High hopes vs. ‘real war’: Ukraine’s long-awaited counteroffensive bogs down in Russia’s minefields

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It was billed as the military blockbuster of the summer, a game-changer in what would be Ukraine‘s decisive campaign to drive back the Russian invaders.

Instead, Kyiv’s widely anticipated counteroffensive so far has been, at best, a slog with little discernible progress. 

At worst, critics say, it’s shaping up as an undeniable failure that proves once and for all that neither Ukraine nor Russia is capable of a clear-cut, definitive win on the battlefield.

The Biden administration, they say, should recognize that and push Ukraine toward the negotiating table rather than watch as more money and manpower are expended on a military campaign that cannot achieve its prime objectives.

But other analysts argue that the Ukrainian counteroffensive, which finally began in late spring, has mostly been a victim of its own expectations. Russia‘s military failures early in the war, and the recent mutiny spearheaded by Wagner Group mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, fueled the belief that the Russian army was on the verge of collapse and would quickly split apart as soon as Kyiv’s offensive began in earnest.

The reality has proved much different.

Despite Russia‘s internal political drama, its poor command-and-control structure and low morale in the ranks, Moscow did succeed in building an elaborate series of minefields and other defenses to blunt Ukraine‘s advance in the eastern part of the country.

Defense is typically easier to manage in war than offense, and for all its successes last year, Ukraine went into the fight with some distinct handicaps.

The hope was that an energized and better-trained Ukrainian attacking force could cut Russian occupying forces in southern and eastern Ukraine in two, but the vanguard of the Ukrainian attack force remains dozens of miles from its objective.

Any disappointment with Ukraine‘s progress so far stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation on the ground, said Jim Townsend, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy during the Obama administration.

“They have no air cover. The minefields are really treacherous. They don’t have all the equipment we have. People cannot expect a U.S.-style offensive, like Desert Storm, cutting right through Saddam’s defenses,” he said in an interview. “They’re not equipped for that and we haven’t equipped them for it. We can’t sit back and chide them for that.

“A lot of other allies would be just as stuck as they are dealing with the minefields,” Mr. Townsend said. “I’m hoping they’re close to finding an area where they can break through. If they can find an area to break through, then a lot of the tanks and things that we’ve been giving them will come into play. But they have to find that place.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was largely silent as Ukraine‘s forces racked up victories in the early part of the war, has sounded increasingly confident in recent days that Kyiv’s latest attacks are falling short.

“It is obvious today that the Kiev regime’s Western handlers are clearly disappointed over the results of the so-called counteroffensive loudly trumpeted by the current Ukrainian authorities in the previous months,” Mr. Putin told a meeting with the country’s Security Council on Friday in Moscow, mocking the prowess of Western arms supplied to Ukraine in recent months in support of the advance.

“There are no results, at least not yet.”

‘Real war’

The counteroffensive came after months of virtual stalemate on the ground. Other than fighting in and around the city of Bakhmut, the front lines of the war had mostly been frozen in place for most of 2023, with Russia in control of parts of the disputed Donbas region but unable to push deeper into Ukraine.

Over the past six weeks, the Ukrainian counteroffensive has made some incremental gains. A Wednesday analysis by the Institute for the Study of War said that Ukraine has picked up some ground in Andriivka, southwest of Bakhmut, and northwest of Bakhmut in Orikhovo-Vasylivka, where some Russian forces were forced to retreat.

But the advances have been slow. Most fronts in the counteroffensive have seen minor incremental gains at best, with the entire operation moving at a much slower rate than most analysts expected, especially given the obvious limitations of the Russian force. 

U.S. military officials say the disconnect between expectation and reality boils down to the nature of war itself, in which human beings routinely put themselves in harm’s way for their cause. Speaking to reporters this week, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley conceded that the actual advance hasn’t kept pace with the theoretical war-game exercises conducted ahead of time.

“Why? Because that’s the difference between war on paper and real war,” Gen. Milley said. “These are real people in real machines that are out there really clearing minefields and they’re really dying. So, when that happens, units tend to slow down and that’s rightly so, in order to survive” on the battlefield.

“It is far from a failure in my view,” Gen. Milley said of the counteroffensive. “I think it’s way too early to make that kind of call. I think there’s a lot of fighting left to go.”

With a smaller army and smaller population than its foe, Ukrainian commanders say they can’t sustain the same levels of casualties that the Russians have endured so far and still stay in the fight. Some of the elite Ukrainian units specifically trained for the attack have yet to see any action a month after the offensive was launched.

Gen. Milley pushed back on the notion that the U.S. isn’t giving Ukraine all it needs for the fight. While Kyiv has a long wish list that includes F-16 fighter jets and other significant assets, Gen. Milley said that in the short term, the U.S. and its NATO allies are focused on helping Ukraine clear the vast minefields set up by Russian forces.

“The problem to solve is the minefields, not the air piece, right this minute,” Gen. Milley said.

The web of Russian landmines is vast. By some estimates, about one-third of Ukrainian land is now littered with mines, making it virtually impossible for any rapid ground offensive by the Ukrainian side.

End of the road?

Even if Ukrainian troops are able to neutralize Russia‘s network of minefields and other defenses, there are concerns that Kyiv’s forces aren’t equipped to conduct a successful, multi-pronged assault on the Russian lines. By all accounts, such an offensive is the most complex, difficult undertaking attempted so far by the Ukrainian side. It’s also the most costly, both from an equipment perspective and in terms of the human lives sure to be lost in the process.

In a bitter irony, some analysts argue that Kyiv will soon find itself in a position similar to the one Russia has repeatedly been in over the past century: forced to send waves of men to their near-certain death in the hopes that eventually the scale of attrition will tip in their favor.

Even then, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s troops face an uphill battle, according to retired Army Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, a senior fellow at the think tank Defense Priorities, which advocates a more restrained U.S. military role abroad.

“The military geography of this entire region of Ukraine is characterized by open, flat terrain, interspersed with thin forest strips. Because Russia owns the skies and has considerable drone capacity, any time the Ukrainian soldiers move in the open, they are immediately subjected to artillery or mortar fire. If any armored vehicles move in the open, they are likewise quickly destroyed,” he wrote in a recent analysis posted on the website of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

“It’s not that Zelenskyy’s forces are ‘going slowly’ forward, it’s that they aren’t attaining any of their initial tactical objectives on the way to the Azov coast and it’s precisely because the combat fundamentals necessary to win are largely — and in some cases entirely — absent,” he wrote. “They flatly don’t have the human resources or physical infrastructure necessary to succeed.”

For those reasons, Col. Davis and other observers say it may be time for Mr. Zelenskyy to consider serious peace talks with the Kremlin. Since the start of the war, the Biden administration has maintained that it wants to see Ukraine in the strongest possible position when such negotiations begin and that only Kyiv could say when the time is right. With its counteroffensive seemingly stalled, that time may have arrived.

Furthermore, the U.S. political calendar adds even more urgency to the situation. Several Republican presidential candidates have indicated that if elected, they won’t continue to send unlimited funds and war supplies to Ukraine. That sentiment is only growing in Washington amid troubling signs that America’s own weapons stockpiles are dwindling.

“I think the Ukrainian high command knows all of that because I think we’ve told them that,” Mr. Townsend said. “But there’s not much they can do about it. They’re not going to sacrifice their guys in the minefields to meet our political calendar.”

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