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Ukraine’s counteroffensive operations: one great battle or a long-term campaign?

Artillerymen from the 24th assault battalion “Aidar” shoot from 122mm howitzer D-30.
Photo: Mykhailo Palinchak

Sometimes, dazzling success can lead to unforeseen side effects. In a way, the liberation of Kharkiv and Kherson created a misconception among the global community, namely: that these were fast, stand-alone events that came out of nowhere. The idea that counteroffensive actions are mythical battles that start and end in a few days is now the cause of a confusing global debate on the “upcoming counteroffensive” of 2023.

Statistical portrait of the full-scale invasion:

– Total highest area temporarily occupied by Russia: 126,200 km2 (78,417 sq. miles) – roughly the size of Greece, Nicaragua or Mississippi state.
– Total area of territories liberated by the Ukrainian Army: 43,000 km2(26,718 sq. miles) – roughly the size of Denmark, or x2 the size of New Jersey state.
– Total number of refugees: 8.2 million (90% – women and children) – almost equal to the population of Switzerland or Sierra Leone.

Sources: Deepstate map, UNHCR data, Ukrainian Ministry of Interior Affairs, General Staff of AFU

The final advances of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in Kharkiv and Kherson now feel like the stuff of legend. The Ukrainian forces were creative, lightning-fast, and courageous. The retreat of Russian troops looked incompetent and cowardly. It all seemed to begin and end in the span of a week or two. In the final days of the liberation, we couldn’t keep up with the number of freed towns, with the pace of photo-evidence of Ukrainian flags raised over municipal buildings. Based on precedent, we now expect the same Ukrainian blitz in the other regions temporarily occupied by Russia… But should we draw one-to-one conclusions for all future operations? In general, what should counteroffensives even look like in actuality?

Kharkiv & Kherson: long campaigns remembered for their finales

Kherson residents meet Ukrainian troops during the liberation of the city, November 2022.
Photo: Reuters

The victories in Kharkiv and Kherson were NOT one battle, but the finishing blow of much longer and more patient operations. The Kharkiv campaign was a complex thing, yet is now only remembered for its blazing rush at the end: the 40-mile (64km) push of Ukrainian armored vehicles that smashed through Russian lines and sent entire enemy units into retreat, leaving behind everything from tanks to personal documents and toilet paper rolls.  

Many things preceded the large-scale liberation, to name a few: Ukrainian Special Forces going deep into the Kharkiv region to shape the battlefield; the repair of hundreds of armored vehicles; the battles for smaller villages on the outskirts of strategic centers; the months-long campaign of destroying Russian logistics; the artillery duels and air defense efforts. 

Locals repainting the sign to the town of Shevchenkovo (previously defaced by Russian forces) and taking photos with Ukrainian soldiers.
Photo: General Staff of the AFU

Another major (and often overlooked) element of the story is the human price. Ukraine places a high value on the lives of its defenders and this impacts strategic decision-making. Preparation is key for minimizing casualties. Every soldier is a human life and every military operation comes at a steep cost. Even wildly successful liberation efforts are achieved through great individual sacrifices, as bombs, artillery and mines are used in a scorched-earth approach by Russian forces.

Statistical portrait of the Kharkiv region:

– More than 10,000 square kilometers liberated by the Ukrainian army.
– More than 404,000 refugees fled the region since February 2022.
– Over 90% of rural communities suffer from constant shelling and air strikes.
– The first counteroffensive actions of the AFU started in the summer of 2022.
– The major push to liberate the Kharkiv region continued into mid-October 2022 but defensive operations continued much longer.

Sources: Deepstate map, UNHCR data, Ukrainian Ministry of Interior Affairs, General Staff of AFU

Smaller-scale counteroffensive operations in the Kharkiv region took place all throughout the summer of 2022. Only in late August did the fresh units of the Ukrainian army receive the order to move to the area. The fighting continued well into October. In fact, few remember that the farther the Ukrainian forces pushed towards the Luhansk region, the harder the fight became… and the more war crimes and atrocities committed by Russians were discovered. Torture chambers with improvised electric chairs; basement prisons for civilians; mass graves and burial sites the horrors of Bucha and Irpin repeated again and again. In mid-October, two months into the “fast” Kharkiv operation, the U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War stated: “The counterattack in the Kharkiv region has not yet reached its climax”.

Mass burial site of more than 440 graves discovered near Izium, Kharkiv region.
Photo: Mariana Kushnir

The liberation of Kherson city and most of the Mykolaiv region came next. Over the many months of occupation, the invaders had mined huge swaths of Kherson’s land, turning the Ukrainian plains into a deathtrap. A system of concrete-reinforced trenches was built by the Russians. Furthermore, unlike the wooded areas around Kharkiv, Kherson was a rolling steppe with no cover: wheat fields, hills, and rivers. 

“The minefields [the Russians] set up — they practically didn’t know themselves how many there were. Every new unit that came in would add more mines. We didn’t have the option to advance rapidly.” – Maj. Gen. Andriy Kovalchuk, head of the Kherson counteroffensive operations.

President Zelenskyy visits the newly liberated Kherson, November 2022.
Photo: Office of the President of Ukraine

Kherson was taken not through a single daring push but through patience, precision, and ingenuity. Going in through open fields packed with landmines would have led to failure. So, the Ukrainian Armed Forces targeted enemy logistics, supplies, and transport corridors. The goal was to exhaust the invading force – not a fast process. The destruction of Russian ammunition depots, damage to the Antonivskyi bridge, and dozens if not hundreds of smaller operations that went on for months are what enabled success.

Statistical portrait of the Kherson region:

– More than 5,000 square kilometers liberated by the Ukrainian Army.
– More than 523,000 refugees fled the region.
– 100% of rural communities suffer from Russian shelling or temporary occupation.
– The first counteroffensive actions of the AFU started in the summer of 2022.
– The city of Kherson was liberated on 11 November 2022.

Sources: Deepstate map, UNHCR data, Ukrainian Ministry of Interior Affairs, General Staff of AFU

When we speak of Kherson, we think about the tears of joy of the liberated Ukrainian civilians. We think of military courage and persistence. Yet we rarely discuss the brutal attrition that was required to take Kherson back: the FAB-500 half-ton bombs dropped by Russian planes onto Ukrainian infantry; combat medics dragging their comrades to safety under flying shrapnel; on-the-fly innovation of combat drones by Ukrainian engineers; the resistance of local Ukrainian partisans under occupation.

Posters from the Ukrainian partisan movement in Kherson: “Occupier, better leave before HIMARS helps you leave”.
Photo: Centre for Strategic Communication and Information Security of Ukraine

Kherson was liberated through many months of effort and many lost Ukrainian lives. Most of the Mykolaiv region came with it, as the Russians fled and the AFU pushed on. The attritional campaign that started in the summer of 2022 would pay off only by mid-November.

Statistical portrait of the Mykolaiv region:

– More than 1,600 square kilometers liberated by the Ukrainian army.
– More than 100,000 refugees fled the region.
– 50% of rural communities suffer from constant Russian shelling.
– The first counteroffensive actions of the AFU started in the summer of 2022 in the first Kherson campaign.
– 99% of the region was liberated by 11 November 2022.

Sources: Deepstate map, UNHCR data, Ukrainian Ministry of Interior Affairs, General Staff of AFU

Where was the Kyiv counteroffensive?

Ukrainian soldiers prepare for counteroffensive actions near the city of Irpin, March 2022.
Photo: Marcus Yam

The liberation of Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Sumy regions in the north of Ukraine were barely even discussed as counteroffensives in the media. Yet, technically, they were exactly that. We heard terms like “resistance”, “liberation” and “defense”. But these were operations that countered the offensive efforts of the Russian army and freed key territories of Ukraine, safeguarding its most strategic areas, as well as eventually securing the dangerous border with Belarus. Why then did nobody discuss the “Kyiv counteroffensive” or “Chernihiv counteroffensive” as widely as we are now discussing the expected Ukrainian push of 2023? 

The spring of 2022, all the way up to late April, was a time of non-stop counteroffensive action. It simply never featured that single blitz that we saw in Kharkiv. These battlefield efforts of the Ukrainian army happened over dozens of smaller battles and over several months. Yet can we dispute the importance of their results? Thanks to them, Kyiv still stands. Chernihiv and Sumy still stand. Ukraine still stands. People can live their lives as much as is possible during war, free from a brutal and oppressive Russian regime. 

Statistical portrait of the Kyiv region:Statistical portrait of the Chernihiv region:Statistical portrait of the Sumy region:
– More than 7000 km2 liberated.
– Counteroffensive operations: nearly 40 days.
– 1367 civilian bodies found after de-occupation.
– More than 9500 km2 liberated.
– More than a month of counteroffensive operations.
– More than 3,500 buildings destroyed by shelling.
– More than 5,000 km2 liberated.
– Was one of the first regions invaded by Russia.
– 43% of rural communities under Russian shelling.
Sources: Deepstate map, Ukrainian Ministry of Interior Affairs, General Staff of AFU

The liberation of the North, though shorter than the fighting in the South, was also a form of attritional warfare. Before we had the HIMARS, we had to use the Bayraktars against Russian supply lines. Before we had M-777s, we relied on Javelins to take out key targets. But northern Ukraine was liberated as much by patience and precision as it was by bravery and offensive action. 

What is the Ukrainian view of the counteroffensive?

Children in Kherson greet the first Ukrainian train arriving after de-occupation.
Photo: Ukrainian Railways

Ukraine isn’t going anywhere. Ukrainians aren’t going anywhere. One of the bitter yet important lessons of the full-scale war has been about resilience and patience. Ukrainians live daily with the sound of air raid sirens. They go to work and pick up their kids from school under the threat of Russian missiles. Day after day, week after week, month after month. The only thing that matters is the safety and freedom of our land and people, no more and no less. This gives us strength.

Moreover, Ukraine values the lives of its defenders. The soldiers that only yesterday were teachers, poets, doctors and college students. Unlike Russia, Ukraine doesn’t want victory at the cost of soulless “meatgrinder” attacks. If so, we may be looking at one or more long-term counteroffensive campaigns: with dozens of smaller battles, medium victories, and important challenges, stretched over weeks and months. We should be prepared to take as long as needed to protect human dignity, liberty and a lasting peace instead of a temporary one. 

“A great battle for Middle-earth begins, and one battle for Gondor will decide everything… It doesn’t happen like that [in real life].” – Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to President Zelenskyy.

Volunteers from the ‘Repair Together’ group gathered for the rave event to clean up the damaged House of Culture in Ivanivka, the Chernihiv region. September 3, 2022.
By Roman Pilipey / European Pressphoto Agency

Additionally, the success of ANY Ukrainian counteroffensive operation is proportional to the military support Ukraine receives from its partners: fighter jets, ammunition, armored vehicles, air defense systems, etc. While the Ukrainian Armed Forces have grown and improved vastly through international aid, one shouldn’t forget that we’re facing an enemy that is armed with 70 years worth of Soviet bombs and 30 years worth of missiles bought with Russian oil money.

“If the counteroffensive is successful in liberating our territories – everyone will say it was the final push. But if not, we should prepare for the next counteroffensive beyond that.” – Dmytro Kuleba, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine

The goal of Ukraine, Europe, and the entire civilized world is lasting peace on the continent. This can only be achieved through: 

  • the restoration of complete territorial integrity within Ukraine’s 1991 borders; 
  • the punishment of war crimes committed by the Russian army and its leaders; 
  • reparations to rebuild what has been destroyed and damaged.

Any negotiations conducted without these milestones, without the full liberation of Ukrainian lands, without global justice for war criminals to prevent future invasions, will only lead to a fraudulent imitation of peace …followed by an even bloodier war. A war that will hurt global stability much more than it already has. 

Every Ukrainian hopes that another mighty push by our Armed Forces expels the Russian army in a single blow. But if the battle for Gondor doesn’t happen in one day or even one month – we should be prepared to defend Middle-Earth however long it takes.