Even with Western military equipment, the momentum seems to be missing in Ukraine’s counter-offensive against Russia

There are various terms associated with fighting a defensive battle—these range from reinforcement of a locality under attack, to counter-attacking a position that has been captured, a counter offensive and a counter stroke. Each has its differences ranging from force levels employed, time frame in which it is carried out, objectives, aims and nuances of […]

There are various terms associated with fighting a defensive battle—these range from reinforcement of a locality under attack, to counter-attacking a position that has been captured, a counter offensive and a counter stroke. Each has its differences ranging from force levels employed, time frame in which it is carried out, objectives, aims and nuances of execution.
In the 18 months since the conflict broke out, the Ukrainians have mostly been on the defensive, preventing Russian forces from seizing more territory. But with the help of billions of dollars of Western military equipment, Ukraine launched its counter offensive in June, attempting to expel the Russians from land they previously captured in the East and South of the country.
All news reports were focused on the successful launch of a Ukrainian counter offensive once the weather permitted with troops equipped with Western arsenal which is far superior to their Soviet origin equipment. However, equipment is only one part of the matrix, the quality and training of troops, their battle procedures, tactics and doctrines are yet another dimension which is essential to ensure the success of any operation. However, now it is clear that the futility of Ukraine’s offensive, promoted relentlessly by the Western media as a turning point in the war, is being questioned.

Russia Strengthens Its Defensive Lines
In preparation for Ukraine’s counteroffensive, Russia spent months fortifying the almost 1,100km frontline across the territory it occupied. Satellite images revealed a multi-layered Russian network of anti-tank ditches, mazes of trenches, concrete “dragon’s teeth” barricades, steel “hedgehog” obstacles, spools of razor wire and minefields. Russia’s proficiency in defending the occupied territory through a phalanx of massive obstacle system which is not easy to breach poses its own challenges to an attacker.

Ukraine’s Progress of Operations
Before the start of the counteroffensive, Ukrainian forces engaged in “shaping operations” to weaken logistics and supply chains deep inside Russian-occupied territories. According to some reports, Ukrainian forces for the counteroffensive were organized into twelve brigades. Three were trained in Ukraine, and the other nine were trained and equipped by the US. Beginning in May 2023, Ukrainian forces engaged in “localised” counterattacks on the flanks of Bakhmut, on 12 May Ukrainian forces forced the Russians out of the Southern bank of the Berkhivske Reservoir, four kms North West of Bakhmut, and claimed gains of 20 sq km. On 5 June, they had retaken part of Berkhivka, North of Bakhmut.
On 11 June, Ukrainian forces breached Russia’s first line of less fortified defences and liberated three villages in the Donetsk region. On 18 June, Ukraine struck a Russian Ammunition Depot deep behind the frontline in Southern Kherson. By 30 June, the Ukrainian counteroffensive had made only modest gains but Ukraine’s Defence Minister claimed this was merely a “preview” of a much bigger push to come.
On 4 July, several drones were shot down in the suburbs of Moscow. On 17 July, there was a Ukrainian attack on the Crimea bridge, which connects the occupied peninsula to Russia. The bridge partially collapsed killing two people. On 30 July and 1 August drone strikes targeted skyscrapers in Moscow’s main business district. On 4 August, Ukraine’s Navy carried out sea drone strikes outside the port of Novorossiysk, a major Naval Base and oil-exporting terminal located East of Crimea. Ukraine claimed its troops had retaken the village of Staromaiorske in the Donetsk region. Around Bakhmut, in the East, where there has been intense fighting, Ukraine has also stated that it has regained some small areas and it has also made small gains in the Zaporizhzhia region in the South, a key area where Ukraine aimed at making a decisive difference.
On 16 August, Ukrainian Marines advanced on the South Eastern frontlines, towards the key port city of Mariupol, with the recapture of the village of Urozhaine appearing to have been partially aided by the Ukrainian use of controversial cluster munitions. This represented progress for a gruelling counteroffensive in which the gains have been measured in meters rather than miles. Ukrainian troops have faced stiffer than expected resistance and there has been an unavoidable slowdown of tempo due to the heavily fortified Russian defensive lines, reinforced by vast networks of trenches and landmines.
To put it across simply, the Ukrainians attempted to advance on three axes and then develop a main one after the Russians had side-stepped their reserves to counter them and these in turn had been fixed by the Ukrainian offensive. The Russians remained strong enough to hold the offensive on all thrust lines without permitting a major breakthrough.

Cluster Munitions
As it pushes to liberate its territory, Ukraine is using a controversial weapon: cluster munitions, the supply of which to the Ukrainian Military by the Biden administration has led to an ethical debate. As it pushes to liberate its territory, Ukraine is asking the United States for a controversial weapon: cluster munitions. More than 100 countries have banned the use of cluster weapons via treaty, though Ukraine, Russia and the United States are not signatories to that international treaty. Cambodia and Vietnam are still suffering casualties due to these munitions. The US military says the models they are supplying Ukraine have an improved “dud” rate in which only 2.5% of them fail to detonate on dispersal a claim that is viewed skeptically. The Ukrainian military intends to use these munitions in areas of the front that are largely depopulated and already littered with mines and unexploded ordnance. No matter the types of munitions used, Kyiv’s ordnance removal teams would have to clear those areas after the fighting before allowing civilians back.

An Assessment
While Ukraine now has the capability to launch missiles, rockets or shells deep behind Russian lines, hitting their fuel depots, ammunition hubs and Command and Control Centre’s, which could weaken Russia’s defences, they need to follow up aerial strikes with a ground offensive. As per a The Washington Post report, the US intelligence community assesses that Ukraine’s counter-offensive will fail to reach the key South Eastern city of Melitopol. Should it prove correct, it means Kyiv won’t fulfill its principal objective of severing Russia’s land bridge to Crimea in this year’s push.
The issue is does Ukraine have the availability of adequately trained troops and resources to overcome the odds and outperform the Russians ensuring that their troops are sufficiently degraded?

The question is that two months into this counter-offensive, and with time of the essence before the onset of winter, are Ukrainian troops making any real progress? and Why is Ukraine’s progress so slow? In the last two months, Ukrainian forces have been attacking on three fronts, using Western-supplied equipment and training, and probing for weak spots along the entire 1100 km front line. While progress is being made, it is slower than Ukraine and its Western allies had hoped. The counter-offensive seems to be sputtering and the culmination point as far as Ukraine is concerned is reaching before achieving their stated objectives. The key question is what is an achievable definition of victory for Ukraine and defeat for Russia, at least in the current impasse of a contest that presently seems to be at a stalemate? Unfortunately, in a proxy war the protagonists suffer.

Maj Gen Jagatbir Singh, VSM (Retd) is an Army veteran.