Kyiv’s long-debated counter-offensive in southern Ukraine has already begun and is already producing limited results, but Mick Ryan, a retired Australian Army major general, says the Ukrainian offensive will be slow and incremental.
The Ukrainian military has so far kept quiet about the operation it has launched to retake Russian-occupied territory in the country’s southern part, but early comments from officials point to Ukrainian offensive on Kherson.
Kherson was the first major city captured by Russia since its February invasion, and the sprawling region provides the Kremlin with a strategic “land bridge” that connects forcibly annexed Crimea to Russia via southeastern Ukraine.
If the Ukrainian move to the coast succeeds, it will boost Kyiv’s future economic viability by lifting restrictions on shipping lanes along the Black Sea, as well as putting renewed military pressure on Crimea.
But Ryan, who also works at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told RFE/RL that the current operation is not intended to be a “grand, wide-ranging offensive” but is likely to be a multi-layered strategy. to regain the occupied territory, which will accumulate over time.
RFE/RL: We are seeing a deeper offensive by Ukrainian forces in the south towards Kherson. There is still a lot of fog around what exactly can happen at the front, what does this Ukrainian movement mean for the general stage of the war and how successful can it be?
Mick Ryan: I think at first it’s very early days at this offensive and as a rule, in military operations – especially large ones like this one, consisting of many different attacks and support activities – the first reports are usually incorrect or grossly inaccurate about the real situation on the ground.
So it’s not quite clear to us yet what the true Ukrainian goals are and how they are going to achieve them. If you add Ukrainian operational security to this equation, I think we will be lacking clarity for a while.
RFE/RL: But even considering that these early reports may not give a holistic view of everything, how are things currently, given what we have seen in the weeks leading up to this recent push?
Ryan: The Ukrainians over the past couple of months in the south have carried out a lot of activities that would be associated with traditional formation in both the physical and information spheres, and also tried to break the cohesion and morale of Russian soldiers by cutting off their supply lines. [and] destructive [ammunition] warehouses and headquarters.
There was a lot of formation [to soften Russians defenses and put Ukrainian advancing troops in a better position] it went on, there were many preparatory actions they took against the Russians. Ukrainians have obviously playing what they want to get out of this offensive, and given what I’ve seen so far, I don’t think it’s some kind of grand, wide-ranging offensive that they hope to win the war with.
I think it’s more limited by geography and goals that [Kyiv] knows what she can achieve, given the size of her forces and the stockpiles of ammunition, which may face Russian troops, who have already had some time to prepare several defensive lines in the south.
RFE/RL: We’ve heard many senior Ukrainian officials plead for patience, and it looks like this fight is going to be slow and exhausting. How well equipped is each side for such a fight, and what does a war of attrition look like in practice?
Ryan: Personally, I don’t think describing it as exhaustion is exactly what we’re seeing. This [current push] probably trying to deploy Russian forces, especially those north of [Dnieper] rivers in and around Kherson and force them to actually leave. I think this campaign is more about the terrain than focusing on the Russian troops, and it will be done in phases.
The Ukrainians aim to destroy and kill as much Russian equipment and soldiers as possible, but I think that this is a secondary goal. The main goal here is to take back the territory that was captured by the Russians after February 24th. [invasion].
RFE/RL: For months now, we’ve been receiving reports that Russia is resorting to ever more drastic measures to replenish its ranks. As someone with the same military background as you, can you explain to our audience what effect less trained troops have on the battlefield, and also how this can affect overall strategy?
Ryan: Both sides have cut much of their individual training. We also saw reports of Ukrainians. [soldiers] just a few days of training [before being deployed] throughout this war, but the Russian problems with replacing their soldiers were clearly exacerbated by the fact that [the Kremlin] calls it a “special military operation” rather than a war.
They have not mobilized their people in Russia, and they clearly have big problems recruiting soldiers. There is no sign that this problem will disappear for the Russians. Right now we see that many people who return do not return to military service after the end of their term of service in Ukraine, and Russian officials are trying to keep their soldiers in Ukraine for as long as possible for this very reason.
RFE/RL: Does it add some sort of hard window or time frame to what’s happening right now? Do you get any sense from what you see and hear that the Russians are experiencing some sort of time pressure?
Ryan: From the Kremlin’s point of view, on a political and strategic level, they believe that time is on their side.
Despite personnel problems, they believe that the public in the West, especially in Europe, will not accept very high energy prices and inflation, and this will force political leaders in countries such as France and Germany to put pressure on Ukrainians and achieve them. to [negotiating] table.
But I personally don’t see that happening, and I don’t think this idea that they have time on their side is an accurate reflection of the situation. The Ukrainians are not in the mood for negotiations, and they have no reason to negotiate right now, unless the Russians want to completely withdraw from Ukraine.
Azattyk: We are entering another very important period of this war, what are the important things, in your opinion, that people should closely monitor?
Ryan: I think there are a few factors to keep a close eye on for how this southern campaign works out.
[They should look to see] if there is some swift collapse on both sides, it will have a serious impact on the war and on the morale of the population of the country whose army is collapsing. It seems unlikely to Ukrainians, but at least it is possible for Russians, so I keep a close eye on the south.
In addition, if [Kyiv] will be able to return the south, then Crimea is in an interesting position, given the range of some Ukrainian weapons. Sevastopol [where the Black Sea Fleet is headquartered] it is a port that is becoming increasingly unsuitable for the Russians. In eastern Ukraine, we can’t forget that the Russians are still trying to get there every day, but it’s pretty much stalled at the moment.
Russia may decide to beef up in the east to try and gain some momentum there, and in the north it still has a missile force that they can use to attack northern Ukraine, including targets in Kyiv.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.