At the turn of May and June 2023, Ukraine launched a counter-offensive. Aware of the high stakes and high expectations, both from the public and from Western partners, the Ukrainian authorities are trying to tone down excessive optimism. At the same time, hybrid instruments were also used to increase the chances of a counter-offensive by destabilising and causing chaos in Russia.
The stake in the game. The anticipation of the spring Ukrainian counter-offensive was accompanied by numerous and optimistic comments, heralding an approaching turning point in the war. At the same time, restrained and cautious statements by the Ukrainian authorities and the command of the armed forces began to appear.
Minister Oleksiy Reznikov noted that while at the beginning of the Russian invasion in 2022 the world underestimated Ukraine’s capabilities, it now overestimates them. Kyiv realises that the lack of clear Ukrainian military successes may result in increased pressure on Ukraine from the West to start negotiations with Russia. This is an unfavourable scenario because it would not only legitimise, at least to some extent, the occupation of part of Ukraine by Russia, but it would give Russia time to overcome international isolation, stabilise its own political and social situation and prepare for another, inevitable act of aggression. Russia, on the other hand, is counting on such a development, striving to exhaust Ukraine and convince the West that it is pointless to support the Ukrainians.
It is also known that the Russians have prepared for a possible Ukrainian offensive by expanding their defensive positions for months, which makes it impossible to repeat the spectacular success of the Ukrainian counter-offensive in the summer and autumn of 2022. Ukraine does not have the forces or means of combat to take action on the front line, which is approximately 1,400 km long. Human reserves are exhausted, it is impossible to gain superiority in the air, and there is no long-range artillery. A massive offensive has no chance of success in such conditions. Concentrating significant forces in selected directions would, in turn, be too risky in the face of the constant threat of Russian attacks, and it would also take away the necessary advantage of surprise.
In order to maintain international engagement and take advantage of the symptoms of disorder visible in Russia, Ukraine, despite its modest reserves and resources, must take the initiative. What is at stake is not a quick victory and end to the war, but the achievement of a military, political and psychological advantage, which may affect the further course of the war. Hence the extensive preparations – on the one hand, the long and costly defence of the operationally and strategically insignificant Bakhmut, which, however, involved and bled substantial Russian forces, giving the Ukrainians time to train units and collect weapons and ammunition – and on the other hand, intensive diplomatic activities. In the first months of 2023, President Zelensky visited several cities including London, Rome, Paris, Berlin, The Hague. Also, he participated in the summits of the G7 and the League of Arab States.
Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba is constantly travelling, e.g. to African countries. The aim of these activities is to obtain, maintain and expand international support – also in countries where Russia and China maintain influence.
Who lives by the sword… Everything indicates that in the face of a stronger opponent, Ukraine has decided to resort to the instruments previously used against it by Russia – hybrid actions. Implemented in a creative way, they also refer to the Russian concept of мятежевойна (usually translated as “war of rebellion”). Their goal is not a military breakthrough of the front, but a multifaceted impact on the enemy, including his morale and motivation. Therefore, disinformation operations are being carried out, e.g. misleading the enemy as to the possible directions and time of an attack, as well as intensive cyberattacks – the Ukrainians hacked, e.g. the infrastructure of the Russian science and technology innovation complex Skolkovo (presented in Russia as the equivalent of “Silicon Valley”). There were reports in the Russian media that Vladimir Putin introduced martial law and general mobilisation in three oblasts (Belgorod, Bryansk and Kursk) in connection with the entry of the Ukrainian army into Crimea – several television channels broadcast a film about the Ukrainian counter-offensive. All these reports had to be denied by the Russian authorities, attributing them to hacking.
In addition, kinetic operations are underway: various targets (railway lines, trains, fuel and ammunition depots, military bases, etc.) located both in the territories of Ukraine occupied by Russia and in Russia itself have been attacked, either by drones, or by special forces. In the occupied territories, defectors collaborating with the Russians fall victim to assassinations, and there have also been drone attacks in Russia including, notably, Moscow. Some were reportedly targeted at districts inhabited by the Russian political and financial elite. At the same time, the Ukrainian side denies that it carried out these attacks – which is also an element of hybrid activities and a reference to the “little green men” from the period of the annexation of Crimea.
In turn, a certain analogy to the Luhansk and Donetsk separatists may be the actions of Russian units (the “Freedom of Russia” Legion, Russian Volunteer Corps) fighting on the side of Ukraine. Their entry into the territory of the Russian Federation and the raid in the Belgorod Oblast and neighbouring regions not only compromised Russia militarily but also served as a basis for a kind of “trolling”: Ukraine denied its participation in this operation, emphasising its “Russian-Russian” character, while rumours were spread about an alleged referendum on the creation of the Belgorod People’s Republic, about “liberation” and about the opening of a humanitarian corridor from Russia to Ukraine, through which the Russians could escape from their own army shelling Belgorod and ask for asylum in Ukraine.
This kind of activity will continue – not as a complement to the counter-offensive but as one of its key elements. The Ukrainian command will strive to make Russian society feel the effects of the war. This is supposed to translate into a further deterioration of the morale of the Russian forces and the destabilisation of Russia.
Reactions in Russia. Until the “revolt” of the Wagnerites, which caused panic and prompted even Vladimir Putin to become publicly active, the Russian authorities reacted traditionally, assuring the public that the situation is under the full control of Russian forces. However, the repeated attacks of Ukrainian drones and special forces on Russian territory, and in particular the rally of pro-Ukrainian Russian formations, resulting in the escape of many residents of the border regions, the announcement of an anti-terrorist alert and the redeployment of Russian forces from other regions, has forced the administration to admit that the territory of the Russian Federation is under attack, and assurances that the services and the army will effectively counteract this (“prevent terrorist attacks”). In turn, in early June, President Putin announced that the Ukrainian counter-offensive had begun – but that it was being successfully repelled.
At the same time, in the Russian blogosphere, social media and even official media there are accusations that the border is not protected, which is why the war has moved to Russia. Soldiers’ complaints about poor command, lack of supplies, and the inefficiency of the Russian state are multiplying. This criticism is growing and remains in clear contrast to the official rhetoric of the authorities.
Influential mil-bloggers, despite their mostly ultra-nationalist attitude, no longer write about a certain victory over Ukraine, but about the fact that by May 2023 there were more cases of desertion in the Russian army than in the entire year of 2022, and that the blowing up of the Nova Kakhovka dam was a desperate attempt to block a line of attack of the Ukrainian offensive.
There is also a growing lack of mutual trust among the Russian political, military and financial elites, as well as their distrust and disappointment in relation to the Kremlin and President Putin personally, who, according to both society and many influential Russians, does not know how to win this war – therefore he is weak. As a result, intra-Russian conflicts and animosities are also growing – it can be assumed that they led to the “March of Justice” of the Wagnerites led by Yevgeny Prigozhin. It is also significant that the object of criticism is not only the “boyars” (e.g. Shoigu and Gerasimov) but also, though not always openly and directly, the “tsar” himself.
Conclusions. The Ukrainian side has shown restraint in its comments on the course of the counter-offensive; little information has appeared in the Ukrainian infosphere. This contrasts with the previous stages of the war and facilitates Russia’s propaganda activities. However, the Ukrainian authorities are aware of how important the success of the counter-offensive will be, both in the military, political and psychological dimensions – for Ukraine, Russia and the West. Nevertheless, limited human and material reserves have forced Ukraine to undertake manoeuvre warfare and look for weak points in the Russian defence, counting on the chaotic actions of the Russians.
Hence, the goals of the Ukrainian operation are not only military and territorial (recovery of the occupied areas), but they also comprise a diplomatic offensive with the extensive use of hybrid instruments – psychological operations, special forces operations, disinformation and diversion. Such irregular actions are intended to affect the morale of both sides and disrupt the functioning of the Russian hinterland.
They will therefore be continued in parallel with regular operations on the front, as they bring military benefits (weakening the morale of the Russian army, perhaps transferring some of the Russian forces to Russian territory) and, above all, non-military ones: they destabilise the internal situation, affect the mood of Russian society, deepen the discord among the elites and their dissatisfaction, weaken the image and credibility of Russia and Putin himself. Continuing with this course of action makes sense since the course of events, from the raid on Belgorod to the capture of Rostov by the Wagnerites, has shown that Russia does not have any strategy or potential to effectively neutralise hybrid activities.