Before the Ukrainian military began a counteroffensive in June, officials hoped they could replicate last year’s successes and quickly retake large swathes of Russian-held territory. Instead, Ukrainian forces initially made almost no progress. In recent weeks, they have captured more, but they have still captured only a few small villages.
But maybe we should have expected a result like this. War tends to be routine. The types of defeats that allowed Ukraine retake thousands of square miles in the northeast last year are rare. Fighting often involves weakening an enemy, such as Ukraine. recovery of a small but strategic town in the east yesterday. These developments attempt to move toward a breakthrough, although it may never come.
This was most famously true during the trench warfare of World War I, but also in World War II, the Korean War, and the American Civil War. “War is not always a spectacular triumph,” said George Barros, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “What you don’t see is largely the really boring stuff: all the groundwork that sets the conditions for wins.”
In other words: Ukraine and its allies, including the United States, may have set their expectations for the counteroffensive too high. Ukraine is fighting one of the strongest armies in the world. If Ukraine managed to force Russia to withdraw in any meaningful way, it was always more likely to take years than months.
Today’s newsletter explains Ukraine’s recent modest progress and what could come next. Ukraine’s leaders still hope to achieve a breakthrough that divides Russian troops into the east and south. But in November the mud season will have arrived and movement will be more difficult.
Ukraine’s counteroffensive initially struggled to make progress. The army’s original plan was to use Western-supplied infantry, tanks and other armored vehicles to breach Russian forces in southeastern Ukraine. Its goal was to separate Russian troops in the southern Crimean peninsula from the eastern Donbas region, hampering Russia’s ability to reinforce or resupply its armies in either area.
But the Ukrainians encountered Russian defenses that were more extensive than they expected, particularly large minefields. Initial efforts to break through proved costly in both lives and equipment. Then the Ukrainian army changed its approach. He removed vehicles and attempted to reduce the Russian defenses with artillery, defuse mines, and advance slowly with infantry.
Last month, Ukrainians finally made modest but significant progress. They broke through Russia’s first line of defense in the southeast and recaptured small towns along the way. They are now following two main routes, one through the recovered village of Robotyne and another that could eventually lead to the Russian-controlled coastal city of Berdiansk. Either path could help achieve Ukraine’s primary goal of dividing Russian forces.
The achievements exemplify the often grueling pace of war. Working through minefields without major casualties and wearing down Russian defenses with artillery simply takes time. For months it seemed like very little happened because the battle lines remained the same. But now Ukraine has moved forward and could quickly make more progress.
“Crime is not a linear issue,” said Stacie Goddard, an international security expert at Wellesley College.
Ukraine wants to expand the lanes it has opened through Russia’s first lines of defense. For example, Ukrainian forces could capture more areas around cities like Robotyne to establish a broader corridor of territory. They could then use that larger space to move many more forces and carry out their original plan: deploying ground troops and armored vehicles in a rapid counteroffensive.
Russia may also have put its most powerful forces on the front line, and Ukraine could break through the other lines more easily. “A lot depends on how strong the remaining Russian defenses are,” my colleague Eric Schmitt, who covers national security, told me.
But time is running out. As rain arrives this fall, the terrain will become muddier and more difficult to traverse, likely preventing major advances on the battlefield.
Meanwhile, Russian forces have attacks intensified in the northeast. By doing so, Russia hopes to regain some of the territory it lost last year and force Ukraine to divert its troops and resources to the northeast. If sufficient Ukrainian forces remain on the southeastern front, the last major attempt at the counteroffensive could fail.
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