As Ukraine counteroffensive gets bogged down, it’s back to the drawing board

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Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.

Expectations for Ukraine’s counteroffensive were too high from the start.

And as it now closes in on its third month, with no sign of a truly significant dynamic-changing breakthrough, it feels as though we’re back in a slog, a war of attrition that risks stretching the patience of impatient allies — something the Kremlin is no doubt hoping for.

Or, as American military strategist Edward Luttwak noted this week, “The Ukraine war has entered its ‘grin & bear it’ period as it fights a Great Power that tried & failed to conquer it in a week last February, and which is now organized for protracted war.”

Ukrainian officials blame their counterparts in allied governments for much of the overoptimism surrounding the counteroffensive — as well as an overenthusiastic Western media that mistakes wishful thinking for clear-eyed analysis all too often, conjuring up the idea of demoralized, badly led Russian soldiers quickly turning tail. The optimists’ view was that the counteroffensive would simply repeat the success of last fall, when Ukraine pulled off a stunning and rapid success around Kharkiv, as Russian defenses collapsed.

But Kyiv also bears some responsibility for of the optimistic prognosis of a quick breakthrough.

For much of the spring ahead of the counteroffensive, Chief of Ukraine’s Main Directorate of Intelligence Kyrylo Budanov, among others, all too confidently pronounced the prospect, talking about the coming “decisive battle.” And Budanov even shrugged off pleas from Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to soften predictions of success.

But in defense of such overblown forecasts, what were Ukrainians supposed to say?

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tried his best to pull off a tricky balancing act, holding out the possibility of delivering a decisive blow in order to shore up Western confidence and keep equipment and weapons flowing, while also tempering expectations. However, he dialed up the latter prospect too late — as did Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, who became worried in late spring that hopes were “definitely overheated.”

Their efforts weren’t helped by retired American generals letting their thoughts run away with them either, talking up how Ukraine would soon be able to target annexed Crimea. “The problem is that we believe our own military propaganda,” complained Andrey Illarionov, a former senior Kremlin policy adviser who broke with Putin in 2005. A fierce critic of Moscow, Illarionov now fears a long war unless the West gets considerably more muscular.

Another reason behind Ukraine’s mistaken optimism was also a failure to understand that the Russian army was quickly learning from its own mistakes and correcting course. Just weeks ahead of the counteroffensive’s launch, Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds — two of this war’s most thoughtful military analysts from the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) — issued a warning about likely hiccups, detailing evidence of Russia’s learning curve, noting altered basic infantry tactics and improved artillery targeting, allowing guns to strike Ukrainian targets within minutes of detection.

They also highlighted other changes, including the “speed with which Russian infantry dig, and the scale at which they improve their fighting positions.” Russia’s armor tactics were altering as well, as they began using tanks to offer supporting firepower for infantry units from safe distances, rather than amassing them for bungled shock-and-awe attacks, and utilizing thermal camouflage to mask them.

Another common tactic, the authors wrote, “is for the Russians to withdraw from a position that is being assaulted and then saturate it with fire once Ukrainian troops attempt to occupy it.” This tactic, along with a phalanx of dense and imposing defensive lines that Russia emplaced in the south — the counteroffensive’s area of focus — is what’s now stalling Ukraine.

Another reason behind Ukraine’s mistaken optimism was also a failure to understand that the Russian army was quickly learning from its own mistakes and correcting course | Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty Images

Ukrainian forces are now having to contend with layers upon layers of varied anti-personnel and anti-armor mines in Zaporizhzia and Donetsk, including PFM-1 high-explosives — which can be scattered in their thousands by mortars, helicopters and aeroplanes without exploding upon hitting the ground. These minefields can be up to 16 kilometers deep and easily replenished when Ukrainian sappers make inroads, and by some estimates, Ukrainian territory that’s twice the size of Portugal has been heavily mined, sometimes with up to half a dozen mines per square-meter.

Ukraine now has little time to engineer a break through Russian defensive lines — which in some places are 30 kilometers deep — and then fully capitalize on any major breach before the weather turns again in a couple months. But so far, after weeks of fighting, they have only made inroads of around a few kilometers in key places. The first phase of the counteroffensive saw substantial losses in terms of Western-supplied armor, and the second phase of using infantry to try and find ways through hasn’t met with significant success either.

All Ukraine has been able to do is inch forward.

Still, according to frontline soldiers, morale remains high, mainly among the recently fully deployed — and Western-trained — 10th corps. The initial plan had been to only deploy the 10th once the main defensive lines had been reached, but they had to be thrown in sooner — testament to the awful, time-consuming slog facing Ukraine’s soldiers.

Unsurprisingly, many of them bristle at Western griping about their slow progress, such as the criticism contained in last month’s leaked battlefield assessment by Germany’s Bundeswehr, which faulted the Ukrainian military for not fully implementing its NATO training.

The counter to much of the Bundeswehr’s criticism, of course, is that Ukraine had little option but to move away from standard Western instruction on combined warfare tactics, as crucial elements of the armory needed to pull it off hadn’t been supplied by the West — namely F-16 warplanes and long-range missiles.

The pilots currently being trained on F-16s won’t be ready until next spring, and by then the Americans may have overcome their reluctance to supply longer-range missiles | Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR

In short, the West hobbled the Ukrainians before the starting gun had been fired, teaching them how to fight NATO-style but withholding the weapons systems needed to perform. On top of that, the West was always eager for Zelenskyy to get going, and allies became frustrated when he delayed the counteroffensive from spring to summer, as he lobbied to get more Western supplies.

So, with no apparent signs of a breakthrough, it appears it’s now time to return to the drawing board for the next fighting season in spring, in case success doesn’t come soon. After all, the pilots currently being trained on F-16s won’t be ready until next spring, and by then the Americans may have overcome their reluctance to supply longer-range missiles.

But if political calculations were difficult this year, with a U.S. presidential election looming, it’s important to remember that they’ll be even more taxing next year, with an exceptionally torrid and combustible White House election season in full swing, possibly distracting the administration’s attention and making it harder to get Congress to agree on the security and economic assistance Ukraine will need.

As Luttwak noted, “Ukraine need not win a great victory to exit the war an independent nation, only persistence.” And the question has never been about Ukrainian tenacity — by next year, though, the risks will increase whether the West has the stamina and will to win.

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