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Ukraine's Counteroffensive is Over. What Comes Next?
Ukraine's top general has admitted the war is reverting to "positional" form. Can the West help Ukraine get out of it?
One of the biggest revelations in the nine-page essay published by Ukraine's top commander in The Economist is an implicit recognition that the five-month counteroffensive is over. In the Nov. 1 essay, Gen. Valery Zaluzhnyi wrote that "the war at the present stage is gradually moving to a positional form." Positional warfare means a war conducted along permanent and fortified front lines -- precisely the opposite of an offensive, where one side tries to regain territory.
Now that this phase of the war is over, what can be said about it? From the start, the counteroffensive was doomed by sky-high expectations in Washington and Kyiv. The political calendar in Washington was ticking: with the 2024 election and the potential return of Donald Trump looming, the Biden Administration hoped that Ukraine would roll back Russia once and for all, before Ukraine aid became a controversial budget item. Trump, the likely GOP presidential nominee, has called for aid to be conditioned on a Ukrainian probe of Joe Biden -- precisely the conduct that got him impeached for the first time in 2019.
These expectations filtered into media coverage. For example, On May 1, The Atlantic had a cover story called "The Counteroffensive" with a dramatic subtitle reading: "The future of the democratic world will be determined by whether the Ukrainian military can break a stalemate with Russia and drive the country backwards—perhaps even out of Crimea for good."
Kyiv, too, needed to raise expectations in the West of another breakthrough like the Kherson liberation of Sept. 2022 to win military aid from the U.S. and Europe. Kyrylo Budanov, Chief of Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence, hyped the counteroffensive as Ukraine's "key battle in modern history." Last May, Ukraine's former defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, tried to dial back expectations, but it was too little, too late.
However, the counteroffensive's fate was sealed a year ago, when Russia built miles upon miles of fortified defensive lines in the South and East, unofficially named after the general who built them -- Sergei Surovikin. (Surovikin, a successful general, was removed from his job after three months and Russian authorities detained him last summer after he was believed to have been involved in the failed mutiny of warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin.) Littered with scores of booby traps and mines, the Surovikin Lines made retaking territory incredibly slow and deadly. According to a recent analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Ukrainian forces advanced only an average of 90 meters per day. These lines also caused heavy casualties: British MP and military expert Bob Seely said in September that one Ukrainian soldier died and three or four were injured for every 75 meters of territory gained.
As Russia built these lines, Western aid lagged, giving Moscow more time to develop its defenses. Zaluzhnyi -- whose army is still reliant on aid from the West despite building up its own defense industry -- told The Economist that the delays were not the main cause of Ukraine's predicament. He has every incentive not to upset U.S. and European decisionmakers. However, he said that some weapons systems were "most relevant to us last year, but they only arrived this year."
While gaining minimal territory in the South and East, Ukraine had success in asymmetrical warfare in Crimea and around the Black Sea. In an Oct. 20 Foreign Policy article, journalists Vladislav Davidzon and Oz Katerji wrote: Ukraine succeeded in "dislodging the Russian Black Sea Fleet from Sevastopol and unilaterally opening a grain shipment corridor."
These kinds of attacks were facilitated by long-range missiles known as ATACMS from the U.S. and Storm Shadows from the U.K. The attacks on Crimea stymie Russian supply lines, potentially weakening Russian defenses in the South and East. As Maria Tomak, who works for Ukraine's government on human rights in Crimea, recently told Public Sphere: "Russia supplies its army from Crimea. Russian soldiers are in Crimean hospitals."
However, Russia is building an alternative. In a little-noticed development, Petro Andriushchenko, an advisor to the occupied city of Melitopol's exiled mayor, said on Sept. 27 that Russia was building a railway from the Donbas to Mariupol, a distance of about 100 kilometers. The line would connect rail lines in occupied Ukraine with the Russian cities of Taganrog and Rostov-on-Don. Should that effort be successful, it would make Russia much less reliant on Crimea for resupplying its army and solidify Russia's control over Southern and Eastern Ukraine. It would take long-range missiles from the U.S. and U.K. to destroy this line, since it is deep inside occupied Ukrainian territory.
In the essay published in The Economist, Zaluzhnyi admitted that Ukraine lacks the manpower to take back more territory by land. He said that Kyiv has limited ability to train new soldiers on its territory since bases can be bombed. The limited opportunities for being rotated out of combat make citizens less likely to sign up and more likely to evade the draft. These hurdles raise the importance of long-range Western missiles to conduct the kind of successful asymmetric attacks in Crimea.
On Oct. 20, the Biden Administration announced a new $61.3 billion military and economic Ukraine aid package, coupled with military aid to Israel and funds for the U.S.-Mexico border. Among Republicans, the package enjoys strong support from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), but new U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) has separated the packages (and added cuts to the Internal Revenue Service to the Israel package), complicating its passage.
If Ukraine can still enjoy a steady supply of advanced Western weapons to conduct asymmetrical attacks on Russian supply lines, it still has a path to victory. If those funds dry up, then the prognosis is considerably darker -- Russia has technological advances of its own too, like drones that smash into targets at over 160 kilometers per hour. But with the construction of the new rail line and Russia building yet another line of defenses in the "deep rear" of the South and East, time is running out. In the fall of last year, the delay of military aid in the U.S. and Europe rendered a Ukrainian offensive nearly impossible; so far in 2023, the same movie is playing again.
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