- Ukraine’s counteroffensive has slowed against deeply-entrenched Russian defenses and may not reach a key objective, but it’s too early to determine whether it has proven a failure, experts told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
- Ukrainian troops have changed tactics and refocused on managing an attrition war over the long term, according to media reports.
- “This is going to last for years, in one way or the other. And we should not base our enthusiasm or our willingness to provide Ukraine weapons and support based off whether or not the counteroffensive is a success or failure,” Luke Coffey, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, told the DCNF.
Ukraine’s anticipated counteroffensive has slowed to a grinding pace and dismayed commentators, who wonder whether the Ukrainians were properly positioned in the first place to achieve their aims.
Prior to the counteroffensive, which began in June, the West invested billions in training and equipping brigades of fresh Ukrainian troops to achieve key objectives, including severing Russia’s ground-based connected to the occupied Crimean peninsula. However, Kyiv’s military planners changed tactics after frontal assaults with Western weapons ended badly, while Russia’s overwhelming edge in troops and artillery, protected by miles of dug-in fortifications and minefields, hobbled the counteroffensive.
A large portion of Ukraine’s troops on the front lines are inexperienced, experts told the DCNF, while Russian artillery chewed up Ukrainian companies. Furthermore, Ukraine is attempting to perform operations under conditions most Western armies would deem unacceptable by attempting offensive armor and infantry movements without air superiority.
“I don’t think it’s the case that the offensive isn’t meeting the expectations of American and Ukrainian military planners. I don’t think it’s meeting the expectations of American and Ukrainian commentators,” Luke Coffey, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, told the DCNF.
In March, Coffey predicted the counteroffensive would see slow, at times uneven progress and doesn’t believe that expectations have not been met.
However, Pentagon officials, speaking anonymously to discuss sensitive issues, have expressed frustration with the pace of Ukraine’s assault and the military leadership’s spurning of U.S. strategic and tactical advice, The Wall Street Journal reported. As early as June, Western officials claimed the counteroffensive was “not meeting expectations,” CNN reported.
U.S. intelligence assessed Ukraine would fail to reach a key goal: the southeastern city of Melitopol, a conquest that would effectively break off the land bridge between Russia and occupied Crimea, The Washington Post reported on Aug. 17. Two major highways and a railroad line run through Melitopol, allowing Russia to transport troops and equipment between the peninsula and other Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine.
Reasons for the stunted progress are “fundamental,” crippling Ukraine’s effort from the start, retired Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, a senior fellow at Defense Priorities, explained to the DCNF. The training Western allies put Ukrainians through on a compressed timetable was just enough to “familiarize” troops with the equipment, he said.
“Then you have the fact that of the most important gear, they simply didn’t have. They didn’t have air power. They didn’t have enough air defense in the tactical area. They didn’t have enough artillery to overwhelm the Russians. And probably the biggest one is that they didn’t have anywhere near enough mine-clearing engineering assets,” Davis said.
Ukrainian military leadership delayed initiating the counteroffensive for as long as they could while waiting for Western equipment to arrive, according to The Economist. The extra time gave Russian troops time to construct hundreds of miles of trenches and lay vast minefields.
Yet, western aid has still not arrived at the pace and quantity pledged, while allies stall and argue over supplying newer and more sophisticated equipment, according to The Economist. Ukraine has received just 60 German-made Leopard tanks, despite promises to send hundreds, a source inside Ukraine’s general staff told the outlet.
“We simply don’t have the resources to do the frontal attacks that the West is imploring us to do,” the source said.
In June, elite western-trained brigades attempted to pierce Russian defensive lines and sustained what Ukrainian military planners considered unacceptable losses of men and equipment, the WSJ reported. After the disastrous first start, Ukraine changed its strategy and tactics.
“No Western Army would have attacked this kind of defense with anything less than a three-to-one advantage because you have to overwhelm the central point of penetration with overwhelming combat power so you swamp the defenses. And at most they might have had parity,” said Davis.
“We no longer plan operations that presuppose large losses,” the source told The Economist. “The emphasis is now on degrading the enemy: artillery, drones, electronic warfare, and so on.”
Several media outlets reported the administration as believing Ukraine is too risk-averse and unwilling to commit the brunt of forces to the south.
“The problem was not that Ukraine was unwilling to attempt company and battalion armored assaults but that when it did so ‘Russian anti-tank capabilities just proved too strong.’ If they had been mounted on a larger scale, it is not clear that the gains would have been much greater, although the casualties would certainly have been higher,” Lawrence Freedman, Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London, argued in an Aug. 23 blog post.
While seizing wide swaths of territory and key cities would be ideal, many defense analysts do not see the switch to attrition war, which would necessarily taper off in the fall and resume once weather conditions improve the following spring, as a sign of the end for Ukraine. Many think Ukraine could seek more moderate objectives and pepper Russian lines with small-scale operations to chip away at the defenses with a judicious use of higher-quality Western artillery.
Others argue that the Biden administration has proven the overly-cautious partner, crippling Ukraine’s offensive capabilities, Freedman noted. Pentagon support of artillery, ammunition and air defenses, including a Patriot battery, are indispensable to current operations. However, the U.S. has so far held back on long-range artillery and the F-16 fighter jets Ukraine wants to achieve air dominance.
The White House referred the DCNF to National Security Council Adviser Jake Sullivan’s remarks Tuesday denying that the counteroffensive had devolved into a stalemate.
“Ukrainians are operating according to their tactics and their timetable, making progress according to the strategic and operational decisions of their commanders and their leadership, and we’ll continue to support that,” he said.
“The question here is which of the two sides is going to be worn out sooner,” Franz-Stefan Gady, an adjunct senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security, who visited Ukraine in July, said Sunday.
The biggest risk will come if the counteroffensive “culminates,” or comes to a halt when Ukraine runs out of the troops, weapons, and logistics equipment required to push through increasingly tough Russian defenses, making them vulnerable to counterattack, Davis said. As Ukraine dips further into reserve troops, with little or no combat experience, that possibility becomes ever more likely and betrays what could be wishful thinking from the Pentagon.
Even if Ukraine does not reach the sea, the war would not be lost, other analysts said. Russia’s shifting war aims betray its apparent inability to achieve any more major breakthroughs, according to Freedman.
“We should also think of this war not as a series of annual counteroffensives, but as a single campaign,” Coffey told the DCNF.
Ukrainian forces have retaken 81 square miles of territory since the counteroffensive began, according to the Post. On Tuesday, Ukrainian forces claimed the recapture of Robotyne, a small step toward Melitopol and the Sea of Azov, The WSJ reported.
Battlefield leaders are learning, their units are better trained and more Western equipment is arriving; their perspective on the present situation has grown more positive, even if they have let go of hopes for a decisive win before the winter, according to The New York Times.
“This is going to last for years, in one way or the other. And we should not base our enthusiasm or our willingness to provide Ukraine weapons and support based off whether or not the counteroffensive is a success or failure,” Coffey said.
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