Ukraine’s counter-offensive is failing, with no easy fixes

Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 21 July 2023. © Richard Kemp

With no significant breakthrough after six weeks, it is worth asking whether Ukraine’s counter-offensive can ever succeed, for it certainly doesn’t look to be succeeding now.

Compare the glacial but costly progress today to the lightning victories at Kharkiv and Kherson last autumn. Back then Kyiv’s forces were advancing against a withdrawing enemy that was pulling back to redeploy troops, trading space for time. Having now built up their forces through mobilisation and dug extensive defence lines, this time the Russians aren’t going anywhere.

That has left Ukraine with one option: launching frontal attacks against heavily defended positions, almost akin to the Western Front in World War I where trench lines ran continuously from Switzerland to the sea, with neither side achieving a decisive breakthrough for four years. Such an outcome today would leave Kyiv vulnerable to shifts in Western opinion, given the possibility of a Trump presidency or European fatigue. This is something President Zelensky must be aware of; and it is perhaps causing great consternation.

The question to be asked is: are the Ukrainians prepared – militarily, politically, financially – to carry out months and potentially years of these attacks to penetrate 1914-18 style defensive belts of tank traps, barbed wire, minefields, bunkers and trench lines? The UK Ministry of Defence has described these Russian fortifications as ‘some of the most extensive systems of military defensive works seen anywhere in the world’.

In the south, which appears to be Kyiv’s main effort at the moment, the terrain is mostly open farmland, with few covered approaches, making surprise, which is a critical factor for success in war, virtually impossible. That lack of surprise only compounds Kyiv’s combat inferiority.

Ukraine is already outnumbered in every military capability. Its dire shortage of armoured vehicles means that Kyiv is approaching this counter-offensive with immense caution. Many Nato-supplied tanks and infantry fighting vehicles were knocked out during early probing attacks and they are consequently holding most of the rest of these assets back to avoid too many more losses. That is understandable – yet only a bold, concerted assault with massed armour is likely to overcome the Russians.

So what is the main problem? Some in Kyiv are pointing to the lack of air support, highlighting the reluctance of Western partners to provide F-16 jets (though Britain has already pledged to train pilots). But this would not solve Kyiv’s immediate dilemmas.

It takes months to train and then many more months to transfer the jets. Furthermore, as America’s top general, Mark Milley, has already pointed out, ‘The Russians have 1,000 fourth-generation fighters. If you’re going to contest Russia in the air, you’re going to need a substantial amount of fourth and fifth generation fighters.’ We must recognise two things: this is not possible in the present context, and air power is not a magic bullet anyway.

Others have suggested that Nato planners and strategists should be more involved. Yet they are already helping to a great extent, sometimes for good and sometimes for not.

Ultimately, the possibility of a Ukrainian recovery comes down to its ability to complete frontal assaults. This strategy has been decried at least since the First World War by military theorists who rightly extol the virtues of the ‘indirect approach’ – that is advancing along lines of least resistance to disrupt the enemy’s equilibrium before attacking into weakened front-line defences. But given Kyiv’s position, it does not have the privilege of philosophising.

The West, meanwhile, should focus on providing the right practical equipment, such as demining kit to clear paths through enemy obstacles, cluster munitions and ATACM long-range missiles. It will take a focus on grubby land warfare – and not sky-high dreams – to tip the balance.