Ukraine’s Elusive Spring Offensive

The Ukrainian forces demonstrated remarkable counteroffensive capabilities during the autumn of the previous year, but the current situation poses formidable challenges. The absence of air superiority, depleting military stockpiles, declining troop morale and manpower shortages have made it increasingly difficult for Kyiv to identify vulnerabilities and exploit gaps in the enemy's defences

By Dr Aditya Bhan


The Western nations have stepped up their efforts in training and providing military aid to bolster Ukraine’s offensive capabilities. While significant progress has been made, there are daunting challenges ahead. From the absence of air superiority to the vulnerability of Ukrainian forces to Russian airstrikes, the path to victory is riddled with obstacles. Join us as we delve into the preparations, challenges, and outlook for Ukraine’s ambitious offensive campaign.

Training Efforts

In total, 24 nations have joined the European Military Assistance Mission (EUMAM Ukraine), which was started in November, 2022. While some have sent personnel to impart the training modules, others are offering training within their territorial borders. After training roughly 11,400 Ukrainian troops and completing 162 modules by April, there are plans to double the capacity and train 30,000 soldiers by the end of 2023.

Specific Training Contributions

As far as individual European nations are concerned, Estonian Defence Minister Hanno Pevkur claims that 600 Ukrainian infantry personnel underwent training in Estonia. According to him, the Estonians provided training to one company at a time, three times. “On top of that, there are medics, sharpshooters, and some more”, he added. Notably, the Estonian government has recently backed the minister’s proposal to provide another military assistance package to Kyiv, this time comprising sniper weapons and material for special operations.

Advancing Ukrainian columns – especially those without accompanying mobile point air defences – would be vulnerable to opportunistic Russian airstrikes using standoff munitions. The threat would prevail even in the absence of Russian air superiority, and act as a potent deterrent against the deployment of large Ukrainian troop concentrations and offensive formations

Britain, for its part, has trained Ukrainian tank crews in the usage of depleted uranium shells. These crews have finished training on Challenger 2 tanks in the UK, and returned home to resume their fight against Russia. The training commenced shortly after the announcement in January that the UK would donate 14 Challenger 2 main battle tanks and accompanying munitions and spares to Kyiv. British trainers spent many weeks training Ukrainian personnel how to operate and fight with tanks. The training involved commanding, driving, and working collectively as a Challenger 2 tank crew as well as effectually identifying and engaging targets.

Finally, the US doctrine advisory groups and instructors have assisted Ukraine in reinventing and reforming its fighting style, force structure and professional military education. This was deemed especially important because the post-Soviet country’s existing warfighting playbook was dominated by Soviet and Russian-influenced concepts, and was carried out along with special operations community-led initiatives to help Ukraine prepare for an insurgency if its military collapsed amid a Russian onslaught.

Military Aid Contributions

The European Union (EU) has announced military aid worth 2 billion euros to Kyiv, of which a billion will be allocated to artillery and the rest provided to member nations to provide munitions to Kyiv. Further, the US and European nations have provided military hardware and munitions in large quantities to Kyiv.

Germany’s latest consignment of military aid included Leopard 2 tanks and Marder infantry combat vehicles. According to Evropeyska Pravda, the list includes heavy armoured vehicles, transfer of which has been officially confirmed – 18 Leopard 2A6 tanks with ammunition and 40 Marder infantry fighting vehicles with ammunition provided from Bundeswehr warehouses and defence original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).

In fact, the Budget Committee of the Bundestag has recently approved a request from Germany’s federal ministries of defence and interior to allot a further 12 billion euros for defence assistance to Kyiv. The extra financial assistance provides for 3.2 billion euros to be released this year, and credit lines from 2024 to 2032 amounting to roughly 8.8 billion euros. “Thanks to this money, Ukraine will be able to directly buy weapons with the support of the German government. It is important to support Ukraine as much as necessary,” representatives of the German coalition government exhorted the budget committee of the Bundestag.

Amongst other recent military aid announcements from European nations, the Swedish parliament has approved military hardware grants of up to SEK 6.2 billion (about $550 million) to Kyiv. This assistance will include tanks, Archer and Robot 97 artillery systems, and ammunition.  On the other hand, Slovakia has transferred four of its MiG-29 fighter jets to Kyiv, and is expected to provide a further 13.

Finally, a study released by a German non-profit in February showed that adjusting for inflation, US military expenditure in Ukraine over a year of fighting has exceeded the average annual expenditure the country incurred in Afghanistan over 2001-2010. In fact, Washington’s new $350 million round of military assistance for Kyiv includes fuel tankers, patrol boats and missiles as the nation prepares for warmer weather and increased Russian offensives.

The new round of assistance was announced after US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, attended a meeting last week of the Ukraine Defence Contact Group – a group of allied national representatives that meet to discuss Kyiv’s military circumstances and identify the requirements to thwart Russian forces. Meetings of the contact group often precede new rounds of military assistance announcements.

The new assistance will pass through the presidential drawdown authority, which takes the equipment directly from Pentagon inventories, so that it can be transferred to Kyiv promptly. Other aid packages have been sanctioned through the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, which acquires weapons and equipment from the defence industry and takes longer to reach Europe. For instance, the US has pledged more than 30 M1 Abrams battle tanks through this initiative, and they are not expected to reach Kyiv until late this year.

Huge amounts of Western military aid seem unsustainable, however, as there are shortages in the US and Europe. And despite the training and the inflow of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) hardware, however, Ukraine is in no position to launch a NATO-style attack.

Challenges to Consider

Air Superiority: Foremost, Ukraine lacks control of its airspace. To overwhelm an entrenched enemy, the typical playbook of the US and its partners begins with an extensive aerial bombardment campaign utilising aircraft and cruise missiles, in the manner the US conducted its two wars in Iraq.

According to John Nagl, a retired US Army Lt. Colonel who is now serving as an associate professor of war-fighting studies at US Army War College, a US campaign would begin with an attack from the air to establish air superiority. In Ukraine, on the other hand, neither belligerent has been able to dominate the skies. With only a limited inventory of fighter aircraft and attack helicopters available for deployment, Kyiv needs to protect them and is therefore unlikely to risk them in a frontal assault on anticipating Russian forces.

On the other hand, advancing Ukrainian columns – especially those without accompanying mobile point air defences – would be vulnerable to opportunistic Russian airstrikes using standoff munitions. The threat would prevail even in the absence of Russian air superiority, and act as a potent deterrent against the deployment of large Ukrainian troop concentrations and offensive formations, particularly when extremely long-range hypersonic air-to-ground missiles like the Kinzhal are accounted for. This would reduce the scope for combined-arms manoeuvres by Ukrainian brigades and larger offensive formations, restricting them to localised company and battalion-level actions at the most, and thereby decreasing the potential depth of Kyiv’s planned thrust(s).

Depleted Stock of Munitions: The extent to which enhanced military assistance and training from the West will shift the balance in Kyiv’s favour during the much-touted spring offensive is also doubtful. This is because the brutal effects of attrition are becoming increasingly visible, with heightened pessimism in Kyiv surrounding the delivery timelines of pledged military aid from abroad.

According to a senior Ukrainian government official, greater availability of resources enables a more offensive posture on the battlefield, while defence must be chosen if fewer resources are available. “We’re going to defend. That’s why if you ask me personally, I don’t believe in a big counteroffensive for us. I’d like to believe in it, but I’m looking at the resources and asking, ‘With what?’ Maybe we’ll have some localised breakthroughs.” Such analysis is quite pessimistic, and in sharp contrast to public statements by the Ukrainian political and military headship.

In fact, even President Zelensky has recently said that the counteroffensive against Russia cannot start until Western allies send more military support. Stating that Ukraine was awaiting the arrival of ammunition supplies from its partners, he told a Japanese newspaper that Kyiv’s soldiers would not be sent to the frontline without more tanks, artillery, and rocket launchers.

Desertions and Morale: Also noteworthy is President Zelensky’s refusal to veto a new legislation that increases the punishment for undisciplined military personnel, dismissing a petition signed by more than 25,000 Ukrainians who claim that it is too severe. In his written response to the petition, Zelensky stated that “the key to combat capability of military units and ultimately of Ukraine’s victory, is compliance with military discipline.”

While stories of the resilience and battlefield successes of Ukrainian troops have captured the world’s imagination, there are those amongst the new recruits who largely constitute the current rank and file of Ukraine’s forces who are struggling to deal with the adverse situation on the frontline. Lacking prior combat experience or training, there are soldiers who have rebelled against orders, gotten intoxicated or misbehaved. Others have abandoned their positions and fled for their lives, running low on ammunition and morale.

Zelensky’s military commanders argue that the measures are necessary to hold firm in the face of Russia’s assault. However, Kyiv’s ability to successfully launch a significant offensive involving increasingly demotivated troops is highly doubtful.

Manpower Shortage and Recruitment Problems: Not only is the quality of Ukrainian frontline military personnel – in terms of their motivation to fight – coming under increasing scrutiny, but their quantity is also insufficient with Ukraine’s defence ministry having admitted the numerical inadequacy of combat units. The Ukrainian army is trained both in unit group exercises at the brigade level as well as individually, but the problem of manpower shortages is compounded because Ukrainian civilians are adopting desperate means to avoid compulsory military recruitment. Accounts have surfaced of unwilling citizens adorning women’s attire, performing fake marriages, and bribing doctors for negative fitness reports.

In the absence of air superiority, and faced with depleting military stockpiles as well as declining troop morale and manpower shortages, the odds do appear to be stacked against a successful Ukrainian offensive

Ukraine’s Security Service had previously declared blocking 26 Telegram channels which were allegedly assisting civilians of military age escape the draft. With reports of draft notices issued and sometimes violently enforced at military funerals, civilians are also avoiding public places like shopping malls and street corners with state officials seeking recruits for the military.

During the first mobilisation wave, most recruits were volunteers and queues at recruiting stations were commonplace. The initial zeal to resist the Russians has increasingly faded, however, and people are no longer willing to go to the front to fight a war that has extended for over a year.

Outlook for the Offensive

Kyiv achieved spectacular counteroffensive victories during last year’s autumn. Since then, however, the going has been much more challenging. Battle-hardened Russian units have been relieved from the defence of Kherson, while fresh Russian mobilisations have made it tougher for Ukraine to identify vulnerabilities and exploit gaps.

It is also true, though, that launching a large-scale offensive in the first half of 2023 is viewed as a political necessity for Ukraine, hard and costly as it is likely to be. This is especially so given that the country’s leaders have pledged to liberate all territories occupied both before and after February 24, 2022. Moreover, Kyiv is making no effort to hide its preparations including the formation of a new force named the Offensive Guard, comprised of eight specialised assault brigades coordinated by the National Guard.

However, in the absence of air superiority, and faced with depleting military stockpiles as well as declining troop morale and manpower shortages, the odds do appear to be stacked against a successful Ukrainian offensive.

-The writer is serving as a Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Views expressed are personal