Started in June 2023, the Ukrainian army’s counteroffensive has been progressing with difficulties. As of late October, limited additional territory, mostly in the south-eastern Zaporizhzhia region, had been liberated from Russia. These results contrast with the substantial gains Ukraine had made in autumn 2022, and are a far cry from Kyiv and its NATO allies’ hopes that it could break the land bridge connecting Crimea with Russian territory.
Unlike in 2022, Ukraine must now slowly fight through layers of Russian fortifications reinforced during several months with trenches and anti-tank obstacles and mine fields. These defences have been staffed by the conscripts that Russia has mobilised last year, bringing the number of Russian troops in Ukraine to over 400,000 according to Ukrainian intelligence. Diverting attention from Zaporizhzhia, Kyiv must moreover maintain forces in the East, near Bakhmut, to pin down Russian troops and respond to Russian attacks there. The war in Ukraine seems to have now reached a critical juncture. Several factors weigh on Ukraine to achieve a quick breakthrough before the onset of the rainy season in November, and then winter complicates offensive operations. Moscow, by contrast, may be assessing that if it holds until 2024, it will be able to consolidate its land gains after as it settles in a long positional war.
There are at least three reasons why Ukraine’s window to achieve territorial gains is shrinking. First, it is unlikely that the West will be able to replenish Ukraine’s stocks of advanced weapons for another counter-offensive next year. While military aid will continue, Western stocks are limited. NATO countries will want to retain some weapons for their own military, and it would take several years for them to increase production rates.
Second, although support for Ukraine is strong in NATO, politicians in the United States and Europe have floated the possibility of curtailing support to Ukraine. They have pointed at the need to give priority to the difficult economic situation at home, as well as to other issues. Support for Ukraine is further challenged in the United States amidst infighting between Republicans and Democrats and the concern with the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Third, Ukraine can now exploit the Russian military’s weapons shortages and disorganisation, exacerbated by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s coup attempt. It also benefits from the Kremlin’s refusal, so far, to conduct a new mobilisation in fear of domestic backlash prior to the next year’s presidential election. In 2024, Russia may, conversely, build additional fortifications in Eastern Ukraine and replenish its military resources and personnel.
Kyiv is thus pressed to make territorial gains now before next year potentially sees a consolidation of Russia’s hold on Eastern Ukraine.
Photo: KRAINE, Kharkiv region. A sapper defuses an anti-tank mine as a consolidated squad of the Explosives Service of Ukraine carries out demining work. 24 October 2023. Vyacheslav MADIYEVSKYY / Ukrinform / NurPhoto / AFP