by Bethany Elliott
Monday, 10
April 2023
Analysis
07:00

Ukraine’s spring offensive is aimed at America as much as Russia

Territorial gains are needed to avoid Western war fatigue
by Bethany Elliott
The counter-offensive could prove decisive in determining the fate of the war. Credit: Getty

The tanks are arriving. The recruits are undergoing training. New units are being formed. Preparations for Ukraine’s spring offensive are afoot, with US officials expecting it to begin in the coming weeks. Ukrainian hopes to dislodge Russian forces from the country are reportedly centred on the Zaporizhzhia frontline, which would allow Ukraine to push into the partially-occupied oblast to seize the transport hub of Melitopol and sever the land bridge which permits Russia to supply forces from Crimea. 

The counter-offensive may well prove decisive in determining the fate of the war, not least because significant territorial gains could lead to negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. The country’s leadership having hitherto ruled out peace talks until Russian forces have withdrawn entirely from Ukrainian territory, including Crimea, on 5th April, Ukrainian presidential advisor Andriy Sybiha said that if its forces achieve “strategic goals on the battlefield” and reach Crimea’s borders, the leadership would be open to negotiations over the future of the peninsula.  


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Alternatively, should Ukraine’s army falter, the Spring Offensive could mark the moment at which Western support to Ukraine begins to decline, with former US Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer warning that “if this becomes a grinding war with no end in sight, it becomes a lot harder to maintain Western support”. 

Second only to the Russians, Ukraine’s greatest enemy is Western fatigue. Back in September, Russian-born banker Lubov Chernukhin warned of people viewing Ukraine as “Afghanistan 2.0 – a war that drones interminably on, prompting fatigue”. Meanwhile, in February, Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrij Melnyk noted that a key challenge for Ukraine is combatting Western weariness, with allies feeling they could “put their feet up” after supplying tanks. 

This is especially apparent in America. Some in the Republican Party, notably in the Trumpist wing, have been voicing doubts about support to Ukraine, none more so than the man himself. Trump has complained of the US giving Ukraine too much aid and said he could have prevented the conflict by letting Putin “take over something”. In February, a group of pro-Trump Republicans led by Congressman Matt Gaetz introduced the ‘Ukraine Fatigue Resolution’, urging an end to US military and financial aid to Ukraine and warning of the costs of a protracted conflict. 

Meanwhile, Trump’s potential rival for the Republican presidential nomination, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, has claimed it is not in America’s interest to become “further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia”. With US public support for aid to Ukraine declining, assistance to the embattled nation looks set to be a hot topic in the run-up to 2024’s presidential election.

Moving beyond party politics, this is an America which wants to concentrate on its epoch-defining clash with China — as outlined by former Trump advisor Elbridge Colby in a recent interview with UnHerd. The country has learnt severe lessons about prolonged military engagements on the other side of the world, and perhaps most importantly is still led by a President whose hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan let the Taliban seize power and left well-meaning coalition partners unable to fill the gap left by US resources — an incident which should keep Volodymyr Zelenskyy awake at night. 

For his part, President Biden has vowed to stick by Ukraine “as long as it takes”. However, the US budget for military assistance is expected to run out by September, while US defence officials have privately described shipments of ammunition for the coming offensive as a “last-ditch effort” since allies cannot meet the pace at which Ukraine is firing and it will take months for suppliers to catch up. As Ukraine’s single biggest military and financial supporter, if the US were to pull out, it would have a catastrophic effect on Ukraine’s ability to withstand Russian aggression. 

The Russians are aware of this — Putin’s strategy hinges on outlasting Ukraine and its backers. Last month, ex-president and current deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council Dmitri Medvedev said that “of course” Ukraine’s supporters are growing tired, which is why “Biden and his henchmen have been doing their utmost to push through this aid and everything else as quickly as possible”. 

As Ukrainian forces plan how to break into Russian-held territory and liberate occupied areas, there can be no pressure quite like preparing for battle. However, added to this is the fear that failure to make significant territorial gains will weaken Ukraine’s position not just on the battlefield, but in the capitals of Western allies.  

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j watson
j watson
1 month ago

One should not put too much stock in potential Presidential candidate campaign statements. Things always look different once in the White House, especially as POTUS often able to exert more influence on foreign than domestic affairs.
What the US increasingly knows is that Cold War 2 is not just a contest in the South China Sea. Much as for Cold War 1 it is contested over all Continents. How the US/Western Allies behave towards Ukraine has meaning and message to many pondering whether to lean towards the CCP or back towards the West. This has to form part of the calculus.
There seems no doubt though that Europe, whilst more unified than many would have predicted, will have to step forward and provide a greater proportion of guarantees for the eventual peace in Ukraine. This will beg big questions, especially of the Germans and French. The Brits too. The Poles and Scandinavians we know will step forward.

R Cope
R Cope
1 month ago
Reply to  j watson

Agreed. Presidential ratings will be hurt by any activity that condemns Ukraine to defeat. There may be a reduction in enthusiasm which could cause problems, particularly if that encourages the Russians.

The best hope is that the forthcoming Ukrainian offensive pushes the Russians back to their original borders and forces Putin to negotiate. At some point the Russians will realise they can’t conquer the entirety of the Ukraine and will have to talk.

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago
Reply to  R Cope

What Ukraine actually needs to do is sever the land bridge to Crimea (the southern land corridor). Resupply of Crimea will then become far more difficult. Not necessary to recover territory in the East to do this. They only need to cut the long southern flank at one point and it’s over. At that point the Russians may have to seriously negotiate.

D Walsh
D Walsh
1 month ago
Reply to  j watson

The Russians will have little interest in guarantees from Europe, once Merkel and the Germans admitted they have been lying for years and have no real intension of implementing any negotiated settlement, the question will be solved on the battle field with the destruction of the Ukrainian army

martin logan
martin logan
1 month ago
Reply to  D Walsh

Rather like it was solved on 24 Feb 2022.
Ingenious solutions lead to quite fascinating outcomes!

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
1 month ago

“America has learnt severe lessons about prolonged military engagements on the other side of the world”

Americans have learned this, but our ruling class remains quite enamored with them. Any why not? Using tax money to buy bombs and missiles made by friends you play golf with so you can blow up stuff halfway around the world is fun and makes you look strong.

martin logan
martin logan
1 month ago

Suspect Russia has also learned lessons about the futility of trying to control borderlands where people universally hate them.
Or rather, maybe they haven’t…

Marcus Leach
Marcus Leach
1 month ago

Logically China and other enemies of the West would want to prolong this conflict as long as possible. Exhausting the West’s resources and reaching the point where the cost and compassion fatigue for what seems like an interminable war has turned public opinion against further support, the USA, Britain and Ukraine’s other supporters would once again be forced in to a shameful cut and run just like they were with Iraq and Afghanistan.
China and our other geopolitical enimies would assume – probably quite rightly – that after yet another humiliatng retreat, there would be no appetite to commit resources to defend Taiwan or any other target our enemies have in their sights
I imagine, then, that China and others will be assisting Russia with sufficient finance and armaments to ensure that Russia is not defeated. With the US presidential elections taking place next year, and a sceptical Republican president a strong probability, there is additional incentive to keep Russia in the fight for the next 18 months.
With new military and economic alligiances centred on China created and he West: humilated, exhausted, conflict wear and engaged in a cultural nervous breakdown, it is not hard to imagine that the the long touted fundamental shift in the geopoliical balance of power could finally happen.

martin logan
martin logan
1 month ago
Reply to  Marcus Leach

Russia has to win its first victory before any of that can happen.
Backing incompetents is not China’s style.
Whereas stealing Russia’s erstwhile clients in Central Asia is. Nice to see that their new railway also totally bypasses Russia.
Maybe they know something about Russia we don’t?

chris Barton
chris Barton
1 month ago

The War will be over by summer.

martin logan
martin logan
1 month ago

The far more consequential fact right now is that Putin is walking an impossible tightrope.
He’s creating a quite psychotic cocktail inside Russia, by forcing people like Medvedev, and TV presenters like Solovyov, to make insane statements about “totally destroying Ukraine.”
It’s designed to convince both Russians and westerners that he is the only sane ruler for Russia.
But the far more likely outcome is that this will only embolden the real psychotics in Russia to overthrow a weak and cowardly Tsar.
We’ll soon see a civil war between psychos like Prigozhin, against the (much weakened) Russian Army and oligarchs.
Looks like 1917 all over again. Just the inevitable outcome of Muscovy’s 800-year old culture.

Last edited 1 month ago by Martin Logan
martin logan
martin logan
1 month ago
Reply to  martin logan

The sure sign that someone is wrong is when they can’t even think of a reply.