Ukraine's Military Objectives

[ Posted Monday, May 29th, 2023 – 15:04 UTC ]

I realize that this is Memorial Day and I should really be writing a column honoring America's soldiers, but instead I thought I'd take a look at what the most impressive soldiers in today's world are gearing up to do. I speak, of course, of the Ukrainian army in their fight against the Russian invaders. The world has been watching and waiting for a while to see how much success the Ukrainians' "spring counteroffensive" could have, and it seems we're now on the brink of finding that out.

This will come as no surprise to anyone, since it might accurately be called "the most-telegraphed military campaign in history." There has been an astonishing amount of talk about the spring offensive for months and months, so there is approximately zero "surprise factor" remaining. In fact, the world's reaction to the start of the campaign might well be: "What took you so long?" After all, spring itself only has a few weeks left to run.

But for whatever reason, the big push was delayed. Ukraine got a lot of rain this spring, which turned all the ground that will be fought over into deep mud. This has long been a built-in defense for both Ukraine and Russia -- because spring mud after a brutal winter usually bogs down invading armies to the point of standstill. Both Napoleon and Hitler learned this (to their dismay), when they tried to conquer Russia. This year was rainier than most and the rains lasted longer than usual, which caused most of the delay. Tanks and heavy vehicles easily get bogged down in this sea of mud, so they had to wait for the ground to firm back up before the Ukrainians could even begin.

Adding to the delay was getting all the war equipment Ukraine could manage into the battle and up to the front lines. This includes increasingly-sophisticated weapons systems, such as British cruise missiles (that can strike a lot deeper into Russian-held areas than what they've been fighting with) and German Leopard tanks. Plus, the United States just relented (President Biden finally had a change of heart) and Ukrainian pilots will now be trained on F-16s, although they will not be coming directly from the U.S. (at least for now).

However, the F-16s won't be delivered in time for the spring offensive, and neither will the American M1A1 Abrams tanks the Ukrainians are now being trained on. Both of these weapons systems may not be in the fight until the fall, in fact. But Leopard tanks and British Storm Shadow missiles will be deployed. And Ukraine now has much-improved air defense systems, which are shooting down almost all of the drones and missiles Russia keeps lobbing at Ukrainian cities. On a more mundane level, deliveries of ammunition (for both artillery and troops) have also gotten better in the run-up to the spring offensive.

Within the next week or so (most likely, according to Ukrainian officials) the long-awaited spring offensive will begin. Where it will begin and what it hopes to achieve are still very closely-held secrets, though. So I thought it was worth taking a look at the current battle map and seeing what the Ukrainian objectives might be, from one end of the frontlines to the other. All of this is sheer speculation, I should caution -- I have no inside information other than what I read in the world's media.



At the end of the main fighting season last year, the Ukrainian forces scored a big victory in the southwest, when they retook the city of Kherson and drove the Russians back across the Dnieper River. This line has largely held ever since, with some sporadic fighting on some islands in the river delta and with a whole lot of artillery shelling across the river at Kherson.

There is one big military objective here that could be a part of a spring offensive, and that would be if the Ukrainians can somehow cross the river and take the towns of Nova Kakhovka and Kakhovka (note: all of these city, town, and geographic names can be spelled differently in English, so I am using the spelling on that map for easy reference throughout this article). This would be strategically important for two big reasons, if it can be done. The first is that there is a major dam in the river here, and retaking the dam and the town on the other side of the river -- without the Russians blowing up the dam as they retreat -- would remove a big flooding threat for Kherson and everything else down-river. Taking the dam intact would also mean establishing a secure river-crossing, which could be crucial (since all the bridges in Kherson were destroyed when the Russians retreated). But what might be even more important, in the strategic sense of the battlefield, is that by taking this dam the Ukrainians would be able to cut off the fresh water flowing into the Crimean Peninsula in the North Crimean Canal (the heavy blue line, on the map). This is the main water source for much of Crimea, and while it wouldn't be crippling to cut off the water (Ukraine cut it off in 2104 when Russia occupied Crimea and it wasn't restored until last year, when the Russians took the dam and surrounding countryside), it would indeed be a logistical headache for Russia to deal with. A secondary objective in this area would be to push the Russians back far enough from Kherson that the city wouldn't be threatened by basic artillery anymore.

Further north, where the river opens out into a large reservoir, there is one critical military objective the entire world has been watching. In the town of Enerhodar lies the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant -- the world's largest. Retaking this would be a huge victory for Ukraine, not so much for the electricity it provides as to deny the Russians the threat of creating a fake "nuclear accident" (in desperation). Something happening to the plant has been a very large worry all along, and it still is. The safest way to deal with it, for the Ukrainians, might be to take territory to the south of the city (moving in from either the east or west) and just lay siege to the plant. Sooner or later the Russians in control of the plant would have to come out, or starve. But, as always, the question of whether they create a nuclear accident of some type in their desperation is an open one.

The final big military objective in this region (between the Dnieper and Crimea, roughly) is the town of Melitopol. Melitopol is a crossroads for the whole region. If Ukrainian troops managed to strike south from their current positions on the eastern edge of the reservoir, they could attack the city. If they managed to take it and hold it, they would have achieved one of the biggest objectives of the spring offensive -- to cut off the "land bridge" between Russia and Crimea. If this could be done anywhere (Melitopol is just one option, as we'll get to next), it would make moving people and equipment in and out of Crimea a lot more difficult for Russia to manage. The only remaining link would be the bridge between Crimea and Russia across the Strait of Kerch. The Ukrainians have already successfully truck-bombed this bridge once, but they failed to entirely destroy it, meaning both vehicle and train traffic can still get across. If (after taking Melitopol) the bridge were successfully taken out, it would isolate Crimea entirely (by land -- the only resupply options Russia would have left would be via sea or air).



On that map, you can see the areas in the east that the Russian-backed forces held prior to the invasion (the Donbas region) outlined with a bright red border. From the western edge of this to the reservoir and Melitopol is the real heart of the land bridge Russia was able to create. Ukrainian forces could make a big push just about anywhere in this area, and if they made it all the way south to the shore of the Sea Of Azov, they could cut this land bridge off. This would require breaking through some very dug-in positions (both sides have entrenched themselves along the frontlines and prepared defenses in anticipation of a heavy attack using tanks, artillery, and everything else one side can throw at the other). But if a breakthrough is achieved by the Ukrainians anywhere along this front, it could lead to running tank battles and perhaps rapid advances (as Ukrainian troops managed in multiple regions, last year). Russia, however, is likely going to fight hard to protect the coastal roads which form the spine of the land bridge, so even if the Ukrainians retake large swaths of this region, the final push to the sea will be the key to success.

If such a push does succeed anywhere, there will be one final objective the Ukrainians will have in their sights -- reconquering the city of Mariupol. This was probably the hardest fight in Russia's initial advance, so it would be very meaningful (on a psychological level) if the Ukrainians could regain control. But the Russians are likely going to put up an enormous fight to hold it, so this seems like one of those objectives that will be tantalizing but likely out of reach -- for the spring offensive, at any rate.



We're going to skip over the Donbas region encircled by that red line and jump to the Russian-held areas to the north of it.

One of the two areas where the Ukrainians scored enormous gains before the winter was retaking all the territory from Kharkiv to the Oskil River and beyond. The line of fighting from the Russian border in the north to the city of Sievierodonetsk has shifted a bit over the winter, with first the Ukrainians making small gains, but then the Russians showing some success in retaking some of the territory. The fighting around Svatove was reportedly fierce, and the Ukrainians never did manage to take it. The Russian-held region here is obviously easier for them to defend than elsewhere in Ukraine, seeing as how it is bordered on two sides by Russia itself and on a third by the previously-held Donbas breakaway region. If the Ukrainians make a push for this area in the spring offensive, the further they manage to advance the more they would be surrounded on three sides, in other words. But there are a limited number of towns and transportation lines within the region, so cutting them off has to be at least a consideration for the Ukrainian forces. If Svatove and Starobilsk were recaptured, the Ukrainians would be in military control of the main transportation lines in the entire region, which would deny Russians the ability to move men and equipment across it. This wouldn't be as strategically important as cutting the land bridge to Crimea, but it would still present logistical resupply challenges for Russia.

The southern and western edge of this area might be a bigger target for the Ukrainians, however. In particular, the battle for Bakhmut has so far been the longest and bloodiest of the entire war. Bakhmut doesn't have enormous strategic importance for either side, but it has grown in psychological importance nonetheless. For Russia, taking Bakhmut was pretty much their only victory since the very first blitzkrieg invasion push. Vladimir Putin desperately wanted a big victory he could crow about to his own populace, and so the Russians threw an enormous amount of men and materiel and effort into taking this rather unimportant city.

By all accounts, the Ukrainians have certainly made Russia pay for their obsession with the city. The casualty count on the Russian side has been horrendous, and while the Ukrainians have had high casualties as well, they seem to have gotten the best of this grim equation. But this is how Russia has always fought wars, reaching all the way back to World War I (at the very least). Russia has one enormous military resource -- a lot of people. Lots and lots of soldiers. Untrained and inexperienced, they are thrown into the fight with abandon by the Russian military leaders. They are, quite bluntly, cannon fodder. But every once in a while they manage to kill or seriously wound one of the enemy. Russia is patient while waging this kind of war of attrition, knowing it can throw more bodies at the fight than just about any enemy. In the end, Russia always figures, they can grind the enemy down no matter how many of their own soldiers get killed. This dynamic has been on full display in the battle for Bakhmut.

The success Russia did managed to achieve here -- announcing recently that they had taken the entire city as well as the outskirts -- came at a heavy price and was only made possible by using their Wagner Group mercenaries, which are a cut above the average Russian conscript soldiers. But the leader of the Wagner Group is not exactly a happy camper and has reportedly pulled out (or is in the process of pulling out) his troops from both the surrounding areas as well as the city itself. As a direct result, the Ukrainians started retaking territory on both the northern and southern outskirts. If the Wagner soldiers do turn over the city center to regular Russian troops, the city itself might be vulnerable to a counteroffensive. Which would be very tempting for the Ukrainians, for the same psychological reasons that led Russia to expend so much energy (and so many lives) in this battle. Or the fighting in and around Bakhmut may serve as a useful feint in the initial phase of the Ukrainian spring offensive, forcing Russia to send troops to defend it while Ukraine then strikes hard someplace else on the frontline.


Donbas and Crimea

The two areas outlined in red borders -- the Donbas in the east and Crimea in the south -- are going to likely be the hardest for Ukraine to reclaim. The Crimean Peninsula obviously has geographic defenses (being mostly surrounded by water) and Russian-backed troops have been fighting in and holding Donbas since 2014. The Russians are extremely dug in, in both places.

Because of this, neither region is likely to be an objective in Ukraine's spring offensive. Ultimately, Ukraine wants every inch of soil back that Russia has taken, but there is only so much that can be accomplished at any given stage of the war. If the Ukrainians did retake most of the land north of Crimea, they're going to be tempted to keep going, but it is highly doubtful that a final battle for Crimea will begin in earnest any time soon.



Of course, none of this has even begun yet. But from all the signals being broadcast, it seems like major fighting will begin very shortly. The Ukrainians have better weapons, they are battle-tested and ready, and they have been training with United States and other NATO forces in preparation. The Russian army hasn't exactly been impressive so far (at least, after their first lightning advances), so it remains to be seen whether they'll be able to hold all the ground they currently occupy.

The start of the spring counteroffensive is not going to be a surprise to anyone, as I mentioned. Both sides know it

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