In the initial period of June 2023, Ukraine initiated its highly anticipated counter-offensive to reclaim its occupied territories of Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia regions.
The commencement of the offensive brought an end to a hiatus lasting several months, during which Ukraine was engaged in preparations for the offensive.
The launch occurred after Ukraine acquired the required quantity of armaments from its allies. The new tranche of weapons included Storm Shadow long-range missiles, attack drones, Leopard main battle tanks, and Bradley armored vehicles. The ongoing conflict persists, with Ukrainian forces currently engaged in hostilities against Russian forces along a sprawling front line spanning approximately 1,000 kilometers. Nevertheless, the pace of the Ukrainian operation is currently proceeding at a relatively slow rate, as acknowledged by Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, who conceded that the operation’s advancement has fallen short of initial expectations. This viewpoint was recently reiterated by Ukrainian General Zaluzhny, who posited that the situation is not merely a spectacle, but rather necessitates an increased provision of supplies to expedite the pace of operations. Nevertheless, the primary goal of the counteroffensive is to systematically weaken the robustness of Russia’s intricate fortification networks and forcefully ouster them from their fortified defensive positions. Currently, the operation in Ukraine has achieved only modest success due to the extensive fortification efforts undertaken by Russia over several months along the nearly 1000 km frontline spanning approximately 100,000 sq. km of the occupied territory.
It’s too soon to assess the counteroffensive progress and the upcoming weeks will decide the fate of the offensive, once Ukraine will deploy all the foreign-trained 36,000 troops on the battlefield.
The assault force consists of 36,000 troops is organized into nine brigades and received training from the United States and its allies. It was not part of the preliminary phase of the Counteroffensive. Moreover, the Ukrainian administration has high expectations for these brigades, as they anticipate these units to adopt the American approach to warfare and eventually succeed in their primary mission of reclaiming their occupied regions. This approach is characterized by the use of combined arms, and synchronized tactics, led by a decentralized command structure. The aforementioned approach according to Ukrainian is widely more advantageous compared to the Russian approach, which is distinguished by a highly centralized command structure.
Besides, air superiority and close air support are critical to achieve success on the battlefield but the Ukrainian military lacked air superiority that hindered its counteroffensive significantly. The Ukrainian air force has been unable to support its advancing men and machines by targeting Russian fortifications. Further, it hasn’t been able to deny the Russian air force the space over the skies of the battlefield. However, the Ukrainian air force (Ukrf) only operates with a limited amount of 79 combat aircraft approximately. These are the old Soviet-era fighters including 20 MiG-29 Fulcrum, 30 Su-27 Flanker B for air superiority role and 5 Su-24M Fencer, and 20 Su-25 Frogfoot for ground attack role. Russian air force on the other hand has an upper hand Vis a Vis quantity and its attack helicopters are giving a tough time to Ukrainian amour.
Now comes the important question of why Ukraine has been unable to achieve rapid penetration into Russian defenses and failed to oust them. This happened because, by the conclusion of 2023, the Russian military has adopted the echelon defense strategy, which draws inspiration from the defensive tactics employed by the Soviet Union during World War II.
The defensive strategy comprises multiple layers, commencing with the implementation of Anti-tank ditches, followed by the establishment of trenches and barbed wire.
Subsequently, minefields and Dragon’s teeth are employed, culminating in the utilization of mechanized infantry as the final layer of defense. A UK intelligence report released earlier this year called it “the most extensive systems of military defensive works seen anywhere in the world for many decades.” Moreover, Marina Miron, a post-doctoral researcher affiliated with the War Studies department at King’s College London, argued that Russia currently possesses a stronger position to hold its ground and Ukrainian offensive will have to face tremendous challenges because of its layered defensives. This was because Russia had ample time to construct these defenses as Ukraine launched its counter-offensive later than sooner. Russia effectively utilize this pause and employed its old horse, BTM-3 Trenching Machine for digging 5-foot-deep trenches with half a mile per hour speed. Besides it engaged labor to work on trenches with a daily salary of more than $90 a day.
Ukrainian Counteroffensive, despite facing fierce resistance from Russians placed in fortified positions, hindrance caused by the echelon trench system and unavailability of essential air cover to advancing columns is still not out of the game. The Russian military is holding its grounds in Southern and Eastern Ukraine, and Ukraine couldn’t retake large areas. It has only been able to retake several small villages and not a single large city. The counteroffensive at the moment is rather a stalemate. However, reports coming from Ukraine indicate that the battlefield will see a new fresh wave of the counteroffensive, and the new wave will be composed of foreign-trained 36,000 troopers on which Ukraine has high hopes. So, it’s rational to say that it is not too little or too late but before passing any judgment, one has to wait for the results coming from the battlefield in upcoming weeks.
The author is a Research Assistant at Strategic Vision Institute, a think tank based in Islamabad. He is pursuing his MPhil in Strategic Studies from National Defense University, Islamabad. He tweets @usman_ndu