Spring Counteroffensives, mid-May 2023

I have analyzed the situation in Ukraine crisis in three articles during April, April 30, April 23 and April 3. I have stated there:

“The assessment of the Author is the following:

AFU will make an attempt of counteroffensive in late April – mid May but Russian Forces crush this attempt and will start its own crucial offensive in order to eliminate the entire armed forces of Ukraine as well as the military-industrial infrastructure. All this will take place by mid-summer of this year.”

Here, in this article, I update the situation with the latest events and try particularly to focus on the counteroffensive of Ukrainian Forces and also Russian Forces, with emphasis on “the Big Picture” (naturally based on relevant details).

Recent key events on the overall operation theater

The end of April was marked by the resumption of massive air strikes by Russian forces deep into Ukrainian rear areas but on the other hand, also AFU has resumed its drone strikes. The Russian Military has seriously depleted Ukrainian weapons stockpiles with a series of major strikes on its ammunition and fuel depots, which could seriously undermine prospects for a successful Ukrainian offensive that was expected to begin in April or May 9, by the latest.

The massive attacks in the rear areas are a clear sign of the upcoming escalation on the front lines. Amid the upcoming offensive operations,Ukraine attempts to interrupt Russian supplies to the front lines. In its turn,the Russian military resumes retaliation strikes throughout Ukraine,which are mainly aimed at disrupting Ukrainian military supplies to the front.

Late April events, short summary

On April 29, the AFU and accompanying foreign military contractor units had taken extreme losses in Donetsk over the past 24 hours, with up to 600 soldiers, 24 pieces of equipment destroyed and an ammo depot. At least ten Ukrainian drones targeted the territory of the Crimean Peninsula, from which one hit the fuel tank in Sevastopol.

April 30, Russian forces have launched a massive attack, missiles and drones, on Ukrainian military facilities far from the front line. The targets were reportedly the warehouses, the industrial zone, trains and railway tracks was also reported. Explosions thundered in different regions of Ukraine, including Kiev, Dnipropetrovsk, Sumy, Kharkiv, Pavlograd, Ivano-Frankivsk regions and in Kramatorsk. According to the Ukrainian estimates, more than a hundred cruise missiles, as well as several dozen kamikaze drones were allegedly involved in the attack.

Pavlograd is a strategically important city in the Dnipropetrovsk region, where two railway hub stations necessary for the AFU to transfer reserves to Kramatorsk, Slavyansk and Bakhmut are located. The city was repeatedly targeted by missile strikes last year. A lot of Ukrainian military troops and equipment was deployed in the city. Amid the upcoming Ukrainian offensive, their number has recently increased. Footage from the spot confirms that there were secondary detonations as a result of the attacks which means that military facilities of the AFU were destroyed. The targets include trains with equipment and ammunition, warehouses or air defense missiles. The aim is to prevent any Ukrainian plan to launch a counteroffensive.

Early May events, by 10th of May

On the eve of the expected AFU offensive, the Russian Armed Forces (RF) continue to carry out massive strikes on Ukraine’s military and engineering infrastructure. The RF is making efforts to complicate the upcoming offensive by Ukrainian and NATO units.

On May 1, Russian missile strikes in Donetsk destroyed the train with up to 200 tons of Ukrainian munitions (near Kramatorsk) and separately two missile divisions of S-300 air defense systems with 1800 tons of rocket fuel detonated in an attack on Ukrainian depots in Pavlograd. The latter strike reportedly also saw Grom-2 tactical ballistic missile systems destroyed. A third strike saw an ammunition depot in the Kharkov Region destroyed. This followed the destruction of a network of Ukrainian arms manufacturing facilities providing key sources of munitions.

These attacks come as both Ukrainian and Western sources have warned that the Ukrainian Military is falling increasingly short of munitions, particularly for its air defenses, which could soon end its ability to maintain air denial on the frontlines. The destruction of increasingly scarce S-300 missile systems follows a successful air strike that destroyed four missile launchers for Ukrainian S-300s on April 27.

Over the past few days, both Russian and Ukrainian forces have been ramping up long-range strikes against each other. The Russian military said the strikes have prevented the redeployment of AFU reserves toward the front line. Ukraine, meanwhile, has intensified the shelling of Russia’s border regions, including the city of Donetsk, which has been subjected to artillery and rocket attacks on an almost daily basis.

May 3, another series of blasts was reported in Ukraine’s capital Kiev and the surrounding Kiev region. Explosions also resumed in the northeastern city of Dnepropetrovsk, later similar reports came from the central Ukrainian city of Kropivnitsky and Cherkasy. Air defense sirens are wailing also in Kharkov, Sumy, Chernigov, Kirovograd and Poltava. A large explosion thundered near the Kherson railway station. According to unconfirmed reports of the local residents, the shelling claimed lives of up to 160 Ukrainian servicemen and at least 2 rail cars of military equipment.

In the afternoon of May 4, AFU units attempted a reconnaissance offensive in the Zaporizhzhya area. According to reports from the battle field, Russian units are conducting an active defense. In the night, Russian strikes aimed both at objects in the rear areas and at troop concentrations in the immediate vicinity of the front line, using kamikaze strike drones, missiles and artillery. RF struck concentration sites in Bakhmut region. Explosions were heard in Kiev, Zaporizhzhya, Odessa, Poltava, Kharkov, Chernigov, Slavyansk and Sumy regions, as well as in Kherson region. In Odessa, a kamikaze drone struck the location of the Military Academy. There was a massive explosion and fire.

In the evening of 5 May, Russian forces were attacking the western part Bakhmut, still under control of AFU (about 5% of the city), using phosphorus and incendiary ammunition.

On May 6, Russian air defense destroyed 32 Ukrainian unmanned aerial vehicles in Donetsk, Lugansk and Zaporozhye. During the night, Russian forces made several very powerful missiles strikes in Slavyansk, Dnipro and other places against AFU concentrations and military warehouses.

May 7, Russian military suppressed and destroyed 22 Ukrainian drones by electronic means over the Black Sea during the night. Russia made two powerful air strikes, during the night, in Odessa and Nikolay, where huge explosions thundered the regions.

May 8, The Russian forces carried out a massive strike campaign against military facilities and concentrations of AFU troops. The scale is greater than anything seen in recent months: missiles, bombs and drones are massively used targeting dozens of AFU positions and facilities in various directions.  At least seven Tu-22M3 strategic missile carriers carried out strikes, X-101 and Kalibr cruise missiles are launched. Ships of the Russian Black Sea Fleet carried out a group launch of Kalibr cruise missiles.

Numerous explosions were in the Odessa region, at least 7 hits on AFU facilities were recorded.  Missile strike damaged the bridge in Zatoka, through which the AFU was bringing reserves, fuel and equipment from Romania to Kherson and Mykolaiv. Ammunition depots near Zatoka, Odessa Oblast, as well as Western equipment arriving in Ukraine, including German Leopards near the local airfield, were likely targets of the strikes at the Shkolny airfield.

There are reports of barrage air raids from other parts of Ukraine: Kiev, Chernihiv, Sumy, Odessa, Ugledar, Slavyansk, Kramatorsk and Bakhmut region. The Russian Air Force carried out strikes on the accumulations of the AFU in the area of Chasov Yar. Local publics also reported strikes against AFU positions in Zaporizhzhia region and near Slavyansk with planning bombs. Air alerts have been declared in all southern and central regions of Ukraine; Vinnitsa, Kirovohrad, Cherkasy, Poltava, Kyiv and the region.

On the night of May 9, Russian forces (RF) launched a new series of strikes on military targets throughout Ukraine. 25 Kalibr and X-101/X-555 cruise missiles were launched by the RF. Before the missiles, Ukrainian facilities were attacked by Russian kamikaze UAVs. In addition to missile attacks, about 40 Geran-2 UAVs targeted the AFU. Russian military sources reported that up to 80 cruise missiles and about 40 drones were used in the night strike in Ukraine. Up to 9 Russian strategic bombers were involved in the attack, including 8 TU-95ms and a TU-22M3. On May 9, local reports about numerous big explosions throughout Ukraine also confirm the large losses of the night’s strikes.

Several explosions thundered in the capital Kiev at around 4:00 and 5:22 am local time. Ukrainian media noted that the second explosion was especially powerful. The head of the Kharkiv regional administration also confirmed six explosions in the region.

Explosions also thundered in the Dnipropetrovsk region. According to preliminary reports, several strikes hit the facilities of the so-called Ukrainian “offensive guard”, as well as at weapons depots and storage sites of military equipment. Russian missiles also struck the AFU deployed in the Bakhmut region.

Explosions were also reported in the Sumy region and a loud explosion thundered in the city of Zaporozhiel. The AFU is accumulating forces there preparing for the attack. Russian strikes inflict losses in personnel and equipment on the Ukrainian troops deployed in the area which is expected to become the main direction of the upcoming Ukrainian counteroffensive.

Some latest statistical data

According to reports of Russian Ministry of Defense (RMOD), Russian Armed Forces (RF) have been engaged in combat all over the line of contact. Despite the massive military support coming from the West, the AFU is suffering great losses.

In April, the troop losses of AFU have been over 15,000 troops (Ukrainian servicemen and foreign mercenaries). Russian units managed to destroy 12 aircraft, 277 unmanned aerial vehicles, 430 tanks and other armoured vehicles, 18 multiple-launch rocket systems, 225 field artillery cannons and mortars as well as 6 air defense systems.

Russia’s leadership has set the task for the defense industry enterprises to boost the production pace and volume and in general, the defense industry fully meets the needs of the RF. Compared to the start of 2022, the quantity of significant weapons acquired has increased 2.7-fold, and the quantity of particularly highly demanded weapons has increased 7-fold. The RF have already received enough ammo this year to deal with the operation successfully. It is equally vital to increase the capacity of repair and restoration facilities. At present, the number of weapons repaired each day exceeds the number of weapons out of service by a ratio of three to two.

One key purpose of Russian strikes has been weakening AFU offensive strength and deplete its ammo and other deposits for the counteroffensive. Based on the different sources, it seems that RF has managed to reduce AFU resources during April – May 10 in the following way:

These statistics do not cover those “Big Air Strikes” in late April – early May, in other words the number of destroyed items is obviously significantly larger than presented here. No wonder, why AFU is frequently complaining the lack of ammo, when the major part of the ammo, supplied by the West, is destroyed by RF.

According to RMOD reports, since February 24, 2022 in total: 418 airplanes and 230 helicopters, 4,042 unmanned aerial vehicles, 421 air defense missile systems, 9,033 tanks and other armoured combat vehicles, 1,096 combat vehicles equipped with MLRS, 4,764 field artillery cannons and mortars, as well as 10,059 units of special military equipment have been destroyed during the special military operation. Based on these figures, one can say that AFU has already lost two times the whole armed forces of a big country and now it is losing the third one.

Russia’s guided glide bombs

Russian Air Force has begun deploy guided glide bombs in significant quantities to complement the growing firepower being laid down by artillery and missile assets. These bombs can fly about 70 kilometres and they may target the facilities of critical infrastructure and AFU air defense cannot counter this type of ammunition. Their use also significantly reduces the risks of carrying aircraft being shot down compared to flying directly over a target using traditional gravity bombs. 

Russian Drel Guided Glide Bomb

Ukraine’s air defense network is increasingly at risk of becoming depleted beyond hopes of replenishment, with Pentagon officials assessing that air defenses assigned to protect forces on the frontlines would “be completely reduced” by May 23. The result is expected to be much greater freedom of action for the Russian Air Forces. I have analyzed this weapon more in my previous article of April 23, here

Drone strike on the Kremlin

According to the Kremlin press service, May 3 night “the Kiev regime carried out an attempt to deliver a strike by unmanned aerial vehicles on the Kremlin residence of the Russian president.” “Two unmanned aerial vehicles targeted the Kremlin,” it said. “As a result of timely actions taken by military and special services using electronic warfare systems, the drones were disabled,” the Kremlin stated. “Their fall and the fragments scattered around on the territory of the Kremlin caused no casualties or material damage,” the press service stressed. The Russian president’s press service has confirmed that Putin himself was not present at the Kremlin during the time of this attack.

The considered Kremlin reaction is available from the remarks by the Russian Ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov: “Russia will respond to this insolent and presumptuous terrorist attack. We will answer, when we consider it necessary. We will answer in accordance with the assessments of the threat that Kiev posed to the leadership of our country.”

The attack against the Kremlin has been regarded by Moscow as a terrorist act and an attempt on the life of Vladimir Putin. Attempts by Kiev and Washington to disown the attempted drone attack on the Kremlin are ridiculous, decisions on such terrorist attacks are made by the United States, and Ukraine executes them, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Thursday.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry released a statement saying that there is no doubt that Kiev was behind the attempted terrorist attack against Kremlin. Moscow will respond to the drone attack on the Kremlin in proportion with the level of threat Kiev posed for the Russian leadership, the ministry added. Russia’s foreign ministry said that it is confident that all those responsible for the drone attack will be found and punished severely.

Officials from the Ukrainian President’s Office claimed that Kiev is not responsible for the attack on the Kremlin. Presidential Adviser Mykhailo Podolyak blamed this terrorist act on some unspecified “local resistance forces”.  The US had no role in the drone attack on the Kremlin, US National Security Council Strategic Communications Coordinator John Kirby claimed. The official added that the US had no information on who was behind the drone assault.

All parties to the Ukrainian crisis should avoid actions that can result in further escalation between the sides, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said on Thursday. “China’s position on the Ukrainian crisis is consistent and clear, all parties should avoid actions that could lead to further escalation,” Mao told reporters.

Russia is working on a proportionate response to Ukraine’s drone attack on the Kremlin. Sooner or later, Russia will complete its investigation and determine with certainty, who was responsible for the drone attack –including what kind of UAVs were used, what kinds of guidance systems were on board, etc.

The battle for Bakhmut /Artemovsk

The battles for Bakhmut (Artemovsk) started in the beginning of August 2022 and have been going on for 9 months. The city, or rather what was left of it during this time, is already almost completely under the control of Russian forces (over 90%) and the AFU are holding a small piece of it in the western part.

All this time, the Ukrainian command was preparing troops for a large-scale counteroffensive. However, at the request of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, reserves were allocated to support the group in Bakhmut and its environs. The bloody PR campaign called “Bakhmut Fortress” has turned into “Bakhmut meat grinder” destroying thousands of AFU troops and is still going on.

But Zelensky made a serious miscalculation, grabbing onto Bakhmut, since the battle for this city turned out to be a gigantic “black hole” to the AFU. All fields and roads around Bakhmut are literally littered with an incredible number of various armored vehicles. 

The denouement in the battle for Bakhmut is close, it will become a lesson for many. This city was not of big strategic importance but thanks to the stubbornness of the AFU, it turned into ruins and a significant part of the Ukrainian army perished there. In fact, Kyiv has harmed severely itself and therefore, the postponement of the AFU counteroffensive from spring possibly to summer is associated not only with bad weather conditions but with terrible miscalculation of AFU command.

Prerequisites of the AFU counteroffensive

The Ukrainian regime and the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) are under intense pressure from its sponsors (the US, NATO) to finally prove that the over 158 billion dollars that the collective West has so far invested in it, were worth spending. Many Ukrainian analysts say that the best scenario for AFU would be to launch the offensive in June so that they have time gather and supply more troops but it seems that AFU’s Western patrons prefer the launch by 9th of May. Anyway, that date went by and no AFU counteroffensive took place.

The Western countries are concerned over the AFU’s unpreparedness for a counteroffensive against Russian troops despite the West’s hefty financial injections into the Ukrainian army, a UK newspaper has reported. Pentagon’s leaked defense documents were arguing that Ukraine might fail to amass sufficient troops and weaponry and fall “well short” of its goals for regaining territory.

According to the UK magazine, both Ukraine and “its Western backers should prepare for the possibility that the counteroffensive will yield only marginal gains, or worse.” The claims were preceded by Ukrainian lawmaker Alexandra Ustinova telling a US news outlet that Kiev had planned to begin the counteroffensive before the end of April but that the lack of arms “has pushed the launch date back indefinitely.”

Polish Armed Forces Chief of General Staff Rajmund Andrzejczak warned, on April 28, that Ukraine was in a far poorer position to sustain the war effort than Russia, in part due to the failure of Western economic warfare efforts to cripple the Russian economy but that many Western leaders failed to realize how far Ukraine was from winning the war.  

Czech new President Petr Pavel has warned Ukraine to rush counteroffensive. In his interview with the Guardian, said that poorly planned offensive could become a disaster.

In its turn, the White House said that the United States will soon provide additional packages of military assistance to Ukraine; while Washington has already handed over almost everything that Kiev has asked for. May 3, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the US had authorized additional security assistance for Ukraine including heavy artillery and ammunition, anti-tank weapons, and other field equipment valued at $300 million. 

Antony Blinken has repeatedly commented on alleged Ukrainian counteroffensive. Previously he stressed that Washington is not actively encouraging Ukraine to retake control of Crimea. However, Blinken stressed that it is up to Kiev alone to decide.

Bakhmut collapse might be such a “trigger”, which is to put the operation in going. Now, that the episode of Wagner – Prigozin – Russian Defense Ministry – sufficient ammo supply – Kadyrov &Chechen troops, has been resolved, it seems quite clear that Bakhmut collapse will take place in the near future.

The Russian air force could wreak havoc on Ukraine’s armor and infantry, if Kiev launches its much-anticipated counteroffensive without proper air defense, a prominent US military expert has told Newsweek. The Russians “have an almost overwhelming level of air superiority they have not introduced into the war yet,” Dale Buckner, a retired US Army officer, who now heads the international security firm Global Guardian, told Newsweek

Supposed course of events

Ukraine has been trumpeting the start of a major counterattack for weeks, though multiple officials have complained about a lack of ammunition, weapons and even the bad weather, which is delaying counteroffensive. 

The success or failure of the expected Ukrainian counteroffensive against Russian forces will decide the future of Western aid to Kiev, US Congressman Michael McCaul has told Bloomberg. The Texas Republican also offered a scenario for what might happen afterward.

“You’re going to see a counteroffensive very soon now,” McCaul, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Bloomberg TV. “If Ukraine is successful in the eyes of the American people and the world, I think it will be a game-changer for continued support. If they are not, that will also have an impact, in a negative way, though.”

Speaking to Bloomberg’s “Balance of Power” show, McCaul speculated as to where the fighting might happen. “My prediction is they will try to hit the land bridge in Crimea and have a very dramatic bold strategy that then would push back Russian aggression,” he said.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said in early April that Kiev had scheduled its counteroffensive for the summer, while US media reported that it was expected to start on April 30.

Later in April, the Foreign Policy newspaper reported, citing Ukrainian lawmaker Oleksandra Ustinova, that Kiev indeed had planned to launch its counteroffensive in April, but later postponed it indefinitely due to a shortage of weapons.

The Russian authorities of the Zaporozhye region also decided, as a precaution, to temporarily resettle 70,000 residents living in a 30-kilometer zone from the combat line to the south of the region.

The goal of the major Ukrainian offensive will certainly be to inflict the greatest possible losses on the Russian military forces in terms of personnel and equipment and occupy strategically important territories including Crimea but that is by no means all that Kiev wants to achieve.

Besides these “obvious reasons”, it seems to be quite sure that one of the most important goals will be to cause panic, protests, riots, and chaos in Russia and especially in its new territories. In the Ukrainian ideal-case scenario, there would be a huge revolution that would lead to the violent breakup of the Russian Federation.

Although it is very difficult to predict Ukraine’s desired directions of the offensive, what is highly likely, the Crimean Bridge will be attacked again with the intention of disabling its functionality for a longer period of time. Similarly, the Russian Black Sea Fleet is a thorn in NATO’s side and that’s why, there may be massive attacks on it. In both cases, NATO will indirectly participate in these attacks but this time these attacks will be carried out in a way that has not been applied so far in order to be more shocking and effective.

All analysts agree that separating Crimea from the mainland will be the main goal of this Ukrainian offensive. Mass air and naval landings directly on Crimea are possible but only after Crimea’s defenses, primarily air defenses, have been completely destroyed. This leads to the conclusion that there will be fierce missile/drone attacks on Crimea. Large air landings would undoubtedly be carried out by low-flying transport helicopters, at least in the first phase of the attack.

Ukrainian and Western military experts have repeatedly called the Zaporozhye Region one of Kiev’s main targets, as it would open the access to the Azov Sea and cut off the land corridor to Crimea. Their tactic is to conduct reconnaissance operations in order to break through the first line of defense and then use the main forces for a breakthrough and a full-scale offensive.

One axis of the attack will be in the Zaporizhia region towards south in an attempt to reach the sea.  An important aim is likely the retaking of the Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Plant near the city of Enerhodar south of the Dnieper basin. Its economic importance to Ukraine is immense as it can easily sell the electricity the six reactors generate to Europe.

The Russian defense lines in Zaporozhye and Kherson regions would be very difficult to break through and probably the Ukrainians and their Western commanders and advisers are fully aware of this but those lines will certainly be attacked in order to tie up Russian forces in those places.

Attempts to cross the Dnieper would have to be massive and threaten extremely high casualties, while at the same time providing the Russian forces with very favorable opportunities for a counteroffensive. That is why it is possible that there will be attempts at mass air landings by low-flying helicopters behind Russian lines not only in Crimea but also in Kherson and Zaporozhye regions. This kind of landing operations are not possible without significant NATO involvement.

A third axis or direction in the northeast towards Bakhmut / Soledar may be also possible.

The main directions of the estimated offensive directions can be seen on the map below.

The long announced Ukrainian counter-offensive was speculated to start on Victory Day, May 9 but that date came and went without AFU offensive.

The success of the Ukrainians will depend on the gadgets its western supporters have supplied it with, like new longer-range missiles or some new bridging equipment that will help with crossing the Dnieper in the Kherson region.

On May 2, the Minister of Defense of Ukraine claimed that the country is “at the final straight” to the counteroffensive. The country’s General Staff only has to decide how, where and when to launch offensive operations. The Russian side also confirms that Kiev is ready for the upcoming escalation and Moscow “carefully monitors” the enemy’s actions.

Assessment and Conclusions

Ukrainian plans to launch a counteroffensive look rather difficult to implement. RMOD reported estimates that more than 15,000 Ukrainian soldiers were killed or seriously wounded in April. AFU troops are suffering as serious or even worse damages in May on the frontlines, “despite unprecedented military assistance by Western powers”. Moreover, Russia has resumed massive air strikes around Ukraine during last 10 days, which, no doubt, have depleted and deteriorated the capability of the AFU to the planned counteroffensive.

Collective skepticism seems to have taken over the western media, at least partly, about the possibility of Kiev reversing the military scenario of the conflict. More and more Western public opinion seems suspect Ukrainian victory, considering that the losses of Kiev’s troops are notorious and that the Russians are increasingly progressing in their campaign. The big Western media outlets have been reacting to this situation through a kind of damage control – partially admitting that things are not going well in Ukraine but suggesting that, if more weapons are sent, the scenario could change.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky can still choose between peace talks with Moscow or the continuation of the conflict and the loss of more territory, as former US Army Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis wrote in an article. The most realistic choice he faces is between negotiating an end to the fighting that allows Ukraine to hold what it has or to continue fighting and lose even more ground. According to Davis, the counteroffensive of the AFU is unlikely to be successful since they do not have enough troops to cope with the Russian military given the superiority in the number of soldiers, weapons and equipment. The wisest thing to do would be to admit the alarming numbers of Ukrainian casualties and stop the war machine behind the regime.

But neither Ukraine has the sovereignty to make such a decision, nor NATO has an interest in any possibility of peace. So, most likely, Ukrainian citizens will continue to die on the frontlines’ “meatgrinder”.

I like to close this article with the same citation (of my previous article April 23), with which I started. I still stand by this statement.

“The assessment of the Author is the following:

AFU will make an attempt of counteroffensive in late April – mid May but Russian Forces crush this attempt and will start its own crucial offensive in order to eliminate the entire armed forces of Ukraine as well as the military-industrial infrastructure. All this will take place by mid-summer of this year.”