The Ukrainian military has been pushing hard for almost four months in southern Ukraine and the Donbas, throwing one mechanized brigade after the other into the fray.
Its goal is to achieve an operational breakthrough that would divide the Russian forces in occupied Ukraine into two big chunks and set the conditions for the liberation of the Crimean Peninsula.
Admittedly, Kyiv’s large-scale counteroffensive hasn’t met the expectations of most analysts.
Shipments of Western weapon systems, such as M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, and Challenger 2 and Leopard 2 main battle tanks, coupled with training by NATO, created the false notion that the Ukrainian forces would just simply walk through the battered Russians.
But in war, the enemy gets a vote and the Russian military had months to prepare for the Ukrainian counteroffensive.
For months, the Russian military dedicated considerable resources to creating several layers of defense along big portions of the contact line. Extensive minefields, fortified villages, anti-tank obstacles, pre-fixed artillery, and infantry trenches created a formidable shield that the Ukrainian forces have had extremely difficulty breaking.
The Ukrainian forces have been making progress, especially in the western part of the Zaporizhzhia Oblast in southern Ukraine. Ukrainian assault units appear to have penetrated Russian defenses there near the village of Verbove and are now trying to widen the gap.
Western military intelligence suggests that the Russian military is hard-pressed to plug the gaps created by the Ukrainian counteroffensive, giving hope that the Russian line of defense will soon collapse. The Russian Ministry of Defense has been relocating units from quieter parts of the battlefield to where the Ukrainians have made the most progress. But, for the time being, the Russian forces continue to hold the line.
Nothing is over
Responding to criticism about the slow progress of the counteroffensive, Ukrainian military and intelligence officials have highlighted that this isn’t supposed to be a short operation. Indeed, Ukrainian natural security officials argue, the counteroffensive is going to last well into the winter. Kyiv is highly likely planning to sustain its push for as long as it can.
According to U.S. Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, the Ukrainian forces have between 30 and 45 days before the weather turns bad on them. In a few weeks, rain will start falling and turn the battlefield into a big pool of mud that will restrict large-scale mechanized warfare of the kind necessary to achieve an operational breakthrough and reshape the battlefield.
Then, as the temperature slowly drops, snow will follow, making offensive operations even trickier from a logistical point of view. However, even in the brutal Ukrainian winter, there is a window of opportunity that the Ukrainians could use to push forward with the counteroffensive. At some point in December, the temperature will drop so much that the ground, snow and all, will freeze. This is the hard freeze that the Ukrainians will be looking for to revitalize their counteroffensive if the rain and mud have prevented meaningful progress.
The stakes of Ukraine’s counteroffensive
It is crucial for Kyiv to maintain its counteroffensive and not let this war stagnate and become a conflict of attrition. And that is likely the main motivation behind the desire to continue counteroffensive operations well into the winter.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has shown that he is willing to prolong the war for as long as it takes – he doesn’t have many options as his survival in power largely hinges on the war’s outcome. Russia has been under heavy sanctions for more than a year-and-a-half, and its economy survives. The Kremlin would like to “freeze” the war and watch the international coalition that supports Ukraine slowly jump ship.
War fatigue is real, and it doesn’t only affect the men on the ground. A Ukrainian decisive victory depends on continuous Western military and intelligence support. But it’s unrealistic to expect the Western coalition to remain committed for an undetermined amount of time. If success on the ground doesn’t come, the voices urging Kyiv to negotiate will grow louder. That is exactly what Putin is waiting for.
The Ukrainian counteroffensive might be facing tough times, but victory now will prevent more difficulties later.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to mention a reported Ukrainian breach of Russia’s defenses near the village of Verbove in the Zaporizhzhia Oblast.
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