The war in eastern Ukraine has entered a new phase as Ukrainian forces have started to conduct “shaping” operations in the south of the country to prepare the battlefield for a major counter-offensive against Russian troops.
Shaping operations are military actions that aim to create favourable conditions for a decisive attack by weakening the enemy’s defences, disrupting their supply lines, and gathering intelligence. They can include artillery strikes, air raids, sabotage, reconnaissance, and deception.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has vowed to liberate the territories occupied by Russia since 2014 when Moscow annexed Crimea and backed separatist rebels in the Donbas region. After a long winter that froze combat for months, Zelenskiy’s next move could be crucial to his country’s future.
However, the timing and location of the counter-offensive are uncertain and highly secretive. Ukraine’s greatest success of the war so far came when it successfully fooled Moscow into thinking its September attack would come in the south, and not in the northern Kharkiv region. Surprises over timing and location are the most powerful tool at Ukraine’s disposal as it attempts to regain lost territory, break Russian supply lines, and bolster Western support for the long war that likely lies ahead.
Some analysts believe that Ukraine could launch its counter-offensive in the coming weeks while others suggest that Zelenskiy could be bluffing or delaying his move to buy more time and weapons from his Western allies. The UK became the first Western country to provide long-range cruise missiles to Ukraine on Thursday to boost its offensive capabilities.
Meanwhile, Russia has also been reinforcing its positions and building new lines of defence in the south, where it controls a strategic railway line that connects its forces in Crimea and Melitopol with those in Luhansk and Donetsk.
Shaping operations are actions that aim to create favourable conditions for the main attack by weakening the enemy’s defences, disrupting their command and control, and deceiving them about the timing and direction of the offensive. Shaping operations can involve airstrikes, artillery fire, special operations forces raids, cyberattacks, psychological operations, and other means of targeting the enemy’s critical assets and capabilities.
Shaping operations are often conducted in phases, starting from long-range strikes to degrade the enemy’s air defences and communication systems, followed by closer-range attacks to destroy their armour, artillery, and ammunition depots. Shaping operations can also include feints and diversions to mislead the enemy about the location and timing of the main attack.
Shaping operations are important for several reasons. First, they can reduce the enemy’s ability to resist and retaliate, thus minimizing the casualties and risks for friendly forces. Second, they can create gaps and opportunities in the enemy’s defence line, allowing friendly forces to penetrate and exploit them. Third, they can influence the enemy’s morale and will to fight, making them more likely to surrender or retreat. Fourth, they can demonstrate resolve and deterrence to the enemy and other potential adversaries, signalling that friendly forces are ready and capable of achieving their objectives.
Ukrainian forces conducted shaping operations against Russian forces occupying parts of eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian forces used US-supplied HIMARS mobile rocket launchers to strike targets in Russian-held territory. They also carried out airstrikes and artillery fire against weapons systems, command centres, ammunition depots, and other targets to prepare the battlefield for a significant Ukrainian counteroffensive. The counteroffensive aimed to liberate key cities such as Kherson and Luhansk from Russian occupation .
By conducting shaping operations, friendly forces can weaken the enemy’s defences, disrupt their command and control, deceive them about the main attack, reduce their morale and will to fight and demonstrate resolve and deterrence. Shaping operations require careful planning, coordination, and execution by the joint force commander and allied forces.