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Ukrainian counterattacks exploit Russia’s focus but are stymied by lack of weapons

by Igor Kossov June 16, 2022 8:10 AM 4 min read
Ukrainian servicemen fire a French self-propelled gun towards Russian positions in Donbas on June 15, 2022. (Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images)
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Over the past several months Russia’s focus on capturing Sievierodonetsk has forced it to pull assets and attention from other positions of attack, giving Ukraine opportunities for tactical counterattacks.

Successful Ukrainian offensives have been observed in Kharkiv Oblast as of early May and in Kherson Oblast and the city of Kryvyi Rih over the past several weeks.

However, with just a tenth of western weapons delivered so far and artillery ammo a persistent problem, Ukrainians need to get military aid much faster if they are to fully capitalize on these opportunities.

“We’re trying to conduct counterattacks in the directions where Russia hasn’t concentrated its forces and resources,” Taras Chmut, head of the Come Back Alive foundation, and former marine told the Kyiv Independent. “All these operations are on a tactical level that doesn’t change the operational situation on the front.”

Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said in a video stream that while Ukrainian forces are using 5,000 - 6,000 artillery rounds per day, in some places, Russian forces are using ten times more.

Yuriy Lelyavskiy, a press officer with the Ukrainian armed forces in the Donbas, told the Kyiv Independent that the Russian advance is a slow forward creep until it comes up against resistance, followed by the call-in of massive artillery barrages.

“Russian progress around Sievierdonetsk results largely from the fact that Moscow has concentrated forces, equipment, and materiel drawn from all other axes on this one objective,” Mason Clark, senior analyst and Russia team lead at the Institute for the Study of War told the Kyiv Independent.

“Russian troops have been unable to make progress on any other axes for weeks and have largely not even tried to do so.”

Russia’s Armed Forces have been pushing towards the Sievierodonetsk pocket from three sides. They entered the city at the end of May and have since taken much of it. Lelyavskiy said the city is almost completely destroyed and street battles are ongoing, with Ukrainian forces pushing back and even taking POWs.

Elsewhere, the Russian military has “remained on the defensive on its flanks,” according to a British intelligence update on June 8. This is where the counterattacks come in.

Russia has a big part of Kherson Oblast under subjugation. Kherson residents have told the Kyiv Independent about crackdowns, disappearances, threats, mass looting, and worse. But recently, the Russians have had to give up ground.

“Ukrainian forces have recently achieved some success by counterattacking in the southwestern Kherson region, including gaining a foothold on the eastern bank of the Inhulets River,” according to British intelligence.

At the end of May, Ukraine’s General Staff said Russian forces had to take up defense at “unfavorable” lines near the towns of Andriivka, Lozovye, and Bilohorka in Kherson Oblast as the fighting continued. Russian forces fired at civilian infrastructure near Pribuzhske, Posad-Pokrovske, Blahodatne, Osokorivka, Novovorontsovka, Novooleksandrivka, and others, while building up their S-300 missile air defenses.

On June 11, the Kherson City Council claimed that Ukrainian troops led a counterattack towards the villages of Kiselivka, Soldatske, and Oleksandrivka and took full control of the village of Tavriyske.

Near Kryvyi Rih in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, home city of President Volodymyr Zelensky, the military reported a successful counterattack two weeks ago, with regional military administration head Oleksandr Vilkul claiming that 63 Russian soldiers had been killed and 19 units of equipment destroyed, including tanks, Grad rocket launchers, artillery, helicopters and a plane.

The counterpushes around Kharkiv saw success earlier in May and have “largely succeeded in pushing Russian forces out of tube artillery range of the city,” according to Clark.

At the same time, Ukrainian operations around Kharkiv have forced Russia’s troops to scramble to hold their forward positions. “Rather than being intended to retake large areas of terrain, the Ukrainian operations are effectively disrupting Russian operations,” Clark said.

“The Kharkiv counteroffensive forced Russian units deployed on the Izyum front to rush back to the Kharkiv area to hold Russian lines,” according to the ISW.

Even so, civilians have told the Kyiv Independent that shelling continues to be a danger, even though at a significantly reduced rate. The city has been pounded mercilessly since the full-scale invasion began, including by cluster munitions. More than 1,600 high-rise apartment buildings in Kharkiv have been destroyed or damaged since Feb. 24.

Regardless of the outcome of the battle for Sievierodonetsk, Russian forces are likely to be slowed down. Bloomberg reported on June 14 that Russia is "scraping" to find manpower and may only be a few months from needing to "slow operations for a major regroup," according to unnamed senior European officials.

The ISW echoed this assessment: “When the Battle of Sievierodonetsk ends, regardless of which side holds the city, the Russian offensive at the operational and strategic levels will likely have stalled, giving Ukraine the chance to restart its operational-level counter-offensives to push Russian forces back,” Clark said.

He added that Ukrainian defenders have inflicted severe casualties on Russian troops and Moscow will not be able to recoup large amounts of effective combat power even if it seizes the city, as that combat power has been expended “frivolously.”

“Russian forces have only "adapted" in the sense of concentrating all available resources into this one axis of advance at the expense of wider operations,” he added.

However, Ukraine’s losses are high as well and getting to be a problem. At the start of June, Zelensky made a rare admission that Ukraine is losing 60 - 100 soldiers each day. That, plus the fact that according to Malyar, Ukraine has yet to get 90% of the promised weapons from the West, and needs much more ammo, keeps its counterattack options limited.

“Extra forces and resources are needed in these directions,” Chmut said. “We don’t have enough technology and armaments for these (counter) attacks to be large-scale.”

“We are returning certain territories but this is not the liberation of regions or strategic assets,” he added.

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