Ukraine – What comes after the counter-offensive?

By Philip Ingram MBE

As we are waiting for the Ukrainian counter-offensive against the illegal Russian occupying forces to get under way, it is important that we begin to think of what could happen next and ask if it will see the end of this unnecessary and brutal war that is impacting so many in Ukraine. We also have to ask what the continuing global impact could be, and could the end state be worse?

So, where are we at the moment with Putins 10-day Special Military operation, AKA all-out war against Ukraine? It’s quite simple, he is losing. His initial objective was clear, topple the Zelensky Government through a rapid operation into Kyiv and oversee the transition of Ukraine to a pro Russia puppet state like Belarus. He expected it to be all over and done with in 10-14 days at most, as he believed the might of the Russian military.

He failed in his strategic objective because his operational planning and tactical execution were flawed. He failed because of an overestimation of his military abilities and an underestimate of Ukraine’s resolve and ability to generate international support. The Ukrainians stopped him achieving his initial goals forcing him to change his main effort to the East and withdraw from all other places. However, the Ukrainians then ‘fixed’ his forces, counter attacking in Kharkiv and then Kherson taking huge tracts of land back from under Russian occupation.

Then the weather changed, making manoeuvre warfare almost impossible. The Ukrainians continued to ‘fix’ the Russians militarily and psychologically in Bakhmut, buying time to send their best troops overseas to be trained on western tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and artillery, with associated changes in tactics. This has enabled them to get into the position they are now, ready to restart the initiative through a new counter-offensive and take more occupied territory back.

Ukraine has four potential areas it could attack and may attack one or more simultaneously, ensuring the Russian ability to concentrate force over what is a 1200+ km frontline, remains dislocated. That is why we are seeing attacks into mainland Russia as part of the Ukrainian counter-offensive battlespace preparation phase. It keeps the Russians guessing and weakens their reserve capability by ensuring it remains geographically spread. This adds further command and control (C2) and logistic headaches, especially with Ukraine targeting logistics and C2 nodes as part of this preparation phase.

base map thanks to UK MoD Defence Intelligence

The Ukrainian counter offensive has started, we are in phase 1, prepare the battlespace and this can continue until the conditions are judged right to move to the next phase. That could be days or weeks away. However, the time and place will be decided by the Ukrainians but what could happen after that?

The Ukrainian ground counter-offensive will likely come to a natural pause in the Autumn when the ground becomes too soft for armoured warfare and will probably transition back to the deep battle and fixing operations in preparation for another counter-offensive phase in Spring/Summer 2024. By then the political landscape will be becoming more complex. Residential elections in Russia and the USA, parliamentary elections in the UK all giving Putin influence opportunities. How much territory the Ukrainians will have liberated by then remains to be seen.

It also gives those circling Putin an opportunity potentially to oust him and he will be aware of that. Western influence operations will be trying to help set the conditions for that, and we will likely see an increase in efforts around this over the coming year. However, that may not bring in anyone more sympathetic to the West or wanting to solve the current crisis.

Many of the architects of the “Special Military Operation,” or those who think they could handle it better (including Shoigu the defence minister and Prigozhin the head of the Wagner Private Military Company) are in a potential succession line. Of note, even though Private Military Companies in Russia are technically illegal, Shoigu is setting his own up. Could we see a face-off between him and Prigozhin?

However, there are bigger issues. The Russian Federation is a complex and multifaceted nation, marked by its vast expanse, rich history, diverse cultural landscape, and intricate political system. As the largest country in the world, Russia boasts a unique geopolitical position that has been shaped by its relations with neighbouring states, internal political frictions, and the ongoing process of regionalisation.

In the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the Russian Federation embarked on a journey towards democracy and a market economy. However, this transformation was fraught with difficulties, as the country lacked a clear conception of how to achieve these goals.

During this period of political and economic upheaval, various factions and interest groups vied for power, often leading to intense internal struggles and policy inconsistencies.  These internal struggles and factions behind them haven’t gone away.  The disparity between the casualties coming out of the Special Military Operation from the Moscow, European elite and other regions of Russia will likely increase tensions as they become known. Any weakening of the centralised power base could see moves in some areas for greater autonomy.

According to the New, “The Russian Federation comprises 85 federal subjects, namely:

  • 47 oblasts (provinces)
  • 21 republics (states) which enjoy a high degree of autonomy on most issues and which correspond to some of Russia’s numerous ethnic minorities
  • eight krais (territories)
  • six okrugs (autonomous districts)
  • two federal cities (Moscow and St. Petersburg)
  • the Jewish Autonomous Oblast.

Federal subjects are grouped into seven federal districts, each administered by an envoy appointed by the President of Russia. For economic and statistical purposes, the federal subjects are grouped into 12 economic regions. Economic regions and their parts sharing common economic trends are in turn grouped into economic zones and macrozones.”

That is a complex set of groupings over a vast area, 17,075,400 km², with a population in excess of 145 million and multiple ethnic and religious groupings is a challenge when there is clear control from Moscow and strong leadership. With potential leadership infighting, a vastly weakened military and an economy in free fall, the ability for Moscow to retain control could be questioned. Any fight for leadership in Moscow post Putin would be fraught with difficulty and potentially a real ability to continue to hold the federation together.

Should the potential for a former Yugoslavia type breakup of the Russian Federation become more likely, then the possibility of pre-emptive action from the likes of China and Japan would increase. China has a 4000Km border with Russia and the potential for unrest along that area would not be welcome. Japan disputes Russia’s continued occupation of Kunashir Island, part of the Kuril Island group and the southernmost island, nearest the Japanese mainland. Japan has recently changed its constitution to allow the Japanese Home Defense Forces to project power to protect Japanese interests.

We have to be cognisant that the end of the Special Military Operation (War) in Ukraine will likely lead to the downfall of Putin, if he isn’t deposed beforehand, but the outcome could easily become a much wider global problem which would make the breakup of Yugoslavia seem like a minor issue. If ever there was a time for looking forward and strong international cooperative diplomacy, now is that time.