Discussion Note – Assessing the Ukrainian Counter-Offensive was originally published on the No2Nato Telegram Channel 12 July 2023.
The Ukrainian counter-offensive shifts as news every few hours. What we might write now could be reversed by tomorrow. What we do know is that it is hard fought on both sides. As of late yesterday, despite the excitable ‘willing’ in the Western media of the capture of the odd village settlement (four claimed) as a ‘great success’, the brutal truth is that the Ukrainians had not broken through very far, not even to the first line of defence (which is not the same as the current front line). This situation could change quite rapidly but what we are seeing are serious losses of men and Western equipment on the Ukrainian side. As of yesterday, Russia was broadly holding the line with a few tactical territory losses. This state of affairs may, of course, not last long.
We should note that the Ukrainians are not claiming that this offensive will sweep Russia to the sea and back to historic borders. The stated claim is to take 18% of occupied territories which would give a major PR victory if it proved to be 20% or more and sufficient victory for Ukrainian purposes if it proved to be 10-12% or more. The game here to prove that Ukraine can win with more Western equipment and training. Some proof of capacity is required by the NATO Summit on June 20th. Obviously such proof of delivery does not have to be even 5% by that date but simply credible performance implying the probability (or possibility to Western ‘hawks’) of success.
The Russians’ success in defence to date seems to be based on causing maximum losses to Ukrainians, relying on mine fields and tactical withdrawals with quick and opportunistic recovery of territory whenever possible. The Ukrainians have been forced to waste a tank on de-mining and withdraw, thinking they have cleared a path for the next assault only to find that the Russians appear to have mined their retreat from the air and have quickly re-mined the cleared area by the same means. On the other side, Western mines, as they get planted in even briefly held territory, seem to be much more destructive in terms of reach. The balance of losses is important because the Russians are significantly outmanned across a very long front.
We should be clear that all this happens in a flurry of propaganda, disinformation, tactical silences and psy-ops. What are we to make of the discovery of a US-made howitzer shell fragment in the pool of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant? Evidence or plant. Partisans choose to believe what they wish to believe. Similarly, Western media tend to boost really quite small Ukrainian advances in the grand scheme of things while Russians conversely make much of ‘repulses’ of what might be quite small-scale Ukrainian test ‘offensives’. There is also some remarkable footage of the drop in the level of the Dnieper reservoir with growing concerns at the effect on the nuclear plant although there appears to be no immediate danger of melt-down.