Ukraine is hoping that mile-by-mile gains could bring its weapons closer to Russian supply lines, if its forces can overcome Russia’s heavy defense.
By Marc Santora
July 28, 2023
The New York Times
Ukrainian officials have cautioned that their drive toward the Sea of Azov, a key objective of their counteroffensive, will require a bloody slog through extensive minefields and fortified trenches, likely under heavy artillery fire along roads lined with Russian armor and machine guns. But Kyiv has a more immediate goal.
That is to penetrate deep enough into occupied territory to bring more Russian military targets within range of Ukraine’s gradually expanding arsenal, further disrupting Moscow’s supply lines and its ability to parry Ukrainian advances. “The main task we face now, in addition to moving forward, is, of course, to weaken the enemy’s ability to defend itself,” Hanna Malyar, the deputy minister of defense, said on Ukrainian national television. “And in fact, this is what we are doing now.”
The Ukrainian military claims to be destroying dozens of Russian weapons depots every week while constantly searching for command posts, air defense systems and concentrations of troops to hit. It is not possible to independently assess Ukraine’s success in degrading Russian forces and logistical operations. But this month, Col. Serhii Baranov of the Ukrainian military’s general staff, claimed that Ukrainian rockets and artillery had been responsible for the vast majority of Russian losses of soldiers and equipment.
Brig. Gen. Oleksandr Tarnavsky, the commander of Ukraine’s military fighting in Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia, compared the counteroffensive to a boxing match, saying that Ukraine intends to strike with longer range weapons to “hold the opponent at arm’s length” in order to avoid close combat.
Last year, after the United States supplied longer-range rocket systems known as HIMARS to Kyiv, Russia was forced to move more of its logistical operations and bases out of the 50-mile range of the rockets, closer to the coast of the Sea of Azov.
Before Ukraine launched its counteroffensive two months ago, its frontline positions were between 60 and 90 miles from the coast, just out of the reach of HIMARS, truck-mounted launchers that fire satellite-guided rockets. That means that every mile that Ukraine gains in its current assault, the closer it gets to Russian targets along the coast.
Though the HIMARS are mobile — the name stands for High Mobility Artillery Rocket System — Ukrainian forces have a limited number, and prefer to keep them some distance from the front line. And over time, the Russians have shown an ability to adapt to HIMARS strikes, dispersing their supplies, as well as jamming the weapon’s GPS guidance.
The Ukrainians must first consolidate their gains and show they can hold newly reclaimed territory, often in the face of Russian aerial and artillery bombardment, in order to significantly change the dynamic on the battlefield, analysts say.
HIMARS and other newly supplied Western weapons are far more powerful than the long-range drones that Ukraine has turned to strike Russian supply routes far from the front. One route runs through Crimea, which Russia has illegally occupied since 2014. The only land route from Russia to Crimea is the Kerch Bridge, which has come under attack twice during the war, with Moscow blaming Ukraine each time. Ukraine has also attacked the major roads connecting Crimea to the southern Ukrainian mainland. Moscow’s other main supply route runs from western Russia through the occupied territories of eastern Ukraine, where Kyiv’s forces are also attempting to advance near the occupied city of Bakhmut.
Marc Santora has been reporting from Ukraine since the beginning of the war with Russia. He was previously based in London as an international news editor focused on breaking news events and earlier the bureau chief for East and Central Europe, based in Warsaw. He has also reported extensively from Iraq and Africa.