The West has committed to support Ukraine’s battle against the Russian invasion, but what can Ukraine realistically expect to achieve with its forthcoming offensive?
Will the West continue to perpetuate an unwinnable war for Ukraine, or is the forthcoming battle simply a way to move the frontline in anticipation of some form of truce or ceasefire later this year?
From a Ukrainian offensive perspective, the three main areas of focus are the Donbas, Crimea, and the land bridge between the two regions. But what would be the Ukrainian priority given their limited resources, and where would they expect to reap the greatest progress?
The Donbas has been the focus of a brutal and grinding war of attrition since 2014, and given its location on the border of Russia, it would be a very costly and time-consuming challenge to liberate.
Even if Russian forces were expelled, many of the natives (particularly in the east near the border with Russia) are Russian sympathisers, which would create a fertile ground for a thorny and enduring insurgency.
Next, Crimea is internationally recognised as Ukrainian territory, the region was annexed by Russia in 1783 and was only passed to Ukraine – a “county” of the Soviet Union at the time – as an administrative action by President Khrushchev in 1954.
Crimea is a vital asset for Russia; as a result, most Western analysts believe its liberation would be extremely difficult to achieve.
Which leaves the land bridge. If Ukrainian forces were able to punch through the frontline Russian defences, they would have a clear run to the coast, and leave Russian forces on the east of the Dnipro river very exposed.
But, even if such an operation was wildly successful, it would leave Ukrainian forces drained and with dangerously low levels of ammunition and weapons, and very vulnerable.
Putin has consistently claimed his invasion of Ukraine is a “special military operation” with limited objectives. With Crimea secure, the Donbas represents a vital “buffer zone” between Russia and the potential eastern flank of NATO and remains a high priority for Putin.
As for the land bridge, although important, it is not vital for Russia as it would be difficult to defend. Besides, it probably provides a welcome distraction for Ukrainian military offensive action while Putin focuses on his primary objectives.
So, the scene is set for a summer of offensive action, with both sides focused on different objectives. By the end of the summer, both sides will be exhausted, short of ammunition, and in dire need of a break – the conditions for negotiation.
Having secured (most of) the Donbas, Russia could claim victory – at least to a domestic audience – having achieved the focus of his special military operation.
The bigger challenge for Volodymyr Zelenskyy is to accept ceding territory. This is where American diplomacy will prevail.
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Despite fulsome public support, privately the international community will not want to risk perpetuating an unwinnable war.
Security guarantees will be a cornerstone of any ceasefire or peace accord, and it is already evident that NATO will do all it can to ease Ukrainian access to that alliance.
Furthermore, Ukraine will need to rebuild critical national infrastructure, and for that it will be heavily reliant on foreign investment, which could prove a very attractive palliative.
The war that Ukraine will struggle to win, and Russia will struggle to lose – rumbles on. Expect diplomatic pressure to increase to find a negotiated solution, despite the implications.