Ukraine: When to be Offensive?

By Julian Lindley-French

“Hard pounding this, gentlemen; let’s see who will pound longest”.

Wellington at Waterloo, June 18th, 1815

Spring is Sprung?

June 1st. You can almost smell the wishful thinking about Ukraine’s ever-coming “Spring Offensive”.   For Ukraine’s counter-offensive to make the real gains many in the West want it must enjoy five conditions. First, unity of effort and purpose. Never forget the power of the will in warfare. Second, sufficient military capability in sufficient capacity, allied to deployed force protection. Third, the absolute certainty that the NATO Allies and other Partners have Ukraine’s back.  Fourth, that before Ukraine gets NATO membership (no specifics will be extended at Vilnius) Kyiv is at least offered a Defence and Deterrence Partnership (DDP) with NATO.  Fifth, the Allies understand collectively that they are Ukraine’s strategic depth and that depth depends on the Alliance also fully realising the New Force Model.

There are the usual think-tanks suspects going into speculative over-drive about the indeterminate.  The ill-informed in pursuit of the ill-defined. At least they are contributing to Ukraine’s effective use of fake news to keep the Russians guessing.  However, there is also something deeper going on. NATO members hoping that Ukraine will make a definitive breakthrough so that paradoxically the pressure on them to offer Kyiv fast-track membership of the Alliance is eased prior to NATO’s July Vilnius Summit. Let me state for the record: I am firm in my belief Ukraine should be offered NATO membership at the Vilnius Summit.  I am equally clear in my analysis that this will not happen, even if President Macron seems to be shifting his hitherto wobbly position on Russia. Let’s hope his speech to GLOBSEC yesterday translates into a shift in France’s attitude towards Ukraine inside the Alliance.  

Next week, I will have the honour to lead a delegation to the European Parliament to launch Phase Two of The Alphen Group’s (TAG) major study, “A Comprehensive Strategy for a Secure Ukraine”.  The TAG Strategy is unequivocal,  “ Ukraine [must]… be offered an immediate, accelerated and tailored Membership Action Plan with the aim of fast-track NATO membership and ad interim invited to participate in a deep bespoke Partnership enabling Ukraine to participate in Alliance activities in a 31+1 format (or 32+1 upon Sweden’s accession to the Alliance)”.

What options do the Ukrainians have?

The war has certainly reached A critical point and the Ukrainians face hard choices in the coming weeks: fail and the conflict turns into a long war; succeed and possibly force the Russians to negotiate seriously to bring a legitimate end to the war on terms favouring Ukraine; or succeed and still face a long war because Putin and his cronies are boxed in politically and has nowhere else to go but war.  Even if the Ukrainians somehow drove the Russians out of Ukraine in one move they would still not have decisively defeated Russia.  Therefore, the importance of the coming Ukrainian counter-offensive is to prove to the Russians once and for all they cannot win this war. As such, the attack will be one move in many and reinforces Ukraine’s need for strategic depth to sustain a war that is unlikely to end soon.

.  Ukraine has fought hard, skilfully and cleverly and revealed the very-clunky nature of the Russian military. Their efforts at battlefield-shaping with attacks on the Russian Army’s rear-areas, lines of communication and logistics chains are helping to keep Russian forces and their commanders’ off-balance.  This is precisely why the Russians have resorted to lines of defensive positions not dissimilar to the Hindenburg Line in 1917.  There are also vulnerabilities in the Russian command chain that the Ukrainians have exploited to effect between field commanders, the General Staff in Moscow and the Kremlin.  Above all, there appears to be a significant lack of ‘jointness’ between the Russian Army, the Air Force and the Naval Infantry which have been deployed, as well as between the Western, Central and Southern Military Districts from which the bulk of Russian forces have been drawn.    

However, for all the incompetent caricature of an invasion the Russians have mismanaged to effect there are still competent officers and officials who are fast learning the hard lessons of failure.   The Russians are learning to identify concentrations of Ukrainian forces far earlier than a year ago. They are improving the accuracy of their still extensive artillery using the Strelets battlefield computer system together with reconnaissance drones. The system also enables Russian forces to avoid counter-fires more effectively than hitherto.  They are also targeting Ukrainian military facilities, command centres, supply routes and ammunition and fuel depots, as well as logistical hubs more effectively. Their use of infantry also seems to be changing.  They continue to use ill-trained formations to probe for weaknesses in Ukrainian forward positions, whilst better-trained, more mobile and more agile smaller formations are held back for defensive missions.  Their use of thermal camouflaging is also reducing the effectiveness of Ukrainian anti-tank systems. 

Therefore, the most the Ukrainians can realistically achieve with the counter-offensive is to significantly disrupt Russia’s land bridge to Crimea via the Donbas.  In spite of the twenty or so new brigades the Ukrainians have worked up in advance of the counter-offensive the force does not have the necessary weight to forge a decisive war-winning breakthrough on the battlefield. That begs a further question: what would win this war?  Ukrainians are not going to march into Moscow and even if Russian forces were pushed back over Russia’s borders would that end the war?  Even a scant understanding of Russian history suggests not. What is the game-changer?

What options do Ukraine’s Western partners have?

NATO is Ukraine’s game-changer. Military success on the battlefield would be painfully irrelevant if it happens in a political and strategic vacuum caused by dissolute Western partners and a divided Alliance. At the Vilnius Summit NATO leaders need to ask themselves some tough questions. How badly do they want Ukraine to win?  Do they all agree on what ‘winning’ would look like?  Will they collectively commit to the application of effective strategy with Ukraine in support of Ukraine? Will it  make a public statement of such determined intent? Will they give Ukraine the weapons they need? Rather, there is what might best be termed strategic ad hoccery whereby nations compete with each to say how much they are giving to Ukraine whilst quietly disparaging other Allies. The result is a small Ukrainian force (in relative terms) armed with an increasingly diverse range of systems.

At Vilnius, NATO and its Partners need to agree and announce a real strategy that effectively answers all of the above questions, not least so that the whole world fully understands the Alliance sees itself as Ukraine’s strategic depth and does whatever it takes for however long it takes.  In other words, what Ukraine needs now is an unequivocal statement from the Alliance timed to coincide with the counter-offensive that NATO fully understands its vital role in enabling Ukraine achieve its legitimate war aims so that said offensive does not take place in a political and strategic vacuum.     

Strategic depth in his war is not simply about supporting Ukraine. NATO is and will remain the back-stop of European security and defence which means putting the Alliance’s deterrence and defence posture on the new footing that was agreed at Madrid last year.  Specifically, the NATO Allies must collectively meet the challenge of SACEUR General Chris Cavoli’s “family of plans”. This means not only replacing the weapons sent to Ukraine but building the New Force Model agreed at the NATO Madrid Summit in 2022, particularly the force readiness goals and all that implies for Europe’s broken defence and technological industrial base.   

When to be offensive?

Napoleon once said that one should never interrupt an enemy when he is making a mistake and that one should always do what the enemy least wants you to do. The decision when and where to advance should be left to Ukraine’s political and military leadership with the simple aim of generating best results at least cost.  However, Kyiv is all too aware that the counter-offensive will be aimed as much at the Allies and their lack of strategic clarity and shared resolve as Russia’s wavering armed forces. Vilnius?  If nothing else Ukraine must have that clear statement of solidarity from the NATO Allies to support Ukraine in its efforts to return to their 1991 borders whatever it takes and for how long it takes.  Nothing more, nothing less.  The when and how of Ukraine’s NATO membership? That will be the litmus test of Alliance seriousness and Vilnius will have failed if the Ukrainians are not offered at the very least a dynamic Deterrence and Defence Partnership.    Why does it matter?  The Russo-Ukraine War is being fought in Ukraine.  It is also being fought in Europe over the future nature of power in Europe and there must be no illusions about that.  

When to be offensive? The most important one thing Ukraine’s partners can do to shape the battlefield is to relieve Kyiv of the constant need to look over its political shoulders. Then, the Ukrainian military commanders can simply decide when and where to attack at any given time and in any given place based solely on the military situation on the ground.

Ukraine can no longer afford to fight a political zweifrontenskreig.  As Winston Churchill once famously said, “Give us the tools and we’ll finish the job”.

Julian Lindley-French

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