Ukraine’s Counterattack in the Black Sea: Causes and Consequences

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Anton Șveț
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said in an interview with The Times that Ukraine is developing a counterattack plan to retake coastal areas in the south of the country that are vital to the economy. For this purpose, he said, Ukraine is assembling an armed force of 1 million troops. The defense minister echoed Deputy Prime Minister for Reintegration Iryna Vereshchuk, who recommended that residents of southern towns urgently evacuate due to plans for a counteroffensive in these areas.
The end of last month was marked by the AFU tactical success in the Black Sea military operations – control was regained over Snake Island seized by the Russian Federation on the first day of the “special operation”. The strategic significance of this victory is still disputed, because the threat to the Black Sea coast of Ukraine near Mykolaiv and the southern ports of Odesa Region has not been fully eliminated. However, it is a question of changing the balance of forces on the Black Sea theater with interception of the initiative by Ukraine at the expense of supplies of modern Western arms and mobilization of personnel. The status quo that has been formed since the sinking of the Moskva cruiser has swung towards the AFU tactical success. And Kyiv will try to build on it. The Kherson Oblast, where the fighting over the last few months has been mainly an artillery duel with rare sorties, seems the most promising for a number of reasons. First of all, a Ukrainian counteroffensive in the Donbass is impossible. The most combat-ready Russian and ‘LDPR’ formations are at that section of the front. Many of the localities left by the AFU are still solid fortifications, an assault on which would be pointless. Any offensive there would result in excessive losses. In addition, regaining these territories, which suffered the most during the war, with destroyed infrastructure and demographics, barely makes economic sense. While unblocking Ukraine’s effective access to shipping in the Black Sea could help normalize export supplies, which is of interest not only to Kyiv, but also to many other states that buy Ukrainian goods. In any case, Bankova keeps in mind possible negotiations with Russia, which we cannot rule out completely, including under pressure from the international community. Some EU countries, while maintaining solidarity with Kyiv, still publicly declare the need for diplomatic solutions. And in this sense, Moscow will absolutely not give up the territories of the Donbass ‘republics’, which it recognized on February 21 within the borders of the regions. Meanwhile, the borders in other regions of Ukraine will be temporarily determined in the worst case for Ukraine by the actual front line, which Kyiv needs to push back as close to the pre-war situation as possible. Nor can we ignore the fact that Kyiv’s international partners are watching military actions in the south most closely not only for commercial and economic reasons. There is also a geographical logic here. The defeat of Ukraine in Mykolaiv would actually mean the entry of the Russian armed forces to the borders of Moldova and in the case of capturing Odesa even to Romania, a NATO member. Obviously, this scenario contradicts the interests of the West in Moldova, which has recently been granted candidate status for EU membership. Changing the status quo in the Transdniestrian settlement in favor of the separatist authorities and Moscow is clearly not in the plans of Washington, London and Brussels. Now Ukraine actually covers Moldova with its territory, which allows the leadership in Chisinau to conduct a pro-Western and sometimes anti-Russian policy, freely discussing the possibility of joining the sanctions – the recent statements by the head of the EU delegation to Moldova Janis Mazeiks are clearly a signal of Chisinau’s desirable solidarity. In this sense, the AFU successful counter-offensive to Kherson will push back the front line and completely secure Moldova, giving it the carte blanche to squeeze the Russian military from Transdniestria and forcibly reintegrate the territory. And in this case, it is impossible to exclude even the use of police and force methods. Ukraine will be able to get access to the weapons stored in the depots in Cobasna in the north of Transdniestria, which will only increase its potential. The paradox of the situation is that a Ukrainian counterattack on the Black Sea coast could be beneficial for Russia itself, as it would mean shifting attention away from Donbass, where Moscow is preparing to solve its tasks in the Sloviansk-Kramatorsk agglomeration and in Avdiivka. A general battle on the plains of northern Kherson Oblast would radically change the tempo of military action by eliminating the conflict’s incompleteness. Today, the Russian armed forces are assaulting the enemy’s fortified areas one after another, acting systematically but predictably. After capturing each city, Russian and ‘LDPR’ forces require tactical pauses, while Ukrainian forces concentrate in large cities, the storming of which is practically impossible, which ensures maximum prolongation of the confrontation. Switching to defense in one area gives the Kremlin a chance to inflict tangible losses on the enemy in manpower and equipment and regain its strategic advantage. Although this will require the mobilization of additional forces. Either way, the trajectory of the conflict may change in the coming months, becoming more reckless. The front of active hostilities in this case may expand sharply, including by attacking in unexpected areas, which will provide breakthroughs and unpredictable changes in the overall situation. Moldova should be prepared for different scenarios, preferably by strengthening its diplomatic activity, because even doubling the military budget due to the EU donor support would not radically improve the national army’s combat readiness. Whereas successful maneuvering between the interests of major geopolitical players together with reviving the Transdniestrian settlement could not only fundamentally secure the country’s eastern border, but also demonstrate the applicability of negotiation strategies for conflict resolution, which would bring benefits to the future of the Black Sea region.