Advertisement

How Ukraine's counteroffensive went sideways

Smoke covers servicemen of the 128th Separate Brigade of Territorial Defence Forces who practice storming enemy positions during a tactical drill in the Zaporizhzhia direction, southeastern Ukraine.
Smoke covers servicemen who practice storming enemy positions during a tactical drill in the Zaporizhzhia direction on August 16, 2023, southeastern Ukraine.Dmytro Smolienko / Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Image
  • Ukraine's counteroffensive has failed to achieve big breakthroughs over six months of hard fighting.

  • Inexperienced troops, new tactics, and heavy Russian defenses undercut Ukraine's effort.

  • However, likely no other military would have fared better in this same situation, one expert said.

Ukraine hoped its big counteroffensive punch would hit like an "iron fist," but instead things went sideways from the start, possibly even before it began. It drew blood, but it didn't break through.

The war, of course, is far from over, making it critical to figure out what went wrong if Ukraine hopes to defeat the Russians and drive them out.

Kyiv launched its counteroffensive against Russian forces in June, months later than expected. Its publicly stated objectives were ambitious and certain to test the abilities of their forces against Russia's formidable layered defenses. But the plan didn't work out. Six months later, Ukraine has not achieved the sweeping territorial gains it sought, and it is unlikely to do so, Ukrainian officials have acknowledged. The Ukrainian counteroffensive, at this point, is basically over.

The problems, some of the war's more influential watchers told Business Insider, were complicated and compounded. Ukraine and the West attempted to give mostly inexperienced troops a crash course in new weapons and tried to radically change how its military fights in a few months to pursue unrealistic expectations in the face of Russian defenses that became impassable kill zones of mines and drones, raked by artillery, for even advanced systems.

The main counteroffensive push was in the Zaporizhzhia Oblast in southern Ukraine. That approach aimed to cut down from Orikhiv, east of the bend of the Dnipro River, and toward Melitopol in an attempt to divide Russian forces near the Sea of Azov. There were other axes as well, such as an offensive east towards Russian-occupied Donetsk and another outside of Bakhmut. More recently, Ukraine established a foothold on the eastern bank of the Dnipro. It remains to be seen what Ukraine will achieve there, but experts have limited expectations.

Ukraine, reports say, has only taken 200 square miles of territory this year.

Assessed control of terrain around Zaporizhzhia as of September 21, 2023, courtesy of the Institute for the Study of War.
Assessed control of terrain around Zaporizhzhia as of September 21, 2023, courtesy of the Institute for the Study of War.Institute for the Study of War and AEI's Critical Threats Project

The counteroffensive's progress has been slow since the beginning, which was acknowledged by officials, including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, just weeks into the operation. A number of different things needed to go right that simply did not.

Franz-Stefan Gady, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told Business Insider he believes that the counteroffensive, "under the right circumstances, with a more strategic approach to training and understanding of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, what they need, and what is required by Western military instructors and others, would have made a difference." All the pieces didn't quite fall into place though.

But that's not the end of the discussion. "If the campaign fails or it doesn't meet its objectives, then there's learning opportunities here," George Barros, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, told Business Insider. So the question is: how did the counteroffensive run into trouble?

Problems from the start

An aerial view shows smoke rising from a  damaged and burning high-rise building in Bakhmut, April 26, 2023. A mural showing a happy man with a boy on his shoulders is painted on one side.
Smoke rising from high-rise buildings in Bakhmut, April 26, 2023.Libkos/AP Photo

Bakhmut, the bloodiest battle of the war so far, was a defining fight in the lead up to the counteroffensive, setting battlefield conditions heading into the summer.

Around March 2023, when Ukrainian forces became practically encircled in the city, facing high casualties and dwindling ammo, calls from both home and abroad for a retreat grew louder. At the time, Zelenskyy dug his heels in, insisting Ukrainian forces remain there to deplete the waves of mercenaries and convicts Russia threw into the fight. Although the Russians took heavy losses, forces fighting for Moscow captured Bakhmut in May.

Some war experts argue that the Ukrainian decision to stay in Bakhmut was worth it, given Russian losses and the ultimate destruction of the paramilitary Wagner Group and its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who said 20,000 Russian forces died in this effort. Others argue Russia sacrificed what it could afford to lose, such as inexperienced conscripts and felons, and forced Ukraine to exhaust some of its better troops.

"The question is, at what point do these attrition ratios only tell one side of the story when you look at the relative quality of troops that were attrited in Bakhmut, when you juxtapose very experienced people dying and being wounded in Bakhmut on the Ukrainian side versus conscripts and felons, relatively inexperienced and relatively combat ineffective soldiers on the Russian side being killed and wounded during the fight," Gady said.

Ukrainian soldiers fire an AZP S-60 from between trees near Bakhmut
Members of Ukraine's 56th Brigade fire an AZP S-60 near Bakhmut on November 10, 2023.Kostya Liberov/Libkos via Getty Images

The decision to stay and hold the line in Bakhmut pinned some of Ukraine's best troops, such as the 24th Mechanized Brigade and 80th Air Assault Brigade, down during planning stages for the counteroffensive and over the summer, leaving the daunting task of shattering Russian defenses to much less experienced troops, such as the majority of the 47th Mechanized Brigade, roughly 70 percent of which had no prior combat experience, per The Washington Post.

Early in the counteroffensive, well-equipped but inexperienced units took part in concentrated, breakneck attacks on Russian lines but quickly ran into tough defenses. A less coherent approach characterized by miscommunication, deficiencies in reconnaissance and targeting, and poor coordination hindered progress, and mistakes were made by less seasoned troops that those with more experience might not have, some experts have argued.

That said, Barros told Business Insider that having those experienced troops available might not have made much of a difference given the flawed early counteroffensive planning assumptions by Ukraine and its Western partners on the state of Russian defenses or the expected success of NATO tactics and training. It's difficult to know for sure, but it is clear that the assumptions and expectations going into the offensive were problematic.

Compounding challenges

A Ukrainian soldier loads a machine gun inside a trench amid Russia and Ukraine war in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine on August 17, 2023.
A Ukrainian soldier loads a machine gun inside a trench amid Russia and Ukraine war in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine on August 17, 2023.Ignacio Marin/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Weaponry, training and tactics, and strategy also played a role, for better or worse, in shaping the counteroffensive.

There are the weapons Ukraine had on hand for its offensive. High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) and M777 howitzers coupled with counter-battery radars made an impact, but others, like tanks and armored vehicles were a lot less useful than expected for breaching Russian defenses as they contended with minefields and anti-tank missiles fired by ground troops and attack helicopters. Some weapons were simply insufficient, such as breaching tools, engineering vehicles, and mine-clearing equipment.

Then there are those that Ukraine got late or is still waiting to receive. For some key weapons, deliveries were often pushed and held up by time-consuming back-and-forth discussions. When asked by the Associated Press in early December about the results of the counteroffensive, Zelenskyy said Ukraine "didn't get all the weapons we wanted, I can't be satisfied, but I also can't complain too much."

Many analysts have criticized the US and its partners for slow-rolling Ukraine on some of the weapons it needed. It is easy to say in hindsight, Seth Jones, director of the International Security Program and Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told Business Insider, but it's now "clear that the concerns within the US government about providing weapon systems to Ukraine, that it would potentially escalate the conflict, potentially increase the possibility of Russian use of nuclear weapons, ended up being wrong."

Looking just at US-provided assistance, Ukraine only recently received M1 Abrams tanks and Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS), and training just started on the F-16 fighter jets Ukraine desperately wants but will not receive until sometime next year. Ukraine has its own Air Force mostly consisting of older Soviet jets, but it's not nearly enough to suppress Russian air defenses, provide close-air support, and launch the kind of ground attacks needed to truly puncture Russian defenses. Ukraine has said the lack of airpower complicated its counteroffensive efforts, and experts have pointed out that the West would not have attempted such an operation without it.

Ukrainian soldiers fire with D-30 artillery at Russian positions in the direction of Klishchiivka, in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine, on August 13, 2023.
Ukrainian soldiers fire with D-30 artillery at Russian positions in the direction of Klishchiivka, in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine, on August 13, 2023.Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Ukraine also faced ammunition challenges, rationing shells on the front lines even as Western partners boosted 155mm artillery shell production and delivery and provided controversial cluster munitions as a stop-gap.

On training and tactics, there were a number of problems as Ukraine transitioned from Soviet weapons to complicated NATO weapons systems and underwent compressed training in complex maneuvers and Western-style combined arms warfare in just a few months.

The results of that training were mixed. Early on, less experienced units got lost, delayed attacks, in cases lost advantages like the element of surprise, and struggled to make the most of advanced US weapons. Just weeks after the counteroffensive began, Ukrainian forces set aside elements of its Western training, reverting back to its own tactics of using overwhelming firepower and infantry on foot as it struggled to blaze a path through Russian minefields, a necessity for actually retaking ground.

When Ukraine's counteroffensive brigades began entering the fight in June after only receiving a few months of training in combined arms warfare involving the coordination of infantry, armor, and artillery, they had a hard time.

Ukraine
Ukrainian soldiers hide during the shelling at the air defense positions held in Kostiantynivka, Ukraine, on August 8, 2023.Wojciech Grzedzinski/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The West believed its way of war was going to give Ukraine the advantage against Russian defenses and attritional tactics and teach the Ukrainian forces to play offense and fight using a short Blitzkrieg-style strategy rather than a slow and deliberate approach, but it didn't work, Jones said.

And that wasn't the only place where things were potentially out of sync. There has, for instance, been some debate among experts and between Ukraine and its Western partners around whether or not Kyiv spread its forces too thin across multiple axes of advance. Some argue the dispersed combat power across various fronts may have made it difficult to concentrate forces for a larger breakthrough, but part of Ukraine's challenge, Jones said, was trying to see where, if anywhere, it could punch through at all.

But Ukraine did adapt to these realities, often impressively so, analysts say. No other military with new weapons and just a few months of training in new ways of war would have likely done a better job in this situation, Gady noted. That assertion has been echoed by other experts in the field who have said that any Western military would struggle with the challenges faced by Ukraine, especially without airpower.

Tough defenses

A group of Ukrainian soldiers checking their tank after action.
A group of Ukrainian soldiers checking their tank after action on Oct. 27, 2023.Marco Cordone/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Russia's fortified defensive lines were among the biggest challenges that prevented Ukraine from retaking large swaths of occupied territory. For all Russia's blunders in the war, they built and maintained tough defenses manned at sufficient strength to prevent lines from collapsing.

Beginning in late 2022, Russian forces, at the direction of Gen. Sergey Surovikin, began constructing these defenses, and they had ample time and resources to build layered defenses consisting of vast, irregular, and difficult-to-navigate minefields, anti-tank ditches, dragon's teeth anti-vehicle barriers, trenches, and booby traps.

As Russia resisted against the counteroffensive, its forces also employed an elastic defense approach consistent with its warfighting doctrine, withdrawing from territory and then striking hard in a counterattack once the Ukrainians had advanced and were vulnerable.

Early setbacks as its troops pushed forward forced Ukraine — which initially led with mechanized forces to break through the lines before realizing just how heavily defended and fortified they were — to pause and rethink the plan, but not necessarily the counteroffensive's overarching objectives.

Reports from early in the offensive indicated that Ukrainian troops armed with Leopard and Challenger tanks, as well as other Western armored platforms and fighting vehicles, ran into problems when trying to break through the Russian lines ahead of the main defenses, often running into minefields covered by artillery, drones and enemy aircraft, such as Ka-52 attack helicopters armed with anti-tank missiles.

Assessed control of terrain around Pyatykhatky and Robotyne as of September 21, 2023, courtesy of the Institute for the Study of War.
Assessed control of terrain around Pyatykhatky and Robotyne as of September 21, 2023, courtesy of the Institute for the Study of War.Institute for the Study of War and AEI's Critical Threats Project

Even with Western-provided armored demining vehicles and explosive line charges, Russia's minefields proved formidable, in part because the tools to overcome them were insufficient, Ukraine said. The commander in chief of Ukraine's military, Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, called these capabilities "objectively lacking" in a recent paper, and said that Russia was able to target its demining crews, often with artillery, loitering munitions, and exploding first-person-view drones, and then lay more mines via rockets, among other methods.

Ukraine found opportunities to push forward but slowly and with great difficulty. Perhaps the most promising advance of the offensive was carried out in Zaporizhzhia earlier this fall, when Ukrainian infantry breached the formidable Surovikin Line, a complicated network of fortifications, but the plans to crack open Russian defenses there and widen the area to allow Western armor to break into occupied territory didn't pan out.

Experts have assessed that part of the problem for the Ukrainians was the sheer excess of defensive elements on the Russian side. It's more than what's typically called for in Russian doctrine, meaning Russia went beyond expectations to secure their lines. Russia has saturated so much of Ukraine with mines that it's now the most heavily mined country in the world.

For an added challenge, as Ukrainian forces attempted to find a way through, their troops and vehicles faced threats from drones, both surveillance and one-way attack, that threatened maneuverability. In this war, drones have destroyed tanks and armor, as well as personnel, pushing both sides to modify their vehicles with crude cages and nets, employ jammers to stop attacks, and constantly keep their eyes on the sky.

It's not over yet

Ukrainian army soldiers of the 22nd brigade during tank training as Russia-Ukraine war continues in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine on October 29, 2023.
Ukrainian army soldiers of the 22nd brigade during tank training as Russia-Ukraine war continues in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine on October 29, 2023.Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu via Getty Images

When asked by the AP about his satisfaction with the counteroffensive, Zelenskyy was candid: "We wanted faster results. From that perspective, unfortunately, we did not achieve that desired results. And this is a fact."

Ukraine is apparently not, as Zaluzhny said earlier this month, going to make a "deep and beautiful breakthrough," an observation that some experts have made as well. But it still has much of which it can be proud, as well as options to continue its fight and bleed Russia into the winter.

Its territorial gains, even those of only hundreds of feet, have put further pressure on Russian defenses and attrited its forces. Hits in the occupied Crimean peninsula and against the Black Sea Fleet, as Zelenskyy celebrated a few weeks ago, have been huge successes, furthering a goal of making the area untenable for Russian forces. And Ukraine has managed to maintain its Western support, deepening its relationship with the US and its allies in a way that could lead toward eventual NATO membership.

At this moment, as the counteroffensive ends, winter begins, and Russia carries out renewed offensive operations like its assaults in Avdiivka, it's not entirely clear whether Ukraine will be able to launch a full-scale counterattack next spring. It may instead continue playing defense for the time being, bleeding Russian forces and looking to gain an upper hand where it can.

Ukraine soldiers infantry training
Ukrainian soldiers during in infantry training in Donetsk Oblast on August 11, 2023.Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The challenge will be keeping Ukraine stocked with what it needs, especially ammunition. With global stockpiles strained by the massive amount of shells being fired in this war, the US and its allies are ramping up production to satiate Ukrainian demands, but it's a struggle. Russia, notably, is also increasing its domestic production and turning to pariah-state partners like North Korea and Iran for further assistance.

Now is the time for Ukraine and its Western partners to think about how best to continue this fight. There will probably be a need to reevaluate certain assumptions, rethink tactics, and prioritize certain weapons systems and equipment that Ukraine will need for the future in this war with no immediate end in sight.

Evaluating the latest counteroffensive is necessary, but there are political ramifications of discussing Ukraine's failures. Politicians, particularly Republicans in Washington DC, have made US aid to Ukraine a partisan issue, adding stress to conversations about how Ukraine can better fight its war against both Russia and Russian propaganda.

"It's still an existential fight for the Ukrainians," Barros said, a fight whose contours are decided by a few key stakeholders in Western governments. Ukraine and its Western partners didn't see the success they had hoped for in the counteroffensive, but if they learn from the failures, it could make a difference later on in this war, the ultimate outcome of which remains to be seen.

Read the original article on Business Insider