Ukraine’s Counteroffensive Needs a Plan B

6 minute read
Beebe is director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and a former director of Russia analysis at the CIA. Webb is an advocacy associate at Quincy and a former Marine Corps infantryman with combat service in Iraq

America’s “Plan A” in Ukraine is on life support. 

For months, U.S. officials had looked ahead to the Zelensky government’s long-planned counteroffensive as the best hope for turning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine into a decisive failure, forcing Putin to sue for peace. They posited that even if Ukraine ultimately proved incapable of driving Russian forces off all of Ukraine’s territory, the counteroffensive would give Kyiv significant leverage at the diplomatic table. At a minimum, Ukraine would emerge from the war as a strong and independent nation, boasting a Western-backed military more than capable of blocking any new Russian aggression for years to come.    

Some six weeks into the Ukrainian counteroffensive, things are not going as planned. Although damage estimates vary, Ukraine has lost significant numbers of men and weapons, while making negligible progress against formidable Russian defenses.   

Despite vigorous recruiting and conscription efforts, Ukraine has too few soldiers to muster the three-to-one manpower advantage generally considered necessary for a successful offensive. Its supplies of artillery shells and anti-aircraft missiles, vital to battlefield success, are dwindling. As a result, Russia’s air force—which was sparingly used last year in the face of effective Ukrainian air defenses—is now operating more actively near the front lines, devastating Ukraine’s attacking forces.  

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Finger-pointing for this failure is already underway. Increasingly, Ukrainian officials openly blame the West for not providing enough armor, aircraft, artillery, missiles, and ammunition. Anonymous American officials blame the Ukrainians for not conducting Western-style combined arms operations to outmaneuver and outpace their plodding Russian opponents.  

Regardless of who is at fault, there are no fast or easy solutions to the problems besetting the counteroffensive. Even if the United States and NATO had sufficient volumes of weapons and ammunition to provide Ukraine, the fundamental issue cannot be resolved simply by supplying Ukraine with advanced weaponry. Combined arms operations are among the most sophisticated endeavors in conventional warfare, and not learned on the fly.

Read More: Congress Is Grappling With the Wrong Questions on Ukraine

The U.S. military, for example, has long relied on the tactical flexibility, judgment, and initiative of non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and junior officers. This concept, called “Mission Command,” is a critical component of U.S. combined arms operations. It enables even the most junior Marine or soldier adeptly to adjust on the battlefield to build or maintain momentum, especially during combined arms operations, which are highly dynamic and fluid. This approach has been refined over the course of nearly 100 years of continuous development and training.

By contrast, Ukraine has little experience in Western-style combined arms operations and insufficient time to train a large force in this approach to war. While it has begun slowly to adapt, Ukraine’s military is still deeply rooted in Soviet-era offensive tactics and culture, centralizing decision-making at the top while penalizing subordinate soldiers who dare to deviate from the plan. In essence, Ukraine needs to reconstitute its military and install a new philosophy to conduct effective combined arms warfare.  

But even such an extensive transformation would still not resolve Ukraine’s critical gap in this war: air power. According to the Congressional Research Service, Ukraine’s air force has 132 aircrafts, compared to 1,391 in Russia’s.  Providing Ukraine with a couple of dozen F-16 fighters, whose complex maintenance requirements make the aircraft ill-suited for conditions in Ukraine, will hardly bridge that gap.  As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, told Politico in May, “There are no magic weapons in war, F-16s are not, and neither is anything else.” 

Given such difficult circumstances, what are Kyiv’s choices? One option would be to maintain its current course, betting that recent squabbling might cause the Russian military—and ultimately the Putin regime—to crumble from within. However, the risks of such a gamble would be significant. If Ukraine continues its under-manned and under-supported assaults on entrenched Russian defenses, it could exhaust its resources and leave itself dangerously vulnerable to a Russian counterattack. This has happened before—in 1943, the Battle of Kursk depleted the Wehrmacht of Nazi Germany and allowed the Soviets to counterattack across a front line too long for the Nazis to manage. The result was a massacre that did not stop until the Red Army was in Berlin.  

In fact, Ukraine has a better option. By shifting their focus from offense to defense while shortening and reinforcing their defensive lines, the Ukrainians could force the Russian military to leave the security of its defensive network. With less territory for Ukraine to defend, it could mass troops at critical points across the battlespace, enabling its commanders to maximize the effect of its armor and artillery while preserving critical supplies of ammunition. Making this shift now could enable Ukraine to hold onto areas of the Donbass region that Russia has officially annexed but has yet to seize, putting Kyiv in a stronger bargaining position than its failing counteroffensive is likely to produce. 

Playing defense is inherently easier than mounting a large offensive, and Ukraine’s odds of military success in such a shift would be high. Today’s Russian army is not the Red Army of 1943, and it is far from clear that the Russians have the logistical and organizational capacity to reach Kyiv. The Ukrainian military has shown for nearly a year and a half that it is capable of stymying Russia’s offensive operations, particularly with continued Western support and encouragement.  

Admittedly, a Ukrainian shift to defense would not, by itself, drive Russia to the bargaining table. But, if coupled with a diplomatic approach that incentivizes Russia to end the fighting rather than prolong it to keep Ukraine out of NATO, it could well prompt Russia to aim to secure its still quite limited gains through a negotiated end to the war. It is time to try.

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