Will Ukraine’s Counteroffensive Dislodge Russia from the East?

Will Ukraine’s Counteroffensive Dislodge Russia from the East?

The counteroffensive—which marks Kyiv’s boldest attempt yet to seize the military initiative seven months into the Russian invasion—serves a broader set of long-term Ukrainian military and political goals.

Kyiv officials announced late last month that Ukraine has kicked off a long-awaited offensive in the Kherson region. Ukrainian units attempted to break through Russia’s first line of defense across several points along the contested Mykolaiv-Kherson border. It was reported last week that Ukrainian forces penetrated Russian defenses in the Andriivka district, establishing a bridgehead in the Sukhyi Stavok-Kostromka area. Russian military observers assessed in the following days that Ukrainian troops were pushed out of Kostromka and Sukhyi Stavok was under heavy Russian shelling, adding that the brunt of the fighting has shifted to neighboring Belogorka. Ukrainian troops published video footage earlier this week suggesting that they have taken Vysokopole in the Kryvyi Rih region, with Russian sources claiming that positional battles are being waged just south of the settlement. It remains unclear if reported offensives further down the Mykolaiv-Kherson line, in the Posad-Pokrovske and Novohryhorivka areas, have yielded substantial gains for the Ukrainian side.

Though the situation on the ground remains fluid, there are preliminary indications that Russian forces were at least partially successful in thwarting initial Ukrainian advances in the Kherson region.

Both Kyiv and Moscow have attributed massive losses to one another. Russia’s Defense Ministry alleged that 1,700 Ukrainian soldiers were killed on the Kherson front in the first two days of the counteroffensive. Ukraine’s Defense Ministry, meanwhile, said on Wednesday that 1,450 Russian troops were killed in the past four days. Neither side’s claims regarding casualty rates have been independently corroborated.

It is difficult for Ukraine to make rapid gains in the south in no small part because Russia knew a possible counteroffensive was in the works and had months to prepare for it, gradually reinforcing its position in the Kherson region with inflows of additional troops and equipment. Citing the prodigious buildup of Russian forces in the south, Western experts assessed in mid-August that the window for a fruitful Ukrainian counteroffensive has passed. Military analysts expressed the concern that Ukraine would unwisely sacrifice the inherent advantages of waging a defensive war if it was to commit to a large-scale ground offensive against a numerically and qualitatively superior enemy. These underlying factors have not changed in recent weeks—though concrete casualty rates remain elusive, there is a large body of circumstantial evidence to suggest that Ukraine’s military has incurred heavy losses over the course of its counteroffensive in Kherson.

Smaller settlements will likely continue changing hands in coming months as Ukraine tries to gain more ground in the south, but the counteroffensive’s major prize remains the regional capital of Kherson. Ukrainian forces still face an uphill battle in reclaiming the city, an effort that U.S. officials say could take well into 2023.

Yet the counteroffensive—which marks Kyiv’s boldest attempt yet to seize the military initiative seven months into the Russian invasion—serves a broader set of long-term Ukrainian military and political goals.

While Russia’s attention was focused to the south, Ukraine launched a “surprise” counterattack in the northeastern Kharkiv region. Ukrainian forces began advancing eastward, in the direction of Russian-occupied Izium and Kupyansk, in an apparent attempt to cut off key Russian supply and transportation routes in the region. Michael Kofman, director of Russia studies at The Center for Naval Analyses, wrote that the offensive’s goal could be to envelop Izium, Russia’s main stronghold in the Kharkiv region. Ukraine’s northeastern offensive has seemingly put Russian forces on the back foot. “The enemy is being delayed as much as possible, but several settlements have already come under the control of Ukrainian armed formations,” Vitaly Ganchev, a Russian-installed occupation official in the Kharkiv area, told Russian state news, according to Reuters.

It was reported on Thursday night that Ukrainian troops entered the town Balakliya, located between Izium and the city of Kharkiv. Unverified footage uploaded to social media showed Ukrainian flags hoisted over buildings in the city. “Everything is as it should be. A Ukrainian flag in a free Ukrainian city under free Ukrainian sky!” Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy wrote on his social media account that same day, adding that Ukrainian troops “liberated dozens of settlements” in the Kharkiv and Kherson regions.

The purported Ukrainian advances in Kharkiv, if independently confirmed, would be the first major battlefield defeat inflicted by Ukraine on Russian forces since their withdrawal from the Kyiv region in March. Despite the failure of Russia’s earlier plans to achieve swift victory in Ukraine, the Kremlin continues to believe it will eventually prevail because time is on its side. The Russian military has shifted its tactics from trying to seize major Ukrainian population centers to bleeding Ukraine white through attritional warfare. As Ukraine’s economy crumbles and its manpower reserves plummet amid Russia’s onslaught, Moscow believes there will inevitably come a point—whether in the winter of 2022, spring of 2023, or beyond—when it is no longer able to effectively resist. By the same token, Kremlin officials have signaled their belief that the West has neither the technical means nor the political will to keep Ukraine’s military afloat over the long term. Ukraine’s ongoing counteroffensives may be intended to upend this calculus. If Ukraine is able to mount viable ground offensives to retake its occupied territories, it could make the military status quo untenable for Russia and bolster its prospects for continued Western support.

But it remains unclear if Ukraine will be able to sustain its recent battlefield gains, which were won at great cost in manpower and equipment. Further still, experts have raised questions over Ukraine’s capacity to translate its isolated successes in villages and smaller settlements into the kinds of large-scale ground operations that would be required to dislodge Russian forces from their fortified positions in larger cities including Kherson, Melitopol, and Berdyansk.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley warned on Thursday that it was too early to assess the progress of Ukraine’s counteroffensives in the south and northeast. “The war is not over. Russia’s a big country. They have very serious ambitions with respect to Ukraine,” he said.

Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National Interest.

Image: Reuters.