Jamie Dettmer is Opinion Editor of POLITICO Europe.
Ukraine is on the cusp of what could prove to be one of the two key battles in the war that has been waged on it by Russia.
The first was Ukraine’s successful defense of Kiev over a year ago. Russia had a plan, but it was poorly executed: Ukraine didn’t have much of one and, greatly assisted by Western-supplied Javelin and NLAW anti-tank missiles, winged it. In the end, Russia’s overly arrogant and poorly commanded forces were defeated by the agility, courage and improvisation skills of the Ukrainian forces.
We are now probably in the opening moves of the second pivotal battle, as Ukraine’s long-awaited counter-offensive in the east of the country looks imminent, if not already underway. However, Kiev officials still worry about having enough of everything they need to strike hard and deep.
We are now on the brink of a crucial second battle, as Ukraine’s long-awaited counter-offensive in the east of the country seems imminent. However, Kiev officials still worry about having enough of everything they need to strike hard and deep.
Speaking at the weekend, Deputy Head of Ukrainian President’s Office Volodymyr Zelenskyy Ihor Zhovkva he told the Sunday Times« if you want to start a successful counteroffensive you need everything at your disposal, including artillery, armored vehicles and tanks, so we probably don’t have enough. »
Nonetheless, Zelensky himself said so Friday who was now ready to launch the counter-offensive, but also tried to temper expectations, saying the battle on the battlefield would take time and come at a great price. And to some eyes, the opening moves seemed to be starting as this article was being written.
The Ukrainian leader must feel similar to former US President Dwight Eisenhower on the eve of D-Day. “The eyes of the world are upon you,” Eisenhower wrote in a famous letter sent to troops before the assault. “We will accept nothing less than full victory! Good luck!” But he also drafted another in case of failure, preemptively writing: “The troops, the air and the navy have done all that courage and devotion to duty could do. If any fault or blame is ascribed at the attempt, it is mine alone.The letter was never meant to be sent.
Today, on the eve of battle, 79 years since Eisenhower drafted his D-Day messages, Ukraine and Russia are still doing everything they can to destroy and deceive each other, with drone and missile strikes on both military and military targets. civilians.
Russia’s relentless airstrikes on Kiev over the past four weeks – involving 400 Iranian Shahed drones and 114 cruise missiles – have been aimed at trying to psychize Ukrainians. Moving away from targeting the country’s energy grid, Russia focused on the Ukrainian command as well as their decision-making centers and logistics hubs, and on Sunday on Russian missiles hit an airbase in central Ukraine.
« Their main goal is to stop our counteroffensive, » said Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Volodymyr Havrylov said a security conference in Singapore.
Similarly, Ukraine has done its best to wreak havoc and inconvenience its enemies not only with drone strikes and bombing raids, but also with increasingly daring sabotage missions – both behind enemy lines in occupied Ukraine and inside of Russia – by deploying ostensibly covert agents and Russian rebels grouped together in Russia’s Freedom Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps.
These raids on the Belgorod region on the border with Ukraine they are showing how vulnerable Russia’s borders are. But along with the cross-border bombing that has seen Shebekino and Volokonovksky hit with hundreds of artillery shells in recent days, they also have a dual function: to bring the war home to the Russians, just like the recent drone attacks on Moscow they did, while also potentially persuading Russia to move some troops deployed along the front lines to contain the long-awaited counter-offensive.
The fighting in Belgorod is also exacerbating political infighting in Russia, with Yevgeny Prigozhin – the murderous leader of the Wagner paramilitary group – announcing on Saturday he was ready to send his mercenaries to defend the border region. “If the Ministry of Defense does not stop what is happening in the Belgorod region […] where Russian territory is actually captured, then of course we will get there,” he said She said in an audio message. Prigozhin added that he will not wait for official authorization, saying: « The only thing we will ask for is ammunition, so that we don’t arrive, as they say at home, bare-bottomed in the cold. »
These incursions, in which Kyiv denies having a role, are a mocking echo of Russia’s supposedly deniable « little green men » deployed in Crimea and the Donbass in 2014 to lead the annexation and land grabbing. But, in the end, just like the drone strikes, rocket strikes and artillery bombardments conducted by both sides, they are mere sideshows, albeit important ones if they manage to get Russia to look the wrong way and misjudge where it will come from. the main thrust of the counteroffensive.
And that’s a question Ukraine is doing its best to avoid answering before the cannons roar.
On Sunday, the Ukrainian military doubled down on its call for operational silence regarding the counter-offensive, urging the public not to speculate about the assault or share images that could give away the game. « Plans love silence, » the defense ministry said in a video posted to its social media channels, with masked troops holding their fingers to their lips. However, the same officials have fueled speculation with their recent efforts to taunt Russia, releasing a video showing troops preparing for battle and chanting a blessing and a promise just last week.
However, there is a little secret in the extensive options, as even Russians can read maps.
Undoubtedly, the biggest possible surprise would have come had Ukraine launched its major assault into northeastern Kharkiv oblast, where Russian defenses collapsed last fall, in the face of an unexpected attack that not even the commanders of land Ukrainians had been informed until the eve of the assault. The purpose of such an attack here would be to penetrate deep into Luhansk, force Russia out of Severodonetsk and threaten Bakhmut.
Pushing into Donetsk would also be an option for Ukraine, but the attack with the greatest potential advantage would be through Zaporizhia and Kherson, pushing towards Mariupol, Berdiansk, Melitopol and Tokmak, with the aim of severing the so-called land bridge that connects mainland Russia and the southern Ukrainian territories that Russia occupies across the Crimean isthmus.
And this is where savvy military observers expect an attack to be concentrated, as do map-reading Russians, it seems. According to open-source satellite imagery and Ukrainian field commanders who spoke to POLITICO, in recent weeks, Russian forces have fortified Zaporizhzhia oblast and built a number of defense lines – they have also strengthened defenses in northern Crimea For me yes.
But as Britain’s Royal United Services Institute noted in a recent report, that could spell trouble for Ukraine: « Engineering has proven to be one of the strongest branches of the Russian military, » the report said. « The now constructed defenses, consisting of complex field obstacles and fortifications, will present a major tactical challenge for Ukrainian offensive operations. »
Therefore, Ukraine is now pinning some of its hopes on signs that Russia is running out of artillery shells; and he also believes he can exploit Russia’s low morale and poor coordination of commands.
Meanwhile, Ukraine is also asking questions: Will it be able to carry out a truly coordinated combined armed war and avoid being too sequential or strenuous as it sometimes has in the past? In the face of strong resistance, can you keep pushing without hesitation? And most importantly, have the Ukrainian forces been sufficiently trained with the new Western-supplied tanks, armored vehicles and other equipment they have only recently received?
In his message, hours before D-Day, Eisenhower noted: “The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory! And this, now, is Ukraine’s D-Day.