Danish instructors training Ukrainian troops in Great Britain in February 2023 as a part of the British-led Operation Orbital. Combat troops capable of aggressive action is likely to be the major limiting factor in any Ukrainian counteroffensive. (Photo, Forsvaret/Danish Armed Forces, Forsvarsgalleriet.dk)
In early 2023, the Ukrainian armed forces announced the commencement of a major spring counteroffensive in the Russian occupied areas in Ukraine. The announcement naturally caught the attention of Western military analysts and experts, who have conjured hope of huge Ukrainian sweeping advances all the way to the Black Sea, potentially resulting in the liberation of Crimea.
However, even though an offensive has been initiated, the major counteroffensive advance has yet failed to materialize. One explanation in this relation is the lack of military hardware on the Ukrainian side, an argument often used by the Ukrainian government to consistently secure foreign military aid deliveries. Another possible factor is the weather conditions with the seasonal mud, which limits off-road vehicle movement. But, as the month of May 2023 has come and gone, this is no longer a decisive factor.
A third explanation is soldiers or rather the lack of soldiers. Ukraine went to full mobilization shortly after the Russian attack, and the only way for Ukraine to acquire additional manpower is thus to wait for the next class of eligible draftees to reach maturity.
The initial phase of the war in Ukraine revolved around maneuver warfare, where mobile forces on both sides used the low force-to-space ratio to move freely. However, mounting losses on both sides transformed the war into one of attrition with each side manning an extended and thinly spread frontline supported by a network of artillery and drone systems, combined with mobile reserves.
This transition from a war of maneuver into one of attrition points to a current superiority of the defensive form of warfare. The tactical method of defensively manning large sections of the frontline with thinly held outpost lines backed up by reserves, makes one military resource very important: well-trained infantry. Attacking such a defensive system requires even more (and better) trained infantry capable of conducting efficient offensive operations.
Although the Ukrainian decision to enforce complete mobilization and restrict the departure of all men aged 18-60 from the country in the spring 2022 was a crucial defensive measure, it led to a substantial portion of the Ukrainian military comprising individuals who might encounter challenges in carrying out the desired offensive operations due to their age and very limited military experience.
Given these observations, the primary limitation regarding a Ukrainian offensive lies in the presence of infantry units capable of executing such operations. This underlines the significance of the attrition rate. However, it is unclear to what extent this attrition can be sustained by the Ukrainian army due to the absence of reliable numbers on manpower losses. This has the potential to seriously impair any Ukrainian offensive activity conducted on an operational or strategic level.
The importance of manpower is evident in the recruitment practices of Ukraine, which has seen a crackdown on draft-dodgers coupled with attempts to encourage volunteers to enlist through various means. This underlines that trained infantry is a resource that cannot quickly be replaced through production, imports, or donations, unlike equipment and material.
Ukraine is also suffering from the problem of having been on the operational and strategic defensive for most of the war. This has forced the Ukrainian armed forces to respond to Russian initiatives, potentially using up reserves of manpower and equipment originally intended for counteroffensive purposes. While the equipment consumed in these defensive efforts can potentially be replaced through Western donations, the casualties is in its essence more difficult to manage.
Since the infantry bears the brunt of the fighting and consequently suffers most of the casualties, the availability of sufficient well-trained infantry capable of offensive action is very likely the primary constraint for Ukraine as the country have likely depleted a significant portion of its mobilization potential already. Thus, the country now faces the risk of producing insufficient capable infantry. This makes a large scale operational or strategic offensive difficult at best and impossible at worst, since the trained manpower might not be available. Consequently, if Ukraine does undertake such large-scale offensives, the cost in trained infantry could be excessive leaving Ukraine vulnerable to renewed Russian attacks.
The Ukrainian military command is likely acutely aware of these challenges. While material losses can be compensated through Western support, loss of well-trained infantry cannot. A large-scale counterattack of the type envisioned by Ukrainian decision makers as well as Western military analysts, where the Ukrainian army sweeps through Russian occupied areas and reaches the Black Sea coast, is therefore quite unlikely. Furthermore, a failure in a counteroffensive would deplete the Ukrainian army of critical manpower, which must be an even more troublesome consideration in Kiev. Finally, even if the Ukrainian counteroffensive were to succeed, the cost of such a victory in infantry casualties might very well prove pyrrhic.
In conclusion, Ukraine finds itself in a precarious situation, as the promise of the counteroffensive has been successfully utilized to encourage Western countries to increase their deliveries of weapons. This promise has also been communicated internally within the Ukrainian military to boost the morale of the fighting troops who also will be disappointed if a counteroffensive proves unsuccessful. Therefore, the Achilles’ heel of the Ukrainian army (the potential scarcity of infantry capable of offensive action) is likely to severely limit the scale and objective of any offensive action undertaken. To this date, the military offensives carried out by the Ukrainian army in June 2023 have not contradicted this line of reasoning in my view.
While the vulnerability outlined above will not in itself cause a defeat to Ukraine, it will greatly restrict any potential offensive operations undertaken by the Ukrainian army against the areas currently under Russian control. Thus, the current bloody and artillery-dominated tactical stalemate in Ukraine can be expected to persist over the summer of 2023 and for the foreseeable future as well.