Discover more from Rajan Menon’s Newsletter
Dispatch from Ukraine II
This “dispatch” was written a few days ago and recounts some of what I learned over the first 10 days of my ongoing trip to Ukraine—my third since Russia invaded. You can read my last update here. This summary focuses on Ukraine’s counteroffensive and local thinking on the country’s future security arrangements. It’s written hastily, not as clean copy, let alone for publication, as I prepare to depart Kyiv for Donbas.
“Shaping operations” vs. counteroffensive
Ukraine’s counteroffensive was expected to begin in the mid to late spring, once the ground hardened, making armored advances possible. Summer approaches, and it has yet to begin, at least as the operation is commonly understood. It cannot be put off: Ukraine has sought and received an array of advanced Western weapons by insisting that they are required for a successful counteroffensive. For reasons I explain below, my view is that it has indeed already begun.
The delay owes to President Zelensky’s view that Ukraine still needs certain weaponry, unspecified, to provide his soldiers with the best possible protection. One consequence of the delay is that those who follow this war as part of their professional work are frequently asked, “When do you think the counteroffensive will begin?” I’m tired of answering this query because the underlying assumption is that I know something the questioner does not, which I don’t. I do have it on good authority that Zelensky and his senior commanders, above all Gens. Zaluzhnyi and Syrsky, along with other key officials, such as the head of military intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov, have decided on a date—albeit one that they are not of course about to reveal. Hence my disappointing response to the “when” question is always: “I have no idea.”
Beyond that, the “when” question is symptomatic of what I consider to be a misunderstanding created by the widespread use of “shaping operations,” by the media and pundits, to describe the major military moves Ukraine has been making, with increasing intensity, for weeks. By now, it’s difficult to see any clear dividing line between these moves, typically placed in the “shaping operations” file, and the counteroffensive—unless one imagines that the latter will begin on the day that some officially-designated person appears on, say, Kyiv’s Maidan, wearing a sandwich board to announce the start of the counteroffensive.
Nor does a counteroffensive require armored and mechanized divisions to start moving into territory held by the adversary. Consider what has happened here in recent days. Ukraine has launched numerous drone and missile strikes at many key cities and towns in the Russian-held part of Zaporizhia (across the Dnipro), widely expected to be the launching point for a large attack that seeks to take Berdyansk, as port on the Sea of Azov, in order to cut the land corridor connecting Crimea with Russia proper, as well to split Russian troops occupying southern Zaporizhia from those occupying left bank Kherson.
The attacks have included roads, bridges, rail lines, ammunition and fuel storage sites, command posts, and troop concentrations (including barracks), mainly, but not only, in Russian-held Zaporizhia. The venues include Tokmak, Melitopol (a likely way station to Berdyansk), Polokhy, Mykhailivka, Yurkivka (a base located between Mariupol and Berdyansk), and Berdyansk itself.
In Donbas, Ukraine struck Mariupol (another Azov Sea port, but in Donetsk province) and launched HIMARS strikes against Almazna, the site of a military base in Luhansk oblast, as well as another base near Horlivka in Donetsk oblast. In some instances, these attacks have led to significant Russian losses. A case in point: A recent Storm Shadow (British-made) strike on a compound housing Russian soldiers killed 100 of them and wounded some three dozen more. These incidents are just some examples and have been confirmed by Russian-appointed local officials and the residents of these locales.
Ukraine has also attacked oil storage sites in Crimea and Dzhankoi, an important logistical hub in the peninsula’s north. It has hit sites inside the Russian Federation, notably five refineries in the southern province of Krasnodar, including one of Russia’s largest ones. Then there have been assorted acts of sabotage and drone strikes inside Russia.
The upshot: At some point, “shaping operations,” becomes a buzzword tossed about even though it has ceased to correspond to anything meaningful and has instead become misleading. As I see it, the counteroffensive has already begun, though Ukraine isn’t going full throttle. So, can we now please retire the unhelpful “shaping operations” phrase?
The two contending armies
The Western press has widely reported that Ukraine has assembled between 9 and 12 brigades. (Ukrainian brigades are typically comprised of around 4,000 troops.) But a recent report in The Wall Street Journal stated, without citing a source, even generically, that the number of brigades amassed by Ukraine for the counteroffensive is actually 20. I’ve tried to ascertain whether the WSJ figure is accurate because it struck me as too high. To that end, I talked to Ukrainians in the know but also to former senior U.S. military officials and American and British defense experts who were in Kyiv for a conference.
My conclusion: There likely are 20 brigades, but 2 caveats are in order: First, they consist not just of soldiers from the regular Ukrainian army, but also of others from what used to be the Territorial Defense Forces (Tereborona)—it has now been melded into the armed forces—and Interior Ministry, plus police units who have been trained and equipped to fight on the battlefield. Second, these 20 brigades may not all be, as the saying goes, “fully kitted out,” and of the 20, only 6 are armored brigades.
Still, this amounts to a force of some 80,000—by no means sufficient to fight across what is a nearly 1,000-km front, but certainly enough to punch a hole in the layered defenses—using trenches, mines, “hedgehogs”, etc. that the Russians have long been preparing along the entire front. Moreover, these brigades have tanks, IFVs, missiles, and mobile artillery, howitzers, air defenses, and mine-clearing systems that they did not until fairly recently. Plus their Soviet-era aircraft, notably the MiG-29s, have been retrofitted with advanced air to ground and air-to air missiles.
Does this mean the Ukrainian counteroffensive will succeed to the point of turning the tables on Russia by initiating a series of cascading setbacks that will lead to its army’s eventual defeat?
I doubt that will happen. Russia still retains formidable military resources and has shown no sign of wanting to end the war or to spare firepower for fear of running out. In Bakhmut, on some days, Ukrainian troops have faced as many as 8,000 artillery shells (no Western army has endured anything comparable since World War II) and had the means to respond with around 1,000 return salvos. Moreover, according to Ukrainians I know and have come to trust based on their track record and my previous war visits, Russia has about 305,000 troops in Ukraine. Putin has been reluctant to order another mobilization comparable to the one in September 2022, which involved 300,000 men, but he can do so if conditions necessitate, perhaps avoiding Russia’s biggest cities as much as possible to reduce the chances of sparking protests. Russia also has formidable strength in electronic warfare—to the point that Western drones Ukraine relies on to see deep behind Russian lines aren’t working well because, as soon as the button is pushed to link video feed from the drone to the operator (who is then supposed to alert artillery units to the location of Russian forces), it reveals itself (and the location of its controller) and can be destroyed. The exposed artillery then comes under Russian counterbattery fire.
Yet the Russian army has also been plagued by significant problems, though one Ukrainian official said it has been learning from mistakes and adapting. I asked this same individual why the Russian military’s standard practice has been to level towns—such as Bakhmut or Marinka—with massive artillery barrages. His answer was that Western artillery shells have many settings that enable them to be adapted to battlefield conditions, whereas Russian shells do not. He added that when it comes to accuracy there is no contest, so Russia compensates for what it lacks in precision by relying on volume. “Do you have an iPhone?” he asked me. I said I did. “Now,” he continued, “compare it with a rotary phone.” That’s the difference between U.S. and Western, especially American, artillery. And Ukraine has received lots of Western artillery.
A former U.S. general observed that the West has trained Ukraine for combined arms warfare, and that though Ukrainian forces still had much to learn, Russia’s army is, at best, weak in that domain, and has not even provided intensive close air support to its ground forces during this war. He added that Russian troops are manning positions in front of the layered defenses on the frontline and that it is extremely challenging for units thus deployed to retreat behind such barriers easily and quickly in the face of rapidly advancing armored and mechanized forces backed by artillery, air support (even though Ukraine’s capabilities in this area are still nascent), missiles, and drones.
The stakes for Ukraine
This said, Ukraine’s leaders are under immense pressure to pull off a successful counteroffensive. They worry that failure, or even minimal success, will strengthen those Western governments (or officials within them) skeptical Ukraine can fight indefinitely with the expectation of achieving its officially declared objective: retaking all the territories lost since 2014, or even something it might settle for, evicting Russia from all the land it has occupied since February 24, 2022. Those who hold this view also believe that, by sticking to its ideal goal, Ukraine will wreck its economy, which has already been devastated.
A recent report by the Kyiv School of Economics paints a dark picture. Real GDP has contracted by nearly 30%. Forty percent of all enterprises still remain inoperable because they have been damaged or destroyed (though 86% were in that state in the early months of the war). The value of agriculture production has fallen by 75% since the invasion because of destroyed physical assets and revenue losses. Earnings from goods exports have fallen by 35% and from services by 28%. Much of the housing stock and infrastructure in war zones has been damaged or destroyed. Meanwhile, despite a steep drop in tax revenues, Ukraine has boosted defense ninefold.
Another problem is that Western militaries may not be able to part with arms to sustain an open-ended war without the risk of falling below their minimum stockpile levels; and U.S. and European defense industries may be unable to replenish them indefinitely while also supplying Ukraine for several more years.
Still, civilian morale in Ukraine remains remarkably high: During my wartime visits, I have never been told by even one person that the suffering and damage had reached a point that it was time for Ukraine cut a deal with Russia, however unpalatable that may be. If part of Putin’s goal in laying waste to large swathes of eastern and southern Ukraine—which account for the vast majority of the economic destruction and war-related deaths, even though they are the very areas he claims to be liberating from oppressive Ukrainian nationalism, even genocide—he has failed utterly. In fact, Ukrainians’ hatred of Russia, even Russians tout court (most of whom, they believe, support the war), remains fervent and undiminished. So does their support for the Zelensky government’s unflagging war efforts. I was at an event that featured several ministers with war-related portfolios; each exuded confidence and determination, and it did not look like an act. As for Ukrainian soldiers, during my previous visit to areas near the front I found them—regardless of whether they were ethnically Ukrainians or Russians—determined to fight on, no matter the hardships they had endured. I’ll have a chance to gauge their morale again once I reach Donbas.
This tenacity on Ukrainians’ part has two consequences. While some of them will tell you, when pressed, that a deal with Russia may be necessary and would be politically feasible if combined with a clear pathway for Ukraine into NATO and the EU, and a security guarantee in the interim, most are staunchly opposed. The latter will even react indignantly when asked about a diplomatic settlement involving some territorial concessions, adding that you are naïve about Russia and have forgotten history’s lessons about appeasement. Some will ask how much of the United States you would be willing to cede to an aggressor as the price for ending the war.
It’s also common to be told that Ukraine is fighting not just for its self, but also for all of Europe, even the entire democratic world. At that point, continued conversation about how the war might end short of complete victory for Ukraine becomes unproductive. I don’t mean this as a criticism. Anyone who visits the places that have suffered the most in this war—press coverage does not provide the full, visceral picture—will come to understand such passionate, even angry, reactions.
The same intensity is apparent when it comes to NATO membership. Pointing out the obstacles to Ukraine’s entry into the alliance gets you to a place that quickly becomes familiar. You’ll be told that this war would never have happened had Ukraine been inducted into NATO soon after it was offered membership, in principle, at the 2008 Bucharest summit. Some Ukrainians even propose that the alliance’s upcoming July summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, should include an explicit, irrevocable decision to admit even a temporarily truncated Ukraine—comprised of the parts not occupied by Russia—and that the alliance will not, in so doing, run the risk of Kyiv invoking Article V and precipitating a NATO-Russia war. Those who make this case point out that Ukrainians have never asked other countries to fight for them and indeed do not want foreign troops on their soil. All NATO needs to do is provide weapons and training. In any event, they continue, Article V does not—and this is correct in a textual sense—require the alliance to go to war to defend fellow members who have been attacked; it provides leeway on the nature of help rendered as part of collective defense.
As for a security guarantee to Ukraine by a subset of NATO states, it’s seen as something that should be a stage toward guaranteed full membership, not an alternative. One ambassador from a NATO country that unreservedly supports admitting Ukraine without delay asked how a security guarantee by a few NATO members could be meaningful if the alliance proved unwilling to open its door to Ukraine. He seemed to believe that his logic was air tight: It isn’t, no matter one’s position on security guarantee. Macron is pushing what he calls an Israel-plus security guarantee. Based on what I have heard, Kyiv won’t embrace it unless the United States, Britain, Poland, and the Baltic trio urge that it must as a temporary fix.
I finish where I have many times before. There’s no end in sight for this war. The two sides’ minimal conditions are a Grand Canyon apart. So long as the fighting continues, the death toll will mount, Ukraine’s economic condition will deteriorate, and the West will be forced to reckon with the challenge of sustaining its economic and military support to a Ukraine, which, speaking generally, believes that it will defeat Russia, that time is not on Putin’s side, that his (and other Russian officials’) nuclear saber-rattling is mere bluster, and that indeed he will not survive this war, at least not politically.