Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Opinion | It’s way too early to write off the Ukrainian counteroffensive

Opinion | It’s way too early to write off the Ukrainian counteroffensive

The whole world was riveted by the Wagner Group’s mutiny against the Putin regime. But the infighting in Russia did not last long enough to produce a significant shift on the battlefield in Ukraine. The Ukrainian counteroffensive is less than a month old and already the murmurs of defeatism are starting, with unnamed “Western officials” telling CNN that it is “not meeting expectations on any front.” Even Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky concedes that the counteroffensive is going “slower than desired.”

In truth, the plodding pace of the advance should not be a surprise or a cause for serious concern, yet.

Very few offensives advance as swiftly as Operation Desert Storm — and that was only possible because of the massive technological advantage that the United States and its allies enjoyed over Iraq. Before the ground war even began in 1991, allied forces spent more than five weeks pummeling Iraqi forces with everything from Tomahawk cruise missiles to B-52 bombers. Then, after the unrelenting attacks from the air, allied ground forces were able to stage a giant “left hook” through the sands of Saudi Arabia to go around the fortified Iraqi positions in Kuwait.

Neither option is available to the Ukrainians: They don’t have air superiority, and there is no way they can go around Russian fortifications that stretch across 600 miles of front unless they were to advance through Russian territory to strike the Russian positions in Ukraine from the rear. The problem with that is that the United States forbids Ukraine from using U.S.-supplied weapons to attack Russian territory.

The one time in this war the Russians were caught with their pants down was during the surprise Ukrainian attack in Kharkiv province in September, which liberated more than 1,100 square miles in a matter of days. But that feat is hard to replicate. More typical was the Ukrainian counteroffensive that required more than two months (from Aug. 29 to Nov. 11, 2022) to liberate the southern city of Kherson.

The Ukrainian task today is considerably more difficult than it was then because, in the seven months since, the Kremlin has mobilized many more men and built many more fortifications and minefields. The Ukrainians are now advancing through thick minefields across flat, open ground toward the main Russian defensive position known as the Surovikin Line (named after a Russian general who allegedly knew in advance of the Wagner uprising). The Ukrainians are going slowly because they are trying to limit their casualties — something that bloodthirsty Russian commanders don’t care about. It is doubtful that any Western military could do any better without air superiority.

The Ukrainians are hoping to limit their losses by interdicting Russian supply lines with long-range strikes utilizing British Storm Shadow cruise missiles. A Storm Shadow was apparently responsible for a direct hit on the bridge linking Crimea to Kherson province — a key supply node for Russian forces. “The Storm Shadow missile has had a significant impact on the battlefield,” British Defense Minister Ben Wallace said on Monday. But it takes time before the impact of striking supply lines is felt in shortages of artillery shells and fuel at the front.

Most of Ukraine’s nine Western-trained and Western-equipped assault brigades have not even entered the fight yet. The “main event” is still to come, says Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov. Russian media hyped early Ukrainian setbacks that resulted in the loss of some Bradley Fighting Vehicles and Leopard 2 tanks. But, by all accounts, the Western armored vehicles protected their crews from serious injury, and the vast majority of Ukraine’s Western tanks and armored vehicles remain intact.

What we are seeing now are probing attacks to find a weak spot in the Russian lines — or create one. Mark Arnold, a retired U.S. Army brigadier general who has advised the Ukrainian military, told me that “the Ukrainians are attempting to provoke the Russians to committing mobile reserves to hit the Russians elsewhere.” If the Russians take the bait, the Ukrainian attack could gain momentum.

“While it is doubtful that this is where Ukrainian planners had hoped to be at this stage,” Michael Kofman of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told me, “it is still well within the margin of expectations among analysts who expected an operation against a prepared defense to be difficult and costly. … It is too early to judge the course of the operation and early performance is not deterministic.”

Instead of judging the Ukrainians, the West should be doing more to aid them. While the United States has provided more than $40 billion in military aid to Ukraine — and U.S. allies have chipped in billions more — Ukraine has also paid $800 million for equipment that was never delivered or was delivered in such bad shape that it could not be used. As the New York Times reported: “A recent delivery of 33 self-propelled howitzers donated by the Italian government provides a case in point. Videos showed smoke billowing from the engine of one, and engine coolant leaking from another.”

Some U.S. equipment (including Bradley Fighting Vehicles and M777 howitzers) has also been so badly maintained, a knowledgeable Ukrainian observer told me, that it required extensive repairs before it could be employed — and some of those systems were simply cannibalized for parts.

There is also a lot of equipment that the Biden administration has simply refused to provide, such as the long-range Army Tactical Missile System that could help the Ukrainians to more effectively target Russian bases and supply lines in Crimea, or F-16s that could enable the Ukrainians to defend their troops from attacks by Russian Ka-52 attack helicopters. The F-16s might finally be on the way from Europe in the fall — too late to affect this counteroffensive. U.S. Abrams tanks will also arrive too late for this fighting season. In addition, the Ukrainians are short of armored mine-clearing vehicles and bridging equipment to traverse trenches.

While Secretary of State Antony Blinken claims that the Ukrainians “have in hand what they need to be successful,” that might not be true. If the Ukrainians succeed, it will be despite the limitations of their equipment and training. If their offensive doesn’t break through, it will be because they have not been given enough of the needed weapons — particularly modern fighter aircraft and long-range missiles. Any setbacks the Ukrainians suffer should cause the West to redouble its support rather than prematurely pushing for negotiations that will result in a frozen conflict.

We in the West can’t determine who rules in the Kremlin. But by backing Ukraine to the hilt, we can add to the pressure on Vladimir Putin’s criminal regime, whose cracks are beginning to show after nearly 16 months of war. Given growing evidence that part of the Russian military supported the Wagner revolt, Putin might have to purge his armed forces in the middle of the war. Simply removing the Wagner units — some of Russia’s most effective fighters — will make the invaders weaker. Ukraine can still take advantage — as long as its supporters in the West show the requisite patience.

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