Hudson Institute

Ukrainian Counteroffensive Assessment

Re: Ukraine | April 26, 2023

Senior Fellow (Non-Resident)
Servicemen belonging to the Ukrainian storm brigade take part in military exercises outside Kyiv on April 20, 2023. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images)

This report first appeared as a part of Hudson's Re: Ukraine newsletter series. To subscribe, click here.

Below Hudson Senior Fellow Can Kasapoğlu offers a military situational report about the war in Ukraine.

1. Why Must Ukraine Conduct a Counteroffensive? 

Ukraine needs to conduct a successful counteroffensive for two reasons. 

First, Ukraine cannot function as a sovereign state with its territory carved up as it currently is. At present, around 20 percent of Ukrainian territory is under Russian occupation. Before Ukraine’s successful push into Kharkiv in the north and Kherson on the western bank of the Dnipro in the fall of 2022, Russia controlled 27 percent of its land. The current geography of the occupation is crippling Ukraine’s economy. Moscow has managed to completely seize the Sea of Azov, cutting off Ukraine from the key ports of Berdyansk and Mariupol, which are vital for the nation’s trade capacity. In the meantime, the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s Kalibr missiles and Iran-manufactured Shahed-131 and -136 loitering munitions have continued to relentlessly pound Odesa. 

The core territorial problem revolves around Crimea. Since the illegal annexation of the peninsula in 2014, the Russian Black Sea Fleet has become a maritime security threat in the region. The armada is acting as if the Black Sea is part of the Russian Federation, recklessly threatening commercial shipping there. According to the International Maritime Organization, approximately 2,000 seafarers were stranded aboard 94 vessels in Ukrainian ports at the start of the Russian aggression. At present, the Black Sea Fleet’s blockade is killing the Ukrainian economy

Should Ukraine recapture Crimea, the Russian Black Sea Fleet would have no choice but to move its principal homeport to Novorossiysk some 200 miles east. In that case, Russian Aerospace Forces and Russian Ground Forces would be unable to exploit the strategic peninsula. 

Second, the West cannot keep supplying its military forever. NATO nations’ defense industrial capabilities and arsenals, which drastically shrunk following the end of the Cold War, are already overstretched. The military assistance program to support Ukraine has depleted the stockpiles of many important munitions, such as 155mm-class artillery ammunition and anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs). European arsenals and defense industries are struggling more than their American counterparts. 

Despite Russia’s stumbling invasion, the status quo is untenable. Ukraine needs to attempt to fundamentally change the political and military dynamics of the conflict.

2. What Would Ukrainian Success Look Like?

Modern warfare is not a video game. Even in the best possible circumstances, one should not expect the Ukrainian military to annihilate every Russian combat formation. But make no mistake: the political objective of the counteroffensive, as President Volodymyr Zelenskyy himself has firmly stated, is to restore the territorial unity of Ukraine. The 1991 borders remain the only acceptable legal basis in this paradigm. 

Yet wars are fought by soldiers and concluded by diplomats. Even if it conducts a successful counteroffensive that secures large swathes of land, Ukraine can only solidify the reacquisition of its occupied territories via diplomatic means. There are two prerequisites for accomplishing this diplomatic victory. First, Ukraine needs to negotiate from a position of strength after a successful counteroffensive. Second, even if Ukrainian tanks do not roll in the streets of Crimea, the occupation has to become impossible for the Russians to sustain. Moscow needs to be left with no choice but to end the occupation and leave the peninsula. Only by satisfying these prerequisites can Kyiv have any hope of a lasting victory.

3. Will Kyiv Meet the Challenges of Combined Arms Maneuver Warfare?

The geography of the forthcoming offensive will be simple: Ukraine will have to cut the Russian land connection to Crimea to isolate the occupied peninsula. Only then can Kyiv put the Russian military presence there within the range of its weapons systems. 

The first 24 hours will be key. Once Ukrainian operations begin, the Russian high command will try to detect the main direction of attack and possible breakthrough areas and send its reserves there. Therefore, Ukraine will likely engage in denial and deception efforts by initiating several offensive actions in the east and the south to keep the enemy guessing.

The initial phase of the battle plan will require penetrating more than one hundred kilometers into the axis across Melitopol, Berdyansk, and Mariupol. In some frontiers along the Dnipro, the offensive will require river crossings, one of the most daunting tasks of warfighting. 

Kyiv’s challenges do not end there. Open-source intelligence suggests that the Russians have been preparing for this counteroffensive. The Russian military’s echeloned defenses have been hardened by fortified positions, revetments, “dragon’s teeth” tank obstacles, trenches, and minefields. Thus, Ukraine’s engineering units will have to rapidly pave the way for maneuver formations on challenging terrain. At the time of writing, Ukraine has been hit by heavy rain. As long as the ground remains muddy, there is no chance for a mechanized push into Russian defenses. 

4. Is Ukraine’s Strike Force Effective Enough to Get the Job Done?

Ukraine has been boosting its force-generation efforts for a long time. While press sources report the establishment of eight brigades manned by 40,000 troops to storm the Russian defenses, other available writings hint at the presence of up to a dozen new brigades at Kyiv’s disposal. These new combat formations, garrisoned around Lviv in the west of the war-torn country, have been specifically designed for the upcoming counteroffensive. Thus, combat deployment of these new brigades would signal that the counteroffensive is imminent.

In the meantime, battle-hardened Ukrainian units, such as the 93rd Mechanized Brigade and the 80th Airborne Brigade, are holding the ground in Bakhmut at the expense of heavy personnel and materiel losses to buy time for the counteroffensive. Nevertheless, the new combat formations will not be pushing into the Russian lines of defense alone. Veteran Ukrainian units, such as the 4th Armored Brigade and the 25th Air Assault Brigade, are also receiving Western main battle tanks. It seems likely that Ukraine will strike Russian positions with a mix of old and new troops. 

The chief concept of operations (CONOPS) shaping the Ukrainian offensive will likely be centered on combined arms maneuver warfare. 

Ukraine possesses one of the most interesting main battle tank arsenals in the world, with a true mix of models. At the time of writing, the Ukrainian military has received more than 50 Leopard-2A4 and Leopard-2A6 German-made main battle tanks from at least six NATO nations. Some sources report that with additional Leopard-2A6 deliveries, that number will go up to 71 Leopard-2 variants. Ukraine will thus be operating an armored regiment-size Leopard-2A4 /A6 main battle tank fleet. 

The United Kingdom has also delivered 14 Challenger-2 tanks to Kyiv, and they are in full operational capacity now. While a total of 14 Challenger-2s would form a tank company, these platforms also come with a critical asset: depleted uranium shells. The density of depleted uranium makes it a formidable armor penetrator compared to other tank shells. 

While the United States remains committed to the transfer of 31 Abrams M1A1s, those deliveries have not yet commenced. The US Department of Defense has announced that the transfers will start by fall 2023, but at the time of writing Washington is speeding up that timeline. Ukrainian crews are now starting their 10-week training in Germany, which would equip the Ukrainian Armed Forces to operate their Abrams tanks by late summer 2023 at the earliest. Unless Kyiv decides to postpone the counteroffensive for a few months, Abrams tanks will not play a role in the forthcoming fight. It remains to be seen how effectively Ukrainian crews can operate Western machines, which are the product of a completely different design philosophy than the Soviet-Russian main battle tanks to which Ukrainian forces are accustomed.

In addition to Western tanks, the Ukrainian military will use a broad portfolio of Soviet-Russian main battle tanks (predominantly T-72 derivatives) consisting of its own arsenal, those delivered by former Eastern Bloc members of NATO, and those Ukraine has captured from invading Russian combat formations. Of these land warfare assets, the PT-91 tank delivered by Poland deserves attention. Based on the T-72M1 baseline, the PT-91 comes with a more powerful engine and transmission, improved fire controls and a better stabilizer, more effective optics, an improved autoloader, and Polish-manufactured Erawa reactive armor. Open-source intelligence suggests that Ukraine has received a large number of PT-91 tanks from Poland, up to 60 platforms—the size of two armored battalions—according to recent analysis

Ukraine’s main advantage is that the Russians have experienced heavy tank losses of late, as detailed in a previous assessment of this report. With at least 2,000 main battle tanks lost since the outset of Putin’s invasion campaign, the Russian military is now sending old relics, such as the T-62 and T-55, into the hot zone without significant upgrades. 

While one should not expect showdowns of a Rommel-versus-Montgomery caliber from the upcoming action, in tank warfare Ukraine will have the upper hand. 

Other key aspects of Ukraine’s combined arms maneuver warfare capacity will be infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) and mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles. The IFVs, which combine the firepower of a light tank with the infantry mobility of an armored personnel carrier, will function as the critical link between Ukraine’s main battle tanks and mechanized infantry. Ukraine has received some 320 IFVs so far and will receive about 340 more. The Ukrainian Armed Forces will operate 109 Bradley IFVs sent by the US and 40 Marder IFVs delivered by the German government. The Czech Republic, Germany, and Poland have sent over 200 BMP-1 derivatives and licensed copies. A large number of armored personnel carriers, such as the US-delivered M113A3, will augment this IFV capacity. 

Given the heavily mined Russian defenses, MRAPs will also play a critical role in the offensive. The British Mastiff and Wolfhound, the American 1224 MaxxPro, the Turkish Kirpi (Hedgehog), and the Australian Bushmaster MRAPs have all augmented the Ukrainian arsenal by the hundreds. 

5. Why Is Artillery the Key to Ukrainian Success?

While most Western military assessments focus on heavy armor when analyzing Ukraine’s combined arms maneuver warfare edge, artillery remains indispensable to the chances for victory. Ukrainian artillery must hit Russian defenses with overwhelming firepower to allow a mechanized breakthrough. 

Russian writings draw attention to several reasons for Ukraine’s artillery achievements. Artillery-spotting by drones, advanced communications, a better range of Western systems, and high-precision ammunition such as the Excalibur make Ukrainian artillery a formidable beast. The Ukrainian military will have to double down on all these advantages to prevail. 

In the meantime, Ukraine’s standout weapons—the famous HIMARS, its “cousin” M-270, and the newly delivered Turkish TRLG-230—should decisively hit high-value targets in the Russian rear—command and control nodes, ammunition depots, and key facilities—to paralyze the adversary. 

One unfulfilled wish-list item as the counteroffensive looms is the Dual-Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions, or DPICM cluster munitions. Had Ukraine received this special artillery ammunition, it would have played a key role in the fight. 

These weapons involve a 155mm-class artillery shell spraying 88 grenades in a shrapnel-like effect, with a specific armor-piercing variant capable of eliminating the adversary’s armored platforms. Because the DPICM covers a larger area than traditional, high-explosive artillery shells, it would reduce the number of shells needed in any given artillery salvo to produce the same destructive outcome. With Russian lines of defense offering little low-hanging fruit, DPICMs would give Kyiv an efficient way to break through collapsed or disorganized Russian defensive positions. Ukrainian officials have been demanding DPICM cluster munitions from the United States. It is not clear whether American officials are inclined to deliver this potentially game-changing munition.

6. What Is the State of Ukraine’s Air Forces?

The Ukrainian Armed Forces will face an air superiority challenge when attacking Russian lines. Over recent decades, almost no ground force, regardless of how hard it fights, has achieved victory in the absence of local air superiority over the direction of assault. Perhaps the most sensational manifestation of this ironclad rule of modern warfare is the “Highway of Death,” Highway 80 linking Iraq and Kuwait during the First Gulf War. In 1991, US-led coalition airstrikes eliminated a long column of Iraqi armor along this route. The nightmare scenario for Ukraine is that their unprotected heavy armor columns will be destroyed by the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) before they even reach their objectives. The Ukrainian counteroffensive will face threats from the VKS at both lower and higher altitudes.

At lower altitudes, Russian fixed- and rotary-wing attack aircraft will provide close air support (CAS) to friendly lines of defense while attempting to prey upon Ukraine’s mechanized combat formations. Assessment of recent Russian attack-aircraft activity hints at what Ukraine will have to overcome. Over the past several months, Russian Su-25 attack aircraft, along with Mi-28 Havoc, Ka-52 Alligator, and Mi-24/35 Hind rotary-wing platforms, have conducted lobbing rocket salvos. In recent sorties, the gunships were also spotted unleashing anti-tank missiles. Battle-damage assessments suggest that while anti-tank missiles are effective against vehicles and moving targets, lobbing rocket strikes create a suppressive effect on troop and equipment concentrations. With Ukrainian armor amassing and pouring into the Russian lines of defense, a large-scale action would present lucrative opportunities for such Russian attacks.

At the small unit level, the Ukrainian military can address this threat with man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS). In many incidents, the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ MANPADS prowess, especially with US-made Stingers, has proven effective against Russian aircraft that fly at slower speeds and lower altitudes. 

A large-scale counteroffensive, however, poses a different challenge. When breaking the Russian lines in a blitz tempo, combined arms maneuver warfare units—Ukraine’s mechanized and armored brigades—will need what the abbreviation-loving military community calls M-SHORAD, or maneuver short-range air defense. In a nutshell, M-SHORAD refers to integrating air defense guns, air defense artillery, and missiles into highly mobile wheeled and tracked land warfare platforms that accompany principal maneuver units. 

As to M-SHORAD capabilities, the Ukrainian military has received 12 Avengers equipped with Stinger missiles and 37 Flakpanzer Gepard systems equipped with 35-mm twin anti-aircraft cannons. Poland has likely delivered an unknown number of the ZSU-23-4 Shilka to Ukraine. The Shilka is a noteworthy system of Soviet origin that can punch over its weight, particularly in asymmetric settings. Its cannons possess a high rate of fire and are effective against low-altitude aircraft as well as lightly protected ground targets. The latest Poland-upgraded variant, the ZSU-23-4 Bialaequips the traditional ZSU-23-4 Shilka baseline with Grom missiles, better ammunition for the 23mm quad-anti aircraft artillery, and digital targeting systems. Ukraine has its mobile air defenses as well, such as the Strela-10 and OSA. 

Ukraine’s greatest challenges, however, will emerge at higher altitudes. There is no quick fix for its predicament there. The Ukrainian Air Force’s air-warfare deterrent is centered on the Su-27 and Mig-29 aircraft. In qualitative and quantitative terms, this humble arsenal cannot compete with the VKS’s aerial capabilities.

Russian Su-35S and Su-30SM aircraft are regularly conducting combat air patrols (CAP) at around 20,000 to 26,000 feet. Respectively, these platforms’ N035 Irbis-E and N110M Bars-M radars provide them with a clear sensor advantage, potent look-down / shoot-down capabilities, electronic warfare resiliency, and a superior range of engagement over the Ukrainian fighters. The Russian aircraft’s R-77-1 air-to-air missiles enjoy greater effective range than Ukraine’s R-27R/ER missiles, which lends the VKS a beyond-visual-range combat advantage. With the lethal combination of Russia’s layered air defenses and the VKS’s superior fighter edge, Ukrainian pilots have been forced to fly for brief intervals at low altitudes, using clutter and terrain masking to avoid detection. Moreover, the Russian Su-35S and Su-30SM aircraft, along with the Su-34 tactical bomber, carry L-175 “Khibiny” electronic warfare pods that have proven effective at hampering the Ukrainian Air Force’s sensors and in-flight communications. 

In the face of these capabilities, there is almost no way for Ukraine to attain even local air superiority to protect its ground forces; this is why the Ukrainian Air Force has been campaigning on its official Twitter account for the F-16 aircraft. Yet even if the Biden administration decides to start an F-16 program for Kyiv today, it would be unable to train pilots in time for the upcoming counteroffensive.

7. Can Ukraine Still Win without Attaining Air Superiority?

Yet battle plans are conceived in optimism. Ukraine can look for inspiration in military history, going all the way back to the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the opening moves of the Egyptian Army in Sinai. 

In that conflict, Cairo could not deploy an air force on par with Israel’s. So it decided to play to its strengths and set a more modest objective: to control the airspace over the ground operations area. This required only surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and anti-aircraft artillery (AAA), which it possessed in abundance. Cairo also designed its battle plan to allow its fighters to advance without receiving significant follow-on reinforcements. 

Kyiv should set a similar objective. Should it manage to project a layered SAM umbrella covering its ground assault forces, and synchronize it with limited fighter aircraft activity, a blitz assault can achieve its military objectives. To succeed with such a risky battle plan it has to disguise its preparations and catch the adversary off guard. It is a high-stakes gamble, but at this stage in the conflict, it is a gamble Kyiv has to make. 

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