‘We’ll show just how weak they are’: Ukraine primed for crucial offensive

With concern among allies seemingly growing, there is a lot riding on an imminent counter-assault on the Russians in the south

The last time “Luh” served in the military, he was a Soviet conscript, sailing the Arctic Ocean with the USSR’s northern fleet over four decades ago.

When Russia seized the Crimean peninsula and Russian-backed proxies moved into his home region of Luhansk nearly a decade ago, he cheered on the Ukrainian army but thought his fighting days were behind him.

Then last February, the 64-year-old signed up again to serve. “I didn’t volunteer in 2014 because I thought the country could do this without me, but then last year I saw they couldn’t.”

It was volunteers like Luh – a railway engineer in civil life – who helped propel Ukraine to victories over Russia’s military last year that stunned even close allies.

Now they aim to do it again, in a counter-offensive expected to start within weeks, perhaps even days, that will be a critical test for Ukraine.

The war has settled into nearly static frontlines for several months, with Russian forces still holding nearly a fifth of the country, and the cost of military and financial aid to Ukraine apparently starting to worry some western allies.


The coming months of fighting will show if Ukraine is able to come good on promises to reclaim all its occupied territory, after more than a year of occupation has allowed Russia to dig in extensive fortifications.

The most optimistic among Ukraine and its allies hope for a repeat of the dramatic military triumphs of last spring and autumn, when Moscow was pushed back from Kyiv and then forced out of swathes of the country’s east and south in a few weeks.

The men and women who have spent time facing Russian troops in the trenches are less sanguine about progress, although also certain about the eventual outcome. “Everyone is waiting for it and thinks we will solve everything with one hit. It will take time, and will be hard,” said Luh.

The Observer met Luh, who under military protocol asked to go by his call-sign rather than his name, at a training camp a few dozen kilometres from the frontlines in southern Ukraine. His infantry unit had withdrawn briefly from the fighting to practise tactics for storming Russian trenches. On the makeshift firing range, other groups fired off mortars and anti-tank missiles, heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Most were working on improving the speed and communication that can be the difference between life and death in battle.

A former tattoo artist and a construction worker with dreadlocks were drilling veterans like Luh, alongside relatively new recruits.

“Dark”, who is 30, signed up in January after helping his wife and son settle into a new life outside Ukraine. “Someone has to defend the country,” he said about his decision to volunteer. He has had two trips to the frontline already, but hopes to get more experience before the full-scale push starts. “We are not ready, we need to train more, we need more time.”

His concerns echo those of many in Washington and other European capitals that have poured billions into supporting Ukraine but worry about the state of its military after a punishing year. The official casualty toll is a secret, but leaked US military briefings put the number of Ukrainian dead at between 15,500 and 17,500 with more than five times that injured.

Ukrainian soldiers training
Ukrainian soldiers prepare for the counter-offensive, which is expected to start within weeks, if not days. Photograph: Emre Çaylak/The Observer

Russian deaths are estimated to be at least double Ukrainian losses, and other casualties tens of thousands higher, but a draft law and recruitment from prisons have increased troop numbers.

US intelligence warned in February that Ukraine might fail to amass sufficient troops and weaponry, and fall “well short” of its goals for regaining territory, a trove of leaked defence documents revealed. That was despite the counter-offensive serving as a driving force behind a rapid training programme and massive delivery of aid over the winter.

Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said last week that Ukraine had taken delivery of 1,550 armoured vehicles and 230 tanks, along with large amounts of ammunition from the alliance and partner nations. Nato countries have also trained and equipped nine new armoured brigades leaving Ukraine in a “strong position” to continue to take territory, Stoltenberg told journalists in Brussels.

As the new equipment has rolled over the border, and the first weeks of spring have passed, there has been increasingly intense conjecture about when and where the counter-attack might start.

The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and his ministers have not been averse to building up the coming offensive – talking about it helps to boost domestic morale and keep Ukraine in the news in western countries who are sending vital aid. Potentially, it could also undermine morale in Russia.

Still, the spiralling speculation is frustrating some top officials, who have called for patience, at home and abroad.

“Numerous counter-offensive scenarios that are now being released to [the] public could be used as screenplays for films. But we will write our history ourselves,” said deputy defence minister Hanna Malyar in a recent conference.

Presidential aide Mykhailo Podolyak was more scathing about the commentary outside Ukraine, calling on allies to focus on getting weapons to the frontline rather than playing armchair general.

“‘Military observers’ argue whether the “second season” will be as successful as the first one. Political analysts warn that if viewership drops, investors will consider whether to renew the series for a third season,” he wrote in a sharply satirical post on Twitter. “The ‘fans’ are dissatisfied: photos of destroyed landscapes and wounded people no longer tug at the heartstrings, and show-runners show the lack of creativity.

“Meanwhile, ordinary Ukrainians who left civilian life to defend their country are preparing to reclaim their home day after day, but they do not understand where the promised ammunition, aircraft and long-range missiles are.”

Kyiv is keeping its plans under wraps because it faces a larger, well-trained army that has been digging into its defensive positions for months. Surprise is as vital to the campaign as tanks and air defences.

President Zelenskiy
President Zelenskiy has been happy to talk about the coming offensive as it is believed to boost morale. Photograph: Viacheslav Ratynskyi/Reuters

The obvious military objective for Ukrainan forces would be driving down to reclaim a foothold on the shores of the Sea of Azov. If they could push through Russian-held territory they would cut off supply lines to troops currently attacking Kherson, and sever Russia’s land bridge to Crimea.

The roads and railways through southern Ukraine into the peninsula, seized in the early days of the invasion, are Vladimir Putin’s only substantial gain of his war. Cutting them off would change the strategic calculus, and be a military humiliation isolating the military bases and pro-Moscow civilians on the Crimean peninsula. Russian troops would then be connected to Russia only by the Kerch bridge, which has already been badly damaged in a suspected Ukrainian attack.

It would be a risky push, however. Russia has dug rows of trenches, laced with minefields and anti-tank defences. Getting through them requires a combined operation, with enough force to stop Russia closing up the initial breaches.

One of the biggest factors likely influencing the start date, outside Ukrainian or Russian control, is the weather. It has been a cold and rainy spring, making the ground uncomfortably muddy for manoeuvres, and a heavy wind can limit the operations of vital surveillance and attack drones.

“The biggest challenge is to break their defensive line – if we do that they will run away,” said a member of a mortar team who goes by the call-sign Sarmat. It is a summary of both Ukrainian hopes for the operation and the challenges ahead.

Sarmat was an engineer before the war, but his four-man team has been hardened by a year of battle. The Observer met him at a training camp, where they were working to improve speed and coordination.

His team has been working through mortars from around the world including Spain, Croatia and Pakistan. Like most soldiers on the ground, they had one key request for Ukraine’s allies: more supplies.

“They have had enough time to build a lot of trenches, so we need a lot of ammunition to get them out,” Sarmat said.

“These mortars have to keep working constantly because they have a psychological effect as well. They are loud and distinctive and when the Russians hear the whistle of a mortar, they know it is coming for their soul. We know what it’s like because we have felt it too.”

Everyone who signed up last year has seen heavy fighting. “I was 20 at the beginning of the war. Now I feel like a grown man of 40,” said “Knife”, who was a student in the final year of his international relations BA when he signed up to fight last year.

He finished his degree in the trenches and said he is now “really practising another kind of international relations on the ground. I think we are about to strike and show how weak they are.”

Many Ukrainian troops fighting on the ground say confidence in their leadership, particularly commander in chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi, was raised by the victories of the last year.

“I respect Zaluzhnyi very much as a military man. Being as strategic as he is, he will hit somewhere no one expects it,” said Rock, a 34- year-old ex-special forces soldier who tried to re-enter civilian life in 2021 but rejoined to fight the full-scale invasion.

“If there is an order from him, it is because he knows what he is doing,” he said. “Death is not as frightening if you know what you are dying for.”

• This article was amended on 2 May 2023 to correct the caption below the main picture, which we had incorrectly said showed a Ukrainian fighter testing “a piece of artillery” during training; the weapon is a heavy machine-gun.


Emma Graham-Harrison and Artem Mazhulin in Zaporizhzhia region

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