The Ukrainian counteroffensive, which officially began in early June 2023, is coming to a decisive phase. In late November, heavy rains will likely transform the battlefield into impassable mud, substantially complicating the military operation. The Ukrainian forces therefore have less than two months to make as much progress as possible. After a steady start, they are beginning to see successes. Ukraine will now focus on securing a foothold in better positions to prepare for the 2024 campaign. Its Western allies need to do the same.
From setbacks to successes
Initially, Ukraine planned to start the counteroffensive in spring but postponed it due to a lack of heavy equipment, munitions, and trained personnel. In preparation for the counteroffensive, Western military instructors trained Ukrainian soldiers on Western armoured vehicles, such as Leopard 2 and Challenger tanks. The idea was to use manoeuvre warfare, directing several mechanised units in multiple directions simultaneously to identify and exploit the Russian military’s weaknesses and rapidly break through its first line of defence. But with minefields covering kilometres of the frontline, dense enemy artillery fire, and Russia’s air superiority, after a few weeks Ukraine was forced to change its tactics from manoeuvring to gradually grinding down the Russian forces. As former officials from the United States military have noted, the US would have never risked starting an offensive under such conditions.
Ukraine has focused its primary offensive efforts in the southern direction (towards the Russian-occupied parts of the Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, and Donetsk regions). This part of the frontline has strategic importance for Ukraine – if Ukrainian forces breach the Russian defences, they could reach the Azov Sea, divide the Russian forces into two groups, and break the so-called land bridge to annexed Crimea. Ukraine could then disrupt Russian logistics with heavy artillery fire on the Kerch bridge – a major transport link between Russia and the occupied peninsula – and isolate the Russian forces in Crimea. This could force the Kremlin to evacuate the Russian forces, leading to the de-occupation of Crimea.
However, as this frontline has been mainly stable since the full-scale invasion, the Russian forces have had over a year to build a massive multi-layered defence there. As a result, the frontline now features minefields across tens of kilometres, trenches, and anti-tank ditches. The Russian forces have even transformed forests into small fortresses with dug-in soldiers. Landmines have become one of the main problems for the Ukrainian forces – sometimes there are five Russian mines per square metre of territory. Given the inefficiency of their demining vehicles and the quantity of mines, Ukrainian engineers have to demine territory manually before the army can advance under dense Russian firing and shelling.
Considering these conditions, the progress of the Ukrainian counteroffensive cannot be estimated by its advancing pace or the number of liberated square kilometres of territory. Over the last few months, the main priority for Ukraine has been to exhaust Russia’s troops. The Ukrainian forces are therefore working to steadily destroy Russian equipment, personnel, and logistics near the frontline to weaken Russia’s defence capabilities. Russia is losing on average tens of armoured vehicles and artillery and air defence systems, as well as hundreds of soldiers, every day. Ukraine’s tactic has started to show results – in the last month, Ukrainian soldiers have crossed the major line of minefields and breached the first and the toughest Russian defence line near Robotyne in Zaporizhzhia and wedged themselves in Russia’s first line of defence in Staromaiorske in the direction of the Donetsk region. This does not mean that Russia’s southern front will imminently collapse or even that the Ukrainian forces can freely advance southwards. But the Ukrainian forces are effectively breaching highly fortified defences without air superiority. As Ukraine breaks through these defences, Russia is relocating its forces from other areas to the southern frontline.
Preparing for the next phase
The Ukrainian forces now need to expand their foothold and continue advancing through the next lines of defence. Once they have overwhelmed the main Russian lines of defence, they will be able to advance towards the strategically important cities of Tokmak and Melitopol. They will need to accumulate large numbers of reserves in this area to force the Russians to retreat. As the Ukrainian forces demonstrated during the battle for Kherson in November 2022, they prefer to create conditions for the enemy to flee or surrender during the liberation of big cities to minimise the casualties among the military and civilians.
Even if Ukrainian troops reach the Azov Sea, it is unlikely to force a complete Russian surrender. Ukraine therefore needs a stable supply of shells, heavy arms, and – ideally – aircraft to prepare for the next phase of the war.
While the winter weather conditions will complicate major ground operations, Ukrainian forces can still use this period to further erode Russian logistics and command posts far from the frontlines using long-range missiles. The long-awaited provision of ATACMS missiles from the US would be extremely important here.
The planned delivery of F-16 jets by the Netherlands, Denmark, and Norway in the first quarter of 2024 could be a game changer as it would bring Ukrainian air power closer to that of Russia, if not allowing the Ukrainian forces to gain air superiority. This could be an essential element for the future success of ground operations. Currently, Russian aircraft can freely launch missiles and bombs on Ukraine’s troops near the frontline because they are out of range of Ukrainian air defence systems. F-16 jets would provide air cover for Ukrainian troops and be able to intercept Russian aircraft and missiles, therefore downgrading Russia’s air superiority and accelerating the pace of the Ukrainian offensive. The US may become a main donor of F-16s. Other allies, such as Portugal, Romania and Belgium, also have F-16s, which they could deliver to Ukraine after pilot training. Sweden could also deliver JAS-39 Gripen jets to enhance Ukraine’s air capabilities, which Ukrainian pilots have already successfully tested.
Western officials have recognised that Ukraine and its allies should be prepared for a long-term war with Russia. Western allies should join the Ukrainian forces in preparing for the next phase of the war.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.