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Southern counteroffensive runs out of steam as West scrambles to deliver aid

A Ukrainian soldier of the 65th Mechanized Brigade walks on a road near the frontline village of Robotyne, in the Zaporizhzhia region, on Oct. 1, 2023. (ROMAN PILIPEY/AFP via Getty Images)
by Igor Kossov October 29, 2023 6:38 PM 6 min read
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As fall weather arrives, observers are looking at the status of Ukraine's three-pronged counteroffensive, which continues to move very slowly.

Ukrainian forces have yet to fully break through Russia's defensive lines and fight to their target cities — Tokmak, Berdiansk, and Vasylivka. Their tempo is heavily limited by minefields, airstrikes, shortages of specialized equipment, troop exhaustion, and uncertain signals from Washington.

Many analysts are asking if the operation has already run its course. The ones who spoke to the Kyiv Independent believe the following.

It's likely that Ukrainian advances, especially in the south, will remain very slow and localized for a time. Both sides' attention will shift east, to Avdiivka, and to a lesser extent, Kupiansk, as Ukrainian assault brigades rest and await the tools they need.

A source in the military intelligence told the Kyiv Independent that Ukraine is especially waiting for the planes that Western allies have promised. "Because then it's a totally different war," said the source, granted anonymity to speak freely.

This absolutely does not mean that the southeastern grouping or the wider Ukrainian military are a spent force. They are still making progress near Robotyne in spite of all the things holding them back.

There are signs that Ukraine has reserves, but has to be very careful how it deploys them.

"Has the counteroffensive stopped? It's hard to say definitively," said Serhiy Kivliuk, a retired Ukrainian colonel with the think tank Center for Defense Strategies. "I personally think that the offensive in the Azov direction has halted; the next phase will be Kupiansk and Avdiivka."

"On the other hand, near Verbove and Robotyne, the Armed Forces are advancing decently and if they can ramp up pressure there, they can break through and move on Tokmak."

Retired British Lt. Col. Glen Grant, now a military adviser, says that Ukraine still has an upper hand in the current phase.

"The balance could switch quite easily."

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Lack of resources

The lack of aircraft is holding Ukraine's assault brigades back in a big way. With no air support, troops are prey to daily sorties by Russian planes with gliding bombs that strike from outside the range of ground-based air defense.

"These planes can strike them with complete impunity," Kivliuk said. F-16s are expected at some point within the next three or four months.

Nico Lange, a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) and Germany's former defense chief, wrote that Ukraine struggles to engage Russian planes and helicopters. The intelligence source confirmed.

Critical Western arms enabled Ukraine to go on the offensive, but because many packages arrived with delays, Ukraine didn't get the opportunity to strike with overwhelming force early on, in June. This is keeping Russians in the fight longer.

However, the new ATACMS missiles have already targeted an airfield near Berdiansk, destroying helicopters there. If Russia is denied this airfield, its planes and helicopters will have to refuel and rearm farther away, in Crimea.

Russian fortifications and minefields are still a major issue.

There aren't enough advanced clearing tools, nor enough earth-moving equipment and portable bridges to quickly give Ukrainian vehicles room to maneuver.

Grant pointed out the limits of training. Functional battalions require years of preparation — the new Ukrainian units were given weeks.

NATO training also fails to prepare Ukrainians for the type of war they'd face at home. Kivliuk said the training often clashes against the military's post-Soviet inertia.

"In other words, the troops know how to do one thing, but the command staff is forcing them to do another," he said. "The other thing is, many of the older officers are completely unprepared for modern war. They don't understand 'surprising new inventions' like UAVs, interlinked battlespaces and modern munitions."

Lange wrote that Ukraine's southern counteroffensive is now limited to minimal attempts to move forward in the center of gravity near Robotyne. After almost five months — and most recently, only very laborious advances on foot — the troops are exhausted.

In his view, Ukraine is taking an operational pause on this section of the front and, overall, is currently redeploying troops and resources, in part out of caution given the current U.S. budget impasse on further Ukrainian aid.

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Force availability

Ukraine likely has operational reserves but is most likely holding them back, Kivliuk said.

The military intelligence source agreed that available forces exist, but it would be unwise to throw them in without first getting air support and identifying weak points in the Russian strategy.

Besides putting pressure on the southern front, a sudden surge of Ukrainian troops can be used to surround Russia's garrison of up to 10,000 men in Bakhmut.

"They're clinging to towns north and south (of Bakhmut)… with the understanding that if we begin street battles, they won't last long there," Kivliuk said.

Russia's attacks towards Kupiansk, Lyman and Avdiivka may be "an attempt to force the General Staff to deploy reserves into operation." The General Staff has soberly resisted.

For now, the attacking forces on Avdiivka, many of which are the absorbed Russian-controlled militias, have thrown away huge numbers of men to no appreciable benefit. For example, they would strike in midday in open ground, towards heavily fortified positions.

The intelligence source said Ukrainians expected and prepared for them.

All interviewed experts believe that Russia is committed to its assault on Avdiivka, at least through the spring of 2024. Besides trying to get Ukraine to commit reserves and reduce pressure elsewhere, the operation is a political goal for the Kremlin.

Capturing the town could raise Russian morale and possibly raise enlistment and recruitment of contract fighters. But there won't be a wider strategic benefit.

With Russians committing the former Donetsk proxy militia and volunteer battalions, the 20th Motor Rifle Brigade, and likely redeploying the 2nd Army from the Lyman direction (and possibly the 15th and 30th as well), it's a sign that Moscow is not sparing any resources on Avdiivka.

Another Russian offensive is trying to reach Kupiansk, with the 1st Tank Army and the 6th and 20th Combined Arms Armies crammed into a small operational theater. They took some territory but struggled to make significant progress to capture the district, analysts said.

Meanwhile, Ukrainians may be preparing a strike across the river in Kherson Oblast.

Troops crossed the Dnipro River to attack Russian artillery positions and may be trying to secure a bridgehead for bigger attacks.

"If they have the capacity to shift an armored brigade across the river and strike in the back of defensive lines, it would absolutely cripple them," Grant said.

Lange said it's unclear if they can create a secure bridgehead with Russia's air superiority.

All in all, the situation may be more fluid than it looks. For Ukrainian troops, one thing hasn't changed — they're still in the position of having to do way too much with way too little.

"They've done a phenomenal job under the circumstances," Grant said.

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