Ukraine is facing sky-high expectations ahead of its upcoming counteroffensive, raising a litany of dangers if Kyiv fails to make major advances against entrenched Russian forces.
Lackluster results could hurt Ukraine’s international support moving forward, embolden critics of continued military support and ultimately benefit Russia.
Ukraine has received nearly all of the promised military aid from Western allies, including infantry fighting vehicles and main battle tanks, all of which are upping the global pressure for Ukrainians to succeed.
But victory is far from assured.
“Sometimes, war is sold like a consumer product, where there’s a lot of hype and a lot of hope,” said Bill Astore, a retired U.S. Air Force veteran and a senior fellow with the Eisenhower Media Network. “That is contrary to the reality we often see.”
For months, messaging from Ukraine and its allies has been that Western armor, such as Germany’s Leopard tanks and American-made Stryker vehicles, are far superior to Russian equipment and will swing the war in Ukraine’s favor.
Yet Russian forces are dug in across the 600-mile front line in eastern Ukraine, and Kyiv will not have the element of surprise that helped its successful counteroffensives last year in the Kherson and Kharkiv regions.
At the same time, the counteroffensive, anticipated to stretch until the late fall, is Ukraine’s one chance this year to prove its capabilities, according to military analysts.
Edward Arnold, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, said Ukraine is “racing against time” because the longer Russian forces remain in eastern territory, the more likely the war becomes static and occupation becomes a fait accompli.
“They don’t need to do everything, but they need to do enough for that support to continue for at least another year,” Arnold said. “They need to deliver a pretty significant play to Russian forces this year, and then it will be on Western backers to decide whether that is enough.”
The hype around the counteroffensive has been necessary to shore up support, keep troops optimistic and get the equipment and weapons needed to sustain military forces.
But even Ukraine has tried to temper expectations.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said expectations were “definitely overheated” in a late April interview with a Ukrainian news outlet.
“Everyone wants another win,” Reznikov said, warning allies to not set expectations so high they get disappointed later. “They want the next victory. It’s normal, these are emotions.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said last month his troops needed more time before launching the offensive, but analysts have assessed it has already begun and forces are probing for weaknesses in the Russian lines.
Allies are anticipating big territorial gains, including the hope Ukraine will strike in the southeastern Zaporizhzhia region and cut off a land bridge to the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014 and serves as a major supply hub for Russian troops. Other significant territorial gains are expected in the Luhansk or Donetsk regions, which make up the eastern Donbas.
But satellite images have shown entrenched Russian troops all across the front, particularly around Crimea and the Zaporizhzhia region.
The tranche of vehicles and advanced weapons provided by Western allies was donated in part with the expectation that Ukraine could use it in a strategy of combined arms maneuver warfare.
In that military tactic, Ukrainians would work in sync with aircraft, vehicular armor and infantry to break through Russia’s fortifications, which — if done correctly — would put already-struggling Russian forces on their backfoot.
But combined arms maneuvers are difficult to pull off, require extensive training and even the best armies can sometimes fail to coordinate properly, according to experts.
Last month, White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said the U.S. has done “everything we can” to supply Ukraine with the capabilities to succeed, but he stopped short of saying he was confident in a Ukrainian victory.
“It’s not just the stuff, it’s the know-how and how to use that stuff in the field,” Kirby said at a press briefing. “As for the actual execution of any kind of spring counteroffensive, that’s going to be up to President Zelensky.”
Military analysts expect Ukraine to succeed in breaking through Russian lines in some places, but it’s less clear when that will happen and how dramatic of a punch it will be.
Instead of defining success along the lines of huge territorial gains, Western allies should look at any breakthrough of Russian lines as a victory, said Hein Goemans, the director of the Peter D. Watson Center for Conflict and Cooperation at the University of Rochester.
“That’s still showing that you won’t be tied down in the war of attrition because you have achieved a breakthrough and you can do that elsewhere,” Goemans said. “If you show that you can do this consistently, then you will force [allies] to change their expectations, and that’s what we need.”
Still, those marginal wins are unlikely to pull dramatic headlines at a time when public support for continued military aid is slowly dropping in the U.S. and the 2024 election is just around the corner.
Former President Trump is trying to sell himself as a candidate who can end the Ukraine war in 24 hours, while GOP rival and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who announced his 2024 campaign last week, has questioned continued American military support.
Privately, the Biden administration is worried about the counteroffensive failing, according to Politico.
Officials are concerned it will embolden critics who say Ukraine can’t push Russian forces out of its territory and anger politicians who clamored for the U.S. to provide more weapons ahead of time, such as long-range artillery and fighter jets.
Dashed hopes will also benefit Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“If Ukraine falls flat on its face, Putin will use that to say, ‘There’s the evidence that we’re on the right track,’” said Astore from the Eisenhower Media Network.
Arnold, from the Royal United Services Institute, put it much less mildly.
He assessed that Western allies donated so much ahead of the offensive because they understood what was at stake if the offensive fails — Ukraine’s freedom and future place in the world order.
“Everything is riding on this offensive,” Arnold said. “You don’t want to put too much pressure on them, [but] you can’t help it.”