Tuesday, 08 August 2023 10:09

What went wrong in Ukraine’s counteroffensive

Soldiers of the 128th Brigade of Ukraines Territorial Defense force walk across a field beside a camouflaged vehicle after they receive training to counter Russian mines that litter Russia’s built-up defense lines in the Zaporizhzhia region on August 2, 2023.

At the very end of July, Ukrainian forces liberated Staromaiorske, a tiny village in southeastern Ukraine. It wasn’t a full breakthrough — at least not yet. But it was a real victory in Ukraine’s otherwise lackluster weeks-old counteroffensive.

Ukraine had tried to tamp down expectations about the counteroffensive long before it had begun. But Kyiv’s past successes and Moscow’s past failures, the deliveries of new advanced Western weapons, and a fresh crop of Western-trained Ukrainian recruits all had a lot of folks very hyped — maybe overly so — about what Kyiv could achieve.

This, despite sober analysis from plenty of observers who said this counteroffensive would more likely be a slog, especially given the impressive, heavily mined Russian fortifications along a vast front line. Experts were also uncertain how well Ukrainian troops would be able to maneuver with advanced weapons, like main battle tanks, and whether they could overcome supply and logistics challenges.

The good news is that, weeks into a counteroffensive, we have some clearer answers to those questions. The bad news is those answers were not great, if you’re Ukraine or its backers. Russian fortifications are as formidable as advertised. Western equipment can withstand a lot, but vast minefields are vast minefields, and Kyiv and its newly trained forces have largely failed at conducting combined arms operations on a large scale — that is, coordinating troops and all this different weaponry, like armored vehicles and artillery, to blitz through Russian lines. Kyiv has also suffered high casualties in its attempts to do so.

Ukraine knows this, and has now shifted strategies to a much more attritional approach, trying to degrade Russian forces and logistics as it focuses its operation on three axes of attack. “It’s not so much about killing Russian troops at the front line, but more weakening some critical enablers like artillery — but also things like command posts, ammunition supplies, electronic warfare systems, air defense systems, these sorts of things,” said Niklas Masuhr, a military analyst at the Center for Security Studies at the Federal Institute of Technology Zurich.

It is a cautious and methodical approach, said Federico Borsari, who focuses on defense and transatlantic security at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). It helps reduce the number of casualties Ukrainian troops suffer, but it forces Kyiv to rely more heavily on artillery. It is slow going, by design.

This model has favored Ukraine’s military in the past. That does not make this a surefire strategy. Russia, again, has learned from past mistakes, and the battlefield dynamics have changed since Ukraine retook parts of the Kharkiv region and forced a Russian retreat in Kherson last year.

That makes this next phase of the counteroffensive far from certain. “Phase 1 probably failed, but doesn’t mean they can’t win,” said Patrick Bury, a senior lecturer in security at the University of Bath. “They can still win in Phase 4 or 3 or 5, even, this summer. What it means is that there’s less time in which to do that.”

Russian defenses have made things very, very difficult for Ukraine

Ukraine’s progress in its counteroffensive is being measured in hundreds of meters, as a Pentagon official characterized it to Politico last week. Russian defenses are a big reason why.

Russian fortifications in Ukraine are some of the most extensive in Europe since World War II, stretching across the front lines, from Kherson in the south all the way to the north. The Russian military spent months in advance of the counteroffensive digging in, building layers and layers of complex anti-tank defenses.

The minefields, most of all, have stymied Ukraine. The Ukrainian front line is carpeted with mines, miles deep. They are trip-wired or booby-trapped. Even if Ukraine’s Western armored vehicles can withstand the blasts, the layers of anti-tank mines hinder forward movement, leaving them vulnerable. “As soon as Ukrainian units become stuck in an area, they are immediately targeted by artillery, drones, and attack helicopters,” Borsari said. Russia has built trenches that are filled with explosives, so when Ukraine approaches, prepared to clear a Russian position, Russian forces can detonate them remotely.

All of this is making Ukraine’s progress incremental and slow, which gives Russia time to re-fortify and re-mine, further impeding Ukrainian movement. “The whole dilemma for Ukraine is actually one of maneuver, because to overcome prepared Russian defensive lines, you need to force Russian movement,” said Oscar Jonsson, founder of Phronesis Analysis and researcher at Swedish Defence University.

Russia has had other advantages in artillery and aviation — particularly its use of attack helicopters, which have been able to pick off Ukrainian targets beyond the protection of Ukraine’s air defenses. On the whole, Russia has managed to make adjustments and compensate for some of its weaknesses. It has done things like trying to keep its artillery launchers and ammunition dumps farther out of range of Ukrainian fire. “It would be really stupid to not grant the Russians the ability to learn from their mistakes and to adapt constantly — and they’ve done that,” said Simon Schlegel, senior Ukraine analyst at the International Crisis Group.

Still, Russia has not solved all of its logistical and equipment constraints, especially when it comes to artillery. Troops are plagued by low morale, and some are poorly trained. Ukraine can still exploit all of these. But as a Western intelligence official said at a briefing in late July, “The ability of the Russians just to grit it out should not be underestimated.”

Ukraine hasn’t been able to master combined arms warfare at scale

Billions in Western military donations have helped transform Ukraine into a formidable military. It has advanced battle tanks and a cadres of NATO-trained troops. All of this was supposed to give Ukraine an edge in its counteroffensive.

And in some ways, it has. But it’s complicated.

Ukraine’s newly trained troops were also untested and inexperienced in battle when the counteroffensive began. And even with all this Western equipment and training, Ukraine has struggled to conduct combined arms operations – that is, using all of its military systems and platforms together on a large scale.

In the early days of the counteroffensive, Ukrainian forces attempted to break through Russian lines with mechanized combined arms formations, but these were largely repulsed by Russia because of its deep defenses. Ukraine suffered heavy casualties as a result. American and European officials said some 20 percent of Western equipment was destroyed or damaged in battle in the opening weeks of the counteroffensive.

Not a lot of armies can successfully pull off a fluid, mechanized offense — let alone one compiled and trained in a matter of months, and against an army like Russia’s. This is a big reason why Ukraine has shifted its battlefield tactics, focused instead on wearing Russia down rather than trying to blitz through enemy lines.

Kyiv faces additional logistical and supply challenges. It needs advanced weapons, but it also needs tools like de-mining and engineering equipment. Ukrainian troops have said they need more of these tools, and Russia is reportedly targeting such equipment in strikes.

Ukraine is burning through a lot of ammunition, and it is relying on a lot of different munitions from a lot of different countries. These systems work together, but imperfectly; artillery may fire, but it might not travel as far or be as accurate. But Ukraine often has no choice but to use what’s available, when it’s available — even if it complicates offensive operations. These are not necessarily new difficulties for Ukrainian forces, but they’re amplified given Ukraine’s ambition for this counteroffensive.

Ukraine enters the next phase of its counteroffensive. What now?

Ukraine is currently fighting on three axes — two in the south and one in the east, near Bakhmut. The retaking of Staromaiorske represented progress along one very critical axis in the Ukrainian push south, where Kyiv seeks to reach the Sea of Azov, with the goal of slicing up Russian-controlled territory. The military balance of power has yet not shifted in this region. But Staromaiorsk was a sign, at least, that Ukraine could turn things around in this next phase of the counteroffensive.

“We may reach a point where Ukraine really can start to attack first the first line of defenses, and the strongest one, built by Russia,” Borsari said. “So far, most of the clashes and most of the attacks have been in an area that is like a gray zone; it’s not even the first line of defense by Russia.”

To achieve this, Ukraine is pursuing a more creeping advance, seeking to weaken and wear down Russian troops. It is doing this by targeting critical Russian components, like artillery and supply lines and transportation infrastructure. This helps Ukraine preserve manpower and equipment, but it costs a lot more in artillery and in time, without a lot of change in territory. “To some extent, I would say that is the trade-off that Ukraine is plagued with,” Masuhr said.

Manpower is one of the big questions around Ukraine’s capabilities right now. Kyiv kept thousands of newly trained troops in reserves, but in recent weeks it has started at least sending some of those into battle. This may signal a more intense push by Ukraine, but it carries risks, too: The more reserves Ukraine commits, the fewer fresh troops it will have available to rotate out, or to respond to any shifts on the battlefield.

Artillery and ammunition are also key to Ukraine’s current strategy, and Ukraine will need a lot of it. Last month, the United States made the controversial decision to send cluster munitions, which was at least partially an attempt to help over tide the Ukrainians as the US and Europe ramp up artillery production. Those efforts are already underway.

And then there’s the time factor. Ukraine’s strategy of attrition may be effective, but after the counteroffensive’s early stumbles, it has a lot less time to wear Russia down.

Autumn 2023 is not an official deadline, exactly, but it is likely going to be the time frame by which a lot of Western governments will judge Ukraine’s success or failure. The front lines haven’t changed substantially since Ukraine forced a Russian retreat in Kherson in November 2022. If the boundaries remain largely frozen for more than a year, a decisive victory for either side will start looking less and less likely.

That is not a foregone conclusion, and Ukraine can still succeed. And if it does, the slow, grinding counteroffensive may all of a sudden look very, very different. “It’s like bankruptcy — very slowly, and then all at once,” Bury said. “There could come a point where they wear down the Russians enough for them to break through somewhere, and then, out in the open, drive those Western tanks. But so far, we’ve not really seen it getting to that point.”