“The Ukrainians are in a very difficult position right now,” said a well-connected military analyst with firsthand experience of the front, speaking anonymously due to sensitivity.
“They find it very difficult to breach Russian lines,” the analyst continued. “When they do it, they do it at a high human cost. It is fair to say that at the current stage… the pace of the advance is slower than expected. It’s a grinding fight and we know it is going to last for months.”
More than a month into Ukraine’s much-anticipated counteroffensive to liberate the 18 per cent of Ukrainian territory occupied by Russian forces, the hype that accompanied early sightings of Western tanks and the seizure of a handful of villages has largely dissipated.
While Ukraine’s thrusts through Kharkiv to the north and Kherson to the south last autumn yielded spectacular gains, the push south into Zaporizhzhia has suffered morale-sapping losses of men and prized Western equipment. Operations have slowed as Ukrainian leaders redouble their efforts to secure additional resources from allies.
Ukraine’s commander in chief of the armed forces, Valeriy Zaluzhny, recently told the Washington Post: “Without being fully supplied, these plans are not feasible at all,” complaining of a lack of air power and artillery shells.
No army in modern history has undertaken a successful assault on defensive lines as entrenched as Ukraine faces without an advantage in the air, where Russian fighter jets have numerical superiority and more advanced capabilities.
Ukrainian engineers must plot perilous paths through minefields that lie ahead of Russian trench networks, interspersed with anti-tank fortifications, under fire from drones, artillery, and aircraft.
Despite intensive preparations and training from Nato countries, Ukraine’s armed forces are falling short of the level of coordination required for such a demanding assignment, according to retired US Army Colonel Mark Cancian of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The Russians are well-prepared and on the defensive,” he told i. “To break through, the Ukrainians must synchronize all their different combat arms – infantry, tanks, artillery, engineers, air – and that takes a lot of training. The top Ukrainian units have received such training, but they are nowhere near the US level of proficiency.”
While Russian offensive actions have floundered, the task of defending is significantly easier and well practiced by Russian forces.
Ukraine has recently recorded some encouraging gains around the devastated city of Bakhmut in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, and is pressing Russian forces on the East bank of the Dnipro river near Kherson. But the fighting has shifted gears as Ukraine seeks to weaken Russian defensive lines before mounting another frontal assault.
Increasingly, Kyiv is looking to long-range warfare, making use of the Storm Shadow missiles supplied by the UK and then France, which have a range of more than 150 miles, to strike infrastructure that Russia’s frontline forces rely on.
“There is an intense counter-battery duel being fought, with both sides trying to strike each other’s logistics, command and control, reconnaissance, and artillery systems,” wrote Jack Watling of the Royal United Services Institute think tank.
“The Russians are hunting for Ukraine’s artillery with Lancet drones. The Ukrainians are utilizing Storm Shadow and GMLRS (rockets) to try to destroy Russian command and control and munitions stockpiles.”
This approach has resulted in some spectacular hits on Russian bases in occupied territory, with one recent strike killing a senior commander, Lieutenant General Oleg Tsokov.
Ukraine has addressed another of its deficiencies through controversial means with the recent announcement that the US will supply cluster munitions that are banned in more than 100 countries.
The shells, which can be fired from previously supplied US rocket launchers and release dozens of bomblets across a wide area, will help to bridge the ammunition gap. They could also be more effective in dispersing entrenched Russian positions – although both sides had used them before during this war with limited success.
Ukraine has also adjusted its tactics after initial setbacks and is probing for weaknesses on the southern front – the most vital arena as it could allow the advancing army to sever Russia’s land bridge to Crimea and threaten vital military assets on the occupied peninsula.
“I am cautiously optimistic,” said Mykola Bielieskov of the National Institute for Strategic Studies, a think-tank in Kyiv that advises Ukraine’s military leadership. “We have seen a deadly combination of Russian mines, artillery, electronic warfare, and attack helicopters.”
“We have adjusted tactics and now target Russian artillery and electronic warfare capabilities to create openings for manoeuvre formations. We still have almost two months before September to create openings.”
The bulk of the force assembled for the counteroffensive, including hundreds of Western tanks and thousands of armored vehicles, has yet to be deployed, awaiting the identification of the optimal location to strike.
Mr. Bielieskov does not downplay that this is a window of opportunity, between the winter frosts that make advances more challenging, with stockpiled resources from donor countries, which may not arise again.
The recent Nato summit in Vilnius also offered further progress towards the delivery of long-sought F-16 fighter jets with the creation of a coalition to train Ukrainian pilots on them – although there is no timeline on their arrival, which would certainly be too late for this offensive.
Optimistic predictions that Ukraine could recapture Crimea this summer have given way to more sober assessments. But now – as throughout the war – Ukraine is under pressure to show meaningful gains to maintain the political, military and financial support from abroad that keeps the country functioning and its army viable.
Foreign partners have continued to express solidarity. “We will not waver,” said US President Joe Biden in Vilnius. “We are with you all the way,” Prime Minister Rishi Sunak assured president Zelensky.
But cracks also appear in the coalition. Meetings between US and Russian officials have raised hackles in Ukraine. President Zelensky hinted at a lack of “respect” from international partners before the recent Nato summit, at which Ukraine was frustrated by the lack of an invitation to join the alliance.
UK Foreign Secretary Ben Wallace – a staunch supporter of Ukraine – suggested that Kyiv was ungrateful for the support it receives from the West. European unity behind Ukraine is threatened by nations such as Hungary’s ambivalent stance, while in the US a Republican victory could mean a curtailment of aid.
Ukraine’s military has defied expectations throughout the war, as Russia’s has underperformed. Kyiv strategists took heart from the eventual breakthrough in Kherson last year after months of struggle.
But the size of the task in dislodging Russia’s entrenched forces across the occupied territories is still more daunting – and the clock is ticking.