June 16, 2023 | FDD's Long War Journal
Ukraine’s Counteroffensive Two Weeks In
June 16, 2023 | FDD's Long War Journal
Ukraine’s Counteroffensive Two Weeks In
Nearly two weeks into their long-awaited counteroffensive, Ukrainian forces have made some initial tactical gains while also taking significant losses. However, the offensive has yet to reach its decisive phase. Assessments of success or failure are premature.
Kyiv evidently aims to sever the so-called “land bridge” connecting Russia to Crimea. Ideally, Ukraine will not only retake strategically important territory but also isolate and destroy a large chunk of Russia’s forces.
Ukrainian troops are currently pushing on two axes in the south. The first is the “South Donetsk direction,” specifically the area near Velyka Novosilka, a town close to the border between Ukraine’s Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions. Kyiv launched its assault in this sector on June 4. If the Ukrainians choose to reinforce this axis, they will probably aim to drive southward to Mariupol, a coastal city on the Sea of Azov.
The second axis is the “Zaporizhzhia direction,” particularly the area south of the city of Orikhiv. Ukraine’s offensive in this sector began in earnest on June 8. Kyiv’s forces will likely seek to push from Orikhiv to Tokmak and then Melitopol, Russia’s key logistics hub in southern Ukraine.
It remains unclear which axis will be the main effort. This is probably intentional. Kyiv likely hopes to keep the Russians guessing and force Moscow to spread its forces thinly, while giving itself the flexibility to exploit vulnerabilities in Russian lines where they develop.
Meanwhile, since early May, incremental Ukrainian advances around the eastern city of Bakhmut have led Moscow to redeploy some forces to the area. These reportedly include an additional Airborne unit transferred within the past couple weeks. In addition, Russian war correspondents reported yesterday that Ukraine conducted small-scale amphibious assaults across the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast. These operations may aim to fix Russian units in that region, from which Kyiv says Moscow has begun withdrawing forces following the collapse Kakhovka dam. Kyiv could also launch an auxiliary offensive in Luhansk Oblast to impose a dilemma on the Russian command and exploit Ukraine’s interior lines.
So far, Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the south has achieved some initial tactical gains, chiefly on the Velyka Novosilka axis. When the offensive began, the Russian-occupied part of that sector formed a salient jutting into Ukrainian-controlled territory. Ukrainian forces have attacked from three directions — southward along the Mokriy Yaly River and on the salient’s eastern and western flanks. The immediate objective is probably Staromlynivka, a town that sits at a road junction around 12 kilometers south of Velyka Novosilka.
On June 11-13, Ukraine liberated several low-lying villages along the Mokriy Yaly River. Russia blew a dam on that river in an effort to impede further advances. Ukraine also appears to have retaken or at least pushed Russian forces out of several more villages on the flanks, although the Russians probably retain control over the dominant heights in those areas. Russia has reportedly launched counterattacks over the last week, with no apparent success. Ukrainian forces remain about 10 kilometers from Russia’s main defensive line in this sector.
Kyiv has made less progress in the Zaporizhzhia direction. To the west, Ukrainian forces have likely liberated the low-lying village of Lobkove. They may have also advanced up to 3 kilometers south of Orikhiv, taking some positions in Russia’s advanced security zone. But Ukrainian troops have yet to reach Russia’s first defensive line at the towns of Robotyne and Kopani, and they remain around 10 kilometers from Russia’s main defensive line. Russia has a thicker, more complex defense in depth in the Zaporizhzhia direction than in the South Donetsk direction.
Open-source data indicate Ukraine has lost dozens of tanks and other armored fighting vehicles since its counteroffensive began. That figure includes at least five Leopard 2 tanks and 17 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, although some of the damaged vehicles are likely recoverable. Significant losses are inevitable when conducting a large-scale ground offensive without air superiority against an opponent with a well-prepared defense. The Biden administration quickly pledged to backfill Ukraine’s lost Bradleys with replacements drawn from U.S. stocks.
Heavy Russian mining and artillery fire, along with loitering munitions and mobile anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) teams, account for many of Ukraine’s vehicle losses. However, the improved survivability of Ukraine’s Western-made vehicles has reduced its casualties and irretrievable vehicle losses. Ukrainian sources also cite challenges posed by Russia’s electronic warfare capabilities and the high concentration of Russian drones conducting intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.
Ukrainian military sources confirm that the Russian Air Force, particularly Army Aviation, is also playing an active role. The Russian Defense Ministry and other Russian sources have released numerous videos showing Ka-52 attack helicopters conducting ATGM strikes on Ukrainian armored vehicles. They typically fly low and strike from around 8 kilometers away, outside the range of man-portable air defense systems.
Ukraine may be struggling to counter this threat due to a dearth of short-range air defense systems. Kyiv’s dwindling stocks of interceptors for its Soviet-made air defense systems, along with Russia’s use of loitering munitions to target Ukrainian air defenses, may have also made the air environment more permissive. The Russian Air Force’s impact will likely grow as advancing Ukrainian forces push past their air defense coverage.
In general, it’s still far too early to judge the success of Ukraine’s counteroffensive, which will likely unfold over weeks or months. As a source in Ukraine’s General Staff told The Economist earlier this week, neither side has committed its “main forces.” Kyiv appears to have introduced just two of its nine new Western-equipped maneuver brigades — the 47th Mechanized Brigade, in the Orikhiv area, and 37th Marine Brigade, in the Velyka Novosilka area. Ukraine has probably also committed two additional newly formed mechanized infantry brigades alongside various other, pre-existing units. These range from some of Ukraine’s most experienced and best-equipped formations to less-capable units from the Territorial Defense Forces.
The General Staff officer explained that Russia and Ukraine are now in a “chess game” to force each other to commit their reserves. For Kyiv, forcing the Russians to deploy reserves will help reveal vulnerabilities in their defense. Moscow hopes to attrit Ukraine’s offensive potential. Neither side wants to commit his forces at the wrong time or in the wrong place.
According to the General Staff officer, Ukraine’s “immediate priority” is to reduce Russia’s quantitative advantage in artillery. Ukraine appears to have found success in this counter-battery duel, exploiting the superior precision and range of its Western-provided artillery systems. Russia, for its part, continues to use the Lancet loitering munition as its chief counter-battery weapon.
Meanwhile, Ukraine is attempting to disrupt Russian logistics and command and control through sabotage and long-range precision strikes deep in the Russian rear. On June 11, saboteurs — presumably Ukrainian partisans or special forces — caused an explosion on railway tracks in Crimea and blew up a bridge on the rail line connecting the peninsula to Melitopol. The next day, a Russian war correspondent reported that a Ukrainian missile strike had killed the chief of staff of Russia’s 35th Combined Arms Army, elements of which are fighting in Zaporizhzhia Oblast.
So far, Russia seems to have conducted a fairly competent defense. But it remains to be seen whether Russian units, many of which now largely comprise poorly trained mobilized personnel, will hold up when Ukraine strikes with its full might. It’s likewise unclear whether Ukrainian forces, which also include many recently mobilized troops, can execute an offensive of this scale and complexity. As one Ukrainian soldier noted, some of the officers serving in Kyiv’s newly formed brigades received truncated training and lack combat experience. They will need time to adapt.
The counteroffensive’s main axis and prospects will likely grow clearer in the coming weeks as Ukraine commits additional forces and attempts to breach Russia’s fortified defensive lines. Expect the fighting to get tougher as well.
John Hardie is the deputy director of FDD’s Russia Program and a contributor to FDD’s Long War Journal.