Point of view of a soldier on a field with a building in view

The Ukrainian counteroffensive and what’s next

It’s been about six months since Ukraine launched its counteroffensive. Its aim was to recapture large swaths of territory occupied by Russian forces. However, as we enter the cold winter months, most military experts believe that the war in Ukraine is now entering a new phase.

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Since Russia’s invasion, Ukraine’s military has shown what it's capable of.

Last year, it stopped Russia from capturing Kyiv. Later, it continued to liberate hundreds of miles of territory, most notably in the Kharkiv region and Kherson city.

Then, after months of anticipation, Ukraine launched another counteroffensive.

When it launched the operation in early June, many Ukrainians were eager to see results on the battlefield. After all, Ukraine had received tanks, armored vehicles and military training from Western partners.

But fast forward to today, Ukraine’s offensive has mostly come to a halt.

Last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy spoke about the need to “enhance fortification” and build up defenses.

So, what happened to Ukraine’s counteroffensive?

“Ukrainians [were] paying [an] incredible price [to] try to push through Russian positions, but effectiveness of those actions was very, very limited,” said Sergii Grabskyi, a retired colonel from Ukraine’s armed forces.

Ukraine was attempting to liberate the southern part of the country, but that goal was thwarted by Russian defenses.

“Russians, I may say, incredibly developed their defense lines, and Russians used abnormal density of minefields,” Grabskyi said. “Russians actually put minefields everywhere.”

Those minefields made it much harder for troops to quickly maneuver, using Western tanks and armored vehicles.

“After one week of desperate attacks, after losing quite a significant amount of troops and armaments, Ukrainians changed their tactics and turned to attacks using small groups of troops,” he added.

Grabskyi said there’s another key factor here: Ukraine hasn’t enjoyed air superiority.

According to Grabskyi, Western countries haven’t provided everything that Ukraine needs to conduct a large-scale offensive operation.

However, looking at territorial gains and losses isn’t the only way to evaluate military performance.

“The deterioration of the Russian military power has become faster since [the start] of the Ukrainian counteroffensive,” said Pavel Luzin, a visiting scholar at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

He said that the deterioration is visible not only on the battlefield but also in Russian domestic politics.

“Remember Prigozhin’s mutiny.” 

Pavel Luzin, visiting scholar at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

“Remember Prigozhin’s mutiny,” Luzin said.

Russian mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin launched a mutiny in late June.

His fighters captured a major city in southern Russia and began their march on Moscow.

Although they stopped short, Luzin believes that the mutiny says a lot about the state of Russia’s military.

“The Russian military demonstrated that they are not going to fight against guys like Prigozhin,” he said. “That means that the Russian armed forces, as an institution of the Russian state, are deteriorating.”

Luzin said moments like the Prigozhin mutiny show the limits of the Kremlin’s control.

He also said that Russia has major shortcomings when it comes to military production.

“Russia’s arms manufacturing is suffering from the skyrocketing costs, plus inflation, lack of human capital, and also, the Russian military industry spreads limited resources among too many programs and projects,” said Luzin.

He said that Russia’s military industry production is stretched too thin, and it can’t replenish munitions at the same rate that Russia is using them.

But Ukraine and some of its Western partners have experienced similar problems.

“We have seen how really mismanaged and weak European investments in defense have been for decades, and that’s not something that can be rebuilt within three to five years,” said Alina Polyakova, president and CEO of the Center for European Policy Analysis. “That is a generational investment.”

However, Polyakova said, this is something that European countries and the US can correct — if there’s enough political will.

“All of America’s adversaries are, of course, watching very, very closely if the US will have the resolve, together with Europe, to see the war in Ukraine through or whether Mr. Putin will persevere,” she said.

Support for enhanced military aid has wavered recently in the US and some European countries.

But Polyakova believes that continued support for  Ukraine is crucial for maintaining European security.

“If Ukraine falls, if Ukraine remains a so-called gray zone where the Russians can basically turn up the heat and turn it down whenever they want, this means that Russia will have control over European security for the long term,” said Polyakova.

She said that in the future, to really bolster European security, Ukraine needs to be accepted as a full-fledged member of NATO.

For now, she said, providing it with the weapons it needs to defend itself is the bare minimum.

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