Ukraine’s Counteroffensive: A Luncheon Lecture with Colonel Liam Collins

By Alexander Thomas, MALD 2023 Candidate, The Fletcher School

Western audiences have had difficulty grasping Ukraine’s success in protecting its land from Russian aggression since the war began on February 24, 2022. This is because the Ukrainian Armed Forces have experienced a history of stinging defeats by the Russian military since the outbreak of the conflict in February 2014. The protracted fighting in the Donbas, in conjunction with the annexation of Crimea by Russia, resulted in Ukrainian service members either surrendering or defecting due to a perceived lack of preparation, equipment, professionalism, morale, and competent leadership. The story in late 2022, however, was markedly different. 

To help explain Ukraine’s military performance against Russia, Fletcher’s International Security Studies Program invited retired Colonel Liam Collins, Ph.D., on November 15, 2022, to join an exclusive group of Fletcher students and faculty for a luncheon lecture. Colonel Collins, executive director of the Viola Foundation and permanent member of the Council on Foreign Relations, acted as the executive officer for the U.S. Senior Defense Advisor to Ukraine from 2016 to 2018. In this role, he met with numerous Ukrainian officials, including the president, defense minister, and head of defense, with the ultimate aim of assisting them in restructuring their defense sector.

Colonel Collins began the conversation by speaking about some of the fundamental overestimations that the West held about Russia’s conventional warfighting capabilities. 

“Honestly, while the Ukrainians are just better prepared tactically for this war than the Russians are, they are absolutely fighting an overwhelming force with the Russian invasion.” Colonel Collins said. “The Ukrainians are outmanned and outgunned, but still managing to pull this off with the help of Western aid.” 

He spoke about how Russia made significant progress in the first month of the invasion by capturing Kherson, encircling Mariupol, and reaching the borders of Kyiv and Kharkiv. However, Russia eventually abandoned its efforts in Kyiv and withdrew from northern Ukraine. With no quick victory in sight, Russia then re-focused on consolidating gains in eastern and southern Ukraine, including the seaport of Mariupol. 

During this period, Ukraine strengthened its military with support from the West and planned a major counterattack, which was launched on August 28, 2022. Colonel Collins spoke about the prospects for the war over the winter of 2022-2023 and predicted that as long as the West continues to provide military aid to Ukraine, Ukraine would be able to hold off the Russians. 

“Without the help of the West, the Ukrainian army absolutely would have fallen by now. In that assessment, Putin wasn’t that far off the original mark. When we first started giving aid to the Ukrainians, we just thought that it would be enough to harm Russia. But once it became clear that the Ukrainians could actually win this thing, that’s when you see the amount of aid increased. And as long as this aid continues, the Ukrainians are going to be successful. As a result, this thing is probably going to drag on for years,” Collins stated. 

On the subject of Russia’s performance, Colonel Collins discussed Russia’s demonstrated ineffectiveness when it comes to combat operations. Collins posited that this is in large part due to the Russian military’s growing reliance on ill-prepared conscripts, as it lost most of its professional servicemembers early on in the war. With morale and supplies of weapons and ammunition declining steeply throughout the Russian military, Collins argued that additional stress would be placed on Russia’s supply line throughout the winter. 

Looking back now, we know that Ukraine’s planned counteroffensives to take back territory in the Donbas over the winter have found limited success at best. Despite the massive security aid packages from the West, including Leopard tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles, Ukrainian forces have proven capable of advancing along the line or pushing forward incrementally, but not the capability to conduct coordinated large-scale operations. 

As Russia prepares to send additional tens of thousands of ill-trained, ill-equipped, and ill-prepared Russian conscripts into the war, Ukrainian forces are bound to be placed on the defensive. If they can continue to burn through the Russian military’s resources and further consolidate tanks and other Western military aid into their forces, they are sure to be in a solid position to conduct a meaningful counterattack in the late spring or summer. 

Leave a Reply