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Ukraine counterattack unfolds slowly, focuses on limited aims

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One week into Ukraine’s counteroffensive, the operation’s limited scale and goals in the south are becoming clearer, together with Russia’s response as the two sides head toward a long and difficult winter.

After several days of confusion and a deliberate lock down on 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 reasons.

Yet while some had expected a major push, the Ukrainian advance has been no faster than Russia’s widely panned drive to seize the eastern Donbas region.

The circumstances of the two campaigns are so different that what counts for failure in the Donbas may be success in Kherson, according to Jack Watling, senior research fellow for land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute, a UK think tank.

The Ukrainian counteroffensive is being conducted at a far smaller, company level and while the approach is slow, it is incurring lower costs in terms of ammunition and casualties. Its troops also have less territory to take – 40-50 km (25-31 miles) compared to hundreds in the Donbas, with the possibility of pinning their Russian opponents against the Dnipro River.

“The Ukrainians are not in a hurry,” said Watling, who recently returned from Kyiv. “The intent is clearly to make it as difficult as possible for the Russians to hold their positions.”

Each side appears to have accepted for now that they can’t make a major breakthrough on the ground. Instead they’re reaching deep to disrupt the other’s supply lines, to the point that their forces no longer have the means to fight.

For Ukraine that means using longer range High Mobility Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, supplied by the US to interdict the flow of ammunition to Russia’s vast artillery. It also means grinding through Russian forces in Kherson, where they are most vulnerable, relying on a handful of damaged bridges over the Dnipro River for reinforcement and arms.

Ukraine needs to show sufficient battlefield progress to counter the risk of fatigue among its US and European allies as they face increasing public pressure over the economic consequences of the war.

For Russia, which has experienced heavy losses of troops and equipment, the focus increasingly is on sowing discord among Ukraine’s financial and arms suppliers with the goal of making it impossible for Kyiv to continue the fight. The Kremlin has repeatedly said it expects the economic pain hitting Europe to erode political support for Ukraine as recession strikes and living costs soar.

Russia on Friday halted supplies of natural gas to Germany via the Nord Stream pipeline, demanding European nations drop economic sanctions against Moscow in order to have flows restored. The cutoff 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 US and Europe,” said Watling. “The Ukrainian theory of victory is that they degrade Russians forces until they are unable to fight.”

The mood in Moscow appears downbeat regarding progress on the battlefield, despite relentless public boostering for the war effort. According to one person close to the defense ministry, who asked not to be identified, the “special military operation” President Vladimir Putin launched with such confidence in late February has reached a stalemate that risks eventually turning in Ukraine’s favor, as it builds up reserves and modern arms.

The Institute for the Study of War, which maps the war’s progress, described the Kherson counteroffensive in its latest daily bulletins as verifiably and “tangibly degrading Russian logistics and administrative capabilities in southern Ukraine.”

The US think tank also cited geo-located satellite images of clusters of troop and blown bridges to confirm a Ukrainian advance on the town of Balakliya, about 90 km south east of the nation’s second largest city Kharkiv. The counterattack “was likely an opportunistic effort enabled by the redeployment of Russian forces away from the area to reinforce Russian positions against the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kherson Oblast,” the ISW wrote.

Yet there’s little sign of triumphalism among officials in Kyiv, either, even as top officials say Ukraine still hopes to push Russia out of all territory 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 sees time as being on Russia’s side, with Putin willing to drag the conflict out. Together with its allies, Shmyhal said, Ukraine needs “to finish this war as soon as possible.”

The Kherson offensive is limited in scale precisely because Ukrainian commanders know they don’t have the personnel to exploit any breakthrough, according to RUSI’s Watling. Under pressure from political leaders to show progress, that’s creating a difficult balancing act.

And while the winter could break morale among Russian soldiers suffering poor and degraded supply lines, from ammunition to food and clothes, mud can hinder any attack, too.

“Western arms shipments have bolstered Ukraine’s potential, but they don’t give it a decisive advantage,” said Igor Korotchenko, head of the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of World Arms Trade. He added Ukrainian forces were suffering major casualties in Kherson, a claim that could not be independently verified. “Ukraine can slow us down, but they can’t do that forever.”

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

“I’m not saying the Ukrainians will win,” said Fried, now a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank. “But the very idea that we would be sitting here discussing a Ukrainian counteroffensive 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 Prague demonstration calling for an end to sanctions against Russia were unlikely to change government policies, he said.

“Putin looks at the Germans or Italians and thinks they are as weak as he wants them to be, but he has miscalculated,” said Fried, recalling similarly misguided predictions in 2014 that these countries would never back sanctions against Russia. “I don’t think he will succeed.”

© 2022 Bloomberg



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