Ukrainian soldiers ride on an armored personnel carrier in Kostyantynivka, Donetsk region, on September 25, 2023.
Roman Pilipey | AFP | Getty Images
While the world is distracted by the geopolitical turmoil in the Middle East, the Ukraine continues to fight Russian forces across a stretch of the country, fighting through deep Russian defenses along the south and east.
It’s an understatement to say that Ukraine’s counteroffensive, launched in June, has not been as successful as Kiev and its Western allies had hoped it would be — with Russian forces dug deep into defensive positions, progress has been tough on the Ukraine and only a dozen or so towns and villages have been recaptured.
Russia still controls about a fifth of Ukraine, including most of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions in the east. the Crimean Peninsula and Zaporizhzhia in the south. and a piece of the neighboring Kherson region.
“Ukraine’s counter-offensive has not achieved its purported military and political objectives so far, and prospects for significant progress appear limited,” Andrius Tursa, CEE adviser at consultancy Teneo, said in a note on Monday.
“Despite inflicting significant casualties on the Russian armed forces, Ukraine’s four-and-a-half-month counteroffensive has not achieved major territorial gains or managed to cross the Russian ‘land bridge’ to Crimea,” he added.
Ukraine has a narrow window of opportunity to profit before the weather turns and the infamous muddy season arrives, known as “rasputitsa” in Russian and “bezdorizhzhia” in Ukrainian.
“Limited progress to date dampens hopes for significant progress in the near future, especially as fall weather makes large-scale movement of heavy military equipment more difficult and Russia steps up pressure elsewhere on the front line,” Tursa noted. .
L119 Ukrainian gunners of the 79th separate amphibious assault brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine conduct military activity in the direction of Donetsk amid an attempted Russian offensive near Marinka, Avdiivka and Krasnohorivka on October 11, 2023.
Yevhen Titov | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
Muddy roads and fields wreaked havoc on ground conditions and offensive operations last fall and spring, and are likely to do so again. This would effectively halt offensive operations for weeks before the ground froze and vehicles and troops could move more easily again. It was hoped that Ukraine would have made more progress by now, analysts noted.
“The hope is that they are far enough from the Russian defense lines now … to make some rapid progress. Whether they will or not, we don’t know, but they’re certainly running out of time to do that,” Michael Clarke, an independent defense analyst who was director general of the Royal United Services Institute from 2007 to 2015, told CNBC.
“They will continue to battle through the winter, but what will happen is that at the end of November the weather will get quite wet and that will hold things back until it gets cold, which will be sometime in late December, early January. “, write down.
A soldier from a Ukrainian assault brigade walks down a muddy road used to transport and emplace British L118 105mm anti-aircraft guns, March 4, 2023, near Bakhmut, Ukraine.
John Moore | News Getty Images | Getty Images
“Once it gets cold again, they will be able to use the vehicles more efficiently because the ground will be hard but [in the meantime] the attack will undoubtedly slow down … So the best time for them to do it is now, and they haven’t,” he said.
CNBC has reached out to Ukraine’s Defense Ministry for comment and is awaiting a response.
But the news for Ukraine was not all bad.
Its forces have made gains around the devastated city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine and the eastern (left) bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson. They also achieved something important weeks ago, breaking through a major front line of Russian defenses near the village of Robotyne in the Zaporizhzhia region, and are trying to push south towards Tokmak.
If they can reach the heavily defended city that acts as a transport and logistics hub for Russian forces, they have a chance to break supply lines to Melitopolis and Crimea further south.
“The area we’re all looking at, the one that makes the biggest strategic difference, is the Orikhiv-Tokmak axis,” Clarke noted. Orikhiv is to the north of the Robotyne battle point, while Tokmak is to the south of the village.
“If they can get to Tokmak and take it, and I think they probably will, then they will have accomplished something. They will be able to bring their artillery and artillery close enough to shell Crimea almost at will,” he said.
A satellite image shows smoke billowing from the Russian Black Sea naval headquarters after a missile strike as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, in Sevastopol, Crimea, on September 22, 2023.
Planet Labs PBC | Brochure | via Reuters
“At the end of this offensive, though it is almost certain that they will not have reached the coast, which we originally thought they might, if they could put the Crimea in danger all the time, just to make it unsafe for the Russians. use it as a major military base … then that will be a huge political bargaining chip for any negotiations that might begin next year,” Clark said.
The problem for Ukraine, he said, is “that it won’t be similar enough to justify all the aid that has been given” — some of Ukraine’s Western allies are beginning to tire of Kiev’s military and economic needs, which could become more intense as war breaks out in the Middle East.
Kiev has argued that by fighting Russia it is defending the world from an aggressive and expansionist Moscow.
Unable to mobilize hundreds of thousands of troops in the way Russia can, it says it desperately needs more sophisticated weapons and long-range equipment, and especially air power, if it is to effectively destroy Russia’s occupation forces.
Western allies have tended to procrastinate on whether to give Ukraine heavier weaponry. Last winter’s debate over whether to send heavy tanks to Kiev was a case in point.
And once decisions are made to procure such equipment, long waits follow, again limiting what Ukraine can do in its counterattack. Ukraine had begged its allies for F-16s, but they refused. Months later, several European allies said they would give F-16s to Ukraine — but not before 2025.
Meanwhile, analysts say Russia has a clear advantage in this conflict, given that it is largely on the defensive rather than the offensive.
Russian forces had months to prepare layers of defense, including extensive networks of trenches. anti-tank obstacles such as ditches and “dragon’s teeth”. and minefields. Russian forces are also receiving support from artillery, attack helicopters and other aircraft, again impeding Ukrainian forces.
The minefields, in particular, have disrupted Ukraine’s offensive momentum and pace of advance, according to analysts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
The think tank’s analysis shows that, at the height of their summer offensive between early June and late August, Ukrainian forces advanced an average of only 90 meters per day on the southern front.
CSIS noted that some minefields have extended from 120 meters to 500 meters in some areas, making Ukraine the country with the most mines in the world today and the situation a formidable and time-consuming challenge for its troops to overcome.
The Ukrainian army’s 35th Marine Brigade conducts mine clearance operations in a field in Donetsk, Ukraine, on July 11, 2023.
Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
“Ukraine maintains the operational initiative, but its relatively slow pace of progress and the trade-offs it has made to maintain personnel and equipment indicate that [Russian] defense has significant advantages,” CSIS analysts Seth Jones, Riley McCabe and Alexander Palmer said in a research note in October.
In addition to Russia’s significant defensive fortifications, the slow pace of Ukrainian fortifications was not due to poor strategic choices by Ukraine, CSIS noted, but was likely caused “by a Ukrainian shift in force employment, especially the deliberate adoption of small unit tactics and lack of essential technology such as fighter jets to suppress enemy air defenses and close air support”.
While Ukrainian military progress is still possible, analysts said, the U.S. and other Western countries must provide continued military and other aid to allow Ukraine to continue. For his part, President Joe Biden has pledged to continue supporting Ukraine, although the US is preoccupied with the escalating conflict between Israel and Hamas.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and US President Joe Biden in the Oval Office on September 21, 2023.
Kevin Lamarque | Reuters
The CSIS analysts stressed that the slow progress on the southern front does not mean that Ukraine is failing or will fail in its objectives, noting that it “simply indicates that taking ground is difficult, possibly more so than in its previous offensives.”
“It is possible that the pace of Ukraine’s advance will accelerate if it is able to overcome Russian defensive positions near the current front lines or if the Russian military experiences an operational or strategic collapse,” they said.
“Such changes in fortune are not unprecedented in modern warfare,” they added.
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