In Darryl F. Zanuck’s production of “The Longest Day” – a 1962 Hollywood movie based on Cornelius Ryan’s historically accurate recounting of the first 24-hours of the allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France on D-Day – there is a memorable scene wherein German Major Werner Pluskat alongside his German Shepherd is scanning the English Channel for any signs of the enemy. Suddenly and without warning, Pluskat sees the Allied invasion force emerging from the morning fog and is immediately engulfed in a massive bombardment.

Then and there it was obvious in real life – and later to moviegoers – that the English, Canadian, French, and American long-anticipated counteroffensive in France had begun. 

For now, however, there has been no Pluskat-like defining opening moment in Ukraine.  Kyiv’s counteroffensive in every sense – strategy, progress, and results – is still far more opaque in comparison to D-Day in June 1944. 

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What is Ukraine’s counteroffensive strategy and where will it come from?

Only Kyiv knows.

Russian President Vladimir Putin would have you believe it's failing. In June, he told reporters: “Ukrainian forces had certainly begun their expected counteroffensive in intense fighting in Ukraine, but that every attempted advance had failed, at a heavy cost in casualties.” Russian Ministry of Defense officials later reported they had “repelled fierce attacks in the Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions, causing more than 1,000 Ukrainian casualties and destroying dozens of tanks and armored vehicles.” 

ISW Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 11, 2024
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ISW Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 11, 2024

Latest from the Institute for the Study of War.

Over the weekend, while hosting Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in St. PetersburgPutin added "it exists, but it has failed" when Lukashenko fancifully told reporters: "There is no counteroffensive."  

For now, all these Russian claims are unsubstantiated.

The view from the West is no clearer. Many western military analysts argue the counteroffensive has stalled and needs to be reset. That could be one explanation.

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According to a German intelligence assessment: “Ukraine’s counter-offensive is failing to make progress because its army is not fully implementing the training it has received from the West.” 

Specifically, the report states: “Ukraine is sacrificing its advantage in manpower by attacking in units of between 10 and 30 men, insufficient to break through Russian lines.”

Other analysts note the time afforded to Russia while Ukraine built and trained its force during the winter months, enabled Russian ground forces to construct extensive defensive fortifications, complete with elaborate trench networks and minefields seeded with both anti-personal and anti-tank mines, all observed and covered with artillery.

It did.

So, what is really happening?

Thus far, fighting has been intense and violent. Grenades, bayonets, and rifle butts are the tools of trade in the trenches. Success is measured in meters, and the two most valuable soldiers on the battlefield are the sapper and the medic. One neutralizes the obstacle, the other stops the bleeding. Both are high value targets to the Russian defender. 

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White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan described the progress of the counteroffensive recently, saying: “There have already been significant amounts of casualties and deaths of Ukrainian fighters in this counteroffensive, so it is well underway. And it is hard going. And we said it would be hard going.” 

That message was echoed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken in an interview on Sunday with CNN when he said Ukraine has “already taken back about 50% of what was initially seized. 

He added: “These are still relatively early days of the counteroffensive. It is tough. It will not play out over the next week or two. We're still looking I think at several months."

That in itself is a sizable achievement. Progress is being made, though slowly. But that may be just the way Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his Commander-in-Chief General Valery Zaluzhny want it. 

Without an air component to provide close air support, limited engineering assets to breach the extensive defensive fortifications and obstacles, and a limited deep strike capability to interdict Russian forces, their equipment, and the headquarters that command and control the war from the opposite side of the border, they have been abundantly cautious with the army they have.  

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To mass combat power in one place would expose them to Russian artillery – the backbone of the Russian army. So, Kyiv had to make some adjustments to their tactics – to string the defense out across a 600-mile front, expose their positions, the artillery formations supporting them, the depots supplying them, and the commanders leading them.

The Kyiv Post recently published an article suggesting the Ukraine counteroffensive was a strategy of attrition which, to borrow a phrase from Washington, was an effort to weaken Russia.’ In a reversal of fortune for the Russian army, artillery has become the pointy end of the spear for the Ukrainian military. HIMARS and dual-purpose improved conventional munition (DPICM) are the preferred choice in the close fight.

General Zaluzhny’s counteroffensive is likely broken down into phases – build combat power in phase one. Conduct individual and collective training in phase two, and in phase three gather intelligence and begin to set conditions for when and where to launch the main effort. The first three phases have been on-going sequentially throughout the winter and spring months, and now into the summer.  

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We are likely witnessing the tail end of the third phase of the operation now, wherein the Ukrainian military is developing the enemy situation and setting conditions for phase four – their main effort. Ukraine is conducting armed reconnaissance, raids, assaults, and local counter attacks. They are mapping the battlefield, looking for vulnerabilities, weak spots in the defense, and potential locations to breakthrough. And, as the Kyiv Post reported, attritting the enemy in the process and affecting his ability to respond with deep strikes.

Ukraine’s military forces have been very successful locating and striking Russian troop formations with artillery and destroying Russian ZOOPARK 1-M counter battery radars. This was a major point of contention with the Commander of Russia’s 58th Combined Arms Army fighting in the southern Zaporizhzhia region of Ukraine. General Major Ivan Popov was relieved of command after raising questions about “the lack of counter-battery combat, the absence of artillery reconnaissance stations and the mass deaths and injuries of our brothers from enemy artillery.”

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Kyiv has also been successful locating Russian commanders on the battlefield and killing them. The most recent casualty was Lt. Gen Oleg Tsokov, deputy commander of Russia's southern military district. He was reportedly killed when a Storm Shadow cruise missile struck a hotel in Berdyansk housing Russian military commanders. 

Deep strikes into Crimea and along the Sea of Azov coast – utilizing Storm Shadow and SCALP air launched cruise missiles, drones, unmanned surface vessels (USV), and partisan fighters have also destroyed ammunition storage facilitiesfuel depotsrepair depots and damaged the Kerch Strait Bridge on two occasions. Interdiction – setting conditions for the next day’s fight.

The fourth phase is likely conditions based. When Zelensky and his Generals believe they have acquired the weapons and munitions they deem necessary to launch a combined arms assault, when they can mass combat power to achieve the force ratios they deem appropriate, and when they can achieve a rapid breakthrough while maintaining momentum – they will attack.

We may be witnessing the start of that now in southern Ukraine. 

The New York Times and Institute for the Study of War both reported a sizable mechanized infantry force manoeuvring towards Robotyne in the western Zaporizhzhia region on July 26th. It was described as the “main thrust” that may have achieved a “possible partial breakthrough” of defensive positions south of Orikhiv. Another report came in from Staromaiorske, where Ukrainian special forces had captured paratroopers from Russia’s 247th Parachute Regiment and a video captured Russian fighters leaving their positions and retreating. 

Zelensky posted footage on July 27th showing Ukrainian forces inside Staromaiorsketweeting: “Our South. Our Guys.” 

This was followed by the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine announcing on July 28th that: “Ukrainian Defense Forces liberated the settlement of Staromaiorske.” This may well be a push towards the Sea of Azov by Ukraine to sever Moscow’s land bridge to occupied Crimea. 

But can Ukraine sustain momentum?

Ukraine is eating the Russian bear one bite at a time. Death by a thousand cuts as the saying goes, but eventually they need to deliver a decisive blow. Will they wait for a decision on ATACMS? For their pilots to receive training on the F-16? For additional armor in the form of the U.S. M1A1 Abrams main battle tank? 

What conditions are Zelensky, and his Generals are waiting for?

Only they know.

One thing is for sure. Zelensky has made it clear that Ukraine will take back Crimea. On July 26th he doubled down on that message advising “Russian occupiers in Crimea to consider returning to Russia while the bridge built by the invaders across the Kerch Strait [Crimean (Kerch) Bridge] is still functioning.” 

He went on to say: "Crimea, like all of Ukraine, will be free – free from all Russian evil, starting with Russian missiles and ending with every Russian occupier. Russia will lose this war, and no missile will save it."

Meanwhile, we must remain vigilant and wait until we see the actual signs of Ukraine’s main counteroffensive thrust. Like Pluskat on D-Day, we will know it when we see it.  

Copyright 2023. Jonathan E. Sweet and Mark C. Toth. All rights reserved. 

The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.

 

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Comments (10)

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Oslo
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Nato needs to act faster and get on a war footing how can you stand by and watch more war crimes. Now food is the target. It's apparent Russia want to destroy the Ukraine piece by piece.

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David
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It’s scary that NATO and EU don’t have a powerful mechanism to consistently achieve timely and fully aligned messaging and actions, particularly during fast moving events.
In strategic and tactical matters relating security they still act like a collection of independent dithering states that have huge difficulty maintaining strong and timely coherence,
In many ways they resemble the UN in action, rather than NATO as it should be

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David
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The EU has provided about 10% of the modern armour, artillery ammunition, and air defences needed for Ukraine to fully implement NATO approach to warfare that they provided training for. Everything that was, or will be supplied, is shipped in unrealistically small quantities, over a ridiculously stretched time line.
The EU has totally failed to act quickly on war footing that was and is still mandatory to minimise loss of trained, experienced and irreplaceable Ukrainian front line soldiers.
It may be too late when the realisation and cavalry finally arrive to take the best opportunity to defeat long term strategic Russian expansion plans.
For too long the EU believed clever words and economic bribes would work on Russia.

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Beto
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THE USA and Germany will be forever remembered as countries government by girly men afraid of making putin the thug angry

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Cedar
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Any comments made by Germans are theoretical. It is Ukrainians who have been wrestling with this vicious foe for a year and a half, & Zaluzhnyi seems to be a man of integrity who knows what he’s talking about. Ukraine was always outnumbered, & thanks to Western prevarication, outgunned. It still is. Sending infantry forward with no air cover is unheard of in the West in the 21st century. Of course Ukraine needs and wants fo keep as many of its soldiers alive as possible , so they can return home to rebuild the country with the same courage & commitment they have shown on the battlefield. But they do need a decisive military victory, or Putin will just commit further atrocities. I hope Ukraine is fomenting dissent inside the Russia Federation - internal revolts would greatly help Kyiv.

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william Fitch
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Great article! The Ukranians have secured a lodgement within the Russian security zone and can now range their 155mm DPICM throughout the Russian battle space. The M864 cluster munition has a range of 29 km but the M483A1 cluster munition can range only 17 km. So the Ukranians had to move that artillery up. I believe that the effectiveness of Ukranian artillery is not yet fully appreciated although Jonathan did a great job in this article. The Institute for the Study of War had a great update today in which they disclosed that Russian troops are beginning to refuse orders to attack. That needs to replicated throughout the battlefield so I suggest that the Ukranian Commanders should filter out the noise and continue their shaping operations for another month or so.

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Maria
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I believe the Ukrainian Generals are waiting until they have everything they need to achieve a decisive victory over Russia. D-Day did not occur in 1943, it took place in 1944. The allies waited too. And it still took three or four months to make significant advances. The Generals are attempting to preserve the lives of their warriors because they will be needed in the coming months. As well as have time to train new people who will become the firewall for new Russian attacks once the Russians are removed from Ukraine.

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Oslo
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The only people dying for nothing are Russians. Even if a compromise was met. It won't end the war only stop it for a period and than Ukraine becomes Nato. Which is not what Russia wants so its in their interest to keep this war going. The Ukrainians are not dying for nothing they are fighting for their people. If Russia used its airforce it would lose to many jets and they cannot afford to do that. I respect your opion but i don't share it.

Oslo
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@Oslo, war is grim always will be anyone who loves war is crazy.

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Imokru2
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Thoughts about Ukraine:
A female member of parliament in her living room holds a machine gun in her bare feet.
A female fencer refuses to shake hands with her Russian opponent and holds her at distance with her sword.
Children with missing limbs sit on a hospital bed and look at the cameraman as if all is normal.
A Ukrainian farmer offers to help get a Russian tank started so that the crew can drive it back to Moscow.
An old lady offers seeds to a Russian soldier so that flowers can grow on his grave.
Similar scenes play out every day in Ukraine, which will win this war. While Putin’s worthless and useless body rots, Ukraine will be armed to the teeth as it takes its place in NATO and the EU. Ukraine, the largest country in Europe, will be a prosperous democratic country in the G8, taking Russia’s place. Russia will be the same useless and ridiculed country it has always been.
Long live Ukraine.

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I support
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I am no arm chair General but I will say this the comment they are not using the western training they received. OK but western army's use airsuppot they are fighting with very little. I really don't understand this comment. Unless they where trained to fight without it. That being said the fact they are gaining ground without it is amazing. When you don't have a sledgehammer use a dagger. They are the ones dying for their people so no criticism here. When Nato finally gives more to,the fight on time this is the war they have. Unless you got boots on the ground dont criticize they doing the best they can in a difficult situation. So Nato where's the long range missiles that would help its not the answer but it gives more fire power. The only answer is their will to fight and be smart about it. Because of the dithering of Nato about fighter jets. We all knew this counter offensive was going to happen. This missed opportunity of training pilots months ago because of fear of escalation is absurd. The fact that Russia has showen its true nature means we better be prepared.

Maria
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@I support,

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Maria
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@I agree with this comment. NATO is largely responsible for the difficulties the Ukrainian military is encountering on the battlefield as well as the continued bombing and shelling of its cities by Russia. Too little too late. NATO badly miscalculated--its decisions were fear-based instead of based on a rational analysis of Russian weaknesses.

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