The Ukrainian counterattack proceeds slowly and focuses on limited objectives

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A week into Ukraine’s counteroffensive, the scale and limited objectives of the operation in the south are becoming clearer, along with Russia’s response as both sides head into a winter long and difficult.

After several days of confusion and a deliberate lockdown of information, Ukrainian officials have confirmed the recapture of at least two villages, pushing back against a growing Russian narrative of failure. And on Monday, the deputy head of the military-civilian administration in Russian-occupied Kherson said the province was postponing a planned referendum on joining Russia, citing security concerns.

Yet, while some expected a major push, the Ukrainian advance was no faster than Russia’s largely back-breaking campaign to seize the eastern region of Donbass.

The circumstances of the two campaigns are so different that what counts for failure in Donbass could be success in Kherson, according to Jack Watling, senior land warfare researcher at the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank.

The Ukrainian counter-offensive is conducted at a much smaller company level and, although the approach is slow, it comes with lower costs in terms of ammunition and casualties. His troops also have less territory to conquer – 40-50 km (25-31 miles) compared to hundreds in the Donbass, with the possibility of cornering their Russian adversaries against the Dnipro.

“The Ukrainians are in no rush,” said Watling, who recently returned from Kyiv. “The intention is clearly to make it as difficult as possible for the Russians to hold their positions.”

Each side seems to have accepted for now that they cannot make a major breakthrough on the pitch. Instead, they go deep to disrupt each other’s supply lines, to the point where their forces can no longer afford to fight.

For Ukraine, that means using longer-range high-mobility rocket systems, or HIMARS, supplied by the United States to interdict the flow of ordnance to Russia’s vast artillery. It also means crushing Russian forces in Kherson, where they are most vulnerable, relying on a handful of damaged bridges over the Dnipro River for reinforcements and weapons.

Ukraine must show sufficient progress on the battlefield to counter the risk of fatigue among its American and European allies as they face mounting public pressure over the economic consequences of the war.

For Russia, which has suffered heavy losses in troops and equipment, the focus is increasingly on sowing discord among Ukraine’s financial and arms suppliers in an effort to prevent Kyiv from continuing the fight. The Kremlin has repeatedly said it expects the economic pain hitting Europe to erode political support for Ukraine as the recession hits and the cost of living soars.

Russia cut off natural gas supplies to Germany via the Nord Stream pipeline on Friday, demanding that European countries drop economic sanctions against Moscow in order to restore flows. The cut caused a further spike in energy prices.

“The Russian theory of victory is to project force until the Ukrainians lose their strategic depth, which is their support from the United States and Europe,” Watling said. “The Ukrainian theory of victory is that they degrade Russian forces until they are incapable of fighting.”

The mood in Moscow seems depressed regarding progress on the battlefield, despite continued public support for the war effort. According to a person close to the Ministry of Defense, who requested anonymity, the “special military operation” launched with such confidence at the end of February by President Vladimir Putin is at an impasse which could eventually turn in favor of the Ukraine, which is accumulating reserves. and modern weapons.

The Institute for the Study of War, which maps the progress of the war, described the Kherson counteroffensive in its latest daily bulletins as a “tangible and verifiable degradation of Russian logistical and administrative capabilities in the south of the war.” ‘Ukraine”.

The US think tank also cited geotagged satellite images of groups of troops and blown bridges to confirm a Ukrainian advance on the town of Balakliya, about 90 km southeast of the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv. The counterattack “was likely an opportunistic effort made possible by the redeployment of Russian forces out of the area to reinforce Russian positions against the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kherson Oblast,” the ISW wrote.

Yet there are few signs of triumphalism among officials in Kyiv, even as senior officials say Ukraine still hopes to push Russia out of all territories within its internationally recognized borders, including Crimea. , which Russia annexed in 2014. In an interview with Bloomberg TV on Monday, Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said Ukraine saw time as being on Russia’s side, with Putin ready to prolong the conflict. Together with its allies, Shmyhal said, Ukraine must “finish this war as soon as possible.”

The Kherson offensive is limited in scale precisely because Ukrainian commanders know they lack the personnel to exploit a breakthrough, according to RUSI’s Watling. Under pressure from political leaders to show progress, this creates a difficult balancing act.

And while winter can break the morale of Russian soldiers suffering from poor and degraded supply routes, from ammunition to food and clothing, mud can also hamper any attack.

“Western arms supplies have boosted Ukraine’s potential, but they don’t give it a decisive advantage,” said Igor Korochenko, director of the Moscow-based Global Arms Trade Analysis Center. He added that Ukrainian forces were suffering significant losses in Kherson, a claim that could not be independently verified. “Ukraine can slow us down, but they can’t do it forever.”

What matters is not so much the speed of the Ukrainian advance as the simple fact that the battlefield initiative has passed to Kyiv, according to Daniel Fried, a former senior State Department official who led the effort. Americans to coordinate sanctions against Russia when it annexed Crimea.

“I’m not saying the Ukrainians are going to win,” said Fried, now a distinguished member of the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank. “But the very idea that we would be sitting here discussing a Ukrainian counter-offensive would have been considered laughable just a few months ago.”

He sees the Russian attempt to use energy supplies to blackmail Germany and other European Union states into ending support for Ukraine as a sign of desperation rather than strength. Protests such as a demonstration in Prague calling for an end to sanctions against Russia are unlikely to change government policies, he said.

“Putin looks at the Germans or the Italians and thinks they are as weak as he wants, but he miscalculated,” Fried said, recalling equally flawed predictions in 2014 that those countries would never support sanctions. against Russia. “I don’t think he will succeed.”

© 2022 Bloomberg

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