Ukraine war: after two months of slow progress the long-awaited counteroffensive is picking up speed. Why has it taken so long?
Ukraine’s 2023 counteroffensive was the subject of speculation for months before it officially began at the beginning of June. So far, only modest progress has been made and there have been concerns from Kyiv’s allies that Ukraine is making insufficient headway against entrenched Russian defences.
But in recent days there have been reports backed by geolocational evidence that the operation is gaining momentum and suggestions of breakthroughs at several points along the Russian defensive lines.
With the end of summer now fast approaching, it seems that a serious push is taking place. Reports indicate that Ukraine is now committing a significant portion of its available forces to achieve progress – including a number of brigades trained and equipped by Kyiv’s Nato allies.
Initial hopes that Ukraine would be able to replicate the spectacular success of the Kharkiv counteroffensive in the autumn of 2022 have not come to pass. This has drawn criticism from some western allies – a leaked report from the German military suggested that training and equipment are being wasted.
There are also reports of heavy casualties sustained by Ukrainian troops (although Russia is reported to be sustaining similarly heavy losses). The main objectives of liberating cities like Melitopol and pushing through to the Sea of Azov are still a long way off.
But reports emerge daily to indicate that progress is being made in a number of areas. Several settlements have recently been liberated in the Donetsk region, as additional fresh forces are committed to the push in the south-east.
The situation suggests that Ukrainian forces are transitioning away from smaller-scale action intended to shape the battlefield and beginning to attack in force.
Following a series of missile attacks aimed at degrading Russian logistics, Kyiv will be hoping it can recapture significant swaths of territory in the weeks to come. Ukraine military planners will be only too aware that time is limited, as only a relatively short time remains before the weather gets worse, making rapid movement more difficult.
Overcoming Russian defences
There are a number of reasons why it is difficult to advance. While Russian forces are reported to be disorganised and suffering low morale, they have the advantage of occupying well-prepared defensive positions, which will make them hard to dislodge.
Russia has also learned from the success of Ukraine’s autumn counteroffensive last year. They have been able to prepare many challenges, such as minefields that stretch for hundreds of kilometres.
While Ukraine possesses a highly mobile, well-trained and capable force, physical barriers of this nature are proving difficult to navigate. It is also worth noting that neither side controls the skies above the battlefield, meaning that Ukraine needs to be cautious with its ground operations.
Another fact to consider is the value of the forces that Ukraine has at its disposal. The counteroffensive began with around 40,000 specially trained and equipped troops. This is a significant force by any estimation. Backed up by experienced officers and western equipment, these newly formed brigades represent a huge investment in people and equipment. Ukraine cannot afford to exchange these forces for modest battlefield gains, given that they would be so difficult to replace.
While Kyiv’s allies have made significant contributions in terms of equipment and training this support will not be infinite particularly in the US where polls suggest a growing number of Americans feel the US is doing too much to support Ukraine.
Heavy losses in early phases have already caused Ukraine to rethink its approach. General Syrskyi, the architect of some of Ukraine’s biggest victories, stresses the importance of a cautious approach: “We’d like to get very fast results, but in reality, it’s practically impossible.”
Likewise, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has stressed the importance of not expecting “Hollywood” style outcomes. These statements suggest that advances will continue, albeit deliberately and carefully. This is likely to frustrate key Nato allies, who are increasingly critical of the pace of advance.
But there are now indications that Ukraine may be breaking through Russian defences in several locations. Should a significant breach be achieved, then Ukraine will aim to rapidly build up momentum, using its armour and mechanised units to push into the interior of Russian-occupied regions. With their logistics networks shattered and low on manpower, Russian forces may struggle to react.
Yet again, Ukrainian forces are pragmatic: “We can’t draw big conclusions yet,” a senior military officer told journalists on July 30. It is unlikely that any single breakthrough will result in the complete collapse of Russian defences.
But it’s worth noting that even modest progress on the battlefield can place significant pressure on the Kremlin. Having had the humiliation of the Wagner Group “mutiny” and appearing unable to defend the airspace over Moscow from Ukrainian drone attacks, the Putin regime is in a shaky position.
Recent gestures, such as changes to conscription and renewed nuclear threats, are symptomatic of this instability. Former president, Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of the Russian security council and a staunch ally of Vladimir Putin, threatened that Russia would resort to using nuclear weapons if Ukrainian forces retake occupied territory, warning: “There would simply be no other choice. So our enemies must pray for our warriors [who are] preventing the ignition of a worldwide nuclear conflagration.”
A great deal will hinge on the success of the latest counteroffensive pushes in the south. One of Ukraine’s main stated aims is to push to the Sea of Azov, about 60km south of where its troops are now. If this goal is achieved, it will effectively cut Russia’s troops there into two isolated halves.
Daily updates from the Institute for the Study of War, an American thinktank, highlight that Kyiv’s troops continue to advance in that direction as well as making territorial gains elsewhere in the Donetsk region around the bitterly contested city of Bakhmut.
This is not to say that this conflict will end any time soon. It remains in the balance and the only certainty is that many more young men will die in the coming weeks and months.