“Kill them all — I never thought I’d say that, but these bastards have no humanity.” Dasha stabs her finger into the air as she makes her point over coffee in Odesa. Across south-eastern Ukraine, people are enraged at the destruction of the Novaya Kakhovka Dam in the Kherson Oblast. TV screens show streets that have turned into rivers. Dead fish float where there used to be pavements. The Ukrainians I speak to are in no doubt: ecocide has joined genocide as a Russian weapon of war.
Beyond the anger, there is a renewed call to see the heavily anticipated counteroffensive make tangible gains — and quickly. People want Ukrainian lands back. They want Moscow to pay. “The first thing you have to understand,” a Whitehall source recently told me, “is that the Ukrainians got all this fancy new Western kit on the promise of a big counteroffensive. They have to do it. And make it work — or more equipment might not be so forthcoming.”
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Military activity is duly intensifying; the so-called spring counteroffensive appears finally to be underway. At the start of this week, Ukrainian forces attacked the area around Velyka Novosilka and Novodonetske in the Donbas region, unofficially kicking things off. But what will happen next? And what, realistically, can be achieved?
The total liberation of the occupied territories, including Crimea, is President Zelenskyy’s official position — not just because he believes it’s morally right, but because he knows that anything less allows Moscow to keep attacking. Yet a chasm remains between what the Ukrainians want and what they have the capacity to do — as they so often point out to the West.
So, rather than liberating the occupied territories, the counteroffensive’s most realistic objective is to try to split them — dividing the Russian forces fighting in the Donbas from those in the south. Key to this will be retaking the area around the city of Melitopol in the Zaporizhzhia Oblast. Do this and they will sever the “land bridge” that snakes all the way from Russia through the cities of Donetsk, Mariupol and Melitopol, and into Crimea. This bridge was one of Putin’s stated war aims: it allows Moscow to give some military (and thus economic and political) reality to the fiction that those lands are Russian territory. Grain now flows from Melitopol into Russia, while Russian passports flow the other way — whether the locals like it or not.
The problem with this plan, however, is that it’s obvious. Looking at Ukraine’s most successful counterattacks over the past year, deception has always been a priority (which is probably why the spring counteroffensive did not come in spring). Last year’s lightning attack around Kharkiv, that sent the Russians scuttling back across the border, was predicated on convincing the enemy that Ukraine would attack much further south. Kyiv seems well-aware of this. After Ukraine launched a multi-pronged attack in Donetsk on Sunday, Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov tweeted out lyrics from Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence”, showing a video of Ukrainian soldiers putting fingers to their lips. “There will be no announcement about the start,” it warned.
Surprise, then, remains the order of the day. But to expect to consistently deceive the Russians is naive. The Kremlin isn’t stupid. Putin knows the continuing feasibility of his occupation rests on their land bridge. Russia is prepared.
Right now, the Ukrainians are making a series of small strikes across the Russian lines. Peppering the enemy like this does two things. First, it tests the lines for weakness. Second, it helps to disguise where a major strike will take place. The broader the range of Ukraine’s preliminary attack, the harder it is for Moscow to work out where they will eventually try to break through. This is partly why Kyiv has also been striking further south, including near the cities of Mykhailivka, Melitopol and Tomak (the latter probably with US-supplied HIMARS systems), all of which are critical to regaining access to the Sea of Azov. Russian channels on Telegram also reported increased fire and assault of positions near Zaporizhzhia.
If Kyiv can recover Zaporizhzhia — whether or not its nuclear power plant functions is another matter — it will sever the land bridge and drive its forces right up against Crimea. Such an advance would not only terrify the pro-Russians living inside the peninsula, but also those ruling in the Kremlin. Ultimately, it would give Kyiv an excellent base from which to try to capture either Donetsk or Luhansk — with the latter being the most likely. The coal mines in Donetsk create a three-dimensional battlefield that Russian forces can use to hide underground, store equipment or booby-trap with ease. The Ukrainians were able to hold out for five months in the salt mines of Soledar by doing the same thing, despite being vastly outnumbered.
The Ukrainians, though, are only half the equation. Many “analysts” on pro-Russia Telegram channels cite the abilities of Putin’s elite forces as a major barrier to a successful Ukrainian counter-offensive. The reality is not so simple. Consider, for instance, the elite 74th Guards Motor Rifle Brigade, which was thrown into the heart of the fighting last May when it successfully crossed the Siverskyi Donets river. Towards the end of last month, the brigade was ordered to leave Donetsk for Belgorod, just across the border from Kharkiv, to deal with new threats there. To get there, it had to take a meandering route around the Ukrainian lines — the Russians clearly have no fresh troops to send.
Meanwhile, there are serious doubts over how “elite” they really are. Soon after crossing the Siverskyi Donets, the forces were chewed up by Ukrainian artillery, reportedly losing over 485 out of 550 men and 80 vehicles. The Brigade is still in the field, but whoever wears their cap badge now is almost certainly not an “elite troop”.
This appears to be part of a wider trend. “In Bakhmut, the Russians recently lost not only a brigade commander, but a Deputy of Political Affairs,” a Whitehall source tells me. “When those people are there, it’s usually because the front is falling apart. The Ukrainians understand this. They’re as close as you can get to the Russians.”
Then there is the problem of ammunition. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner Group, has spent months railing against the Russian high command, specifically Minister of Defence, Sergei Shoigu, and Commander-in Chief, Valery Gerasimov. “Their shelling rate is very low,” the mandarin continues. “It’s the Prigozhin problem writ large. They are dependent on massive bombardments — [when one calculates] the basic unit of fire for a BM-21 “Grad”, the mobile rocket launcher being used across the country, from what we’re seeing, they have enough for only three days.”
There are a host of other problems, too. “We’re seeing some ancient kit; so, is Russia holding back their best stuff in case of a broader war with Nato or are they simply out of things later than a T60 [tank produced by the Soviets in 1941-42]? And they’ve changed conscript regulations. They can now call up people with Type 1 diabetes, in a country of 150 million people. Just how desperate are they?”
And yet, despite the chaotic and largely ridiculed nature of Moscow’s partial mobilisations, it got the extra forces it wanted. While Western weapons flow into Ukraine, Russia is largely self-sufficient and, more than a year later, its lines still hold. And the troops populating them know a fierce battle is coming.
Yesterday morning, I spoke to a young waiter. “Smells like counteroffensive today,” he said with a grin. By the afternoon, word reached me that more offensive operations were beginning in the east. The people here are angry and increasingly expectant. “Time to advance!” said Dasha as we finished our coffee. Like most Ukrainians, she wants both revenge and progress — anything less would be a disaster.