How Might Ukraine's Counteroffensive End, and What Comes After?


Jun 14, 2023

Members of the Ukrainian Armed Forces deployed near Zaporizhia, Ukraine, June 14, 2023, photo by Latin America News Agency via Reuters Connect

Members of the Ukrainian Armed Forces deployed near Zaporizhia, Ukraine, June 14, 2023

Photo by Latin America News Agency via Reuters

This commentary originally appeared on RealClearDefense on June 14, 2023.

Ukraine may soon launch a counteroffensive against Russian forces entrenched in its east and south. The West has provided substantial military assistance for it and appears committed to providing support for the long haul. The West is likely to assist Ukraine with reconstruction on a scale that could rival the post–World War II Marshall Plan.

Deterring Russian aggression in Europe and securing Ukraine are important, even vital, Western interests. This is underlined by the huge scale of Western support to Ukraine. Russia's naked aggression, including shocking atrocities, has hardened Western determination to confront it. Arguably, the West has become more unified than at any time since the end of the Cold War three decades ago.

Russia's circumstances are less sanguine. Fighting this summer is likely to put Ukrainian forces in a stronger position. Even though many Russians back the war, large numbers of the better educated are fleeing. Battlefield casualties and declining living standards may erode confidence in Kremlin leadership, as they did in the 1980s when the USSR lost a smaller and more-distant war in Afghanistan.

Russia's naked aggression, including shocking atrocities, has hardened Western determination to confront it.

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On multiple occasions, China has warned Russia not to go nuclear in Ukraine. Furthermore, China seems not to be supplying Russia with substantial lethal weaponry. Vladimir Putin's and his ex-KGB cohort's grip on power—visibly challenged by hardliners such as Yevgeny Prigozhin—could be weakening. Russian leaders likely worry about the risks of military humiliation in Ukraine, which could lead to the “loss” of its largest East Slavic neighbor. Putin could be obsessed by such anxiety.

In this context, we consider three ways Ukraine's counteroffensive might end and their implications for the future.

  1. Ukrainian forces score great success. They punch through key Russian fortifications, retake most occupied territory, and sever Russia's land bridge from the Donbas along the Azov Sea coast down to Crimea. Major parts of Russia's fighting force break, are captured, or retreat. Ukrainian forces put the Kerch Strait rail and road bridges out of action. Fearing Ukraine's ground-based air defenses, Russia's air force may continue to stay mostly on the sidelines.

    Relying on combinations of modern technologies, including uncrewed surface vehicles, Ukraine could blockade and barrage Crimea, penning in Russia's Black Sea Fleet. Risks of Russian nuclear use might rise if Ukrainian forces appeared to be preparing for a frontal assault on Crimea.

    Troop-to-task analyses and current fighting conditions, taken together, suggest that Ukrainian forces could prevail. Russian forces may be unable to conduct close air-to-ground support for operations larger than small tactical units. Earlier this year, Russia's brigade-sized mechanized and armor attack against Vuheledar suffered catastrophic losses.

    Any major Russian attempt to take back even modest amounts of previously occupied territories would likely fail. Were Russia's air force to suffer substantial losses, this could weaken the defense of Moscow or other Russian strategic assets.

    Ukrainian forces appear not to be using Western arms to attack targets in Russia. But with their own weapons they are increasing indirect and direct fire strikes against headquarters and logistical sites, transportation nodes, and troop formations in Russia. Even early in the war, a Ukrainian Neptune missile sank the Moskva, Russia's Black Sea flagship.

  2. Ukrainian forces score partial success. They penetrate selected Russian fortifications and retake some occupied territory, but not enough to sever the land bridge to Crimea. Russia maintains control of the Kerch Strait bridges. Augmented by additional albeit poorly trained draftees, Russian forces stabilize the front. Ukrainian forces culminate short of regaining most occupied territory.

    Ukrainian forces' communications and weapons delivery systems are impaired by Russian electronic warfare, causing Ukrainian forces to lose situational awareness and effective command and control. Ukrainian logistics, adequate for static defensive operations, prove unable to support large numbers of advancing heavy units.

  3. Ukrainian forces are blunted. Like the recent Russian offensive, the Ukrainian counteroffensive stalls, taking little or no territory. Command and control of a major combined-arms offensive might be beyond what Ukraine can accomplish. Not since WWII has any country conducted a corps-level offensive against a major power.

    While a Ukrainian counteroffensive might accomplish little, it would be unlikely to lose much ground. Russian forces, badly damaged from a year-and-a-half of devastating losses, lack the ability to push Ukrainian forces back to the lines they held in July 2022, before the Ukrainian seizure of most of the Kharkiv region or the city of Kherson on the west bank of the Dnipro River.

    If the Kremlin deemed conditions adequate and risks acceptable, Russia could commit its largely intact air force and take a heavy toll on Ukrainian command centers and armored forces. This may be more likely if Ukraine is seen to run short of ground-based air defense ammunition or if Russia's air force manages to decimate Ukraine's older combat air fleet. There is a risk that Russian air and missile forces could suppress large parts of Ukraine's air defenses. They might prove less adept at supporting forces in broad mechanized offensive operations than in protecting static defenses.

What might happen in the aftermath of the three scenarios?

Armistice. In all cases, an armistice or truce of some kind might result. No Ukrainian government could stay in power if it negotiated a political settlement that formally ceded to Russia control of any Ukrainian territory, including Crimea. The outcomes of the counteroffensive and any future fighting may influence bargaining positions for armistice arrangements.

Follow-on fighting. Especially if Russia continued to occupy some Ukrainian land or was expelled from most of Ukraine but built up significant forces in Russia across the border, a simmering conflict could ensue. This happened in the Donbas after battle lines stabilized in 2014. Armed drones and artillery duels might keep tensions alive without offensive operations which risked many soldiers' lives. Ukraine could also mount an insurgency against any Russian occupying forces. These options may be more likely in the latter two scenarios than the first.

Further military support. In all cases, NATO allies are likely to maintain robust military support for Ukraine. It might be greater to the extent Ukraine is seen as effectively using military assistance and achieving battlefield results, or to the extent that Russian forces or Kremlin political will to wage war are weakening. The allies may continue to strengthen and train Ukraine's forces, including in combined arms operations involving F-16s and in larger-scale operations. A challenge for Ukraine's Western supporters could be to maintain unity of effort should the counteroffensive be less successful than hoped (the last two scenarios).

NATO and security guarantees. NATO membership for Ukraine might at some point be more likely if it defeated Russia's forces or they withdraw. Prior to such action—which could be uncertain even if the United States backed it—the United States might seek to develop a bilateral security relationship with Ukraine somewhat akin to those with other non-treaty allies, such as Israel or Taiwan. A bilateral guarantee of the type in the 1953 Mutual Defense Treaty with South Korea or the 1960 Security Treaty with Japan might be possible. But Ukraine's centrality to European security makes its joining NATO militarily more sensible.

Prior to the current war, U.S. military ties with Ukraine were less intensive than with those countries. This might be changing in light of Ukraine's inspiring performance in the war and its critical role in challenging Russia's military aggression and helping to protect European security.

NATO force presence. Allies benefit from Article 5 in the NATO Treaty, which considers that an attack on one ally is an attack on all allies. The alliance is buttressing this guarantee by moving more forces into its eastern flank. Any security guarantees, whether bilateral or NATO, may need to be coupled with a militarily significant presence in Ukraine after an armistice or cease-fire. A revitalized U.S. Army V Corps, including an armored division in Ukraine and air wings in Eastern Europe, might be necessary for guarantees to be credible.

No Ukrainian government could stay in power if it negotiated a political settlement that formally ceded to Russia control of any Ukrainian territory, including Crimea.

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Nuclear. If Russia were to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine or continue to threaten their use, eastern allies might seek enhanced NATO nuclear protection. Poland or others could even seek deployment of U.S. tactical nuclear bombs (B-61s) and associated delivery air systems, akin to those present in five other European allies. Another possibility could be fielding of a new U.S. nuclear-armed intermediate-range sea-launched cruise missile or land-based missile. The latter was the U.S. and NATO response in the 1980s when the USSR secretly deployed SS-20 land-based ballistic missiles against Europe.

Reconstruction. In all cases, the West will surely support large-scale reconstruction in Ukraine. In the event of the first scenario—great success by Ukrainian forces—Ukraine and the international community would likely need soon to start implementing reconstruction. This could be according to Ukraine's plan or plans being devised multinationally. Rapid action would boost morale and signal that Ukraine's supporters plan to sustain a longer-term commitment, Early battlefield success could accelerate pressure for reconstruction aid but also create new potential targets for Russian attacks. In the event of the latter two scenarios, reconstruction planning would continue but some projects would begin prior to the end of active fighting. This is already happening.

Beyond military outcomes, the level and nature of reconstruction assistance may vary. It could depend on Ukrainian reforms and the extent to which a simmering conflict threatened the viability of some reconstruction projects. To reduce the latter risks, Ukraine could disperse or otherwise make projects less vulnerable to drone attacks. Solar energy, in which Ukraine is investing, offers an example of dispersed and thus more resilient energy sourcing.

Neutralizing threats from mines and unexploded ordnance, especially in eastern and southern Ukraine, may merit early Westernsupport, especially if Ukraine's forces make timely progress. The West may also help support the return of perhaps millions of refugees and medical assistance for the treatment of wounds and posttraumatic stress among fighters and others in Ukraine.

William Courtney is an adjunct senior fellow, Terrence K. Kelly is a principal mathematician, Howard J. Shatz is a senior economist, and Gian Gentile is the associate director of RAND Arroyo Center at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

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