NOS News•today, 2:00 PM
After months of preparation and with the help of Western tanks, training and much other support, the Ukrainian counter-offensive began five months ago. The goal was ambitious: to make a major breakthrough in the south to regain the land link between Russia and Crimea.
Those high expectations have not been met. Since June, Ukraine has liberated about 561 square kilometers of territory spread over three places along the front. But it is too simplistic to label the counter-offensive as a failure. Ukraine has achieved success in a number of areas.
These areas were liberated:
What did the counter-offensive achieve?
In terms of territorial gain, the modest yield amounts to a dozen liberated villages. The Ukrainian army also managed to break through the main defense line in the south, but subsequent advance proved impossible.
At the same time, Ukraine managed to inflict a lot of damage on the Russian army. “As a result, Russia was unable to launch its own offensives for a long time,” says Eastern Europe expert Bob Deen of the Clingendael Institute. According to Ukraine and US estimates, Russia is losing staggering numbers of military personnel and equipment in Ukraine.
Although Ukraine has not regained control of the south, it has destroyed Russian control over it. “Long-range weapons have hit important and symbolic targets, such as the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet in Crimea,” Deen said. The latter resulted in a painful retreat of warships from Crimea. This week, President Zelensky claimed complete control over the western part of the Black Sea.
What were the (unforeseen) setbacks?
The Russians’ strong defense lines are often seen as the main cause of the failure of the Ukrainian counter-offensive. The endless minefields make Ukraine the country with the most mines in the world. “The Russians also have many drones, which made it easy to see the battlefield,” says Deen. “That forced Ukraine to operate in small groups, instead of large mechanized groups.”
These satellite images show the extensive lines:
These difficulties were largely known in advance, says Deen. “Expectations were simply too high, both on the Ukrainian and Western sides. Nevertheless, Ukraine wanted to try.” In reality, Ukraine suffered from a lack of well-trained troops and air superiority. Western support also proved not to be extensive and rapid enough to make the counter-offensive successful.
What lessons can Ukraine learn from the counter-offensive?
“Ukraine has learned that they cannot afford a major operation because it entails major losses,” Deen said. He thinks that different tactics will therefore be chosen for the next offensive. “They will try to put the Russians into a battle of attrition and attack Russian logistics.” Smaller and scattered attacks are expected on the front, as is now being seen at Kherson, where Ukrainian troops are crossing the river front in small groups.
In an essay, the Ukrainian Armed Forces Commander Zaluzhny describes that Ukraine is now as strong as Russia, but not sufficiently powerful to be superior. A stalemate threatens. In the long term, this is to the advantage of Russia, which has more troops, equipment and money. According to him, Ukraine can break the ‘parity’ in three ways: air superiority, more (and better use of) weapons or a completely new, surprising weapon.
How much money does Ukraine have for a new offensive?
The Ukrainian population continues to fully support the continuation of the war, Deen says. “There is no pressure yet from society to conclude a deal with the Russians. However, you do see war fatigue slowly increasing. You do see cracks emerging between the political and military top, over strategy and how many losses are acceptable. But such divisions keep them hidden so as not to play into Russia’s hands.”
A sore point is the number of troops. “It is becoming increasingly difficult to mobilize manpower,” says Deen. The population composition of Ukraine is exceptionally disproportionate. In the uncertain 1990s, far fewer children were born, so there are now relatively few people in their twenties and thirties. The average soldier is over 40, British former defense minister Wallace recently wrote.
The population structure of Ukraine, based on United Nations estimates:
How long Ukraine can continue to fight also depends on Western support. Kyiv therefore appears to be preparing for self-reliance by setting up its own military industry. In addition to drones and ammunition, Ukraine says it is also developing long-range missiles and anti-aircraft systems.
All in all, it will be a difficult time for Ukraine, Deen expects. “The country must prepare for a long war, where support is uncertain.” Ukraine is trying to seize opportunities on the battlefield so that the West cannot adopt the idea that the war cannot be won. In our own country, the will to fight remains strong, according to Deen. “Not because they want to, but because there is no alternative.”