Is the Ukrainian counteroffensive faltering?

Russian defenses are holding up against Western armored vehicles and tanks

A Ukrainian serviceman
A Ukrainian soldier on the front line, near Bakhmut, Ukraine, Sunday, July 2, 2023. (AP Photo/Alex Babenko)

Hopes were high throughout the spring, as a Ukrainian military equipped with Western weapons prepared to launch a counteroffensive that would reclaim land seized by Russia, which had invaded its much smaller neighbor for the second time in early 2022.

“We are getting ready for the counteroffensive, so that we can finally end this war,” one Ukrainian soldier said in late May. The counteroffensive began about three weeks later, with Ukraine making initial gains in Donetsk and Luhansk, two regions in eastern Ukraine that were illegally annexed by Russia last year.

Since then, however, the pace of progress has slowed considerably, leading to some frustration from Ukraine’s backers in the West, who hoped that the heavy weaponry and training they had provided would drive the Russian occupiers out of the country’s southeastern provinces.

So far, however, Russia’s defensive positions appear to be holding — while questions about the future of the conflict are growing.

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Russian firepower and defenses are holding up

Russian Air Force Kamov Ka-52
A Russian Air Force helicopter during an Army Games defense technology exhibition. (Leonid Faerberg/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

By late June, it had become clear that the counteroffensive was not meeting the expectations that military and political leaders in the West once harbored. Russia simply had too much time to prepare, erecting anti-tank barriers, trenches and vast fields of mines along the 600-mile front.

Western nations, including the United States, supplied Ukraine with tanks and armored vehicles, but these ultimately did little good in the open farmlands that carpet the theater of operations.

Meanwhile, Russian Ka-52 attack helicopters pounded the slowly advancing Ukrainian columns from above. According to the New York Times, the Ukrainians lost as much as 20% of their tanks and armored vehicles during the first two weeks of the counteroffensive. Russian soldiers were reportedly rewarded with bonuses for each Western tank or vehicle destroyed.

“This is a very difficult fight, it is a very violent fight and it will likely take a considerable amount of time and at high cost,” Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, conceded after meeting U.S. allies in Belgium.

Ukraine unquestionably had the more difficult task in having to launch an offensive. As the much bigger occupying army, Russia always had time on its side. And with few allies to begin with, Russia is not beholden to donor nations eager to see progress.

“My view is that defensive warfare has benefitted from modern technology like drones, so it’s tough going to take land against even a semi-motivated enemy, especially without air superiority,” Ben Friedman of Defense Priorities, a Washington, D.C., think tank, told Yahoo News.

Ukraine has long begged for American F-16 fighter jets. Those are slated to arrive later this year, but may not make much of a difference against Russia’s fortifications — or its improving surface-to-air capabilities.

One military analyst expressed frustration with Ukraine’s “inability to conduct complex combined arms operations at scale,” referring to the logistical coordination of different types of units working in concert, in which some Ukrainian soldiers have been trained.

Since the losses of the counteroffensive’s first several weeks, the Ukrainians have settled for using long-range artillery, which doesn’t expose troops or vehicles to Russian fire. That shift has left both sides at a standstill, a dynamic that favors Russia.

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How long will Western patience hold?

A Ukrainian serviceman firing a cannon
A Ukrainian serviceman firing a cannon towards Russian positions at the frontline in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, July 5. (Libkos/AP)

Ukrainian military leaders were aware before the offensive began that Western allies expected a return on investment in the form of decisive victories. After all, neither patience nor supplies are infinite resources. And leadership changes in Washington and European capitals could see support for Ukraine dwindle.

The slow pace of the counteroffensive could embolden critics of aid to Ukraine, who have largely been sidelined in the United States. Thus far, both Republicans and Democrats have, for the most part, supported the defense of Ukraine. But the heavy losses of recent weeks are a reminder that Russia, which defeated both Hitler and Napoleon, may have no asset more valuable than sheer persistence, even as human and economic losses mount.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, turned into an icon by the Russian war, has pleaded for patience. “This is not a movie,” the former actor said as the counteroffensive was about to begin.

An official on the National Security Council told Yahoo News that it was too soon to make any definitive assessments. “The Ukrainians have yet to commit the bulk of their forces for the counteroffensive and they continue to probe Russian lines for weaknesses,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

“We knew this would be a tough slog and expected it to take a considerable period of time and not at all like the quick gains Ukraine had last fall in the Kharkiv region.”

Some analysts believe that the counteroffensive is proof of how difficult it will be to ever dislodge Russia from the territory it has annexed, both during its first invasion of Ukraine, in 2014, and in the current war.

Should the counteroffensive fail, aborted efforts to broker peace via diplomacy could be revived. Friedman of Defense Priorities told Yahoo News that a “stalemate might lead to major political movement, such as a reopening of talks.”

Ukraine would rather wait until it has pushed Russia back much farther, so that it can negotiate from a position of strength. But that option may not become available any time soon.

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