The Ukrainian counter-offensive: preliminary assessment

The partial and confused reports of clashes on the Donbass front, point to the beginning of the much-heralded Ukrainian counter-offensive. On the basis of sketchy information it is impossible to make a definitive prognosis. The following lines therefore bear an entirely conditional character.

I emphasise the fact that they represent my own views, as I have not been able to compare notes with other comrades and will be out of communication for a while.

According to the Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Mailar, a Ukrainian offensive is “taking place in several directions.” These statements are fueling speculation that we may be witnessing the beginnings of a campaign by Kyiv to recapture territory occupied by Russia.

“It is not only about Bakhmut. The offensive is taking place in several directions. We are happy about every metre. Today is a successful day for our forces,” she said.

In the past few weeks, the Ukrainian army has stepped up its attacks on Russian fuel depots and weapons caches – the kind of attacks that usually precede major ground offensives. Kyiv has nonetheless emphasised that it would not announce when any counter-offensive might have begun.

Due to the intense efforts by both the Ukrainians and Russians to manipulate public opinion and deceive their adversaries regarding their military strategies, we must take reports from both sides with a pinch of salt. However, in spite of this, it is possible to carefully analyse the information available and gather enough material to form a basic evaluation.

The aforementioned comments by Mailar came on the back of claims by the Russian Defense Ministry that it had resisted a “large-scale” attack by Ukraine in the eastern Donetsk region. In its statement, the Russian military claimed to have killed 250 Ukrainians and to have destroyed a number of armoured vehicles used in the assault, although it didn’t give further details.

Ukraine tank Image Ministry of Defense of Ukraine Wikimedia CommonsIn the past few weeks, the Ukrainian army has stepped up its attacks on Russian fuel depots and weapons caches / Image: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, Wikimedia Commons

It is impossible to independently verify the claim, but if it is true, it would indicate that the Ukrainian side is engaged in probing operations, designed to test the resistivity of the Russian forces at certain points along a line of defence that stretches for over a thousand miles.

The real offensive, when it comes, may not be anywhere near the area described in the initial reports. The Ukrainians will test several points before launching a serious attack. They need to pay the most careful attention to this, because their supplies of soldiers and armaments are strictly limited and severe losses would fatally undermine them.

This is something we have to bear in mind constantly in the next few weeks. To a greater degree than any other war, this war has been fought out in the field of propaganda. One can predict in advance that any advance by the Ukrainians – even the conquest of an insignificant village – will be accompanied by a deafening blast of triumphalist propaganda. But we must not be misled by this noise and instead must keep our attention fixed on the fundamental balance of forces and the realities of the battlefield, which usually bear little or no relation to the ‘battles’ that are lost and won in the so-called information war.

If we make an effort to ignore the hype and consider the facts, it will immediately become evident that the Ukrainians are not in a favourable situation. Quite the contrary. The Ukrainian Ministry of Defence does not issue figures of fatalities, but losses on both sides have been very great. The difference is that Russia is a far bigger country than Ukraine and is able to replace its losses more easily.

Zelensky’s growing desperation

In the bloody battle for Bakhmut, Ukraine lost a very large number of experienced troops, whereas the Russian losses seem to have been mainly confined to the Wagner Group, which did most of the fighting and is not even part of the Russian army. The main Russian forces are intact and entrenched behind a heavily reinforced line of defence.

Let us remember Napoleon’s statement that defence has an advantage over offence of three to one. The Russians have had plenty of time to prepare to meet a Ukrainian counter-offensive. Despite the nonsensical claims of the West, they are not short of ammunition. Unlike Ukraine, Russia has a powerful war industry, which is working overtime, producing weapons, ammunition and missiles.

By contrast, the Ukrainians are entirely dependent on supplies from the West and are constantly complaining that they lack just about everything. In recent months, Zelensky has shown increasing signs of desperation. His constant trips abroad were aimed at ensuring that there will be no reduction in arms supplies. In this, he has succeeded – at least in the short term.

However, the future is unclear. In public, the USA and NATO continue to proclaim that they are united and will continue to back Ukraine for “as long as it takes.” But in private, things are very different. There is very clear evidence that the appetite for this war in the West is failing. Inflation, directly linked to the war, is hitting the West, while the sanctions aimed at Russia, while they have caused some damage, have not had anything like a comparable effect, and no effect at all on the Russian war machine.

Behind the scenes, western leaders are pressing the Ukrainians to start negotiations with Russia. But that would be the kiss of death for Zelensky. It would inevitably signify a loss of territory, which they say is out of the question. Therefore, for now, matters must be settled on the battlefield. But Zelensky knows that sooner or later he will have to negotiate.

Bakhmut Image State Border Guard Service of Ukraine Wikimedia CommonsIn the bloody battle for Bakhmut, Ukraine lost a very large number of experienced troops / Image: State Border Guard Service of Ukraine, Wikimedia Commons

The real intention of the offensive is to gain a little more territory, so that Ukraine can enter peace talks with a stronger hand. But that is a very risky gamble, the consequences of which may well be disastrous for Ukraine.

The other, more pressing reason for the offensive is a desperate attempt to prove to Zelensky’s western backers that all the billions they have showered on the Ukrainian war effort were not in vain, that Ukraine can still fight – and win.

It is clear that Zelensky has strained every nerve and muscle to gather whatever strength is left for this offensive. He has recalled all the soldiers he has sent to the USA, Britain and elsewhere for training purposes – whether that training has been completed or not.

Since the start of the war, Ukraine has lost a very large number of its battle-hardened troops. These are being replaced by inexperienced recruits who are being thrown into a bloody conflict for which they are not prepared. The losses have been horrific, but they are nothing compared to what is being prepared. True, many are brave and willing to sacrifice their lives. But enthusiasm and courage are not sufficient to win wars. And raw recruits are no substitutes for veterans in any war.

What will the result be? As usual, one has to be very conditional. The bloody equation of war has so many variables that an accurate prediction is rarely possible. Factors like morale, the quality of the officers at all levels, logistical issues – even the weather – all play a role. However, it is possible to make a very tentative prognosis, which will have to be modified, corrected, or, if necessary, rejected altogether. Events, events, events will decide.

Real fight yet to begin

The present situation resembles the initial stages of a boxing match, where the two antagonists are circling each other, exchanging punches to try to get a clear idea of the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent. We may safely discount minor incidents like the isolated drone attacks on Moscow or the Belgorod adventure. These were mere pin-pricks, staged for propaganda purposes or as distractions, which will have no effect whatsoever on the course of the war.

The more recent attack was a far more serious affair, but, as I said, was only a probing attack, and not yet a fully-fledged offensive. We can expect several more such attacks before the main offensive unfolds. Its exact character and location will only be known after it has happened.

Do the Ukrainians possess enough strength to inflict defeats on the Russians? Undoubtedly. Having gathered together all available forces, the Ukrainians may initially sweep all before them – although at a very high cost in lives.

There is once more talk of re-taking Bakhmut (Prigozhin is already protesting about the loss of a small village nearby, which his men had captured and handed over to the Russian army). That is quite possible, and it will be hailed as a momentous victory. But it will be no such thing.

The strategic importance of Bakhmut is frankly negligible, and it was very foolish of Zelensky to build it up for propaganda purposes. It suited the Russians to keep that inferno burning because it acted as a meat-grinder for killing Ukrainian fighters, whereas almost all of the combatants on the Russian side were from the Wagner outfit, who took most of the casualties.

Rocket Image Володимир Зеленський TwitterHaving gathered together all available forces, the Ukrainians may initially sweep all before them – although at a very high cost in lives / Image: Володимир Зеленський, Twitter

I predict that the Russians in general will tend to fall back in the face of the Ukrainian advance. We can expect a real carnival of joy in western media. But they should wait a while before calling victory parades. Far from the end of the war, the real battle will not yet have begun.

The Russians have had plenty of time to construct a heavily reinforced line of defence. The area before it will constitute a terrible killing ground, where the oncoming troops will come under a barrage of fire. It is here that the decisive battles will take place. And in my opinion, it is here that the Ukrainian forces will find their advance halted.

It is at this point that the war will be decided, one way or another. The Russians have built up a massive force, which could take advantage of the moment to pass over onto the offensive. Their success seems most likely, but, as always in a war, never certain.

From the beginning of this war, there have been many surprises. On the one hand, the Ukrainians have shown tremendous resilience and courage, which nobody can deny. And morale always plays a most important role in war. However, as we have stated, morale on its own is never enough to secure victory. And it is not at all clear that the morale of both the civilian and military could survive a series of reverses on the battlefield.

The Russian side, as we have seen, has many advantages over the Ukrainians. In Soviet times, those advantages would have been more than sufficient to secure victory. But present-day Russia is not the Soviet Union. The Putin regime is reactionary and corrupt to the core. It is the creature of a capitalist oligarchy, just as is the Zelensky regime itself.

In any society the army is the mirror image of the regime. The signal failures of the Russian army in the early stages of this conflict were no accident. The hesitation, bungling and other defects contributed to failure. It is true that the Russian army has learnt many lessons. But it cannot be excluded that new mistakes may be made. Nor can the morale of the Russian soldiers fighting a war against brother Slavs be taken for granted.

For all these reasons, it will be necessary to follow the progress of the war with the closest attention. It goes without saying that Marxists cannot support either side. It is a choice between two equally reactionary oligarchies behind one of whom stands Western imperialism. Neither the victory of one or the other will signify anything progressive for the working class.

Our task is to follow the progress of the war as it unfolds, provide a clear analysis and draw the necessary lessons to educate the advanced workers and youth in an intransigent revolutionary internationalist spirit.

Our slogan is that of Spinoza, which Trotsky often quoted: “Neither to weep, nor to laugh, but to understand”.

London, 6 June 2023

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