Western weapons mean the Russians are outgunned and Putin is dithering but Zelensky’s counteroffensive remains grindingly slow
August 12, 2023
The Sunday Times
Those optimists who confidently predicted a quick and easy victory when Ukraine launched its long-awaited counteroffensive did Kyiv no favours by raising expectations to unrealistic levels. For both sides, the war has become a grind. Like Russia, Ukraine has now largely abandoned bold promises of imminent triumphs. Instead, the talk is of individual villages taken, of company-strength advances made or foiled. As one downbeat United States official put it: “We haven’t quite closed the book on 2023, but we are ramping up our thinking about 2024.” There is a growing awareness in Kyiv and the West that they need to start working to a new, longer timeframe.
The Ukrainians acknowledge that the counteroffensive has not gone to plan, and they have not made the progress they hoped or expected. It does not mean that the counteroffensive has failed, as territory has been liberated and Russian forces seriously degraded. A month or two remains in which Ukraine could yet achieve a breakthrough (November is when the winter rains in the southern Zaporizhia region really start to make conditions difficult).
Nonetheless, while by no means impossible, the prospects for a major breakthrough on the southern front that would cut the Russian forces in two and isolate Crimea are diminishing. This was arguably to be expected. Despite the provision of some western equipment and training, an army is not reformed in a matter of months. The Ukrainians are in some ways stranded between their old Soviet way of war and a new western one. A US army officer involved in their training admitted to exasperation: “Nato expected miracles, and the Ukrainians promised them. But you can’t run a war on optimism.”
That said, the Ukrainians still hold the initiative. They are, by any meaningful measure, winning. They have, for example, kept the Russians spread across a wide front and used their new, long-range firepower and their capacity to move more quickly from finding to hitting targets to degrade their enemies’ all-important supply dumps and artillery. According to their own figures, in the past couple of months they have been destroying perhaps 25 Russian artillery pieces a day. They have also repeatedly struck at crucial Russian supply lines, especially the Chonhar bridge connecting mainland Ukraine to Crimea.
In the process, however, they have spread themselves thinly. Perhaps half of the 10th Corps, the reserve Kyiv had built up to exploit any breakthrough of the Russian lines, has now had to be deployed along the front. The 47th Mechanised Brigade that has made advances to the south
towards the pivotal town of Orikhiv, for example, is largely British-trained, and equipped with German Leopard 2 tanks and US Bradley Fighting Vehicles. Meanwhile, the Russians are well-entrenched, and their defence has so far slowed or foiled Ukrainian attacks, which have often been conducted by relatively small formations because larger ones are too vulnerable to Russian artillery and helicopters. This shows successful adaptation to the combat environment but also makes it harder to achieve decisive advances.
The artillery war remains crucial. The Russians are still firing more rounds overall but the Ukrainians now have the better weapons. The Kremlin’s forces are having to adapt to the unfamiliar experience of being outgunned and outranged. With their new supplies of cluster munitions and such hard-hitting weapons as the British AS-90 self-propelled gun and the M777 howitzer, the Ukrainians are slowly winning the counterbattery fight. They are also wearing out gun barrels faster than they can replace them.
Recriminations have begun. Ukrainian hackles were raised by German claims that its lack of progress was because it was failing to apply western lessons, even though it could hardly apply a doctrine predicated on fire and air superiority when it had neither. In Kyiv, one Ukrainian official blamed “Nato gutlessness, which has all but rewarded Putin for his aggression”. However, the main response has been frustration, leading to an escalation of drone and sabotage raids on Russian soil. Last week there were multiple such attacks on Moscow, although all were downed by jamming or anti-air missiles. A British diplomat fretted that “this may play into Putin’s hands, making his case for a forever war”.
No peace prospects
There is no prospect of peace at present. Last weekend, a “peace summit” was held in Jeddah, but the Russians were not invited so this was never expected to lead to practical talks. It was more an exercise in performative concern. Ukraine wanted to tout its ten-point peace plan, which is really a call for an unconditional Russian withdrawal and surrender. The Saudi hosts, as well as China and Turkey, were seeking to look constructive and set themselves up to be peace brokers at some point in the future. The problem is that neither side is ready for meaningful negotiations. Kyiv thinks it will be in a better place for talks once it has liberated more territory and begun besieging Crimea. Moscow is confident that it will weather this year’s counteroffensive and hopes that the stalemate will make the West think twice about open-ended support for Ukraine. Besides, the potential that Donald Trump could regain the White House next year has some Russian strategists (and western analysts) anticipating that the US might back away from the war.
It is therefore all the more clear that this war will be fought to a longer, harder timetable. One could argue that this summer’s fighting sets up the Ukrainians for greater success next spring. They will have even more western equipment, including US M1A1 Abrams tanks and maybe F-16 fighter jets. More importantly, they will have had more time to train on them and develop their own doctrines for their use. On Thursday, President Biden asked Congress to approve another $13 billion in military aid, and other allies are likewise digging deep to see what else they can provide. The Germans, for example, are buying and reconditioning 30 dated but still useful Leopard 1 tanks owned by a private arms dealer.
Meanwhile, the Russian economy is overheating. Although Moscow has worked its way around some production bottlenecks, including domestic production of Iranian “suicide drones”, it cannot replace destroyed systems at anything near the rate they are being destroyed.
Furthermore, President Putin is still dithering over the next mobilisation of reservists. The military wanted this already to be under way, but with regional elections due next month the Kremlin’s political managers appear to have convinced him to hold off this unpopular and disruptive move until the winter. This will shorten the time available to train them before the next campaign season, but Putin is more worried at present by risks to his position at home.
Everything depends on the long-term capacity of the Ukrainians to fight — and there are signs of war-weariness as it becomes harder to recruit or conscript soldiers — and the West’s willingness to support them. Kyiv’s prospects still look the better, but anyone who hoped or expected the war to end this year is likely to be disappointed. Instead, it is time for all those involved to think more seriously about their long-term plans for war, which may, finally, create the conditions to consider some sort of peace.
Professor Mark Galeotti is the author of more than 20 books on Russia, most recently Putin’s Wars: From Chechnya to Ukraine, published by Bloomsbury