The Ukrainian counteroffensive: Why Western allies should keep calm and carry on

The Ukrainian counteroffensive is contending with a well-prepared enemy. Western allies need to remain patient as they equip Ukraine to put continued pressure on Russian defences

FILE – Ukrainian soldiers fire toward Russian position on the frontline in Zaporizhzhia region, Ukraine, Saturday, June 24, 2023. Battles are also raging along the southern front in Zaporizhzhia, where Ukrainian forces are making minimal gains and coming up against formidable Russian fortifications. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, File)
Ukrainian soldiers fire toward Russian position on the frontline in Zaporizhzhia region, Ukraine, Saturday, June 24, 2023
Image by picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Efrem Lukatsky

The Ukrainian counteroffensive officially began in early June 2023. It was arguably one of the most anticipated military operations of the last decades. Ukraine’s allies have supplied hundreds of modern tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and other heavy military equipment to enable the Ukrainian forces to take back their territory. The Ukrainian army achieved quick successes last year during the Kharkiv counteroffensive in September and the deoccupation of Kherson in November. But today’s battlefield is considerably different, necessitating a slower approach and alternative tactics.  

Different conditions

After a few weeks of the offensive, comments about its slow progress started to appear in Western media. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky also admitted that the counteroffensive is making slower progress than desired, while stressing that it is not a Hollywood movie. It is crucial for Ukraine and its allies to maintain realistic expectations and recognise the differences between this offensive and previous ones.

The Ukrainian offensive operations in 2022 involved impetuous advances, which saw the Russians rapidly retreat, causing minimal losses to the Ukrainian forces. The Ukrainian army liberated 12,000 square kilometres in the Kharkiv region and around 5,000 square kilometres in the Kherson region in November 2022. This was possible because the operations were unexpected and Ukrainian forces could capitalise on the Russian army’s weaknesses. For example, in August 2022, the Ukrainian army released official statements indicating that it was preparing to strike Russian forces in the southern Kherson region. The Russian command responded by redirecting troops to the south of Ukraine, leaving the Kharkiv region poorly defended. Ukraine’s armed forces were then able to exploit one of the main conditions for a successful offensive – an attack that the enemy does not see coming – and executed a mini blitzkrieg to liberate the Kharkiv region. Now, Ukraine does not have the luxury of surprise and has to attack an enemy which has been preparing and strengthening its defence for almost six months. 

In Kherson, the Ukrainian military command benefitted from the disadvantage of the Russian positions on the right bank of the Dnipro river. Only a few bridges – all within range of Ukraine’s HIMARS multiple rocket launchers – connect the right bank to the left bank, where the main Russian forces were stationed. This made it untenable for Russia to resupply its troops, ultimately forcing them to withdraw. But now, to launch an attack on the Russian forces on the left bank, the Ukrainian forces would have to cross the Dnipro river, which is incredibly challenging from a military perspective as they would need to maintain a bridgehead and transport military equipment during dense Russian artillery and aircraft shelling. Nevertheless, the Russian military seemed to be afraid of such a move and blew up the Kakhovka dam, causing disastrous flooding and creating additional risks for the operation of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. Other frontline areas such as in the directions of Tokmak, Rivnopil, and Mariupol are heavily fortified, including via several defence lines of trenches and minefields. Breaking through those lines without complete air control requires meticulous planning and patience.

Ukrainian forces do not have enough military aviation capabilities to counter Russia’s control of the airspace. This also leaves them exposed to Russian artillery attacks, which slows their advance. Ukraine’s Western partners have pledged to provide F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine – but it will take months to train the pilots and even longer for the planes to arrive. Ukraine will probably not receive the F-16 until early 2024.

One of the reasons that an unexpected attack is the gold standard is that the enemy does not have time to fortify the frontline. Ukraine’s operation is still in its initial stages, during which forces were always likely to make slow advances in search of weak spots in the Russian defences. They will gradually apply more pressure along the frontline until the Russian defences crumble and their troops withdraw.

The progress so far

Hard battles remain, making a blitzkrieg-style Ukrainian offensive difficult to imagine at this stage

The good news is that the Ukrainian forces’ tactics have succeeded so far: troops have already regained more territory than Russia seized in its winter offensive. But hard battles remain, making a blitzkrieg-style Ukrainian offensive difficult to imagine at this stage. Russia has two or three layers of fortification along some parts of the frontline, for example in the Tokmak-Melitopol direction, which the Ukrainian forces now need to penetrate. Their advance is also substantially complicated by the minefields which surround every Russian fortification. Furthermore, Russia is actively using remote mining systems even during Ukrainian attacks, significantly reducing the Ukrainian forces’ abilities for manoeuvre.

The Ukrainian forces are trying to loosen Russian defences by attacking along different parts of the frontline, including the left bank of the Russia-occupied Kherson region. They have managed to establish a bridgehead there – near Oleshky – even in such trying circumstances. The advances on the Bakhmut flanks have also become noticeable in recent weeks. At the same time, Ukrainian forces are gradually depleting Russian equipment by targeting its military bases and depots in the occupied territories using HIMARS and Storm Shadow long-range cruise missiles

The more pressure that Ukrainian forces can apply along the frontline, the quicker Russian defences will crumble. Ukraine has yet to engage most of its forces in the counteroffensive, possibly preparing for the moment when a faster advance is possible. Until that happens, patience is paramount.

Speeding up the counteroffensive

Publicity is rarely good for military operations, especially offensive ones. Ukrainians have learned this the hard way. On multiple occasions, Ukrainian journalists and bloggers revealed information about the liberation of settlements too soon. This then permitted Russian forces to quickly launch counterattacks in those areas, leading to additional Ukrainian losses. The Ukrainian military command has since conducted multiple communications campaigns informing citizens of the importance of keeping information about offensive operations private. The Ukrainian government tends to wait until at least three days after a successful operation to make public announcements. This gives the military time to secure the territory and prepare its defence for a possible Russian counterattack. 

Even so, some journalists seem to not understand the importance of this and try to gather information at any cost. For example, French journalists recently filmed a report from Russian positions because the Ukrainian army does not allow access to its positions during offensive operations. This indicated a lack of understanding about the consequences of unnecessary media attention during a counteroffensive. Media representatives should note that the Ukrainian military staff withholds information about its advance not because it is hiding something but because this information can endanger the lives of Ukrainian soldiers. As the counteroffensive proceeds, journalists should rely only upon the official announcements of the Ukrainian military staff to help protect their plans and ensure the safety of Ukrainian troops.

Beyond this, long-range munitions are crucial for the Ukrainian offensive. The Ukrainian forces use British Storm Shadow long-range missiles with excellent accuracy. They focus Storm Shadow attacks on Russian supply depots and critical infrastructure located in regions far from the border. Attacks such as these can significantly undermine Russian logistics, enabling further advances on the ground. However, Ukraine’s army operates Storm Shadows from Soviet-made Su-24M aircraft, while these missiles were designed for Western models, potentially reducing their capabilities. Western countries could help improve the Storm Shadow’s efficiency by providing Ukraine with modern Western aircraft. The United States could also enhance Ukraine’s long-range attack capabilities by supplying ATACMS missiles. Ukrainian forces have already proven that they can successfully operate HIMARS – a platform for the ATACMS. 

It is still too early to draw any conclusions on the outcome of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. The Ukrainian army’s advances may be slow, but they are succeeding. The results will become more noticeable when – in the coming weeks or even months – the Russian defence crumbles. Until then, observers should rely on the official announcements of the Ukrainian military staff, while Ukraine’s allies should continue to supply heavy military equipment, which Ukraine critically needs to continue putting pressure on the Russian defences.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Visiting Fellow
ECFR Alumni · Visiting Fellow

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