A top US intelligence official has said there is a “realistic possibility” that the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) could break through Russian lines in the south of the country by the end of this year.

Who’s the official?

A man named Trent Maul, who is director of analysis for America’s Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), so he knows his stuff.

What exactly has he said?

In an interview with The Economist, Maul said recent counteroffensive developments on the battlefield in the Zaporizhzhia region of Ukraine around the recently liberated village of Robotyne have dramatically shifted the DIA’s prognosis.

“Had we had this conversation two weeks ago, I would have been slightly more pessimistic,” he told the outlet, adding: “Their breakthrough on that second defensive belt… is actually pretty considerable.”

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What breakthrough is that?

Geolocated footage like that below, commentary from both pro–Russian sources and Western analysts, as well as statements from Ukrainian commanders, all show Kyiv’s forces are advancing in the south.

The AFU has breached the first line of Russian defense in some areas and is advancing through the second in others.

Maul described these successes as “significant” and said it means the AFU has a “realistic possibility” of making a full breakthrough of all three lines of Russian defense in some areas by the end of the year.

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That sounds very positive

It does, and news organizations as well as social media pundits and commentators grabbed the headline and ran with it.

But Maul was a little more cautious in the interview and The Economist made clear that “realistic possibility” means a 40-50% probability.

Maul also warned that the bulk of Russia’s reinforcements remain at the third and that limited ammunition and worsening weather will make this “very difficult.”

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This was also supported in the latest assessment from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), which wrote: “Russian defenses are not uniform across the front in southern Ukraine, however, and assessments of the strength of subsequent Russian defensive positions may be extrapolations based on limited information from small sectors of the front.

“Ukrainian forces are making tactical gains and successfully attriting defending Russian forces and ISW continues to assess Ukraine’s counteroffensive may achieve operational successes in 2023, but subsequent series of Russian defensive positions still pose significant challenges for Ukrainian forces and may in sections be strongly held.”

Even so, The Economist reported that even without a breakthrough this year, “the DIA is moderately confident that if Ukraine can widen the salient around Robotyne, hold its positions and keep ammo flowing in, it will be well placed for a fresh push in 2024.”

Did Maul say anything else?

He did. In a quite remarkable moment of candor for a US intelligence official, he caveated his assessment with the fact that he’s been wrong before.

“We thought the Afghans would fight until the end of the calendar year and try to have a heroic defense of Kabul,” he said. Instead, “they basically folded pretty quickly.”

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