Is the next Ukrainian counteroffensive being set up to fail? - Patrick Mercer

It wasn’t like this in my day. We were taught never to reveal our plans - wittingly or unwittingly - to the enemy because, if you did, a huge advantage might be squandered. We even studied the Soviet concept of maskirovka - battlefield deception - where an opponent would signal his intentions and then do something completely different.

Yet, as with so many things in the Russo/Ukraine war, none of this now seems to apply.

In truth, the Russians have tried to be tight-lipped about their plans throughout, but Kiev’s troops seem to telegraph their intentions to anyone who wants to know. So it was in the late summer of last year when Ukraine trumpeted, weeks before anything serious happened, that they intended to drive the Russians from the west bank of the Dneiper river. They were eventually successful, but not before they had taken devastating casualties and allowed about 2,000 Russians to get away.

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There seems to be a vogue for this set by America and NATO when their plans to leave Iraq back in 2010 were announced months beforehand by President Obama. And then, of course, came the well advertised debacle in Afghanistan in 2021.

Ukrainian troops move by tanks on a road of the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas on June 21, 2022. PIC: ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP via Getty ImagesUkrainian troops move by tanks on a road of the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas on June 21, 2022. PIC: ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP via Getty Images
Ukrainian troops move by tanks on a road of the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas on June 21, 2022. PIC: ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP via Getty Images

Well, if anyone has any doubt who’s calling the shots in Kiev, they need look no further than the muddle headed policy that the United States has imposed upon the Ukrainians.

Here’s a quote from last Wednesday from one of the best known, US military websites, The Institute for the Study of War (ISW):

“Russian forces continue to prepare for a rumoured pending Ukrainian counteroffensive in the southern direction.”

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Now, the ISW site is hugely pro-Ukrainian and has direct links with both the Pentagon and the White House, so there’s little doubt that what they say is officially vetted at the highest level. In the ‘information war’ that’s being waged by both sides, there’s endless deception, but there’s plenty of satellite evidence that Kiev’s troops are massing along the southern front lines near Zaporizhzhia with a view to thrusting south, taking Melitopol or Mariupol and cutting Russia’s ‘land bridge’ to the vitally important Crimea.

Indeed, there’s so much evidence that Russian reinforcements have been digging deep and pouring concrete to create three, parallel, defensive lines right along the front in the clear expectation of an assault.

Should Ukraine succeed in piercing these positions and exploit right the way down to the Sea of Azov, Crimea would be threatened and the whole Special Military Operation might be in deep jeopardy.

Can Ukraine do it, though? Well, ruthless conscription has given them the numbers to replace their terrible casualties, more Western equipment is slowly arriving, whilst the corridor to the sea that they hope to storm is only about 55 miles wide and should be achievable.

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However, there are serious limitations. First, the Russians have been systematically destroying Kiev’s potent air defence systems to the point where fighters and bombers can reach further and more devastatingly than they’ve been able to before. Second, as the Ukrainians advance south, the more vulnerable they become to missiles from the Black Sea Fleet - to which they have little answer.

Next, the Western tanks and armour are complex, maintenance intensive, of mixed types and calibres and there’s not much of it. Lastly, due to Washington’s gabbing, it will be impossible to surprise the Russians. There will be other thrusts and diversions, of course, making it difficult for Russia to concentrate her reserves, but the big question is, are Moscow’s lads going to perform better than they did last summer when they yielded to their enemy despite having been told where and when the assaults were expected?

Well, if you study the new defensive lines in the south, they’re impressive and, despite the diversion of the plodding Russian advances in the last three months, artillery ammunition and combat supplies have been dumped well forward. Also, a scrutiny of these lines shows an interesting weak point at the north end of a shallow valley stretching north-west of Mariupol.

This couldn’t be deliberate, could it? Might the Russians have been slow to encircle Ukrainian forces in places like Bakhmut and Avdiivka in order to embolden their enemies and lure them onto the offensive? There’s clear Western pressure upon Kiev to prove herself on the battlefield once more and assure her sponsors that all the money and equipment that has been pouring in has not been in vain, yet those same sponsors have made it obvious to Russia what’s about to happen.

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Here’s what worries me. In March 1918 against a fragile political backdrop, Germany launched a concentrated, powerful onslaught on the Western Front. It was a proper blitzkrieg. But, the Germans had used all their resources in one, last throw of the dice and they collapsed, spent.

Now, no matter how much the media shouts that Ukraine is on the verge of victory, the comparisons with the Kaiser’s Germany are stark.

Patrick Mercer is a former MP for Newark and Army colonel.