Ukrainian Counteroffensive – Southern Front
Ukrainian forces continue their offensive operations along the southern frontline. Ukrainians found success in the town of Piatykhatky, capturing the settlement and successfully defending it from Russian counter attacks.[i] After the Russian assault was pushed back, Ukrainian troops surged forward in the direction of Zherebianky. While they are yet to enter the town, Ukrainian forces have successfully damaged Russian capabilities in the area and prepared a staging ground for further advances. However, it seems, based on the strength of Russian counter attack, that Zherebianky boasts a significant garrison of Russian troops – which might prove problematic for future Ukrainian operations in the area.
Ukrainian forces also continued to assault Russian positions south of Velyka Novosilka. This part of the frontline is the place of the most far reaching Ukrainian advances since the start of their counteroffensive with several settlements in the area already liberated. The Ukrainian General Staff stated that Ukrainian forces are now conducting operations as far as seven kilometres south of Velyka Novosilka in the area of the town of Makarivka. Some sources state that Ukrainians are attacking in the direction of Urozhaine, with Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin claiming that the settlement has already been captured. The area is heavily contested, with a number of Russian units working to stop the Ukrainian advance, including the elements of the 60th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade, “Kaskad” Operational Combat Tactical Formation of the DPR, as well as the more elite 40th Naval Infantry Brigade.[ii] If these lines are breached, Ukrainian forces will be able to reach the main Russian defensive lines.
Ukrainian Counteroffensive – Bakhmut Direction
Ukrainian forces continue counteroffensive operations in the Bakhmut area. While the Ukrainians have achieved limited gains both to the north and the southwest of the city, the battle seems to have reached a temporary standstill. Ukrainian forces have not been able to capture the strategic hills surrounding Klishchiivka, nor have they achieved any gains within Bakhmut itself. Ukrainian Eastern Group of Forces Spokesperson Colonel Serhiy Cherevaty stated that the lower intensity of fighting and slower progress is the result of changes in Russian operations.[iii] Russian VDV and mechanised forces seem to have learnt from Wagner experiences and their heavy losses and are acting much more cautiously, thus successfully denying Ukrainian troops any opening for attack. If such behaviour continues Ukrianian forces will be forced to commit larger amounts of manpower and equipment to breach Russian lines – which could break the deadlock though at a price of significant losses.
Russian counter attacks
Pressed by the Ukrainian counteroffensive entering its third week of operations, the Russian armed forces began conducting counterassaults in several directions. Significant Russian offensive operations have been launched in the area of Marinka and Avdiivka (Donetsk City).[iv] While the embattled cities have been the site of continuous warfare since the very beginning of the war, this recent offensive aims to not only capture them but more importantly disrupt Ukrainian efforts further to the west in the direction of Vuhledar and Velyka Novosilka. These attacks aim to achieve gains while the Ukrainians focus on their offensive efforts in other areas. Furthermore, if significant gains are achieved by the Russian, it could force Ukrainian forces to shift their assets from their own offensive efforts to stabilise their defensive lines. Similar attacks have been launched by the Russian in the north, along the Kupyansk – Kreminna line, most probably hoping to draw Ukrainian forces away from the Bakhmut front. So far these actions have attracted Ukrainian attention, but failed to cause any shifts in the Ukrainian battlelines.
The perceived slower pace of Ukrainian operations
As the Ukrainian counteroffensive enters its third week with no major breakthroughs some begin to doubt the capabilities of the Ukrainian armed forces. While it is true that the offensive has only achieved limited gains it is important to include the wider context before coming to any conclusions. The offensive is trying to breach frontlines shaped and hardened by more than 8 months of static trench warfare. Furthermore, for the last 6 months Russian forces were preparing their lines for the Ukrainian offensive, reinforcing already existing positions, building protective structures, minefields, vehicle obstacles, and fighting positions, as well as supply and communication lines necessary to maintain them. The best example of this is the Russian defensive line in Zaporizhia, built along the southern frontlines; it is over 100 kilometres long, with 2-3 primary defensive lines. Breaching of such extensive fortifications takes large amounts of manpower, resources, effort, and especially time. Ukrainian forces are now in the first steps of the assault, using vanguard troops to probe Russian forward defences for weak spots and exploit them, preparing avenues of attack for the main push. This can be noted in Zelensky’s speech on the progress of the offensive. The Ukrainian President stated that while the progress of the offensive is indeed slow, slower than expected, necessary work is being done on the frontlines that will ensure the success of the main push.[v] Thus, while the progress might be slow it does not mean that the offensive is failing – quite the opposite it is just beginning.
Ukrainian Counteroffensive – homefront, western support, and the cost of offensive combat operations
The Ukrainian counteroffensive is an immense effort, requiring the engagement of tens of thousands of soldiers with thousands of armoured vehicles and artillery pieces. According to Reuters the Ukrainian armed forces have a combined strength of 12 brigades prepared for the offensive – which translates to around 60,000 soldiers.[vi] As of now it seems that elements of around 3 brigades have engaged the Russian defences. Some sources claim that since the onset of the offensive Ukrainians suffered the equivalent of 3 mechanised battalions – that is roughly 1500-1800 soldiers, and 120 armoured vehicles.[vii] While such accounts are difficult to confirm, the casualty counts are expected to be higher than during defensive operations as Ukrainian forces are attempting to break through an extensive fortified defensive line, manned by a significant garrison of Russian troops.
What is more important to look at is the Ukrainian ability to regenerate their combat potential in order to maintain their offensive effort. Ukraine has announced the creation of the new brigades to act as reserves – the 141st, 143rd and 144th Reserve Rifle Brigades.[viii] This would grant Ukraine access to an additional 15,000 troops to reinforce their advance. A key issue however, presents itself with the proper equipment, vehicles especially, needed to fuel the offensive. During the assaults Ukrainian units have mostly been relying on Western gear – Leopard 2 tanks, Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, MRAPs, and other armoured infantry vehicles. These are mostly used as they offer significant protection to the troops – thus even when a vehicle is hit, the crew and transported soldiers have a very high chance of survival. However, as the offensive continues the equipment losses might pile up, potentially crippling the Ukrainian efforts. Thus, a stable supply of armoured vehicles will be key to maintaining the offensive. Recently Ukraine received around 50 Swedish CV9040C infantry fighting vehicles. Furthermore, Germany decided to provide 66 BATT UMG armoured personnel carriers, to complement the delivery of 110 Leopard 1 tanks – of which the first batch is scheduled to arrive in Ukraine very soon (according to official statements at the beginning of Summer).[ix] The US also declared willingness to replace some of the lost vehicles with Bradley IFVs and Stryker APCs. While these deliveries are important, the Ukrainian offensive might require greater upkeep to achieve its objectives.
As the Ukrainian counteroffensive continues Western support and commitment is as important as ever. The deliveries of Western equipment have to at the very least be maintained as previous levels to maintain the Ukrainian assault, though the increasing combat operations and losses might require the West to commit to even greater pledges. The situation at the front is not improved by reports of Russian counterattacks, as well as adoption of new tactics which hinder Ukrainian advances. However, as the offensive is yet to unleash its full potential the situation on the front might change rapidly.
Author: Sebastian Czub, analyst Casimir Pulaski Foundation
[i] Serge Havrylets, “Frontline report: Ukrainians continue advancing in Zaporizhzhia Oblast; Russian counterattacks on Piatykhatky fail”, Euromaidan Press, June 21, 2023, https://euromaidanpress.com/2023/06/21/frontline-report-ukrainians-continue-advancing-in-zaporizhzhia-oblast-russian-counterattacks-on-piatykhatky-fail/?swcfpc=1.
[ii] Riley Bailey et al., “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, June 21, 2023”, Press ISW, June 21, 2023, https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-june-21-2023.
[iii] Diana Kozlova and Polina Mirer, “Знищили російську “Іронію”. У ЗСУ розказали про втрати російської армії під Бахмутом за добу”, Suspilne Media, June 22, 2023, https://suspilne.media/513125-znisili-rosijsku-ironiu-u-zsu-rozkazali-pro-vtrati-rosijskoi-armii-pid-bahmutom-za-dobu/.
[iv] Kateryna Stepanenko et al., “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, June 22, 2023”, Press ISW, June 22, 2023, https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-june-22-2023.
[v] Yalda Hakim, “Ukraine war: Zelensky admits slow progress but says offensive is not a movie”, BBC News, June 21, 2023, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-65971790.
[vi] Tom Balmforth, “How is Ukraine’s counter-offensive going so far?”, Reuters, June 15, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/ukraine-counteroffensive-takes-shape-main-test-still-come-2023-06-14/.
[vii] Artur Micek, Twitter, June 20, 2023, https://twitter.com/artur_micek/status/1670929818278395910?s=46&t=I-r9GETvDy8gm6bbbhswvA.
[viii] Jerome, “Ukraine forms additional reserve forces”, Military Land, June 21, 2023, https://militaryland.net/news/ukraine-forms-additional-reserve-forces/.
[ix] “Germany will send MRAP to Ukraine instead of armored personnel carriers – BILD”, MilitarnyiI, June 3, 2023, https://mil.in.ua/en/news/germany-will-send-mrap-to-ukraine-instead-of-armored-personnel-carriers-bild/.