Members of the newly formed 'Spartan' brigade take part in military training on a shooting range near Kharkiv, northeastern Ukraine, 20 April 2023, amid the Russian invasion.
© EPA-EFE/SERGEY KOZLOV   |   Members of the newly formed 'Spartan' brigade take part in military training on a shooting range near Kharkiv, northeastern Ukraine, 20 April 2023, amid the Russian invasion.

The Ukrainian counteroffensive: Kyiv's expectations and Moscow's narratives

Many Ukrainians hope the war will be won thanks to the counteroffensive that is being prepared by their army. The counteroffensive has been expected since last fall, when Ukrainian forces managed to liberate part of the Kharkiv and Kherson regions, which gave rise to a wave of optimism among the population. However, at that time, Kyiv had neither the troops nor the necessary equipment to be able to launch a large-scale operation. Instead of attacking, in recent months, the Ukrainians have been forced to defend themselves, as Russia has mobilized hundreds of thousands of people and tried – unsuccessfully – to break through the front. Kyiv has also blamed the slow pace of arms deliveries from the West for delaying the counteroffensive, and lately, officials seem to be trying to temper the population's expectations.

In the other camp, Russia has launched a series of false counter-offensive narratives, but at the same time appears to be preparing to explain to its people a potential Ukrainian success.

A counteroffensive expected since fall and postponed due to the Russians’ mobilization and the slow pace of arms deliveries from the West. The effects of the Pentagon Papers leak

After last fall's Ukrainian counteroffensives, which liberated large parts of the regions of Kharkiv and Kherson, pro-Kyiv military experts were expecting Ukraine to carry out  at least two successful military operations by the end of 2022. It didn’t happen, as Russia mobilized hundreds of thousands of people and launched, towards the end of the year, its own offensive operations in eastern Ukraine.

Kyiv’s official discourse was adapted to the new realities, and the Ukrainians were informed, via the national television, that the big counteroffensive had been postponed until spring. With the arrival of spring, in March, several military analysts criticized the West for not delivering the weapons needed to mount a counteroffensive quickly enough. Mykola Beleskov, an expert with the National Institute of Strategic Studies attached to the Presidential Administration in Kyiv, warned for example that, because of that,  Ukraine   will not be able to organize a successful counteroffensive.

Beleskov accused the West of being too afraid of Russia and its capabilities to expand the war. “We were promised new types of weapons in January and now they are telling us to wait a few more months. We are paying with the lives of our soldiers for the indecision of the West”, Beleskov said. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy too repeatedly called on the West to speed up arms deliveries , arguing that every day of waiting led to more casualties.

In the months that followed the successes reported by Ukrainians in the fall, there was increasing talk about the methods used by Russia, which in battles such as the one at Bakhmut resorted to attacks in human waves , completely ignoring the loss of human lives; the Russians would have tried with their attacks not only to gain ground, but also to prevent the expected Ukrainian counteroffensive. On the other hand, there were also voices – rather timid - claiming that Ukraine would not be able to mount other successful counteroffensives due to the firm measures taken by Russia and the additional resources it mobilized.

At the same time, the Ukrainians kept hoping that a counteroffensive blitz would be organized, one with minimal losses of human lives, similar to the campaign for the liberation of the towns of Izium or Kherson, when the Russians were forced to withdraw, presenting it to the public as a regrouping and reorganization of the armed forces of the Russian Federation.

Ukrainians want big wins at very low costs.  According to the results of a January survey, 39% of them expect from the spring counteroffensive  the liberation of all territories and the final defeat of Russia.  Many are convinced that Ukraine will win the war this year.

The talks in Ukraine regarding the spring counteroffensive were marred by the release on social media of secret Pentagon documents, which provided many with an unexpected insight into the Ukrainian military and its ability to make significant progress quickly; the situation described by the documents was less rosy than that described by Ukrainian and Western officials. Kyiv - like some Western capitals - said the leaks were a mixture of true information and lies, but also announced that it was changing some of its military plans . Part of the Ukrainian society hopes that the leak is a bait for Russia, to make it believe that the Ukrainian army is no longer capable of organizing any successful military operation.

Russia launches false counteroffensive narratives and prepares to “sell” the public a potential Ukrainian success

Russian propaganda has exploited to the maximum the Armed Forces of Ukraine’s preparations for a counteroffensive. In the context of the US information leaks, the Russian press wrote that a number of Ukrainian brigades are directly subordinated to the Pentagon and  will be sent to certain death  in an offensive in the south and southeast of the country. According to a series of false narratives launched by the pro-Kremlin media, the Pentagon is preparing an offensive against Russia using the mobilized Ukrainian military, who will become cannon fodder when sent to the “Azov meat grinder”. The Ukrainian army is allegedly directly subordinated to the US, therefore Russia must defend itself and mobilize more forces.

The decision of some Western states to send weapons to Ukraine is presented by Russian propaganda as a bellicose initiative. Praising China's peace plan, rejected by Ukraine and the West, the Russian media wrote that NATO states are providing Kyiv with tanks and missiles ,  thus perpetuating the state of war. Based on these claims, a number of Telegram channels close to the Kremlin have distributed false narratives about the peacemakers (China, Russia) and the aggressors (NATO, USA, West) in the context of the war in Ukraine. The idea of ​​a Ukrainian counteroffensive is often presented as a new attempt by NATO to punish Russian-speakers in the east and south of Ukraine.

As with other topics, after more than 14 months of full-scale war, the Russian propaganda is thus shifting the focus to the narrative of NATO and/or the US wanting to destroy Russia at all costs, reinforcing the image of the external enemy. Clearly, the goals of the disinformation campaign include discouraging Ukrainians and undermining international partners' support for Kyiv.

At the same time, Russia is preparing informationally for the Ukrainian counteroffensive. The Kremlin is said to have already sent its subordinate media a briefing guide on how to approach this topic.  “If the counteroffensive is going to be a failure, we must say that the Russian army has professionally repelled a very strong offensive. The price of victory will increase. If Ukraine, with the help of US and European weapons, will register some successes and will occupy territories, these losses must be explained in the following way: The West has concentrated its large forces on the fronts, but their successes are too small compared to the allocated resources. Which means, broadly speaking, that the Russian army handled this situation as well”.

As in the case of Ukraine, the domestic socio-political perceptions matter a lot to Russia. According to a poll conducted on the territory of Russia in April by the “Levada” research center, 62% of Russians are worried about the possibility of a Ukrainian offensive , while 75% support the war in Ukraine, considering it important for the Russian state.

A failed counteroffensive could compromise Ukraine's chances for lasting peace

In late April, Volodymyr Zelensky stated that a Ukrainian counteroffensive would be organized despite the fact that not all the weapons promised by the West had been delivered. He pointed out that the plans for the counteroffensive also took into account  the liberation of the Crimean Peninsula , but this depended on the armament and support provided by the partners. On the other hand, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov has stated that the offensive will not be a final battle , but possibly one of the last in this war, tempering the Ukrainians’ expectations raised by Zelensky's statements. He added that the Crimean Peninsula will be liberated politically, not militarily. While Zelenskiy has created new expectations, the military leadership is also trying to develop alternative scenarios.

Kyiv’s discursive mode recalls the ‘good cop’ – ‘bad cop’ type of negotiation and communication technique, preparing society for a big victory, but also for some less expected scenarios.

Despite these nuanced differences between the Kyiv politicians’ speeches, the offensive seems to be optimistically awaited by most Ukrainians. The case of the band Antitila is suggestive, which announced a concert in the city of Yalta in the Crimean Peninsula  on August 23, 2024, and tickets are already on sale online. According to the media in Kyiv, the musicians have enlisted in the Ukrainian army and want to celebrate the victory and independence of Ukraine with a concert in Crimea.

Some experts believe that Ukrainians' expectations from the counteroffensive may be too high, meaning that disappointment will also be high if the army fails or achieves just a little. “There are some hopes that following the counteroffensive we will resume the borders of 1991 , that is, we will liberate all our territories and we will all be happy. I think it is dangerous to think like that. It is important to keep our critical thinking in order not to be disappointed”, said Oleksandr Kovalenko, an analyst with the “Information Resistance” group.

On the other hand, the too high expectations of the war-weary Ukrainian society could rush the launch of the Ukrainian counteroffensive – even before the preparations are complete – so as not to cause a growing disappointment related to its repeated postponement.

War “fatigue” does not only threaten the Ukrainians, but, according to some commentators quoted by the international press, the external supporters of Kyiv as well, who, in the event of a failure that will create the prospect of a significant prolongation of the conflict, could end up advocating even for a disadvantageous peace for Kyiv.

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Marin Gherman

Marin Gherman

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