For months, observers have wondered when and where Ukraine might finally launch its long-anticipated spring counteroffensive to wrest back control of territory captured by Russia. “We are ready,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told the Wall Street Journal in a Jun. 3 interview, without specifying a start date. But he indicated that the campaign would be imminent. “We would like to have certain things,” he said, in an apparent reference to further Western-supplied weapons, such as fighter jets, “but we can’t wait for months.”
Just a day later, on Sunday, the Russian government claimed to repel what it described as “a large-scale offensive” by Ukrainian forces in the southeastern region of Donetsk—one of four Ukrainian provinces illegally annexed by Moscow following sham referenda last year. While a number of international news outlets have reported that the counteroffensive appears to be underway, citing Western officials and observers, Kyiv has so far refused to confirm and dismissed Russia’s claims as disinformation.
Then, two days after that, on Tuesday, the Nova Kakhovka dam was destroyed in Russian-controlled territories of Ukraine’s Kherson region in the early morning hours, prompting further speculation about whether the counteroffensive began and the potential impact that the dam’s destruction could have on its success. The dam breach, which both Ukraine and Russia blame each other for, stands to be the single most damaging event of the war so far.
It remains unclear who or what was responsible for the dam’s destruction. However, the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for the Study of War think tank forecasted the possibility of Russia targeting the dam in October. “Ukraine has no material interest in blowing the dam, which could flood 80 Ukrainian cities and displace hundreds of thousands of people while damaging Ukraine’s already-tenuous electricity supply,” ISW wrote at the time. “Russia, however, has every reason to attempt to provide cover to its retreating forces and to widen the Dnipro River, which Ukrainian forces would need to cross to continue their counteroffensive.” (While ISW stands by its reasoning in October, it said on Tuesday it could not assess that Russia was responsible for the attack at this stage.)
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said on Twitter that the goal of the dam’s destruction was evident: “to create insurmountable obstacles on the way of the advancing [Ukrainian army] … to slow down the fair final of the war.”
Below, what to know about the high-stakes counterattack.
Where do things stand in the fighting?
Fighting between Ukrainian and Russian troops is taking place along large parts of the 600-mile eastern frontline, according to ISW, from Kharkiv Oblast in the northeast of Ukraine down to Donetsk Oblast in the southwest. This includes areas around the besieged eastern city of Bakhmut—the site of the longest and bloodiest battle of the war so far that Russia recently claimed to have captured after months of intense fighting—as well as parts of Russian-occupied Luhansk and Zaporizhia Oblasts.
Ukraine’s plans for ejecting Russian troops from its territory have been shrouded in secrecy—perhaps because so much is riding on its success. As Kyiv sees it, there is no incentive in broadcasting its plans. “Words are very unnecessary / They can only do harm,” the country’s defense minister Oleksii Reznikov said in a not-so-cryptic tweet on Sunday, quoting the English band Depeche Mode’s song “Enjoy the Silence.” An attached video depicted Ukrainian soldiers holding fingers to their lips. Its tagline: “Plans love silence. There will be no announcement about the start.”
While Ukraine has, for obvious reasons, not forecast its plans for its counteroffensive, many observers expect Ukrainian forces to push south toward the Sea of Azov in a bid to cut off the so-called land bridge connecting Crimea (which has been occupied by Russia since 2014) and mainland Russia. Other options involve Ukraine attempting to encircle Russian troops in Bakhmut.
What is the Ukrainian government saying about the counteroffensive?
Not a lot. The Ukrainian government remains tight-lipped about its plans, even after the Nova Kakhovka dam attack. But there has been recent confirmation that some offensive measures are currently underway. Ukrainian deputy defense minister Hanna Maliar wrote on Telegram on Monday that Ukrainian troops are carrying out “offensive actions” in multiple locations along the eastern front, noting that Bakhmut remains the “epicenter of hostilities.” Maliar also said that Russian claims about the start of the counteroffensive were designed to “divert attention” from Bakhmut, where Moscow has reportedly lost ground, according to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Russian paramilitary group Wagner.
“We know that Russians are preparing a number of disinformation campaigns on our counteroffensive,” Ukrainian parliamentarian Alona Shkrum tells TIME, adding that people should “not believe Russian Telegram channels and other fake news, which are used as war strategies.” Ukraine, for its part, has also been known to include disinformation in its wartime arsenal—most notably last September, when Kyiv staged a counteroffensive in the northeast of the country after announcing a much-publicized southern offensive designed to catch Moscow off guard.
“The Ukrainians want to achieve operational surprise,” says Karolina Hird, a Russia analyst at ISW—a strategy that involves maintaining the fog of war as long as strategically possible. As for when we’ll know that the counteroffensive has begun, Hird says that there isn’t likely to be a single moment or event. “Defining one set of tactical actions as ‘the counteroffensive’ doesn’t really track with the reality on the ground,” she says, noting that past Ukrainian efforts to reclaim Russian-occupied territory were not limited to single offensive actions. “This counteroffensive, whenever it may be, will be a series of simultaneous and successive operations that happen across the entire theater.”
What is at stake in the spring counteroffensive?
The counteroffensive stands to mark a pivotal moment in the nearly 16-month war. For Kyiv, it will be the culmination of months of grinding, attritional conflict—one that, if successful, could see Ukraine retake significant swathes of Russian-occupied territory for the first time since November and, ultimately, shape the outcome of the war.
For its allies in the West, which have provided billions in military and financial aid to the Ukrainian war effort, the success of the campaign could lead to further pledges of assistance and longer-term commitments for Kyiv. Should it fail, however, it could prompt Ukraine’s partners, which have so far been loath to push Kyiv toward negotiating with Moscow, to question whether Ukraine can retake all of its captured territory at all.
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Write to Yasmeen Serhan at firstname.lastname@example.org