be putting Ukrainian forces in a position of maximal (and increasing) strength, from which to negotiate Russian capitulation, while at the same time creating conditions for the country’s long-term security.
Here, this counteroffensive, regardless of how successful it is on the battlefield, will not end Russia’s war against Ukraine. It may lead to a cessation of the immediate hostilities, but it will not guarantee Ukraine’s long-term security. Simply put, even if Ukraine’s armed forces push Russia back to the February 2022 borders and are poised to retake Crimea, returning the country to its 1991 borders, Moscow’s animus towards Kyiv will not end. Russia’s conventional forces will certainly be weakened but Moscow will still retain considerable capabilities to disrupt Ukraine’s efforts to return to normalcy and rebuild the country.
This then leads to two interrelated strategic questions, the consideration of which are already underway, but which are nonetheless important to recall when looking at the counteroffensive: how to deter Russia in the long-term and how to ensure Ukraine’s future security.
The West is already creating a modern, NATO-standard force in Ukraine through its continued provision of arms and training. Kyiv will end this war with one of the most battle-tested and capable forces, but certainly, forces that are severely strained. The provision of increased air defense capabilities, longer-term weapons programs such as the M1A1 main battle tank and the F-16, and defense cooperation agreements will lead to Ukrainian forces that are capable of self-defense first and, it is hoped, eventually deterrence.
Deterrence through force posture alone is necessary, but not sufficient for Ukraine’s long-term security. It is here that discussions of security guarantees and membership in NATO emerge. There is a growing consensus that Ukraine will eventually join NATO (it is already on the path to joining the European Union), but it is also not a guarantee, and certainly not while Kyiv is at war — a fact acknowledged by Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky. If this is the case, it is Russia’s incentive to keep the war going as long as possible, which further enhances the importance of the West’s aid and armament of Ukraine discussed above. If NATO membership is a non-starter in the near-term, other forms of security guarantees are necessary, all of which are predicated on the course of the war.
Managing expectations about the counteroffensive and keeping the broader political and strategic calculus in mind are both critical when analyzing what comes next on the battlefields of Ukraine. Losing sight of the bigger picture risks not just faulty analysis, but also mismanaged expectations, the latter of which could have far greater consequences than the former.
Joshua C. Huminski is the director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. There he co-chairs the center’s program on strategic competition, with a specific focus on Russia and the Euro-Atlantic. He is also a book reviewer for the Diplomatic Courier and a fellow at George Mason University’s National Security Institute. He can be found on Twitter at @joshuachuminski.
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