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Is Ukraine’s offensive stalling? - The Economist - 25.07.23

A breakthrough remains possible, but it will take time.


UKRAINE’S COUNTER-OFFENSIVE will soon enter its eighth week. It has already liberated more territory than Russia captured during a months-long winter offensive, which took the eastern town of Bakhmut and little else. The majority of Ukraine’s Western-equipped brigades remain intact and uncommitted. But progress has been slower and harder than expected, dashing hopes of an early breakthrough. The offensive has devolved into a protracted battle of attrition, which seems likely to stretch into the autumn.


Ukraine launched its first big attacks in the south on June 4th around Orikhiv in Zaporizhia province and around Velyka Novosilka in Donetsk province, along with a separate push around Bakhmut (see map). Ukraine’s allies had spent months conducting wargames and simulations to predict how an assault might unfold. They were cautiously optimistic. They thought there was an outside chance of an early breakthrough, resulting in rapid progress of the sort that Ukraine had achieved in Kharkiv province last year. But such an outcome depended both on Ukraine executing its mission flawlessly and on Russia crumbling.

In fact neither of those things has happened. Ukraine ran into trouble right away. Its new Western-equipped brigades became bogged down, sometimes in minefields, and were targeted by Russian artillery, anti-tank missiles, attack helicopters and loitering munitions. Ukraine responded by changing tactics. It is now holding back armour and sending in smaller units of dismounted infantry, often no more than 20 soldiers, to proceed slowly and haltingly. The result is a grinding slog.


“The various wargames that were done ahead of time have predicted certain levels of advance,” conceded General Mark Milley, America’s top officer, on July 18th. “And that has slowed down.” Ukraine says it has liberated 12 square kilometres of territory in the south in the week leading to July 24th, and 227 square kilometres in total since the start of the offensive. That is around 0.3% of the territory gained by Russia since the invasion last year.


In part, the slow progress reflects the scale of Ukraine’s task. Russian defences are 30km deep in places, bristling with earthworks and tank traps and spattered with mines. Most NATO armies would struggle to punch through comparable lines without complete dominance in the air, which Ukraine, unfortunately, does not enjoy.


Another problem is that Russia has mounted a stronger defence than expected, conducting mobile and rapid counter-attacks in response to Ukrainian advances, rather than remaining confined to trenches and fixed positions. Rob Lee, an expert on Russia’s armed forces who recently visited the front lines, notes that Russia’s army has not just executed its doctrine competently, but also innovated, for instance by stacking multiple anti-tank mines on top of one another to destroy mine-clearing vehicles.


Ukraine’s inability to breach Russian lines is partly to do with equipment—it needs de-mining kit, air-defence systems and anti-tank missiles capable of blunting Russian counter-attacks from a greater distance. Air power would help a lot, but Western jets, although promised, are not arriving soon. Anyway, the handful that are expected would not themselves give Ukraine control of the skies.


Ukraine could, however, make better use of the equipment it does have. Mr Lee describes an occasion when a Ukrainian brigade’s advance was delayed by a couple of hours, until dawn. That not only negated Ukraine’s advantage in night-vision systems, but also meant that the accompanying artillery barrage lifted hours earlier than it should have done. Russian infantry and anti-tank squads, who should have been suppressed by well-timed shellfire, were free to attack. Many such assaults have been stopped even before they reach the main minefields.


This lack of proficiency in co-ordinating complex attacks involving multiple units using different sorts of weapons is hardly surprising. Ukraine’s new brigades were put together in a hurry with unfamiliar equipment. Newly mobilised men were given a month of training in Germany. They have struggled with tasks like reconnaissance, says Mr Lee, with new units becoming disoriented at night time. Co-ordination has also been a problem, with confusion around where friendly units have placed mines.


More experienced brigades would have planned for such eventualities, he suggests. It is impossible to tell how Ukrainian forces might have fared had their Western partners equipped and trained them better last summer, rather than waiting until January, or if Ukraine had launched the offensive in the spring, as many of its allies were urging.

Ukraine’s partners are not panicking yet. “It is far from a failure, in my view,” said General Milley, when asked whether the offensive had stalled.


“I think that it’s way too early to make that kind of call.” Ukraine’s progress was “not catastrophically behind schedule”, said Ben Wallace, Britain’s defence minister, on July 11th. In some places Ukraine’s army was less than 300 metres away from Russia’s main line of defence, he added, with Russian-held towns increasingly coming within range of Ukrainian HIMARS rocket launchers.


Optimists point to three factors in Ukraine’s favour. One is that it need not fear a serious Russian counter-attack, despite minor Russian gains in northern Luhansk province in recent days. “There appears now to be little prospect of the Russian forces regaining momentum,” said Richard Moore, the chief of MI6, Britain’s foreign-intelligence service, in a speech on July 19th. That may be one reason why Russia has torn up a grain deal and resumed strikes on Ukraine’s ports and grain stores.


Second, Russia’s decision to defend forward, rather than falling back to prepared defences, has slowed down Ukraine’s progress but also left Russia with little mobile reserve in the rear, a point underscored by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s unhindered march to Moscow in June. “Russian reserves are running out,” noted Colonel Margo Grosberg, Estonia’s military-intelligence chief, earlier this month, “as units cannot be rotated from the front.” If Ukraine were to break through into open country—perhaps by more circuitous routes, rather than a frontal attack in Zaporizhia—it could push ahead quickly, say some officials, though they privately acknowledge that Ukraine’s chances of reaching the Sea of Azov are dimming.


The third factor is that Ukraine is chipping away at the basis of Russia’s combat power. On July 11th a Ukrainian strike reportedly killed Oleg Tsokov, a Russian general, in the port city of Berdyansk, suggesting that Ukraine was successfully targeting command posts. In recent days Ukraine has also used British-supplied Storm Shadow missiles to strike air bases and ammunition depots, including in Crimea. One such strike is thought to have destroyed 2,500 tonnes of ammunition, said Mr Wallace. At the same time, Ukraine is increasingly hitting Moscow with drone strikes—the latest occurred on July 24th—with the intention of puncturing the Kremlin’s authority and fanning opposition to the war.


It is hard to tell what effect this campaign is having. Franz-Stefan Gady, an expert who visited the front lines with Mr Lee, is sceptical that Ukraine’s attacks are truly dismantling Russia’s command and control or starving it of munitions. In the south, he notes, Ukraine has an advantage in tube artillery (such as howitzers) but Russia is firing plenty of rockets. It also appears to have good intelligence coverage of the battlefield. But with the failure of Ukraine’s initial attempts at breakthrough, the war has become dominated by attrition. Such wars are measured not in kilometres won or lost, but less visible factors such as relative rates of loss and the coherence of each army.


“The war is tactically balanced,” says a Western official closely involved in shaping strategy. Ukraine’s army is highly motivated, he says, and, thanks to America’s decision to provide cluster munitions, well-equipped to keep up the offensive for longer than was originally thought—certainly beyond the summer. Russia’s army has been comfortable on the defence, he says, and will use the time to build new fortifications, but remains brittle. “They are certainly bleeding,” he says. “It could disintegrate.”


Some American and European military officials argue that Ukrainian commanders have been overly cautious in striking with their new brigades, a mistake that they think Ukraine committed last year in Kherson, when tens of thousands of Russian troops withdrew east over the Dnieper river with their equipment. Ukrainian commanders chafe at the idea that they should gamble their army in circumstances that NATO generals have never faced.


In that sense, the changing character of the offensive—from high-tempo assaults to a more patient approach—reflects both military reality and a deeper shift in identity. A fluid war of manoeuvre was always going to be a stretch for a force cobbled together in a few months. The Russian verb peremalyvat—to grind through—is invoked on both sides.


But Ukraine’s junior commanders, having watched their units gutted over the past 18 months, also refuse to send their new citizen army into a meat-grinder in the way that Russia did in Bakhmut. As Ukraine has become more European, suggested Mr Wallace, it has acquired “a Western European caution”.


The upside of this aversion to casualties is that many Ukrainian units are in better shape than planners assumed. Brigades that assaulted Russian positions were expected to be left with only a third of their original strength. Thanks in part to well-armoured Western vehicles, they have taken a far lighter knock.


If it is to avoid the costly frontal assaults of early June, Ukraine now has little choice but to wear down Russia’s army as best it can using its advantages in long-range precision weapons, aided by copious Western intelligence. “This is going to be long, it’s going to be hard, it’s going to be bloody,” concluded General Milley. “And at the end of the day, we’ll see where the Ukrainians end up.” ■



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