For three months, the much-awaited 2023 Ukrainian counteroffensive ground on, painstakingly slow and yielding no headline-grabbing territorial gains or battlefield successes. But a new breach in Russia’s defensive lines near the city of Zaporizhzhia (which Ukrainian forces now seek to build on to effect a major breakthrough) represents the most notable sign of progress since the counteroffensive began in early June. It also offers an opportunity to examine three important questions. Why is it only three months into the counteroffensive that any progress has been made? What will make major success still possible this year? And what are the consequences of failure?
Two Factors Limiting Progress
The inability of Ukraine’s counteroffensive to generate notable progress for so long is a function of a number of factors, but two stand out. The first is limited availability of equipment. Between January and December 2022, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany donated a combined $25 billion to Ukraine in military aid (the vast majority by the United States). Despite these efforts, it quickly became clear this year that Ukraine needed far more military equipment to initiate a comprehensive and effective counteroffensive against Russian forces. Crucially, the Ukrainian forces were in desperate need of armored brigade columns in order to punch through Russian defensive lines stretching from the northeastern Ukraine to the southwest beyond Kherson. Despite a commitment from the US and UK governments to provide missiles and other military equipment, it was only in late January that an agreement was reached to provide modern, advanced main battle tanks—the US M1A2, UK Challenger, and German Leopard 2. With the decision coming when it did, and given the time required to deliver the vehicles and train Ukrainians to operate and maintain them, the full complement of tanks promised was not available to enhance the counteroffensive when it was launched. The Leopard tanks have arrived incrementally, and the total delivered is still below the full number committed, while the first Abrams tanks will not arrive until this month.
The second factor limiting early progress is Russia’s well-prepared defense. Throughout the winter, Russia established heavily armed defensive lines and minefields along a two-thousand-kilometer front that are complex and have so far proven their worth in slowing the Ukrainian advance. These defensive lines contain antitank ditches, minefields, and dragon’s teeth obstacles. Ukrainian armored columns have to navigate through these lines before reaching the first network of zigzag trenches containing Russian troops armed with antitank weapons and heavy machine guns. Beyond these trenches are further minefields and tank obstacles before a final layer of dugouts and bunkers manned by various types of Russian units. The minefields in particular are hazardous for both tank and infantry columns. In some cases, Russian troops are laying mines on top of each other to amplify the explosive yield against Western-supplied Ukrainian tanks when detonated. Further behind these defensive lines are pockets of Russian artillery and rocket units that can concentrate high levels of firepower on a specific location. These layers of Russian defenses have combined to effectively slow the Ukrainian advance. Attempted breakthroughs by armored brigades have resulted in the destruction of some armored columns. The limited ability of the much-anticipated Ukrainian armored columns has placed further emphasis (and stress) upon Ukrainian infantry units who have been tasked with trying to punch through these lines with limited armored protection. Where Ukrainian troops and militias have managed to capture abandoned Russian trenches, they have often encountered complex booby-trap explosive devices throughout the trench networks that have resulted in increased casualty rates among infantry brigades.
Is Major Success in 2023 Possible?
Notwithstanding these setbacks, Ukrainian forces continue to make modest advances in certain areas of Ukraine. They have been successful at damaging Russian supply routes behind the front line with Western-supplied artillery, missile batteries, and explosive-laden drones. Recent attacks on Russian naval and cargo ships have continued to disrupt both military operations and supply routes via the Black Sea. Drone attacks in Moscow and other Russian towns will continue to bring the war to the Russian people (though these attacks may prove counterproductive, with the risk that indiscriminate attacks against disparate populations under authoritarian regimes will allow the Kremlin to claim its own illegal warmongering campaigns are just and noble and that they may encourage limited congealing effects between the Russian regime and its people, something that does not strategically serve the interests of Ukraine or the West). Additionally, the Russians have a major logistics problem. Their defensive positions are roughly two thousand kilometers long, stretching from the Russo-Belarusian border in the north through the Donbas to the Dnipro river in Ukraine’s south. Their defensive lines are also unevenly spread. For example, in the Kherson oblast, the trench networks, minefields, and antitank ditches are ten kilometers deep and highly aggregated. In other areas, the defensive lines are less than a kilometer deep and unevenly variegated. The seventy Russian combat brigades currently occupying Ukraine are nowhere near adequate to man every section of the front line. Although Russia’s defensive systems are impressive, so too was the French Maginot Line in 1940. When faced with such a large defensive force dug deep within an underground complex of concrete bunkers, antitank obstacles, and large artillery batteries, the Nazi forces simply overran the defensive line at its weakest point and proceeded through the rough terrain of the Ardennes (where the French defenses were at their weakest), encircled the stronger defensive positions to the south, and rendered it obsolete. Within weeks, the defensive line the French had relied on as a permanent buffer between France and Hitler’s Germany was rendered useless and Swastika emblems flew over France as Hitler walked the streets victorious.
There is only so much time for the Ukrainian counteroffensive to bear fruit in 2023. Unless the Ukrainians make a significant breakthrough and rout the Russian forces with armored columns in operations akin to the 2022 Kharkiv and Kherson counteroffensives, it is unlikely that any expected territorial objectives will be achieved. Moreover, there will be disappointment in the West that, even with militarily superior tank columns and missile systems, albeit fewer than Ukraine requested and its international supporters promised, the 2023 counteroffensive made less impact than previous campaigns did without the same equipment in 2022. Additionally, both the United Kingdom and the United States (two of Ukraine’s largest suppliers of military aid) are on the brink of deeply divisive national elections in 2024, during which the strategic value of continuing to supply arms and equipment to Ukraine—and shouldering the cost of doing so—will almost certainly become a central issue. This does not bode well for Ukraine, which will continue to require large amounts of weapons.
Still, the breach near Zaporizhzhia offers some optimism that success can still be achieved. But the weeks to come will illustrate whether Ukraine has the material resources to consolidate at the point of greatest impact and transform this tactical success into an operational achievement that changes the balance on the battlefield, or even a strategic success.
The Counteroffensive’s Far-Reaching Implications
The regime of Vladimir Putin will hope that a continuing war of attrition will eventually sap the will of Western governments to continue depleting their own military resources by arming Kyiv’s forces. The Kremlin’s plan likely hinges on its belief that Ukraine’s international supporters will instead push for negotiations between Moscow and Kyiv. Russia will undoubtedly enter these negotiations with demands for more than Crimea to be formally absorbed into the Russian Federation and crucially, no future NATO or EU membership for Ukraine. And there will be no formal peace while Putin is still in power. The threat of war will continue to dominate Eastern Europe, with implications both regionally, where geopolitical dynamics shaped by an enduring Russian threat suit the Putin regime, and beyond, including in Asia, where China continues saber-rattling vis-à-vis Taiwan. Although the focus is on Ukraine, the global stakes are much bigger than its territorial integrity.
The Russo-Ukrainian War is at a critical stage. If no large-scale Ukrainian breakthroughs occur before the rainy season arrives and many roads turn to mud, then both sides will settle down for another period of attritional warfare over the winter. And Western governments may have to shoulder some of the blame for any ineffectual results. The slow pace of commitments of tanks and other high-end equipment may have given the Russians crucial breathing space in preparing their defensive lines. Continued military and financial support for Ukraine is crucial in facing down Russian aggression.
At this stage, all is still to play for. Time will tell.
Dale Pankhurst is an ESRC-funded PhD candidate at Queen’s University Belfast. His research explores the relationships and interactions between states and nonstate armed groups during conflict and war. He has previously published on a range of topics in both peer-reviewed journals and other sources.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: UK Ministry of Defence