uKRAINE’S COUNTERBACK We are now in the second week. Its figure gradually became clear. A long-standing axis points east, in the area around the bloody contested town of Bakhmut and Luhansk province. A new target is heading south and southeast from Velyka Novosilka and Vuhledar in Donetsk province. A third opens up in the south, where Ukrainian troops are fighting south around the town of Olikhiv in Zaporozhye province, which forms the centerpiece of the war’s long front. They are making progress. But neither side is committing to reserves, and the most important fight is likely to be another week or so away.
The offensive in Donetsk appears to have been the most successful so far. Konrad Muzyka of Rochan Consulting, which tracks the war, said Ukraine mobilized seven brigades near Velyka Novosilka to liberate about 60 square kilometers of territory in four days. These include Blahodatne, a group of villages close to the Mokri Yaly River, which was liberated on June 11; Storozheve, where video footage shows marines passing through the village with a Ukrainian flag waving in the center; and Makarivka in the south. Small villages such as Urozhaine and Staromaiorske could be next.
The development contrasted with less encouraging news of another counteroffensive further south and west in the Zaporozhye region. A military source acknowledged that full-scale frontal fighting along the Orishiv-Tokmak axis has been difficult, with heavy Ukrainian armor and personnel losses. Images released by Russia show German Panther tanks and American Bradley armored vehicles stuck in minefields and under artillery fire. A video shows a Russian soldier standing next to a Panther tank with its engine still running. Russia has also been hurt. Russian President Vladimir Putin told Russian military bloggers on June 13 that Russia lost 54 tanks in its offensive in Ukraine. This number far exceeds open-source estimates based on publicly available estimates.
The scale of the deployment along the tokmak axis — and the town’s strategic role as a rail hub and gateway to strikes against Russia’s main road to Crimea — suggest it could be a major push. But so far, most attacks have been carried out by Ukrainian forces that have been put in place to find weaknesses in Russian lines rather than break through with overwhelming force. “The offensive has clearly started, but I don’t think it’s the main attack,” said retired general Ben Hodges, who commanded U.S. forces in Europe. “I think we’ll know the main attack has really started when we see the big armor formations joining the attack.”
According to Mr. Muzka’s estimates, Ukraine has committed only three brigades to Zaporozhye. “We haven’t committed the main forces yet,” agreed a source in the Ukrainian general staff, “and neither have the Russians.” Russia is strengthening what officers call defense in depth: retreating to more favorable rear positions. Both sides are involved in a “chess game” to extract each other’s reserves, the source said. He added that Ukraine’s “immediate priority” was to undercut Russia’s artillery advantage by targeting its batteries with long-range fire. economistdata analysis from nasaThe infrared satellite showed unusually intense fire activity across southern Ukraine. Russian military blogs reported that an airstrike killed Major General Sergey Goryachev, chief of staff of Russia’s 35th Combined Armed Army, the first Russian general to die in a year.
Aviation is playing an important role. There are now more in use in the Zaporozhye region than have been deployed at any time since the beginning of the war. Russian attack helicopters have proven particularly dangerous.Samuel Bendert CIARussian military bloggers are touting a new tactic: Russian airstrikes forcing Ukraine to push its scarce air defenses even further, the think tank noted. Those systems could then be hit by Russian Lancet attack drones and their operators, making them targets for Russian snipers.
Denys Yaroslavsky, a Special Forces officer who fought north of Bakhmut, reported a significant increase in the use of drones there. In addition to the Lancet attack drones, which are capable of destroying tanks and artillery systems, the Russian military has acquired a large number of commercially available Chinese drones, he said. Yaroslavsky is confident that Ukraine will continue to close the circle around Bakhmut. “It’s been tough, but we’ve been going. Within a week, we’ll have taken the high ground … and have Bakhmut in our hands.” The Ukrainian attack in the east could be to “fix” Russia’s position there, prevent their reinforcements to the south.
An unexpected variable could be the condition of Kherson’s flooded plains. The collapse of the Nova Kakhovka dam on 6 June caused a humanitarian disaster. It also upended Ukraine’s plans. The destruction of the bridge next to the dam allowed Russia to move some troops from Kherson to Zaporozhye – a possible motive for the destruction of the dam. Its collapse would almost certainly end any heavy weapons crossing. That said, Ukrainian military sources hinted at a different type of operation. Some say the floods that washed away Russian fortifications east of the Dnieper created opportunity. “Conditions are arguably better for a limited attack using speedboats and special forces,” one of them said. Satellite data suggests that Ukraine is heavily attacking Russian positions across the river from the city of Kherson.
In theory, Ukraine has everything it needs to make significant progress; enough to put Russia’s overland route to Crimea within range of its rockets and Russian shipping in the Sea of Azov, Western officials say. within the range of its anti-ship cruise missiles. But they say that will require luck on the part of Ukraine and missteps on the part of Russia. Nature can also play a role. Rain is expected for most of next week, which could delay some progress in Ukraine while also making Russian air operations and reconnaissance more difficult. The biggest risk, officials said, is that Ukrainian forces run into Russian “firing points” — pockets of territory covered by Russian drones and artillery — as they break through the defense system, which includes several trenches, fortifications and minefields.
Officials tracking the fighting said those defenses were unlikely to be tested in the last week or so of June. Although Ukraine is pushing south from Velyka Novosilka in Donetsk, it is still about 20 kilometers away by road from the first vital line of defense prepared by Russia. In Zaporizhia, the town of Robotyne may mark the furthest Ukrainian advance has been, still 10 kilometers away from east-west fortifications heading south through the villages of Ilchenkove and Solodka Balka. Tokmok is surrounded by its own dedicated fortifications, which are then 20 kilometers away.
“All I know is it will plan,” British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said on June 13. “They’re having success, they’ve kept up the momentum.” Jake Watling Rousey, a think tank agreed: “They exceeded expectations.” But a Western official said the real test was yet to come. “They’re going to hell.” ■