Ukraine’s counter-offensive is making progress, slowly
UYES KRAIN he tried different methods in the anti-crime he launched on June 4, but he is starting to find out what works. “In the last two weeks we have seen things go gradually in favor of Ukraine,” said Nico Lange, an expert on Ukraine at the Munich Security Conference. The evidence from both satellite imagery and military bloggers (mostly Russian) is that progress is slowly being made. Sir Lawrence Freedman, a British military strategist, agrees: “They are doing things and they are stretching the Russians.”
The successful strategy, says Ben Barry, a land warfare expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank based in Britain, is a combination of the “deep battle and the close battle”. Ukraine is using its growing qualitative advantage in precision artillery shells to outflank Russian batteries. A longer weapon like HIMMERS and Storm Shadow missiles are hitting supply hubs and command centers. Dress up S-200 missiles, usually for air defense, were used on August 12 to attack the Kerch Bridge, which connects Crimea to Russia.
Mr Lange points to the success of the Ukrainian side around the town of Urozhaine in the Donetsk region, where, with the help of newly acquired weapons, it has turned the main route of Russian withdrawal into a deadly place. Alexander Khodakovsky, the commander of a Russian battalion in Urozhaine, complained this week via Telegram, a messaging app, that he was not receiving reserve troops to stop a disaster. This indicates that the Russian forces in some areas are now too beaten to provide reinforcements.
When Russian forces respond with counter-attacks, says Sir Lawrence, they often run out of steam. The Russian offensive near Kupiansk in which rogue soldiers have dominated the campaign so far has been an exception. Although Ukrainian positions appear to be holding, Russian bombing has caused massive destruction, and led to civilian evacuations on 10 August.
At the same time, erosion progress continues on the two southern axes to Melitopol and Berdiansk. The big challenge is breaking through some of the most heavily mined areas in the history of warfare. Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, said this week that there are five mines per square meter in some parts of the front line. This is the main reason, says Mr. Lange, why Ukraine had to focus on a narrow front: it does not have the sappers or mine-clearing vehicles to attack several points along the line. According to the Guard, a British newspaper, 200 engineering groups in Ukraine began an offensive with about 30 soldiers each. But sappers, who clear mines by hand, are often injured or killed. An engineering group had only five sappers left in a recently liberated village, the paper said.
Mr Reznikov is appealing to allies for demining equipment and training, but no army has faced such a challenge since World War II. Knowledge and equipment are scarce. NATO forces became capable of dealing with them IEDs in Afghanistan. But the scale in Ukraine, says Mr. Barry, is similar to the battle of El Alamein 80 years ago, when Erwin Rommel, the German general, laid a million mines. It took the British ten days to get through, even with a huge advantage in artillery, control of the skies and plenty of mine-clearing tanks – none of which Ukraine has.
Ukraine’s long-term strikes could pave the way for a major break. Germany may soon help out with 400 or so Taurus cruise missiles, which would threaten more than the Russian-occupied Crimea. Mr. Lange says that Russian assets such as automatic howitzers and KA-52 attack helicopters being built “piece by piece”. At the beginning of the war, Russia had about 100 KA-52s but there may be at least 25 left now. Russia seems to be betting on their first line of defense. If the second and third turn out to be brittle, as some experts suspect, a push through could be certain. ■