Discussion Note – Assessing the Ukrainian Counter-Offensive was originally published on Telegram 28 June 2023.
The Ukrainian counter-offensive cannot be said to have failed, simply to have been unspectacular against Russian defensive operations. The Russians are holding the lines that matter to them most and the Zaporizhzhia offensive is making too small progress to be decisive. The Ukrainians seem to be switching to an attempt on the relatively weakly defended Kherson front and trying to initiate a second Battle of Bakhmut. Incursions into Russian territory now have either failed or look likely to fail (especially in regard to Belarus). The Ukrainians are scoring some serious hits on Russian logistical infrastructure within the occupied territories but Ukrainian losses look high for what has been acquired to date.
The Prigozhin ‘manouevre’ may have strengthened rather than weakened Russia. It exposed weaknesses and perhaps forced a more aggressive position on the Kremlin for internal political reasons. Almost every instant Western analysis of the recent situation proved utterly wrong. The West is now faced with the prospect of supplying ever increasing amounts of military hardware and committing to air power just as the Russians are revealing new advanced ‘stealth’ drone weaponry which will come into production for 2024. Ukraine must also win much more ground soon to be truly credible.
The political problem is that Prigozhin (who increasingly looks to have been contained) made a point that many Russians agreed with – not enough resources were applied to the war. The Kremlin has been too cautious. If there is a political necessity to drive the war harder in terms of allocation of resources and manpower, this might place more strains on the Russian economy than the Kremlin thinks wise but it will also push Ukraine into becoming a very serious fiscal burden on the West for longer. The West may have real problems backing up its own rhetoric. There is ample evidence that many European leaders are getting concerned about this.
Belarus has also bound itself even more closely to Russia. It is preparing for Western-backed internal subversion and incursions in the run-up to its Presidential Elections. The positioning of the Wagner Group inside Belarus is part of this preparation. Lukashenko’s recent testimony about his peacemaking efforts during the ‘manouevre’ gives us a different and probably more accurate picture of Prigozhin as the last warlord rather than the first potential oligarch head of Russia. Prigozhin was basically out of control because he was being pushed hard by his own highly emotional senior commanders. Although we think it smoked out risk factors for Putin’s rule, the operation now looks less like an attempted a coup and more like a quixotic adventure by a special interest trying to control a situation in which it had lost control. Recent and rather excitable Western analyses start to look frankly a little stupid in this context.