just asking questions

Is This Ukraine’s Last Chance to Defeat Russia?

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty

After a Russian winter offensive that failed to make many gains, the world is watching to see how the Ukrainian military strikes back and whether it can shake the stalemate that now characterizes the war in its country. Most agree that a long-anticipated spring counteroffensive is in the offing, even as many Ukrainian soldiers remain bogged down in hellish Bakhmut. But does a depleted Ukrainian force that desperately needs more ammunition have a chance of making significant gains? I spoke with analyst Franz-Stefan Gady, who is a consulting senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, about what may come next on the battlefield.

There’s a lot of anticipation for Ukraine’s next move, but the specifics are a mystery to almost everyone. Do you have any general expectations of what it will look like?
Except for the Ukrainian general staff and a very select number of Ukrainian officers, I don’t think a lot of people know when and where, precisely, this offensive is supposed to take place. There’s some indication that it has been deliberately delayed time and again and that if they’d had enough ammo already available and additional equipment coming in from the West, they might have launched it earlier. 

There are obviously some areas on the front line that would make more sense for a successful offensive than others — specifically the south and the Zaporizhzhia region and around Melitopol, where Ukraine could essentially split the Russian front line. I think there’s probably not going to be just one big push but a number of different, smaller pushes along the front line to stretch Russian forces out, which wouldn’t allow the Russians to concentrate their operational reserves in one particular sector.

So there might be some operations up in the north — some fixing operations, in military terms — where maybe there will be probing attacks. And then you see how far those will go, and then you have another probing attack in another sector of the front and then maybe the big push somewhere else.

What would the timeline look like for that kind of operation?
If you look at past Ukrainian offensives, you have the example of Kherson and you have the example of Kharkiv. I think this is going to look much more like Kherson. So it’s going to be a slow, steady advance dominated by attrition rather than a lightning offensive like the one we saw in Kharkiv.

But there’s a chance — and I recently wrote about this in Foreign Policy — that it does turn into a lightning offensive. The Russians have established a layered defensive system along the most parts of the front line with few exceptions. The Ukrainians will try to find that weak spot and then push their armored column through it. But the problem is that it will be extremely difficult for Ukrainians to break through those defensive lines if the Russians are mounting a strong resistance. And breaking the first line of defense doesn’t really tell you much. The Ukrainians usually did not have any trouble breaking through the initial Russian front lines. The major issue the Ukrainians have had is how to exploit that breach. Do they have enough firepower, enough available reserves, to sustain the momentum of an offensive?

Ideally, what the Ukrainian general staff wants to do is create some form of paralysis in the Russian command and control and then paralysis of Russian military leadership, which creates panic among the rank and file of the Russian forces with the Russians skedaddling in the end. Historically, this has been done through deep armored thrusts like in May 1940, when the Germans invaded France. Ukraine wants to cut lines of communication, seize important intersections, seize logistical hubs in the rear, seize military headquarters, and try to encircle or at least threaten encirclement of those front-line troops and force them to retreat.

Does Ukraine actually have the capability to do that right now?
That is very difficult to assess. There’s a very limited data set to work with. I’ve been to Ukraine various times, and I’ve only overseen certain sectors of the front. I was not able to talk to every single brigade commander, every single officer. You get different pictures at the tactical level of what’s really happening. But what I’ve not seen, for example, is a sustained campaign by the Ukrainians to at least attempt to put the Russians on the defensive along the front line.

We saw something to that effect leading up to the Kharkiv offensive, where for months the Ukrainians conducted a sustained strike campaign. And we haven’t really seen that over the last couple of weeks. When I was in Ukraine last time, in March, there seemed to have been a real shortage of ammo. Both sides seemed to be rationing ammunition. I think the ammunition problem will be solved for the Ukrainian side before this offensive kicks off. The Ukrainians are likely stockpiling.

This is one indicator that I’d look at leading up to any offensive. Are Ukrainians increasing the rate of fire? Are they able to actually hit Russian command and control more consistently? Are they forcing the Russians to withdraw some of their operational reserves or other supply depots further to the rear and so forth? And it’s been very difficult to establish that.

In your Foreign Policy piece, you wrote that the first 24 hours of the offensive will be key. Why is that, and what will the first day tell us?
First, how quickly the Russians can react to it. The problem is we need to really be careful what we mean here by “offensive.” As I said, it could have a slow start with some probing attacks; it could be launched along multiple axes of advance. The question really is, what are the Russians going to do?

If you are able to create panic within the first 24 hours, there’s a chance you can create a bigger gap in the front line where you can push through your forces. If you don’t create panic in the first 24 hours, more likely than not, the Russians are going to put up at least some sort of defense, and by doing so, I think they’re going to slow the Ukrainians down. If you look at what happened in Kharkiv, the first 24 hours were really quite decisive, and the Russians never really fully recovered from the initial attack. But you can’t really compare it with this because, here, you have a shorter front line, you have more troops, you have layered defenses — you didn’t have all these factors in play during the Kharkiv offensive.

My second point is that, historically speaking, what you need for these lightning attacks is some form of temporary air superiority. And here, the airspace is essentially denied to both sides. This is going to be a big problem for the Ukrainians because, in order to push through with their offensive, they might have to leave their air-defense umbrellas as well. If they succeed in deeply penetrating Russian lines and really go into the rear of the Russian front line, what are they going to do? Can they quickly move air defenses there? Can they quickly conduct combined arms operations where ground forces and air defenses are working in conjunction?

What we’ve seen so far has been that the Ukrainians have really been fighting sequentially — first with artillery and then the actual attack. This is not how you would do it in the western military. So the ideal of combined arms operations, I think, has not really been achieved at scale by the Ukrainian armed forces. And this, I think, is going to be another impediment to them achieving the sort of lightning offensive that I described in my article.

The third point is you can do effective maneuver warfare if you have a favorable correlation-of-forces ratio. So that would need to be achieved, and I think that’s also going to be very difficult for the Ukrainians because the Russians have a sufficient amount of manpower and an operational reserve that they can deploy.

Which makes it far more likely the advance will be a brutal slog.
This is still primarily an artillery war characterized by attrition. The Kherson offensive was a slow, deliberate, and costly advance for the Ukrainian forces. It’s a very complicated thing to conduct combined arms operations under fire in the face of layered defenses where you have tank obstacles, you have minefields, you have ditches, where you have fortified positions, trenches, all this stuff. It’s going to be extremely difficult.

The Russians want the Ukrainians to come into their kill zones. Evading these kill zones will require good battlefield reconnaissance, good battlefield ISR — intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. And there are some limitations on the Ukrainian side when it comes to that, as there also are on the Russian side.

It’s all relative in terms of military power. You’re only as good as your enemy is or as bad as your enemy is. There are no absolute indicators whether your force is going to be effective or not. It always has to be measured against whatever force you’re facing. So whatever I’m saying here does not really mean that the Russians are significantly better at any of this.

The so-called Discord Leaks painted a pretty grim picture of Ukrainian readiness, which wasn’t particularly surprising to people paying attention. One of the main concerns the U.S. expressed there is Ukraine running out of the weaponry they need. Is there actually enough western stock that could solve this problem in the coming weeks and months?
Here, I think, is where we in the West — the United States and Europe, particularly European policy-makers — could have done a much better job at coordinating and acting much earlier. Because the European defense industry is simply not in good shape for large-scale conventional war production. In 2022, the entire continent was able to produce around 300,000 155-mm. shells.

If we assume that Ukraine spends an average 5,000 to 6,000 heavy-artillery shells a day, this would last Ukraine only for around two months of war. Germany’s Rheinmetall stated that it can increase its production from 70,000 155-mm. shells per year to around 450,000 105-mm. shells per year, and that’s just one producer. But the major issue is that, even today, not a lot of multiyear contracts have been signed by European policy-makers with the defense industry. And I think, in a lot of cases, European politicians expect the defense industry to prefinance increases in production capacity, which is really not something that companies like Rheinmetall are keen to do.

So there was obviously a major problem in terms of how this was handled and coordinated, and I think Ukraine, eventually, will pay for it. You have this bottleneck in industrial capacity, which will not be solved anytime soon. So what will happen after the offensive is done? Will Ukraine have expended so much ammo that they won’t be able to conduct another one?

I’ve seen people say this might be the last chance for the Ukrainian army to retake significant territory and that if they conduct a monthslong campaign that doesn’t gain much ground — which is what happened with the Russian counteroffensive — the West may rethink their blanket support and make more of a push toward diplomacy. Do you agree with that?
The question of political will from the West is perhaps somewhat exaggerated. I think there will be consistent political will to support Ukraine. The question is only how much is the West actually able to support Ukraine in the foreseeable future? And that is independent of how strong their political will is, because there are some structural issues, one of which I just mentioned.

European and U.S. defense industries are just not set up for high-intensity conventional land warfare in Eastern Europe, for example, against a Russian Soviet air and military that is very heavy on ground-based fires. That’s just a fact. So there’s only so much that we can give. And this really goes into other war-fighting domains — for example, the air domain. Ukraine had probably the largest ground network of surface-to-air missile systems in Europe, a phenomenal amount of systems. Not a single country in Europe would have a comparable amount of systems in place in the event of war in terms of quantity.

Replacing all these Soviet air systems with western systems is just not possible. So, in the short term, there’s really not going to be much of a replacement once they run out.

As Ukraine preps for all this, we’ve learned that the U.S. recommended that Ukraine not expend so much manpower in Bakhmut and to cede ground there. President Zelenskyy overruled that recommendation. So their military is staying and fighting an awful, grinding battle that’s taking a huge toll on both them and the Russians. What do you make of that strategy? 
We’ll only probably know the place of this battle once the war is over, once we have a better understanding of attrition rates on both sides. Just from a pure military perspective, the question is, what opportunity costs were lost as a result of both sides getting bucked down in this really casualty-heavy fight? So I think we’ll only know that in retrospect.

But ultimately, as Clausewitz says, “War is a continuation of politics by other means.” In the end, the political dimension obviously trumps any other tactical military consideration here. If Zelenskyy made the decision that this battle needs to be fought because of morale or for other political reasons, then it might turn out to be the right decision, even though it severely depleted Ukrainian forces and caused tremendous losses on the Ukrainian side.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Is This Ukraine’s Last Chance to Defeat Russia?