A shake-up and breakthrough? Ukraine's counteroffensive at crossroads

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KYIV, Ukraine —  Ukraine is facing a critical moment both on and off the battlefield.

Its troops are fighting to turn what appears to be a minor breakthrough in the south into a substantial breach of Russian lines before winter sets in. And in Kyiv, the defense minister has been dismissed in the biggest shake-up of the country’s leadership since the war began.

The departure of Oleksiy Reznikov has been rumored for months and appears linked to a broader anti-corruption drive, but the timing coincides with developments in another effort that could be crucial to securing ongoing Western support: The first claims of potentially significant gains in the military’s counteroffensive.

Ukrainian forces are gaining a foothold in the area where they have breached Russia’s first main defensive line in the south, Yuriy Sak, an adviser to Ukraine’s defense minister, told NBC News on Monday.

“Everything is very dynamic” right now, but the initiative is “definitely on our side,” Sak said on the phone from Kyiv.

Progress but no ‘walk in the park’

Washington said last week there had been notable progress in the fight to retake occupied land in the country’s south after months with no substantial advances against heavily fortified Russian defense lines.

The growing air of positivity was reinforced over the weekend by Ukrainian Gen. Oleksandr Tarnavskiy, who heads the country’s army in the south, saying that his forces had breached Russia’s first defensive line near Zaporizhzhia and were now pushing out on both sides of the breach.

Last month, Ukraine reclaimed the village of Robotyne in the region, marking its first notable gain in months as its forces try to push toward Melitopol, a key city which has been under Russian control since early in the war.

Taking or even getting close to Melitopol could threaten Russia’s valued “land bridge” to the occupied Crimean peninsula, but that target has seemed increasingly out of reach for Ukraine given the painstaking nature of any advances until now.

“We always say that for us every centimeter of our land is important,” said Sak, the adviser in Kyiv. “So of course, when we managed to break the first super-mined defensive line, that’s really important.”

While there hasn’t been a definitive breakthrough yet, Sak said, penetrating through heavily fortified defenses where every square yard is packed with infantry or anti-tank mines “proves that we know what to do next.”

He said it was a huge morale boost for those on the front lines and in the rear, but also cautioned against making any predictions about when Ukraine might be able to breach the second and third lines of defense, which are not thought to be as heavily fortified.

“The Russian troops that were on the first defensive line will recede and will try to gain a foothold on the second and third defensive lines,” said Sak.

“According to our information, Russia has spent much more of its resources on the first defensive line, so it’s considered the strongest. Next, all our military commanders hope that things will get a little easier and faster, but it won’t be a walk in the park."

Military mobility of the Ukrainian Army in the direction of Bakhmut frontline (Diego Herrera Carcedo / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Military mobility of the Ukrainian Army in the direction of Bakhmut frontline (Diego Herrera Carcedo / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Sak’s caution was echoed by military analysts who told NBC News it was too early to call the recent gains a turning point.

Ukrainian attacks are being carefully managed to minimize casualties, which is proving successful but also making it possible for the Russians to reset their defensive lines, said Matthew Ford, associate professor in war studies at the Swedish Defence University in Stockholm.

“A turning point might be just a tad too strong,” Ford added. “They still have to get through two more lines. They can do that. They may even do that this season. But it has taken them three months to get this far.”

To really turn the success of the last few weeks into an operationally significant development, Ukrainian forces will have to widen and deepen those gains, said Christopher Tuck, an expert in conflict and security at King’s College London.

There is still no sign they are likely to induce “the cascading failure in the Russian defensive system that might prompt a larger breakthrough,” Tuck added,

The Russian defense ministry said Monday its forces were trying to “improve the tactical situation” in the area of Robotyne and the nearby village of Verbove.

The Kremlin has already largely dismissed the Ukrainian counteroffensive as a failure, and the slow nature of any progress since it was launched in June has fueled doubts about Kyiv’s ability to win a decisive military victory. That in turn has led to sharp pushback from some Ukrainian officials against reports and observers questioning the government’s tactics.

A new defense minister

In the wake of the recent apparent progress, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced a major change in the country’s military leadership.

Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov, who has spearheaded Ukraine’s defense since Russia invaded last year and played an important role in securing foreign military aid, submitted his resignation Monday after Zelenskyy announced his departure in his nightly address on Sunday.

The defense ministry has faced graft allegations, which have shaken public confidence at a crucial time for the country’s survival. Keen to maintain domestic and Western support, Zelenskyy has tried to show his tough stance on corruption, which has plagued Ukraine for decades. He said Sunday that the ministry needed “new approaches” and “other formats of interaction with both the military and society at large.”

Reznikov will be replaced by Rustem Umerov, Zelenskyy said, but the decision has still to be approved by Ukraine’s parliament.

Ukraine Defense Minister Replaced (AFP; Getty Images file)
Ukraine Defense Minister Replaced (AFP; Getty Images file)

Reznikov has not been in direct control of military operations, and his resignation is more likely to be linked to Zelensky’s desire to reinforce the message that he is serious about his anti-corruption drive, said Tuck, rather than signaling a major shake-up in how the war will be conducted.

Umerov, who hails from occupied Crimea, has an economic and financial background. He has served as the head of Ukraine’s State Property Fund, which deals with privatizing state property, since last year and took part in the early war negotiations with Russia.

While he doesn’t have military experience, Tuck added, Umerov has other desirable qualities: He is a known quantity, has already undertaken a range of responsible roles and is untainted by corruption allegations.

“And he seems to be aligned with Zelensky’s perspectives on how, in general terms, the war should be prosecuted,” Tuck added.

Daryna Mayer reported from Kyiv, and Yuliya Talmazan from London.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com