Is the Ukrainian Offensive Over Before it Really Got Started?
July 25, 2023
  • Nikolay Mitrokhin
    Associate scholar, Research Centre for East European Studies at the University of Bremen (Germany)
Nikolay Mitrokhin analyzes the situation in the Russia-Ukraine War as of mid-July. Why did the Ukrainian offensive, talked up for six months and launched in early June, almost immediately come to naught? Might Ukrainian society now reevaluate what is achievable in the war?
The first two weeks of July were marked by a pickup in the intensity of fighting in Ukraine, with active hostilities ongoing across at least a dozen sections of the front, up about 40% versus May.

Ukrainian moves and Zaluzhny’s comments

Between July 1 and 14, the number of artillery and missile attacks by the Ukrainian army on Belgorod, Bryansk and Kursk regions along the Russia-Ukraine border sharply increased. Drone strikes were carried out not only on border villages, but also deep inside the Russian regions. On July 14, for example, a Ukrainian attack drone tried to hit the local FSB office in the city of Kurchatov, Kursk Region, more than 70 kilometers from the border, where a nuclear power plant is located.

Overall, the Ukrainian attacks are aimed at “knocking out” Russian military assets in these areas. As the evacuation of residents from a five-kilometer zone near the border in Ukraine’s Sumy Region (it borders all three Russian regions mentioned) was announced simultaneously, speculation appeared about a possible major raid by the Ukrainian army on internationally recognized Russian territory.
Valery Zaluzhny, commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian army.
Source: Wiki Commons
Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian army Valery Zaluzhny, in an interview with The Washington Post on July 15, said:

“To save my people, why do I have to ask someone for permission what to do on enemy territory?… For some reason, I have to think that I’m not allowed to do anything there. Why? Because [Russian President Vladimir] Putin will… use nuclear weapons? The kids who are dying don’t care.

This is our problem, and it is up to us to decide how to kill this enemy. It is possible and necessary to kill on his territory in a war. If our partners are afraid to use their weapons, we will kill with our own. But only as much as is necessary.”

“After July 14, Ukrainian shelling of Russian border regions was sharply scaled back, while the number of shells fired at the occupied part of Donetsk Region jumped.
On the Kupyansk (the most northeastern) section of the front, active battles in May-June that had been initiated by the Russian army subsided in early July before intensifying after July 15. Russian troops punched two kilometers into the Ukrainian defenses and by July 19 they were approaching the outskirts of Kupyansk, from which the Ukrainian authorities were forced to begin an evacuation. The spokesman for the Ukrainian army’s Eastern Group of Forces, Colonel Serhiy Cherevaty, on the air of United News (an information telethon broadcast on Ukrainian television) said: “In the Lyman-Kupyansk direction, the enemy has concentrated a very powerful grouping: more than 100,000 personnel, more than 900 tanks, more than 555 artillery systems, 370 MLRS (multiple rocket systems).”

The Lyman section is located slightly south of Kupyansk, west of the city of Kreminna, controlled by Russian troops (and east of the city of Lyman, under the control of Ukrainian forces). Between the cities, on the banks of the Zherebets River, is the village of Torske (under Ukrainian control), where Russian troops have made their way in the last month and a half, creating the “Torske salient” (about two by one and a half kilometers). On July 18, a little to the north, Russian assault units crossed the river and seized a bridgehead on the western bank. Even further south, near the southwestern outskirts of Kreminna, in a vast forest, fierce positional battles have been raging for months.

The next major section of the battle is near Soledar and Bakhmut. There, the Ukrainian army is trying to cut off the Russian grouping in Soledar. Meanwhile, they are storming Russian positions northwest of Bakhmut and south of it. Heights and terrain are changing hands.

Even further south, active fighting is taking place around Avdiivka, located west of Donetsk. Ukrainian soldiers are defending the fortified areas that have around since 2014; Russian troops have typically been unsuccessful storming them and have periodically launched counterattacks.

Only first line of defense broken through

The most significant events are happening at the junction of Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions – on the Zaporizhzhia front. There, in June-early July, the Ukrainian army managed to cut off the Vremievsky salient (ten by seven kilometers), break through the first line of Russian defense, and reach the second. On July 17, Ukrainian marines were able to come close to the villages covering the road to Mariupol. If the Ukrainian army had? managed to break through to the sea (a little more than 100 kilometers remain to Mariupol), then they would cut through the entire Russian defense in the south of the country and could carry out operations on the flanks.

Of course, the Russian command is aware of this. Therefore, besides the four lines of defense (the Ukrainian army has so far taken one), additional fortifications were built along the route to Mariupol, while the Ukrainian army will have to occupy another fifteen villages before Mariupol.

To the west of Velyka Novosilka, Russian troops captured a number of Ukrainian positions on July 13, advancing 1-2 kilometers. Even further west – south of Orikhiv – the Ukrainian army managed to wedge into the first line of the Russian defense on July 11, and serious battles were fought there throughout the past week. Finally, near the banks of the Dnieper, in the area of Kamianske, the Ukrainian army were able to take a village located on the first line of defense and tried to liberate the next villages.

On the Dnieper front – a 300 km line along the banks of the Dnieper – the Ukrainian army is actively trying to land units on the islands in the channel of the river, as well as on the left bank. The most famous such landing force was the company that occupied a bridgehead on the left bank near the Antonivka Road Bridge in Kherson in late June. It has been holding out for nearly a month now amid Russian shelling. Moreover, it is getting reinforcements and gradually expanding the zone of Ukrainian control along the bank and offshore islands. Though it has limited potential, it remains an important test for understanding the military situation in this region. In mid-July, the Ukrainian army also began to actively land troops on the islands downstream of the Dnieper, around Hola Prystan.
Russia-Ukraine conflict as of July 24. There's a consensus among observers that the fighting has stalemated. Source: Institute for the Study of War
At the same time, the Russian and Ukrainian armies have not stopped firing missiles and artillery into each other’s rear. Cities such as Odessa, Orikhiv and Kherson were the most severely hit in Ukrainian-controlled territory (in the last two, distribution points for humanitarian aid were hit and people died). The Ukrainian army, meanwhile, repeatedly hit Berdyansk, Donetsk, Luhansk, Melitopol and Polohy in Russian-occupied territories.

In a strike on the Dyuna Hotel in Berdyansk, where the “reserve command post” of the Russian 58th Army was located, near the beach, Major General Oleg Tsokov, the deputy commander of the 58th Army, was killed, the twelfth Russian general taken out by the Ukrainian army since the beginning of the war. In Luhansk, a powerful explosion on July 17 destroyed a large missile depot. On July 19, the Ukrainian army managed to destroy a huge Russian ammunition depot in Crimea.

End of the Ukrainian offensive?

The above list of battles indicates that there is no longer any Ukrainian offensive.
There are several local offensive and defensive operations and battles of local importance on a front of more than 1,000 kilometers.
As early as July 1, President Zelensky called on the military to show some major results before the NATO summit. But three days later, National Security and Defense Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov announced on his Twitter a change in strategy – shifting from “pushing back [the Russian army]” to “wearing them down” through shelling.

The Ukrainian army had been continuously bombarding Russian targets before, with particular success against the deep rear with the new British Shadow Storm missiles and at closer distances with HIMARS. After Danilov’s statement, which now looks like a half-concealed announcement that the offensive had ended, nothing new happened in the next 10 days and there was no “intensification.”

The failure of the offensive was clear as early as three weeks before Danilov’s comments. In fact, it was limited to “reconnaissance by fire” with a few columns of armored vehicles in about ten places. The biggest success, as mentioned above, was the Vremievsky salient. However, neither tactically nor strategically has this given the Ukrainian army anything yet.

The successes of the Ukrainian army around Bakhmut – where they managed to drive Russian troops away from Chasiv Yar, the next city to the west, and stop the Russian army from continuing advancing in the Donbas – cannot be considered a broad offensive. This was a separate operation, however, in no way connected with the situation either on the Zaporizhzhia front or in the Kreminna area.

The contrast is striking between the talked-up massive blow against Russian troops, for which the Ukrainian army so ardently demanded tanks and armored vehicles from the West, and the more than modest results. (See an earlier article by Nikolai Mitrokhin in Russia.Post on the reasons for this discrepancy.)

Importantly, after the first obvious serious losses, the Ukrainian command did not keep throwing in thousands of soldiers to break through the Russian defenses, ignoring the costs, while Ukrainian society did not begin to demand decisive action from the government and the command. Thus, the Ukrainians basically decided to call off the offensive, satisfied with official reports that “the offensive is underway, but slowly, with the lives of our soldiers being preserved.”

Might Ukrainian society reevaluate the prospects for the war?

Now, especially after the NATO summit, where Ukraine, contrary to some expectations, was not invited to join the alliance, a more sober outlook has emerged in Ukrainian society toward the prospects for the liberation of the occupied territories.

Earlier, there were confident expectations of a decisive breakthrough at the front and at least the advance of the Ukrainian army to the (Crimean) Isthmus of Perekop, while some even expected its swift liberation. But now these expectations no longer seem realistic, at least in the foreseeable future.

A recent publication on Zaxid.net, the mouthpiece of the influential Lviv intelligentsia, is telling. It looks at the possibility of Ukraine’s temporary renunciation of Crimea, just as the Bonn Republic (as West Germany, whose capital was Bonn, was often called) renounced its claims to East German territories for the sake of joining NATO.

The article expresses the hope that the Ukrainian army will still be able to liberate the south of the country to the Crimean isthmus and then “move east,” though the Donbas is not mentioned at all. From a military point of view, however, the liberation of the occupied Donbas agglomeration is a much more difficult task and requires many more sacrifices than the liberation of Crimea.
Oleksiy Arestovych, a former Zelensky adviser, has proposed leaving Russia with the 20% of the "territory of Ukraine" it currently controls and joining NATO with the remaining 80%. Source: Wiki Commons
Almost immediately after the article, Oleksiy Arestovych, a former Zelensky adviser and a very popular commentator, who has positioned himself in the last six months as a politician of the next generation speaking from a “realist” point of view, commented on the experience of the Bonn Republic and the potential temporary renunciation of 20% of Ukrainian territory.

Some of Arestovych’s comments were published on the Telegram channel of the Ukrainian national news agency UNIAN, which can be seen as an invitation to a dialogue addressed in particular to the channel’s Russian-speaking audience.

Analysis of the situation at the front

An objective analysis requires answers to two questions:

First: how does the Ukrainian army intend to liberate the vast occupied territories in the south and east of the country, if the best result achieved in a month and a half is advancing seven kilometers in one small section of the front and eventually bogging down on the second line of the Russian defenses?

How long will a “complete” liberation take and what resources will it require? True, the Ukrainian army has generally kept intact the large forces assembled from November to May, though the significant amount of human and material resources being spent daily in battles across at least 10 sections of the front should be taken into account. According to one report from the Russian side, on July 13 the Ukrainian army lost five Bradley fighting vehicles and one Leopard tank while trying to occupy just one forest belt near Orikhiv.

The second question is even more specific. Before the NATO summit, Joe Biden decided to give Ukraine cluster munitions despite the protests of human rights organizations, which are primarily worried about the consequences for Ukrainian children, who will fall victim to unexploded ordnances for decades now.

Biden’s decision owed to the dwindling supply of Western artillery ammunition required for Ukrainian military operations. One can see another reason for the decision as well: cluster munitions could help the Ukrainian army cross Russian minefields. However, the new supplies will not last for a long time, especially amid active hostilities. So, what will happen next, when Ukraine is left without a large part of its Western supplies of ammunition, while its own production has not been sufficiently scaled?
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