On one side will be around 35,000 Ukrainian soldiers, bolstered by western battle tanks. They will face more than 140,000 enemy troops along a 950km frontline. Separating the two forces will be a deadly obstacle course of mines, earthworks and tank-stopping bollards set by the Russians.
The day is soon approaching when Ukraine will attempt to breach Russia’s frontline fortifications. Nearly 14 months since President Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale invasion, the stakes in this first phase of its spring counter-offensive could not be higher. Success or failure will shape the battlefield and determine the strength of Kyiv’s hand in any eventual negotiations with Moscow to resolve the conflict.
“To be strong in any talks, Ukraine must be strong on the battlefield,” as Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy said earlier this year. “Let’s de-occupy the maximum [amount of territory] we can.”
But the fighting promises to be a hard slog, warn military officials and analysts. For one, breaching operations are exceptionally hard to perform as they require all military units — from artillery and tanks, to intelligence gathering and engineers — to work synchronously.
“It takes a giant orchestration of combined arms,” said Nick Gunnell, a former officer in Britain’s Royal Engineers who has extensive experience of breaching operations. “Everyone has to play a role. It’s very high risk.”
Adding to the difficulties is the Ukrainians’ lack of air superiority. The last big battle involving western tanks was in 2003 when a US-led coalition battled Iraqi forces equipped with Soviet-era T-72s. But the allied forces then were supported by ground attack aircraft and Apache helicopters.
On the ground, Ukrainian forces will have western supplied heavy weaponry such as British Challenger and German-made Leopard tanks, US-supplied Bradley fighting vehicles and self-propelled Archer howitzers.
But they will also lack decisive air cover to stop Russian fighter jet attacks that could, as Gunnell put it, “squash Ukraine’s specialist engineering vehicles” as they try to breach Russian fortifications. The west has so far resisted requests to provide Kyiv with advanced fighter jets such as US F-16s.
“The classic approach in a land offensive is to break out into the enemy rear, in one area or several, and deliver a concentrated blow against the enemy’s centre of gravity,” said Ben Barry, a former British armoured infantry battalion commander. “Successful examples without air superiority are rare,” he said, and cited Israel’s land attack on Egyptian positions in 1973 during the Yom Kippur war.
It is no secret that the counter-offensive is imminent. Ukraine’s defence ministry recently shared a video that showed soldiers learning how to use British weaponry with the captions: “For What? You’ll see. #SpringIsComing.”
By May, the ground will be firm enough for vehicle manoeuvres and more western-supplied armour, plus engineering equipment such as the armoured bridge layers in the US’s latest $2.6bn military aid package to Kyiv, will have arrived.
Exactly where the attack might take place remains a tightly guarded secret. One area seen as strategically vital to Russia is around Melitopol, near the Sea of Azov. A successful Ukrainian push here would split Russian forces in two, leaving one group in Crimea and the south, and another to the east. But the Russian army, aware of the risk, has already prepared serried lines of defences in the region.
The Russian defences typically consist of a minefield, followed by lines of pyramid-shaped concrete bollards called dragons’ teeth that slow down mechanised units. Another minefield lies beyond them, with a line of trenches and dugouts 400m further back, and an anti-tank ditch 500m behind that.
“You need to pick the most advantageous spot — although that is a very open-ended concept,” Gunnell said. “It may be where Ukraine has good logistics nearby, or at Russia’s weakest point — although that might be Ukraine’s weakest spot too.”
Either way, the first step is to fire a 200m hose packed with explosives that clears a 5-metre-wide lane of mines for tanks and other armour to traverse.
The next is to clear the dragons’ teeth, perhaps using tanks fitted with ploughs. The last step is to breach the ditches with specialist bridging equipment.
“It is all about momentum and speed,” said Gunnell. “But things always go wrong, so you have to be prepared. If a tank plough breaks down, it has to be recovered or a second lane prepared.”
The hardest part is synchronising the various parts — and Ukraine’s army, while adept at small-scale manoeuvres, has limited experience of combined arms operations at this scale, analysts said.
Furthermore, Ukraine’s forces have lost a large share of their most experienced soldiers, having suffered an estimated 120,000 casualties. Purportedly leaked US intelligence documents have suggested that the counteroffensive could fall “well short” of Kyiv’s goals.
Yet Ukraine’s army has been underestimated before, such as when it defied western military assessments last year and pushed back Russian forces from around the capital and then the northeastern city of Kharkiv. Russia has also lost almost twice as many men since the full-scale invasion, according to western assessments. Moreover, Ukrainian troops are better equipped and trained than their foes.
“If the Ukrainian attack is hard and fast and gets behind the Russians, the frontline will unravel and the Russians will run . . . just as they did during the counter-offensive around Kharkiv,” said Glen Grant, a former British army officer and adviser to the Ukrainian parliament’s defence committee.
If that happens, the defences that the Russians have prepared will also prove largely worthless, allowing more Ukrainian forces to pour through the cleared gap.
“It is an old maxim that undefended earthworks don’t kill you,” Grant added. “And then the Ukrainians will be able to just keep going for as long as their plans and logistics last.”
Additional reporting by Mark Odell