Ukraine’s inability to demonstrate decisive success on the battlefield raises fears that the conflict is becoming a stalemate and that international support may be eroding. A new US intelligence report has predicted that the counterattack will fail to reach the main city of Melitopol in the southeast of the country this year.
Meanwhile, the war-weary Ukrainian public is eager for leaders in Kiev to secure victory. In Washington, calls for aid cuts to Ukraine are expected to be amplified in the run-up to the 2024 US presidential election.
Without more advanced weapons slated to bolster the front line or fully committed forces still being held in reserve, it is unlikely that Ukraine will be able to achieve a breakthrough in the counter-offensive, according to analysts.
“The question here is which side will fizzle out soon,” said Franz Stefan Gade, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the Center for a New American Security, who visited Ukraine in July. “We should not expect to achieve any major military objectives overnight.”
Gadi said that Russia and Ukraine are now in a phase of “depletion,” with each trying to drain each other’s resources rather than securing a significant regional lead. With its ground forces largely bogged down, Ukraine launched a series of new drone strikes on Russian soil, including targets in Moscow, but the strikes caused little damage.
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Asked about the progress of the counterattack, Western and Ukrainian officials called for patience, describing the battle as slower than expected but insisting it was steadily gaining ground.
However, the time window for Ukraine to conduct offensive operations is limited. Last year, Ukrainian forces made little progress after recapturing the southern city of Kherson in early November, as severe weather set in.
With its ground forces slowly advancing, Ukraine is using drone strikes to expand its military as it awaits more advanced munitions and training — including a larger air force, said Yuri Sak, an adviser to Ukraine’s defense minister.
“We don’t have F-16s yet, so we have to find a way to make up for their absence and drones are used to some extent to compensate for the lack of flying,” he said.
Ukraine’s main domestic intelligence agency was behind the naval drone attacks that recently targeted a key Russian port and a Russian oil tanker near occupied Crimea, according to a Ukrainian intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter.
Kiev’s statements regarding the attacks in Moscow are more ambiguous. The government has publicly distanced itself from the strikes, while some officials have admitted taking part.
But analysts warn that while the drone strikes could shift attention away from Ukraine’s slow ground counteroffensive, it is unlikely to tip the balance of the war in Kiev’s favor.
“The Ukrainians just don’t have the capacity to build enough drones and strike deep into Russian territory on enough targets to undermine Russia’s will to fight,” said Bob Hamilton, a retired U.S. Army colonel and head of research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Eurasia programme.
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Russia also has sophisticated methods of combating Ukrainian drones with jamming and detection devices. The Kremlin claims to have largely thwarted a wave of Ukrainian drone attacks over the past week. On Saturday, the Russian Defense Ministry said it had shot down 20 Ukrainian drones that targeted Crimea overnight.
“I don’t think one weapon system can be a silver bullet,” said Hamilton.
Gadi, who visited Ukraine recently, said that Ukraine has also been hitting Russian logistical targets with long-range munitions away from the front line for months, but the impact of such strikes has not yet been reflected on the Russian front line.
He said, “We know that the Russian position has deteriorated, but it has not deteriorated to the point where you can expect an imminent collapse.” A campaign of long range strikes, also referred to as “deep combat”, can be described as successful when the opponent’s forces can no longer call up reserves or perform basic support functions such as resupply.
Instead of collapsing, the Russian forces put up fierce resistance and even made offensive advances. In northeastern Ukraine, authorities in Kupyansk ordered a mass evacuation of civilians. The city was part of a large swath of occupied territory that Ukraine recaptured in September and October last year.
On the southern front, Ukrainian forces continue to use a very slow approach to ensure progress, rather than favoring speed as recommended by Western allies such as the United States.
Last month, Ukrainian forces pushed into Staromaiorske, the first village to be recaptured in weeks, raising hopes that the advance could be a rhythm-altering breakthrough involving Western-trained reservists. has not been. It took another three weeks before Ukrainian forces liberated the nearby village of Orozhin, reportedly suffering heavy losses.
Reaching the Sea of Azov and connecting the Russian land bridge to Crimea is one of the publicly acknowledged objectives of the counteroffensive. But Staromaiorske’s advance did not involve new tactics. Reconnaissance units have surveyed Russian defenses to strike weak points and allow smaller units — often on foot — to move in with a mine-clearing team, said Serhiy Kuzmin, a military spokesman in the area.
Sack, an adviser to the defense minister, said slow progress in clearing vast minefields along the front was preventing Kiev from fielding the majority of Western-trained reservists.
“To commit our reserves, we need to make sure the paths are clear,” he said. “We’d rather go slower and make sure we’re saving our soldiers’ lives.”
Ukrainian forces have recaptured nearly 81 square miles of occupied territory since the counteroffensive began in June, with the largest gains occurring near Pakhmut in the east and in the Zaporizhia region south of Orivkhiv.
To create a sense of momentum, and raise the cost of the war for ordinary Russian citizens, Ukraine has increased its attacks inside Russia. But this effort to expand the battlefield must rely on Ukraine’s own drones rather than weapons supplied by the West due to restrictions on using NATO weapons to strike Russia on its soil — and the strategy also comes with risks, analysts said.
Kelly Greco, who researches Air Force operations as a senior fellow at the Stimson Center, said the Biden administration has successfully managed the risk of direct conflict with Russia by gradually providing Kiev with more advanced weapons systems and long-range munitions. DC based policy group.
“Since the beginning of this war, one of the things Ukraine’s allies have been concerned about is that it could end up in some unintended escalation,” she said.
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Kiev has requested long-range missiles called ATACMS, the Army’s Tactical Missile System, from the United States for months, but the Biden administration has so far refused to provide them, citing limited supplies and fears of an escalating confrontation with Russia.
The United Kingdom and France sent similar munitions to Kiev earlier this year.
Biden administration officials he said repeatedly The United States does not encourage or enable strikes inside Russia.
Greco said the increased range of weapon systems offered by the United States and others “came with a lot of assurances from Kiev that they would not use this equipment to target Russian territory.”
She said that if Ukraine expands the use of drones — as the counterattack continues to slow, that still has the potential to make the West worry about whether Ukraine will continue to exercise this kind of restraint.
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