Stand by for Ukraine’s counter-offensive. Volodymyr Zelensky, president of Ukraine, has been talking about it since late 2022. The much-anticipated counter-offensive is about to start now, probably on 30 April. Proof of this happening is available in the Pentagon Papers. Rumours of Ukraine’s readiness for launching its counter-offensive began swirling about in mid-April. They have been in the air since then.

With weapons from the West pouring in, Ukraine appears to be ready for the launch of its counter-offensive. When Mr Zelensky appointed his new administrative heads in Russia-occupied Luhansk, this readiness became evident. Mr Zelensky was only waiting for the weather to turn favourable so that he can turn his intent into action. As summer offers right conditions, he had set his eyes on April-May for Ukraine’s counter-offensive.

Extensive War-Theatre Reconnaissance

Summer is right for counter-offensive for more reasons. With ease, Ukrainian forces can move forward to defeat Russia’s manoeuvres and firm up their positions in key battle zones. The end-April date has been chosen also because Ukraine thinks May and June is good time to overpower the Russians. Plus, the Russia’s winter offensive was a flop. Encouraged, Ukraine is pouring trained forces on its frontiers.

Until the launch of its counter-offensive, Ukraine will concentrate for a week on conducting extensive war-theatre reconnaissance to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the Russians. Such an analytical SWOT exercise becomes essential as Ukraine plans to use the counter-offensive to free all occupied territories, including Crimea and the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, from Russia’s illegal occupation and control.

Video Courtesy: YouTube/CNN

The Stress on Ukrainian Forces

As the plan is ambitious, it demands an intensive long-drawn offensive. Foremost in the Ukraine plan will be aggressive action in Zaporizhzhia. In all likelihood, Ukraine can be expected to strike towards the Sea of Azov in Zaporizhzhia and focus on Melitopol. If successful, this strike is sure to slice the occupied territories of Luhansk and Donetsk into two, while snapping the land routes to Crimea and Kherson.

By this slicing operation, Ukraine will aim to gain access to its artillery. The idea will be to shell the Crimean peninsula and the Sevastopol naval base. Unfortunately for Ukraine, this is also how Russia strikes. Already, the desperate Russians have begun firming up their offensive positions in Zaporizhzhia and its access regions. The Russian action is expected to put considerable stress on Ukrainian forces, which will have to cover both the west towards Crimea and the east towards Donbas, with not a big army at command.

Total Liberation From Occupation

In the end, the Ukrainian forces may find they are outnumbered. This is a reality, as they have to reach deeper into the occupied territories. When they do so, they would have to cover the flanks and take the offensive forward. The question then will be whether such a compulsion would make Ukrainian forces slow down. Mr Zelensky needs to ponder over this before launching the counter-offensive.

Perhaps this compulsion is the reason why Ukraine should first advance into the Melitopol area and position its artillery within striking range from Russian supply routes. Amidst this planning, Ukraine needs to consider and analyse how Russian forces could react, where and how things can go wrong. This reaction analysis is essential to make the counter-offensive achieve its stated objective of total liberation from illegal Russian occupation.

The Best Counter-Offensive Option

Consider Luhansk for instance, where the Ukraine strikers could focus on Kremenna, Svatove, Severodonetsk and Lysychansk. These are all terribly rugged territories with dense foliage. The ruggedness will make it hard for Ukraine to use its American defence equipment in these regions. Ukrainian forces may get around this issue by launching its offensive in Kherson first and access Crimea fast. This is vital as Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, values Crimea as the brightest star in his constellation.

The Kherson offensive sounds good, but then Ukraine has to move across the transboundary river Dnieper, aka Dnipro. That would involve holding numerous bridges and crossings, which would all become strategic targets for Russian missiles. This strategy thus heightens the possibility of Russian missiles cutting off and isolating Ukrainian units moving forward. The best counter-offensive option before Ukraine will be to strike strong southwards towards occupied Mariupol and Berdiansk, besides the Crimean isthmus.

May Turn Into an Artillery War

Military experts feel this would be Ukraine’s ‘shortest and surest way to a successful offensive operation. However, this ‘surest’ strategy is easier said than done. As Ukraine is not superior in the air against Russia, striking southwards may not be militarily productive. Yet, such a strike is necessary for liberating Crimea. At the end of it all, the success of Ukraine’s counter-offensive will largely depend on its air superiority.

Ukrainian forces seem to realise this. Experts are sure Ukraine’s military suffers from continued deficiency of combat and air defence aircrafts. The situation is so grim that Ukraine may run out of missiles against Russia’s air defence systems, as early as May. This could mean, after the launch of its counter-offensive, Ukraine may be cornered. If this happens, what promises to be an effective counter-offensive may turn largely into an artillery war.

Denting by The Pentagon Papers

This is quite likely. Already, most Ukrainian reconnaissance and strike missions are not carried out by aircraft. As things stand today, even Russia relies much on artillery, both for offence and defence, unlike the NATO forces. Yet, an inadequate air defence may work to Ukraine’s disadvantage and America may not be able to help Ukraine much. However, America’s strong information apparatus will be Ukraine’s greatest asset in its counter-offensive.

To some extent, the Pentagon Papers have dented this asset. Post-leaks, Russia got to know how deep is American intelligence and how good is American knowledge on Russian methods of commandeering armed forces. However, Russians may fear about America’s ability to adjust codes and check access to military intelligence. The question now: will fortified American intelligence turn into a liability for Ukraine?

The Danger May Turn Real

As the Russians know much about American intelligence, they will leverage the knowledge to counter the Ukrainian counter-offensive effectively. To begin with, Russia has fortified firing points and the 800-kilometre-long Ukrainian frontline with strategically-located anti-tank trenches and barbed wire. If not backed by excellent artillery and engineering logistics, these fortifications can seriously hamper Ukrainian forces in their liberation exercise.

Ukraine will thus need many battalions to support its flanks to be able to break in deeper. Redeployment of forces in multiple directions is sure to expose Ukraine’s weakest links and encourage the Russians to launch counter-strikes in vulnerable areas. As Moscow keeps furthering its nuclear rhetoric, the danger may turn real if Ukraine falters in its counter-offensive. Russia may walk the talk, if Russia’s plans to position its nuclear weapons on Belarus for strike against Ukraine take off.

The Tragic Side to the Story

Undaunted, Ukraine is determined to soldier on. Mr Zelensky sounds sure about his counter-offensive’s ability to put an end to the war. Hopes are running high in Kiev and Ukrainian forces are in high spirits. Against the low morale of Kremlin’s forces and the arms bottleneck they face, Kiev’s hopes seem based on sound logic. As Russia’s disastrous show around Bakhmut in Donbas lifts Ukrainian spirits, Kremlin is reported to be struggling to re-populate its dwindling forces, badly hit by war deaths.

There is a tragic side to this uplifting Ukraine story. If Ukraine’s counter-offensive objectives are not fulfilled, the failure will make Ukraine’s benefactors think twice before extending further military aid. In Ukraine’s own interest, Mr Zelensky should turn conservative and proceed with the assumption that the counter-offensive is going to fail. He should factor in the possibility of America dithering again on sending fighter planes to Ukraine.

In Conclusion

What should Kiev do now? What should be its strategy? Invest everything in its counter-offensive or scramble for status quo ceasefire? Mr Zelensky seems determined to go the whole hog and launch his counter-offensive. He knows it can decide Ukraine’s fate, shape Europe’s future and structure its relations with the West in the days to come.

At the end of the day, there is no guarantee that Mr Putin will arrive at the negotiating table. Nevertheless, the counter-offensive will be Ukraine’s final shot at freedom from all expansionist forces. It has the potential to determine Russia’s future actions in Ukraine, and elsewhere in Europe.