What Does Ukraine’s Counteroffensive Mean For The Wider War?
This month has seen major new developments in the ongoing war in Ukraine as the Ukrainian armed forces launched a successful counteroffensive against Russian troops, retaking large swathes of territory and notching a surprise victory for morale among Ukrainians and their international allies.
This week, President Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukrainian forces intend to continue to their push into Russian-occupied areas of the country, as western leaders like U.S. President Joe Biden express renewed optimism about the ultimate outcome of the war.
For more on the success of the Ukrainian counteroffensive and its impact on the broader conflict, Texas A&M Today spoke with associate professors John Schuessler and Jasen Castillo of Texas A&M’s Bush School of Government and Public Service. Schuessler and Castillo are faculty members in the Department of International Affairs and co-directors of the Albritton Center for Grand Strategy.
What is the overall scope of this recent Ukrainian counteroffensive?
Schuessler: The counteroffensive has been concentrated in the northeast region of Kharkiv, liberating more than 2,300 square miles of territory. With evidence that Russian soldiers scrambled to retreat in the face of an unexpectedly rapid Ukrainian advance, this can only be described as a major success for Ukraine and a loss for Russia.
Castillo: I agree and would add that Ukraine telegraphed for weeks it would focus its efforts to the south. The Russians took the bait, and Ukraine achieved some tactical surprise around Kharkiv.
What are some of the factors behind the apparent success of the counteroffensive?
Schuessler: Ukraine has certainly benefited from outside assistance, both in terms of weapons and battlefield intelligence. This has allowed Ukraine to pound Russian forces behind their front lines, disrupting their operations. There was also an element of surprise involved, with Russian forces seemingly anticipating more of a Ukrainian effort in the south than in the north. Most importantly, it is becoming clearer and clearer that Russia’s army is battered. It is estimated that Russia has suffered as many as 80,000 casualties since February, including more than 15,000 deaths. The heavy toll can only exacerbate the manpower, morale and logistics problems that Russia is clearly suffering from.
Castillo: A caution — the quality of the information we get about this war is hard to evaluate. That said, I concur with John’s description. Ukrainian forces possess a greater will to fight. They are defending their homeland and have clearly benefited from the training provided by the U.S. and our NATO allies. Russian forces are less motivated. They do well in exercises but not in war. Combined arms operations seem difficult for them. To defend along a long frontier, Russian forces would need to respond quickly, with mobile reserves plugging holes. A mobile defense along such a long frontier requires good logistics. My suspicion is that Ukraine concentrated their breakthroughs against areas where Russian forces were already taxing their supply lines.
How has Russia responded to the gains made by the Ukrainians?
Schuessler: Russia is reinforcing its defenses in the south around Kherson. The Russian army cannot afford another collapse there so soon after the rout in the north. The big question is whether Russia can retain the territory it has occupied in the east and south short of a wartime mobilization. Barring a major change in fortunes, we can expect Russia to be on the defensive as opposed to the offensive going forward.
Castillo: If I am Russia, I pray for an early winter, prepare for a spring campaign and hope Western Europe suffers without Russian natural gas.
Should we expect to see similar gains for Ukraine in the coming days?
Schuessler: Ukraine should have more difficulty retaking territory in the south around Kherson than it did in the north. That said, we cannot rule out further advances. Most serious for Russia would be a Ukrainian offensive in the south that cuts off Russia’s access to Crimea. It is generally expected that the fighting will stalemate again once winter sets in.
Castillo: I think the future success of the Ukrainian offensive will depend on their logistics. Ukraine has made gains in areas where Russian forces have had trouble getting supplied, which makes them ideal targets for an offensive. U.S.-supplied artillery has helped Ukraine interdict Russian logistics prior to the campaign. Unless the Russian will to fight collapses utterly, I anticipate the Ukrainian offensive will stall.
What does this high-profile string of victories mean for the wider war?
Schuessler: I remain skeptical that Ukraine can fully eject Russia from the territory in the east and south that it has occupied. This means that neither side can ultimately dictate terms to the other. A negotiated settlement seems unavoidable in the end. My personal opinion is that an armed neutrality is the best Ukraine can achieve. That said, from day one, Ukraine has consistently performed better than many of us expected, so any predictions should be made with great humility.
Castillo: This recent battlefield success will inspire more U.S. support for Ukraine, which means more dollars and hardware. President Biden will want to balance this continued assistance with sparking a wider or longer war.
What else should people keep in mind about these recent developments and the conflict overall?
Schuessler: Escalation remains a serious risk. If Russia perceives itself as losing momentum, desperation may set in, and desperation can lead to rash behavior like nuclear threats or atrocities. Russia should certainly not be rewarded for aggression, but humiliating it is not without risk. From the beginning, U.S. policy has been to thwart Russia’s offensive in Ukraine while avoiding direct involvement in the war. It is a fine line to straddle.
Castillo: Strongly, strongly agree. Putin has a lot at stake in the conflict. Russia sees the war in Ukraine as their Cuban Missile Crisis. Imagine if Russia offered membership in a military alliance to Canada or Mexico. We would — rightly — not permit that. Since the stakes are high for him, Putin has an incentive to keep fighting. If frustrated, he might decide to escalate the level of violence to coerce Ukraine and the U.S. to capitulate. My worry is that if the Russian military collapses, Putin might find the temptation to use a low-yield nuclear weapon over Ukraine too great to resist.