Some weeks ago, the Ukrainian authorities announced an imminent counteroffensive to liberate the Kherson region. Anticipation was high: the West had supplied new batches of modern weapons – primarily artillery and HIMARS multiple rocket launchers – which opened up the possibility of carrying out effective strikes behind Russian lines. This, in turn, would limit Russia’s supply of ammunition to the front line and complicate its military’s logistics. The battles in southern Ukraine over the past week could appear to be the beginning of that long-awaited operation.
Yet, Ukrainian officials have confirmed that the military’s current actions around Kherson are not a fully-fledged counteroffensive aimed at recapturing large swathes of territory. Rather, they are the preparation for one. The task at this stage is to destroy the enemy’s logistics and cause significant damage to its troops and equipment by non-contact means, such as missile and barrel artillery and aviation. This stage may last more than a week, so it is unlikely that a large-scale Ukrainian counteroffensive with infantry and armoured vehicles will commence in the next few days. Nonetheless, the army has made some progress – with the Ukrainian flag flying once more over several cities in the Kherson region, notably Visokopillya.
Importantly, however, the authorities’ open proclamation of a southern counteroffensive contained an element of military game-playing. In response to the announcement, Russia diverted reserves and some units previously stationed in eastern Ukraine – where it had assembled most of its forces. This weakened its lines in that region. Reports followed of heavy fighting near the city of Izyum and the liberation of some settlements in the Donetsk region. Now, according to some sources, Russia is even transferring parts of its recently formed 3rd Army Corps – which it likely planned to use in eastern Ukraine – to positions west of the Dnipro river.
Ukraine has therefore lured a significant number of Russian troops to the latter’s right-bank bridgehead, an area still under enemy occupation. There, they depend entirely on two road bridges and one railway bridge across the Dnipro. The Ukrainian military has been striking these bridges almost every day for the last week, hemming the Russian units in on the right bank with little chance of retreat.
One of the Ukrainian army’s goals with these actions is to destroy the enemy’s logistics. Without bridges, the Russian army cannot replenish ammunition, food, personnel, or equipment – while further strikes hit warehouses, headquarters, and concentrations of troops. However, it is likely that the Ukrainian General Staff’s primary aim is to wear down the enemy on the right bank, depriving them of the physical and mental capacity to conduct hostilities and forcing them to surrender.
This tactic is consistent with the philosophy of the Ukrainian command since 24 February – that is, preserving the lives of its soldiers. Wearing down the enemy instead of engaging in large-scale battles helps to protect the Ukrainian army’s human resource. But this will not be effective if it is not accompanied by direct combat to force the Russians to retreat.
The West can increase the Ukrainian army’s chances of escalating and succeeding in its counteroffensive. The most logical step is to provide even more of the types of weapons Ukrainian troops have already mastered. The counteroffensive will require a significant accumulation of weapons to break through the Russian ranks. Given the enemy’s numerical advantage in armaments, Ukraine needs to continue to destroy combat depots and hinder Russian logistics. The Ukrainian forces also need to accumulate as many weapons as possible so that they can ensure an effective operation. This has only become more pressing since President Volodymyr Zelensky’s announcement on 5 September that further counteroffensives had begun in the east and south-east.
How the West can help
Artillery. Artillery is playing, if not the critical, then one of the key roles in this war. The Russian military’s artillery units still significantly outnumber those of the Ukrainian army. The West should therefore continue supplying Ukraine with M270 multiple launch rocket systems, tracked self-propelled guns such as the PzH 2000 and M109, wheeled self-propelled guns such as CAESAR and Zuzana, and M777 howitzers. It is equally important to provide shells for those weapons in sufficient numbers, given the extremely high rate of artillery fire in this war. Furthermore, the West needs to continue deliveries of HIMARS to destroy Russian depots and artillery.
Armoured vehicles. A successful counteroffensive requires large numbers of tanks, BMP infantry fighting vehicles, and armoured personnel carriers. Relatively quickly – and with the necessary political will – the West can send modern armoured fighting vehicles, such as American Bradleys and Strykers, British Warriors, and German Marders, to Ukraine. NATO countries have thousands of units of these weapons in service and in their warehouses.
The Ukrainian army urgently needs armoured vehicles to protect its soldiers during the counteroffensive. Videos have emerged showing Ukrainian soldiers advancing without the protection of such vehicles. Considering the steppe landscape of southern Ukraine, launching attacks in this way is extremely risky. Armoured vehicles are therefore essential, not only for a more effective offensive but also to save the lives of many Ukrainian soldiers.
Air defence and means for enemy air-defence suppression. Ukraine already uses American AGM-88 HARM anti-radar missiles, which allowed Ukrainian aviation to feel more confident in southern air space. But Russia still has significant anti-aircraft capability at the front line. Ukraine therefore needs sufficient AGM-88 HARM and aircraft that can carry this weapon. The best option is the transfer of modernised MiG-29s from eastern NATO member states.
In addition, Ukraine urgently needs to strengthen its own air defence to improve the logistics of its own troops. Ukrainian air defence has been steadily improving its interception rate of Russian missiles (which now stands at up to 70 per cent, according to the head of the Kyiv city military administration). The announced delivery of IRIS-T and Norwegian Advanced surface-to-air missile systems will improve cover for the Ukrainian forces during the counteroffensive.
The Ukrainian counteroffensive will not be a ‘blitzkrieg’ – this would require a significant advantage in weapons. However, the Ukrainian command has demonstrated the ability to make the most of the limited number of available arms, as well as make thoughtful and creative tactical decisions. The West’s main task is to provide Ukraine with weapons in sufficient numbers to conduct an effective counteroffensive with as few losses as possible. In doing so, Ukraine’s allies can play a decisive part in this stage of the war – and contribute to the security of Europe’s eastern borders.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.