Ukrainian soldiers ride on an armored personnel carrier in Kostiantynivka, Donetsk Region, September 25, 2023.

Roman Pilipey | AFP | Getty Images

While the world is distracted by geopolitical turmoil in the Middle East, Ukraine continues to battle Russian forces across much of the country and fight its way through deep Russian defenses in the south and east.

It is an understatement to say that Ukraine’s counteroffensive launched in June was not as successful as Kiev and its Western allies had hoped – with Russian forces deeply entrenched in defensive positions, progress for Ukraine was difficult and only about one Dozens of towns and villages were retaken.

Russia still controls around a fifth of Ukraine, including most of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions in the east; the Crimean peninsula and Zaporizhia in the south; and part of the neighboring Kherson region.

“Ukraine’s counteroffensive has so far failed to achieve its assumed military and political objectives and the prospects for a breakthrough appear limited,” Andrius Tursa, Central and Eastern Europe consultant at risk consultancy Teneo, said in a note on Monday.

“Although Russian forces have suffered significant losses, Ukraine’s four-and-a-half-month-long counteroffensive has neither made major territorial gains nor succeeded in cutting Russia’s ‘land bridge’ to Crimea,” he added.

Mud season is upon us

In Ukraine, the window of opportunity to win is shrinking before the weather turns and the infamous mud season, known as “Rasputitsa” in Russian and “Bezdorizhzhia” in Ukrainian, begins.

“The limited progress so far dampens hopes for a breakthrough in the near future, especially as autumn weather makes large-scale transport of heavy military equipment more difficult and Russia increases pressure in other parts of the front,” Tursa noted.

L119 Ukrainian gunners of the 79th Separate Amphibious Assault Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine conduct military activities toward Donetsk amid attempted Russian attacks near Marinka, Avdiivka and Krasnohorivka on October 11, 2023.

Yevhen Titov | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Muddy roads and fields had a devastating impact on ground conditions and attack operations last fall and spring and are likely to do so again. This would effectively stop offensive operations for weeks before the ground freezes and vehicles and troops can move more easily again. It was hoped that Ukraine would have made further progress by now, analysts noted.

“The hope is that they are now far enough through the Russian defense lines… to make rapid progress. Whether they’ll make it or not, we don’t know, but they’re certainly running out of time,” Michael Clarke, an independent defense analyst and director general of the Royal United Services Institute from 2007 to 2015, told CNBC.

“They’ll continue to struggle through the winter, but by the end of November the weather will be quite wet, and that will block everything out until it gets cold, which will be sometime in late December, early January,” he noted.

A soldier from a Ukrainian assault brigade walks on a muddy road used to transport and position British L118-105mm howitzers near Bakhmut, Ukraine, March 4, 2023.

John Moore | Getty Images News | Getty Images

“Once it gets cold again, they will be able to use the vehicles more efficiently because the ground will be hard.” [in the meantime] The offense will undoubtedly slow down. … So the best time to break through is now, and they haven’t made it,” he said.

CNBC has reached out to Ukraine’s Defense Ministry for comment and is awaiting a response.

A “tremendous” bargaining chip

But the news for Ukraine is not all bad.

His forces saw increases around the destroyed city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine and on the eastern (left) bank of the Dnieper in Kherson. They also achieved something significant weeks ago by breaking through a major Russian first line of defense near the village of Robotyne in the Zaporizhzhia region and are looking to push south towards Tokmak.

If they can reach the heavily defended city, which serves as a transport and logistics hub for Russian forces, there is a chance of cutting supply lines to Russian-occupied Melitopol and Crimea further south.

“The area that we are all looking at and that makes the biggest strategic difference is the Orichiv-Tokmak axis,” Clarke noted. Orichiv lies north of the Robotyne battleground, while Tokmak lies south of the village.

“If they can reach Tokmak and take it, and I think they probably will, then they are achieving something. “They will be able to bring their artillery and rocket artillery close enough to bomb Crimea almost at will,” he said.

A satellite image shows smoke rising from the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Navy after a missile attack in Sevastopol, Crimea, on September 22, 2023, as the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues.

Planet Labs PBC | Handout | via Reuters

“At the end of this offensive they will almost certainly not have reached the coast, which is what we originally thought they could do if they could constantly endanger Crimea just to make it unsafe for the Russians.” “If “If we use it as a major military base…then that will be a huge political bargaining tool for any negotiations they might start next year,” Clarke said.

The problem for Ukraine, he said, is “that won’t be enough to justify all the help that has been provided” – some of Ukraine’s Western allies are beginning to tire of Kiev’s military and financial needs, which are becoming even more apparent A war could break out in the Middle East.

Russia has “significant advantages”

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 soldiers the way Russia can, it says it urgently needs more sophisticated long-range weapons and equipment, and especially air power, to effectively destroy Russian occupying forces.

Western allies tend to be hesitant about whether to provide Ukraine with heavier weapons. An example of this was last winter’s consideration of whether heavy battle tanks should be sent to Kiev.

And once the decision is made to provide such equipment, there are long waiting times, which in turn limits Ukraine’s options in its counteroffensive. Ukraine had asked its allies for F-16s but was rejected. Months later, several European allies said they would give Ukraine F-16s – but not before 2025.

Meanwhile, analysts say Russia has a distinct advantage in this conflict because it is largely in a defensive rather than offensive position.

Russian forces had months to prepare defensive structures, including extensive trenches. anti-tank obstacles such as trenches and “dragon’s teeth”; and minefields. Russian forces are also receiving support from artillery, attack helicopters and other aircraft, once again hampering Ukraine’s armed forces.

According to analysts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), minefields in particular have affected Ukraine’s offensive momentum and pace of advance.

Analysis by the think tank shows that at the height of their summer offensive between early June and late August on the southern front, Ukrainian forces advanced an average of just 90 meters (98 yards) per day.

CSIS noted that some minefields in some areas have been expanded from 120 meters to 500 meters, making Ukraine today the most heavily mined country in the world and the situation posing a daunting and time-consuming challenge for its troops to overcome .

The Ukrainian Army’s 35th Marine Brigade conducts demining operations in a field in Donetsk, Ukraine, July 11, 2023.

Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

“Ukraine retains the operational initiative, but its relatively slow pace of forward movement and the compromises it has made to conserve personnel and equipment suggest that…” [Russian] Defense has significant advantages,” CSIS analysts Seth Jones, Riley McCabe and Alexander Palmer said in an October research note.

Change fates?

Aside from Russia’s significant defenses, Ukraine’s slow pace was not due to poor strategic decisions by Ukraine, CSIS found, but was likely “due to a Ukrainian change in troop deployment, particularly the deliberate adoption of smaller unit tactics, and the… “caused a lack of key technology such as fighter aircraft to suppress enemy air defenses and close air support.”

While Ukraine’s military advances are still possible, the analysts said, the U.S. and other Western countries would need to provide sustained military and other assistance to Ukraine to continue. For his part, President Joe Biden has promised to continue supporting Ukraine even as the US is preoccupied with the escalating conflict between Israel and Hamas.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and US President Joe Biden in the Oval Office on September 21, 2023.

Kevin Lamarque | Reuters

CSIS analysts emphasized that slow progress on the southern front does not mean that Ukraine is missing or will miss its objectives, noting that “it simply shows that capturing terrain is difficult, probably more difficult than in its previous offensives. “

“It is possible that Ukraine’s rate of advance will accelerate if it can overcome Russia’s defensive positions near current front lines or if the Russian military suffers an operational or strategic collapse,” they explained.

“Such changes in fortunes are not unprecedented in modern warfare,” they added.

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