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.
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.”
Over the weekend, while hosting Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in St. Petersburg, Putin 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 facilities, fuel depots, repair 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 Staromaiorske, tweeting: “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.
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