For weeks now the Ukrainian army has been carrying out “shaping” or tactical operations around a vast 600-mile frontline, stretching from the south to the north-east. The goal is to wipe out Russia’s military potential. Ukrainian units have used attack drones to destroy enemy tanks and positions in night-time missions. There have been longer-range strikes against weapons depots and fuel dumps. Kyiv has used British Storm Shadow missiles to target eastern cities such as Luhansk, taken over by Russia in 2014, and the occupied ports of Mariupol and Berdiansk.
Has the Ukrainian counteroffensive started?
Yes, with qualifications. On Sunday night, the Ukrainian army appeared to have moved forward in several directions and there were reports of a significant escalation of fighting along the frontlines in the Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions. However, there was no confirmation from Ukrainian officials that the counteroffensive – months in the planning – had actually begun. The Ukrainian government stresses the need for operative secrecy. Over the weekend, the defence minister, Oleksii Reznikov, released a video featuring soldiers putting their fingers to their mouths. Reznikov cited Depeche Mode: “Words are very unnecessary. They can only do harm.”
Ukrainian commanders say the term counteroffensive is overused. They talk instead of a “spring-summer military campaign”, stretching into September, and probably well beyond. This campaign appears to have entered a new active phase. It is too early to say if it will succeed. Ukraine’s armed forces have seemingly launched probing attacks, in an attempt to find weaknesses and to break through Russian lines. The main push is yet to come. Kyiv’s strategic objective is to sever Russia’s land corridor in the south of Ukraine. That means decoupling the occupied parts of the eastern Donbas from Crimea and the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions, along the left bank of the Dnipro River.
Where is the fighting taking place?
According to Russian military bloggers, Ukraine launched an attack overnight west of the city of Vuhledar, and close to the administrative border between Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia provinces. Alexander Khodakovsky, the head of the pro-Moscow Vostok battalion, said Ukrainian soldiers had made gains around the southern Donetsk district of Velyka Novosilka. As many as 10 Ukrainian armoured vehicles were advancing towards the villages of Zolota Niva and Novodonetske, he reported, adding: “So far Ukraine has been successful.” Other pro-Kremlin bloggers suggested Ukraine had made a small “wedge” in the existing frontline.
Khodakovsky said Russian drone units on Sunday detected about 30 Ukrainian fighting vehicles in the nearby area. But he said that “due to limited capabilities” the Russians were unable to establish where Ukrainian solders were planning to move forward. “As a result the [Ukrainian] strike group … reached the line of attack almost unnoticed. By traditionally crushing [Russian] communications, the enemy managed to put us in a difficult position. The situation is developing,” he wrote on Telegram. The defence ministry in Moscow claimed it had thwarted a “major offensive”, repelling an advance by two Ukrainian brigades. It claimed hundreds of Ukrainian troops were killed.
Kyiv has not commented on these claims. At the same time Ukrainian soldiers appeared to have retaken territory near the city of Bakhmut, where fighting has raged for months. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the mercenary group Wagner that led the Russian assault, said Ukrainian forces now controlled Berkhivka, north of Bakhmut. He called the development “a disgrace”. There were indications Ukraine was carrying out small-scale counterattacks in Zaporizhzhia province. Russian military bloggers said Ukrainian troops were seeking to advance near Mala Tokmachka, less than 20 miles south-east of the Ukrainian-controlled city of Hulyaipole.
How strong are Russia’s defences?
The frontline has been largely unchanged since November 2022, when Ukraine carried out successful counteroffences, liberating the southern city of Kherson and almost all of Kharkiv oblast in the north-east. Ever since, Russia has been digging in. Its objective is to hang on to territory seized last year in the first weeks of Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion. Engineers have constructed some of the most extensive fortifications seen on the planet for decades, according to the British Ministry of Defence. Satellite photos show snaking lines of first world war-style trenches.
They have been built not only in the south of Ukraine – a landscape of green fields and steppe – but also in occupied Crimea, which Ukraine has vowed to take back, and outside Mariupol.
Punching through will not be easy for Ukrainian troops. There are at least three Russian defensive lines, several miles apart. They include 5-metre-wide by 3-metre-deep anti-tank ditches and “dragon’s teeth”: pyramidal concrete blocks designed to slow advancing military vehicles. The Russians have extensively mined the entire frontline and put floating mines in the Dnipro River, to prevent Ukrainians crossing from the liberated right bank.
The river is itself a formidable geographical obstacle. “Mines are a big risk for us,” Roman Kostenko, a Ukrainian commander, said last month, adding that it would be easier for Ukrainian infantry to advance in the east, where Russia had a greater number of forces, but the number of mines was fewer.
What is the strength of Ukraine’s armed forces?
Ukraine has been preparing an impressive military force ahead of its counteroffensive. According to leaked Pentagon papers, it has assembled 12 newly formed brigades, consisting of about 60,000 troops. Nine of these brigades are reportedly equipped with main battle tanks supplied by Ukraine’s western allies. They include Challenger 2 tanks sent by London and Nato-standard armour and artillery. Germany has supplied Leopard 2 tanks and Marder infantry fighting vehicles. US Strykers and Cougars, scores in number, have been shipped discretely to Kyiv. In preparation for the attack, thousands of Ukrainian soldiers and tank crews have been trained in the UK and elsewhere. Many had no previous military experience.
After 15 months of full-scale war, Russia still has a bigger army and large stocks of missiles and ammunition. A leaked Pentagon assessment in the spring said the Ukrainian military faced significant “force generation and sustainment shortfalls”. It warned that Ukraine’s operation to liberate its territory could result in only “modest territorial gains”. The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has persuaded reluctant western partners to supply Kyiv with F-16 fighter jets. These are unlikely to arrive before the autumn, at the earliest. In the meantime, Ukraine’s commander in chief, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, will hope that he can make progress now with the limited forces at his disposal.