Ukraine counter-offensive on hold until Western weapons arrive

Until then, both Russia and Ukraine are using drones to target the mainland of the other, while deploying large helpings of disinformation and deception

Ukrainian servicemen from 24th brigadeâs drone team work near the frontlines of Toretsk, Ukraine on March 18, 2023.
Ukrainian servicemen from 24th brigadeâs drone team work near the frontlines of Toretsk, Ukraine on March 18, 2023.

Ukraine counter-offensive on hold until Western weapons arrive

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky has said in an interview with public service broadcasters who are members of Eurovision News that Kyiv is not yet ready for a much-talked-about counter-offensive, saying that his country needs more time as it waits for promised weapons from Western countries.

This puts the brakes on — for now — the looming attack which was expected to possibly turn the tide in the war in Ukraine's favour and redraw frontlines that have remained unchanged for months.

He said that Ukrainian troops were ready and have been receiving Nato training, but armoured vehicles were arriving in batches and Ukraine needed more time.

Zelensky's interview came just over a week since Ukrainian incursions into Russian territory culminated on 3 May 2023 in an attention-grabbing attack on the Kremlin Palace by two drones.

At the time, the attack was seen as a possible beginning of the much-anticipated offensive, but the Ukrainian president's recent interview seems to have put that speculation to rest — for now at least.

Whatever else the drones carried, they certainly were heavily laden with symbolism.

Despite their last-minute interception, the psychological impact of these two drones not only reaching the Russian capital but threatening the very heart of Russian decision-making far exceeds any military effect they might have achieved.

Yet the use of drones deep in enemy territory is not new, nor is it evidence of Ukraine’s technological superiority, or of Russia’s inadequate measures.

A view of the Red Square closed for Victory Parade preparation, with the Spasskaya Tower in the centre in Moscow on 3 May 2023

Its main effect derives from its implication: a challenge to Russian sovereignty.

This prompted an official Russian response, saying the attack was considered to be “a planned terrorist act and an attempt to assassinate the head of state”.

Read more: Putin 'assassination attempt' marks serious escalation in Ukraine war

Kremlin strikes on trend

A look back through recent history shows numerous examples of drone incursions over sensitive sites, regardless of the targets or the parties involved.

In December 2022, five North Korean drones entered South Korean airspace, with one flying over the capital, Seoul. In response, the South Koreans sent their own drones to Pyongyang.

The use of drones deep in enemy territory is not new. Its main effect derives from its implication: a challenge to Russian sovereignty.

In December 2016, unauthorised drone activity at Dubai Airport led to a closure of airspace and the reconsideration of no-fly zones around sensitive areas, while in January 2015, an unclaimed drone crashed yards from the White House.

Beyond their multiple operational uses in the fields of reconnaissance, target acquisition, and the destruction of armoured vehicles on the battlefield, drones also pose a significant threat to decision-making sites, critical infrastructure, and high-value targets far from the frontlines.

In the context of the various threats posed by drone attacks targeting decision-making centres and sensitive economic and security structures, the targeting of Russian territory is a serious development in the ongoing conflict.

The use of drones since 2022

Moreover, the extensive use of drones by the Ukrainian army raises several questions about the role of drones in the overall military confrontation with Russia and their relationship to the counter-offensive that President Volodymyr Zelensky announced months ago.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy delivers a speech titled 'No Peace Without Justice for Ukraine' in the Hague, Netherlands on 4 May 2023

Already, drones have played a significant role in the field confrontations between Russian and Ukrainian forces since the outbreak of war in February 2022.

In pictures: Drones increasingly utilised in Ukraine's war effort

The Turkish-made Bayraktar drones have achieved stunning and surprising results in countering Russian tanks, thwarting their progress on multiple fronts, and leading to their withdrawal, particularly in the north-east and in Kherson in the south.

Drones have played a significant role in the war since February 2022, with Turkish-made Bayraktar drones achieving stunning and surprising results in countering Russian tanks.

Despite today's relative calm on the frontlines, with major conflict limited to Bakhmut, and the targeting by both sides of military and economic infrastructure, drones have become the most effective and least expensive military tool to sustain the war.

Among their starring roles, drones were a highly effective decoy in the bombing and sinking of the Russian guided missile cruiser 'Moskva' in April 2022, with British newspaper 'The Sun' quoting Ukrainian military sources saying this was a meticulously-planned military operation.

Three Turkish-made Bayraktar drones were sent to jam the cruiser's monitors and occupy its self-defence systems, to camouflage the main attack.

While distracted, the Moskva was hit by two Neptune missiles fired from inland, near Odessa.

Hitting Russia where it hurts

In the past two weeks, drones have struck deep into Russian territory. Russian official statements, according to British newspaper The Guardian, recorded operations targeting a gas facility near the capital in early May.

Wreckage at the site showed it to have been carried out by a Ukrainian-made drone, the UJ-22.

Elsewhere, the governor of Moscow region, Andrei Vorobyov, confirmed that a drone fell in the town of Gubastovo, near the capital, having targeted Gazprom, a government-owned station just 50 miles south-east of the Kremlin.

According to TASS, the Russian news agency, in early May another drone attack set fire to a fuel depot in the Krasnodarskiy region in south-west Russia, near Crimea, which is separated from Ukraine by the Sea of Azov.

In late April, a huge fire broke out at a fuel depot in Sevastopol in Russian-occupied Crimea. The city governor, Mikhail Razvozhayev, said it was a drone strike.

Natalia Gumenyuk of the United Coordinating Press Centre of the Defence Forces in southern Ukraine said it was part of Ukrainian forces' preparation for a counter-offensive.

Targeting supplies and logistics

In retaliation, Russia has launched dozens of attacks using Iranian-made Shahed 136 drones against targets in Ukraine.

Britain's Ministry of Defence says Ukrainian military and industrial infrastructure have become the target of increasing attacks.

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to the Governor of the Nizhny Novgorod Region, Gleb Nikitin, during their meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow on 3 May 2023

Authorities in Kyiv say Russia launched overnight strikes on 3 May targeting the Ukrainian capital, the third such round of attacks on Kyiv in six days.

The Guardian reported that the strikes disrupted the manufacture of ammunition, weapons, and other military equipment.

Ukraine and Russia and both trying to hit the supply and logistics operations of the other, ahead of Ukraine's expected Spring counter-offensive in the south and east.

Both sides are clearly trying to hit the supply and logistics operations of their foe before the expected Spring offensive by the Ukrainians, a large-scale offensive to retake Russian-occupied territories in the east and south of the country.

Kyiv says its planning for this is now "coming to an end" but has provided no further details.

Officials say only that operations against Russian targets will begin shortly, yet it remains unclear as to whether the 'facts on the ground' actually support Ukraine's decision to launch a counter-offensive.

Ukraine's readiness to counter

Battlefield success will rely on the Ukrainian army retaining ground forces that have not yet participated in combat at a high level of readiness.

These forces must be capable of achieving superiority and penetrating Russia's defensive lines.

Ukrainian army Grad multiple rocket launcher fires rockets at Russian positions in the frontline near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, on 3 May 2023

Not only that, their advance into Russian-held territory must be swift and deep, in order to prevent Russian forces from summoning their reserves to regain the initiative, so the dimensions of the battlefield become very important.

This is a large area, roughly extending eastward for approximately 200km from Kharkiv to the borders of Donetsk province, passing through Bakhmut, and southward from Mariupol to Kherson for more than 400km.

These long frontlines will make it difficult for the Ukrainians and their allies to achieve superiority in the balance of power.

If they concentrate their efforts on a certain point, they will soon face intense Russian fire and the transfer of additional Russian forces to the area in question, leading them back to square one.

Long frontlines make it difficult for the Ukrainians to achieve superiority. Even if they do break through, Russian fire will be intense, with back-up forces quickly transferred.

Western weapons will be deployed to support the Ukrainians but risks are imposed by the country's relatively flat topography, making them vulnerable to Russian fire.

This assumes that Western countries were able to provide hundreds of armoured vehicles needed to form the backbone of any counter-offensive across open terrain, which seems impossible so far.

In stark contrast, Bakhmut is relatively mountainous, and the complex nature of military operations there provides a vivid comparison with the vulnerabilities imposed by flat terrain, which can only be compensated for by the deployment of more armoured ground units.

West's support and supplies

Reports indicate that the United States' plans to increase the production of munitions depleted in combat have failed due to a shortage of electronic chips, machinery, and skilled workers, compounded by outdated factories.

The Wall Street Journal describes years of under-funding and closure of military-industrial production lines that the US once relied upon in the Cold War.

This has led to reduced readiness at the few remaining US arms factories, with components and raw materials in recent years having been made and sourced from abroad.

As a result, American factories have only achieved modest increases in production capacity, despite an increase in work shifts, orders for new equipment, and simplified supply chains to boost production of precision munitions.

These include Javelin anti-tank missiles, Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, artillery shells, and guided missiles, weapons that have been deployed by Ukrainian forces at a faster pace than can be replaced.

Defence officials say funding alone will not increase production owing to the complexity of precision missiles' manufacture, involving both electronic chips and solid-fuel rocket engines, which are in scarce supply. The Pentagon says slower production increases are down to capacity issues, not material shortages.

Disinformation and war's realities

With mutual attacks beyond the frontlines and an ambiguous battlefield situation, focus has turned to the drone attacks (for which Kyiv has not claimed responsibility) and its readiness for its much-mooted counter-offensive.

Can attacks on the Russian interior overtake Zelensky's promises of a counter-offensive in the Spring, which is already halfway over, and compensate for Western vows to expel Russian forces from Ukraine?

Likewise, how can Russia's response, including the violent targeting of Ukraine's interior, be interpreted?

Writing 2,500 years ago, in his still-salient book 'The Art of War,' Chinese general and military strategist Sun Tzu described how "all warfare is based on deception".

Sun Tzu, writing 2,500 years ago, said 'all warfare is based on deception'. Offensive operations are fertile ground. 

He wrote: "When we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near. Offer the enemy a bait to lure him, feign disorder and strike him."

Offensive operations are fertile ground for deception, so the ability to conduct offensive initiatives greatly increases one's options for deceive.

Shifting targets and strategies

Kyiv claims that Moscow has changed its tactics, shifting from targeting military or economic infrastructure, to targeting residential areas with missile strikes.

Ukrainian soldiers fire a cannon near Bakhmut, an eastern city where fierce battles against Russian forces have been taking place, in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, Wednesday, 3 May 2023

Mykhailo Podlyak, adviser to President Zelensky, said: "There is no doubt that they are launching direct attacks on residential houses or sites that include a lot of civilian houses… One of the goals of changing tactics is to provoke Ukraine into launching a hasty counter-offensive."

This raises several questions. Why would Kyiv be eager to launch attacks on the Russian interior and invite more Russian responses when the calmness of the frontlines provides suitable conditions for preparing a counter-offensive?

Is Kyiv testing Russian air defence systems, perhaps, before pressing 'go'? Does it believe that drone strikes on Russian infrastructure could change the battlefield, or put pressure on Russia's leadership to withdraw?

People look at the empty Red Square closed for Victory Parade preparation next to the Moscow Kremlin, in Moscow on 3 May 2023

Likewise, is Moscow testing Ukraine's new Western-supplied air-defence systems, to avoid any battlefield surprises later? Is the public dissatisfaction of Wagner Group's commander and his threat to withdraw forces from Bakhmut a disinformation campaign designed to pull Ukrainian forces in?

The coming weeks will provide further indications of the future of the conflict in Ukraine and various scenarios may unfold but psychological military operations and disinformation campaigns will continue to play a significant role.

Sun Tzu's ancient principle - that "the ability to carry out some offensive initiatives greatly increases options for deception" – remains as true today as it ever was.

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