One of the difficulties in covering the Russo-Ukraine War as a journalist is the tendency of so many in this profession to assemble facts in favor of whatever the prevailing narrative of the day is. Sixteen months ago, it was hard to find many people in prominent Washington think tanks or at major broadsheets who did not think Kyiv would fall in three days. When it didn’t, those wedded to the notion that Russia was a near-indomitable military power still found the conventional wisdom, built up over years of diligent study and perhaps the unconscious assimilation of Russian propaganda, hard to slough off. Just because Kyiv wasn’t sacked and the Russian army was driven out of the capital region, ran this line of thinking, didn’t mean Ukraine hadn’t exhausted its inventory of miracles. It could not claw back more territory. Then Kharkiv happened. A wondrous bait-and-switch operation, to be sure, but a one-off for that very reason. The Russians were learning, adapting and preparing, and the long-shot play to retake Kherson would prove it. Then Russia withdrew from half of that region in November as a “goodwill gesture.” And so on.
Having serially outperformed expectations, Ukraine finds itself in the unenviable position of having gone from scrappy underdog to victim of its own mythologized success. Six and a half weeks into a much-anticipated counteroffensive and there are no dramatic battlefield developments. A handful of settlements have been reclaimed in the southern regions of Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk, and that’s it. An absence of climax has begun to lead to impending anti-climax and the sort of doomcasting that characterized the preliminaries of Russia’s full-scale invasion. The counteroffensive into which Kyiv and its NATO partners have invested so much kit, manpower and money is already a busted flush, we are told. “Ukraine’s counter-offensive is failing, with no easy fixes,” ran one comment piece in The Daily Telegraph. This was preceded four days earlier by an even less sunny prognosis in the same newspaper, “Ukraine and the West are facing a devastating defeat.”
Ironically, such assessments stand in marked contrast to what Russians in the field are saying about the capability of their adversary. But to understand where Ukraine is headed, it’s first necessary to explain where it is.
Ukraine launched this operation in June hoping, but not expecting, a quick breakthrough of Russian defensive lines in the south. The objective, as several Western and Ukrainian officials told New Lines, is to press through all the way to the Sea of Azov, in Ukraine’s southeast, to sever Russia’s “land bridge” to occupied Crimea and isolate Russian forces on the left bank of the Dnipro, the remaining area of Kherson oblast that is still under Moscow’s control. This was never to be an easy or quick undertaking, as was well known before the counteroffensive got underway. Russian forces have spent more than a year building up enormous fortifications known collectively as the “Surovikin Line,” named for the former commander of Russia’s war in Ukraine, Gen. Sergey Surovikin, who has not been seen or heard from since the Wagner putsch last month and who, the Wall Street Journal reports, may be detained as a willing or passive accomplice in that affair.
The Surovikin Line consists of thousands of miles of well-constructed bunkers, trenches and anti-tank traps, accompanied by vast fields of anti-tank and anti-personnel landmines. Both authors had the opportunity to query half a dozen Ukrainian military and intelligence officials in April, ranging from the defense minister to the head of military intelligence to senior commanders in the Territorial Defense Forces. None was under any illusions as to how heavily defended these positions were or how difficult dislodging the enemy would be without greater consignments of advanced Western weaponry, especially warplanes, the sine qua non of combined arms maneuver. (These interviews took place before the United States announced its decision to allow Ukrainian pilots to begin training on F-16 fighter jets, though these airframes are still months from being delivered.)
Some of these Ukrainian officials told us they were a bit queasy at the expectations being set for them in Western capitals, namely that Kyiv needed a swift return on investment lest it risk losing diplomatic and military support because electorates in donor countries would grow impatient.
“All or nothing, fast or failure” was exactly the kind of pressure the Ukrainian General Staff was afraid of.
Proof of their wariness came right away when the campaign got off to an especially rough start. An unlucky group of armored vehicles from Ukraine’s 47th Mechanized Brigade, using Bradley infantry fighting vehicles and Leopard 2 tanks, drove into a minefield in Zaporizhzhia and were then punished by accurate Russian drone-corrected artillery fire and Ka-52 “Alligator” helicopter gunships firing long-range, anti-tank guided missiles.
Yet even this early Ukrainian misstep was revealing in another way. The Kremlin and its online boosters recycled footage of the same scene for weeks afterward, as shot from multiple camera angles, in an apparent attempt to inflate Ukrainian losses, show what a waste NATO security assistance was and write the premature obituary on the counteroffensive. This ambush seemed to set the tone for much of the disillusioned or dire press coverage since.
One statistic now being circulated came courtesy of The New York Times, citing unnamed U.S. and European officials. In the first two weeks of Ukraine’s campaign, the newspaper reported, as much as 20% of the military hardware it deployed to the battlefield was damaged or destroyed. That percentage was given without providing a figure for the total amount of hardware committed; nor did it take into account how much of the damaged kit has since been repaired and redeployed.
It fell to another broadsheet to be more specific. The Washington Post reported that as of July 20 — or six weeks into the counteroffensive — “about a dozen” Bradleys have been destroyed, according to an anonymous U.S. defense official. Many more Bradleys have been damaged but repaired either locally or in Poland. Yet even this newspaper leaves out a crucial bit of context. Ukraine began this operation with 143 Bradleys and has since received or is about to receive 47 new ones, making a permanent loss of 12 amount to just 6% of its stock.
Ukraine’s core interest is protecting Ukrainian lives, according to Kaimo Kuusk, Estonia’s outgoing ambassador to Kyiv. Kuusk told one of the authors that Western armored vehicles had done their job of keeping their occupants alive after being hit with explosives. Kuusk also said that based on his meetings with Ukrainian military officials, the Russians are still suffering more casualties, at a ratio of six for every one Ukrainian. It is typically assessed that an offensive army should lose at a ratio of three attacking soldiers to each defending one.
Still another factor for the slow pace of Ukraine’s progress is that it changed tactics following the 47th’s fiasco, moving away from using heavy armor to try to punch through Russian lines and toward a slower, more incremental rate of advance. Here minefields remain the most daunting obstacles.
The Russian military has scattered millions of anti-tank and anti-personnel landmines in heavy concentrations to both attrite advancing Ukrainian forces and slow their movements, allowing them to be more easily targeted by artillery and anti-tank guided missiles. Kyiv has been using a variety of methods to neutralize these lethal devices: mine-clearing line charges (long cables filed with plastic explosives fired across the battlefield to detonate the mines); individual Ukrainian sappers crawling on their bellies to collect and defuse mines by hand; and mine rollers attached to the front of tanks, which blow up the mines in front of rather than underneath the armor. Fields the Ukrainians have cleared are in some cases even re-mined within hours by Russian artillery or drones, which disburse new explosives from a distance, making progress grimly Sisyphean and sluggish.
As such, Kyiv has resorted to using long-range fires to degrade Russian logistics and artillery, a tried-and-true method of what retired Australian Gen. Mick Ryan calls “corrosion of the Russian physical, moral and intellectual capacity to fight,” principally by annihilating all the concomitants of warfare. Kyiv has spent the past several weeks directly targeting individual artillery pieces with accurate counter-battery fire and blowing up Russian ammunition depots with long-range cruise missiles and drones, including a major series of drone strikes in Oktyabrskoye in central Crimea on July 22 and a series of cruise missile and drone strikes hitting targets across the peninsula on July 24.
According to “Karl,” a pseudonymous Estonian military analyst New Lines previously interviewed, Ukraine continues to “demolish on average about 25 artillery pieces a day. This is beginning to have some effect.” The Russian military has always been heavily dependent on massed artillery to conduct both offensive and defensive operations, meaning that destroying these crucial assets has an outsize effect on all aspects of Russian battlefield performance. Don’t take Karl’s word for it.
Senior Russian military officials on the front line are experiencing the impact of Ukrainian corrosion with a ferocity understandably inaccessible to pessimistic Western pundits. Consider the high-profile sacking of Gen. Ivan Popov, who until recently was the commanding officer of the 58th Combined Arms Army. The 58th has been engaged in heavy fighting in Zaporizhzhia. Popov recorded a voice memo for private dissemination among his soldiers, but Russian parliamentarian Andrey Gurulev posted it on Telegram. The general criticized “the lack of counter-battery combat, the absence of artillery reconnaissance stations” and what he described as “the mass deaths and injuries of our brothers from enemy artillery.” Popov also claimed that the 58th desperately needed rotating, as most of the rank and file have been at the front for months on end and have suffered disastrous losses.
Low morale is another serious liability for the Russians, whereas even Ukrainians who complain of halting progress or a dogged and entrenched enemy are somehow still optimistic. There is a great deal of social and political cohesion in Kyiv — not so in Moscow, which was nearly invaded by a disgruntled army of mercenaries under the command of catering oligarch-turned-warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin. Leaving the Wagner “march” to one side, there have been a considerable number of smaller mutinies by conventional units of Russian “mobiks” (conscripts) called up in President Vladimir Putin’s mobilization wave of September 2022. The mobiks routinely complain of no ammunition, no food, no pay and their use as cannon fodder. War is as much about metaphysical elements as it is about guns and bullets. It is one thing to fire a shell in the vicinity of an exploded mine from miles away; it is another to sit derelict in a trench and wonder why you’re doing it in the first place.
Popov, it bears mentioning, may be the highest-ranking member of the Russian army to grouse about the efficacy of Ukrainian artillery, but he is not the only one. A host of pro-Russian sources on social media have attested to the damage Ukraine is doing with its Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (GMLRS) as instruments for counter-battery fire. These precision rockets are fired from Western-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) and M270 Multiple Launch Rocket Systems, which made a crucial difference in the Kharkiv and Kherson counteroffensives. Kyiv wisely stockpiled these munitions in anticipation of its current campaign.
In spite of Ukraine’s highly publicized shortfalls in ammunition, it certainly seems to have enough to make life unpleasant for the invaders.
“Enemy artillery crews do not change position for hours, shelling our front line with impunity,” moaned Alexander Khodakovsky, the commander of the Vostok Battalion of the “Donetsk People’s Republic,” the Russian puppet regime in eastern Ukraine. “Our gun artillery does not meet modern requirements for a number of reasons, primarily in terms of range.”
Another disorienting weapon for the Russians is the U.K.-supplied Storm Shadow air-launched cruise missile. Ukraine has been using the Storm Shadow to hit Russian logistics bases it would have previously hit with GMLRS but for the fact that Russia adapted to that tactic by relocating its materiel outside the 56-mile range of the artillery rockets. These cruise missiles, however, can reach any Russian target in any part of occupied Ukraine, depending upon where they are fired from the Su-24 bombers that carry them.
Again, we defer to Russian sources.
“I remember the summer when Ukrainians received HIMARS, and the warehouse began to burn like matches,” one Russian military blogger, “ALIVE Z,” lamented in response to a successful Storm Shadow strike on Novooleksiivka, on the border with Crimea in Kherson oblast, on July 11. “The appearance of the Storm Shadow missiles forces us to move the warehouses even farther [away from the front line] or to look for another solution. … In general we will have to be very scrupulous about the protection and placement of ammunition.”
British cruise missiles have also felicitously freed up more GMLRS for counter-battery purposes. The Chonhar Bridge, for example, which connects occupied regions of Kherson to Crimea, was successfully hit by at least one Storm Shadow on June 22, punching a large hole through the reinforced concrete roadway and causing “serious damage,” according to Moscow. In contrast, the Antonovsky road bridge in Kherson took dozens of GMLRS strikes during the Kherson counteroffensive last summer before it suffered the same level of damage.
The recent U.S. decision to supply Dual-Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions (DPICM), or cluster munitions, will only increase the lethality of Ukrainian artillery. The DPICM shells were designed to both destroy infantry and armored vehicles in any prospective NATO war against the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact armies. Ukraine has already been using a limited number of these munitions, which were supplied in secret by Turkey as early as November 2022. Since the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion, they have also been using an extensive array of older, far less effective ex-Soviet cluster munitions, inherited from the Red Army. Footage of the Ukrainian military employing DPICM shells against a column of Russian infantry, which was advancing through a tree line in eastern Ukraine, has already been released. Demonstrating the effectiveness of these shells, the Russian push was stopped in its tracks.
Ukrainian forces are “advancing every day,” according to British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace in remarks made after the recent NATO summit in Vilnius. Wallace also confirmed Ukraine had not yet committed reserves from their 12 offensive brigades, the majority of which were trained by NATO and thus recipients of the lion’s share of Western-supplied equipment. Sir Richard Moore, head of MI6, told an audience in Prague days ago that “in the last month, Ukraine has liberated more territory than Russia captured in the last year,” an easily verifiable bit of perspective absent from much of the depressive commentary on the war. Even Gen. Mark Milley, the chair of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff — someone who would never be accused of an overabundance of optimism about Ukraine’s military prospects — has stated that “the Ukrainian counteroffensive is far from a failure, despite the fact that it is happening more slowly than expected.” The Ukrainians were “preserving their combat power and they are slowly and deliberately and steadily working their way through all these minefields,” Milley later claimed, adding that they still retain a “significant amount” of forces to deploy.
The Hollywood-tailored excitement of the Battles of Kyiv and Kharkiv may have unduly raised the bar for what Ukraine can accomplish in short order. Yet the Battle of Kherson, begun in August 2022, was a long, hard slog, the bulk of which garnered comparatively little contemporaneous front-page coverage — until all of a sudden it did. That operation culminated four months later with an announced Russian withdrawal.
This was before the Ukrainians had U.S. or European main battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, cruise missiles and cluster bombs. This was also before Putin’s regime began to cannibalize itself by downing its own helicopters, seizing military districts and exiling the vanguard of its expeditionary force to tent encampments in Belarus.
Does this mean that Ukraine will succeed in reaching the Sea of Azov and cutting off Russians west of Melitopol? No, it doesn’t. Does it mean that Ukrainian forces aren’t suffering and dying on a daily basis or that Ukrainian conscripts aren’t right to be angry in front of Western reporters about a lack of ammunition, rushed or insufficient NATO training and blunders of command? Of course not.
Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning former war correspondent Thomas Ricks once said something to the effect of: “Covering combat can be dangerous but is relatively easy. You just need to write down what you hear and see. But covering a war accurately is far more difficult, because it requires some understanding of strategy, logistics, morale and other things that often can’t be observed.” We find ourselves at a bizarre turning point in a crisis which has seen no shortage of them where the only ones who think Ukraine’s counter-offensive isn’t quite the let-down or failure it’s been widely portrayed as are the Russians desperate to prove otherwise.