Ukraine’s highly anticipated counteroffensive will be an important test of its ability to make significant new gains against Russian forces, and of the effectiveness of the massive amount of military assistance provided by Kyiv’s international supporters.
If the push against Moscow’s troops stalls, it could play into Western fears of a prolonged war in Ukraine and provide ammunition to politicians in Washington and European capitals who oppose maintaining an open-ended commitment to Kyiv.
“If the offensive is not very successful, I think that there will be a lot of finger-pointing,” said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noting that Kyiv could cite the lack of supplies it has requested but not received as a factor if the push does not go well.
In the United States and Europe, there is also a fear “that this is going to be a forever war… that will go on for a long time, without clear resolution, but causing casualties and costing money” – a narrative that will gain momentum if the counteroffensive is bogged down, said Cancian.
William Courtney, an adjunct senior fellow at the RAND Corporation, said he believes Western support is likely to continue even if the offensive goes poorly.
‘Digging in for Months’
“Europe and the US are showing themselves to be resolute in support of Ukraine. This is unlikely to change despite complaints from some isolationist-minded or pessimistic politicians,” he said.
Ukraine has already made gains against Russian troops, but aside from heavy fighting in and around the town of Bakhmut, there has been a lull along much of the front line following Kyiv’s recapture of the city of Kherson last year.
Russia has used that time to build up formidable defenses that Ukrainian troops will have to break through using combined arms – coordinated action by armor, infantry, engineer, artillery. and air forces – for the counteroffensive to be successful.
“The Russians have been digging in for months now and you can see that they have prepared a lot of positions,” Cancian said.
“The Ukrainians are going to have to crack through that front line in order to get all of this new armor that they have… past the fortifications into open country.”
Ukraine’s supporters have made significant investments in its forces, including the armor referenced by Cancian – more than 230 tanks and more than 1,550 other vehicles as of last month.
‘A Lot Riding on This’
Total international military aid is in the tens of billions of dollars, with the United states the lead donor.
In addition to vehicles, assistance for Kyiv has included a number of air defense systems, precision rocket launchers, artillery pieces, and a wide variety of ammunition, among other items.
The United States has also trained 11 Ukrainian battalions – some 6,100 troops – in combined arms operations and 4,000 on individual systems. More than two dozen other countries are also involved in training Kyiv’s forces.
Along with the resources that US and NATO countries have put into Ukraine’s forces, they have “invested political capital as well,” said Gian Gentile, a senior historian at RAND, citing the example of the “active and powerful political minority” in the United States that opposes supporting Kyiv.
“Clearly, the US and NATO have a lot riding on this likely upcoming counteroffensive,” and “it appears that Ukraine, especially its political and senior military leadership, understand the importance” of it as well, he said.
Gentile also cautioned that it may take time for the result of the counteroffensive to become clear.
“Hopefully the US and NATO will understand that all battlefields where major combat operations occur are different. This upcoming counteroffensive battlefield may take weeks or even months to fully unfold to see the outcome of it,” he said.