A top US military official has warned the clock is ticking on Ukraine’s ongoing counteroffensive, warning there is only a small window of time left before bad weather hampers fighting.
But Ukrainian officials have taken a more optimistic view, insisting the offensive will continue despite the conditions on the frontlines.
How small is that window?
Speaking to the BBC, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, said it was still too early to say if Ukraine’s grinding counteroffensive had failed and Kyiv’s forces were “still plugging away with steady progress.”
He added: “There's still a reasonable amount of time, probably about 30 to 45 days' worth of fighting weather left, so the Ukrainians aren't done.
“There's battles not done... they haven't finished the fighting part of what they're trying to accomplish.
“I said at the very beginning of this [war] that this was going to be long, slow, hard, and high-casualty-producing, and that's exactly what it is.”
What is “fighting weather”?
Autumn will inevitably bring with it seasonal heavy rains, turning the frontlines muddy and slowing not only the advance of Ukraine’s troops, but also the movement and resupply of logistical chains for both sides.
Muddy conditions are especially difficult for wheeled and tracked vehicles on the ground.
When do the rains start?
That’s difficult to predict and is why Milley has left some margin for error in his prediction.
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), wrote: “Seasonal heavy rains and heavy mud in late autumn will slow ground movements for both sides, and low temperatures impose a variety of logistics challenges.
“The start of such seasonal weather is variable, however.”
Will everything stop once the rains begin?
No. The ISW added: “While weather considerations will affect Ukrainian counteroffensive operations, they will not impose a definite end to them.
“A hard freeze occurs throughout Ukraine in the winter that makes the ground more conducive to mechanized maneuver warfare, and Ukrainian officials expressed routine interest in exploiting these weather conditions in winter 2022–2023.”
What have Ukrainian officials said?
Most recently, Major General Kyrylo Budanov of the Main Directorate of Intelligence (HUR) of the Ministry of Defense, stated – without going into detail – that weather will not put a halt to the counteroffensive.
“Combat actions will continue in one way or another,” he said. “In the cold, wet and mud, it is more difficult to fight.
“Fighting will continue. The counteroffensive will continue.”
What form could this take?
Even if the muddy autumn season hampers Ukraine’s advances, as noted by the ISW, the onset of winter and a ground freeze should enable Kyiv’s tanks and vehicles to resume operations.
Then there are all the non-ground-based options still open to Ukraine, one of which might be the long-requested ATACMS missile system.
Hopes are rising in Kyiv that the US could be on the verge of announcing it will send the long-requested weapons to Ukraine, which would be a significant boost to its long-range capability.
According to a report in the Financial Times on Sunday, President Biden is close to making a final decision on sending the weapons to Kyiv to bolster its counteroffensive against Russian forces.
“A decision could be coming soon,” a senior Biden administration official told the newspaper.
The FT also said Andriy Yermak, chief of staff to President Zelensky, was confident the US would agree to send ATACMS, saying: “Yes, we are talking about it… In every conversation with [US national security adviser] Jake Sullivan this question arises.
“They understand [ATACMS] are very much needed. I believe it will be agreed and very, very soon.”
ATACMS would allow Ukrainian forces to target all enemy positions in the Russian-occupied territories including airfields, supply routes, storage sites, and facilities in Crimea.
This would include the 19-kilometer-long Kerch bridge, which has not only strategic value as the peninsula’s only direct supply route from mainland Russia but also its symbolic value as one of Putin’s pet projects.
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