Ukraine is now on the offensive, likely probing Russia’s weak spots on the front lines, as the greatly anticipated counter-offensive enters its early stages.
Ukraine has launched operations on four fronts in the past week, in the Donetsk, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia regions, with varying degrees of success, according to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW).
And as bne IntelliNews went to press reports continue to come in of intense fighting along the line of contact, although it doesn’t appear that the Ukrainian army is trying to break through the lines, as in almost all cases the attacking forces quickly retreated again after making some gains, to preserve men and materiel, according to ISW.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said that Ukraine is “seeing results” amidst brutal battles in Donetsk leading many to believe that the first phase of the counteroffensive is underway, including Russian President Vladimir Putin who said that Moscow is “realistically” assessing the situation.
“In the last 48 hours significant Ukrainian operations have been taking place in several sectors of eastern and southern Ukraine. In some areas, Ukrainian forces have likely made good progress and penetrated the first line of Russian defences. In others, Ukrainian progress has been slower,” the UK Ministry of Defence tweeted on June 10.
However, these attacks are likely to probe Russia’s positions and are “shaping” attacks, designed to force Russian troop movements in response, rather than being the main strike of the counteroffensive, according to Margo Grosberg, head of the Intelligence Centre of the Defence Forces of Estonia. Once Ukraine has determined weaknesses in Russia’s defence, it can mobilise reserves and conduct the second phase in the hope of a spectacular break through and rout of Russian forces, a similar to the successful Kharkiv and Kherson offensives last autumn.
The most notable battles are taking place around Bakhmut, the war-torn city that fell under Russian control last month. After retreating, Ukraine has now gone back on the offensive, advancing 1.4km towards the city in one day, Serhit Cherevaty, a Ukrainian Armed Forces spokesperson, said on June 10. Meanwhile, Russians failed in several offensives on five settlements in the region the day before, the ISW reported, citing Ukrainian officials.
Fighting has intensified in the southern Zaporizhzhia region with Ukraine gaining territory after ground attacks on June 8 and June 9. The most intense battles are around Orikhiv and in the direction of Velyka Novosilka towards Mariupol, Ukrainian Pravda reported. Ukraine also secured tactical gains on the Donetsk-Zaporizhzhia border.
Ukraine is using Western weaponry to strike Russia’s rear positions in southern Ukraine. Russian troops speculated that Ukraine launched UK-manufactured Storm Shadow missiles on the occupied port city Berdyansk, although this has not been confirmed.
Nevertheless, Russia has still defended several positions, particularly in the Luhansk region. Russian sources claim three Ukrainian ground attacks were repelled in the Lysychansk direction, the ISW stated.
“Russian performance has been mixed: some units are likely conducting credible manoeuvre defence operations while others have pulled back in some disorder, amid increased reports of Russian casualties as they withdraw through their own minefields,” the UK MoD noted.
The Russian defensive position has been improved by the flooding caused by the Kakhovka dam crisis in southern Ukraine, as the front line in the Kherson region has been shortened and Ukrainian troops will be unable to pass through the flooded territories. Kyiv accuses Russia of blowing up the dam, which has caused a humanitarian catastrophe.
First Leopards spotted in combat
After much hype concerning the supply of the advanced German-made Leopard 2 tanks, the first were seen on the battlefield since they began arriving in Ukraine last month.
Russia immobilised one Leopard and several Western- made armoured vehicles, according to unverified reports in use by the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
Details are unclear but open-source investigators says at least four US-manufactured Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, a German-made Leopard 2A6 tank and a BMR-2 armoured demining vehicle in Zaporizhzhia were destroyed by Russian forces, according to the Twitter account Ukraine Weapons Tracker. The ISW notes that the vehicles don’t appear to be destroyed and could be recoverable.
Putin has amplified Ukraine’s losses, claiming Russia has superior military equipment and personnel. However, Ukraine’s Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Malya stressed that losses are expected and that Western military equipment isn’t indestructible.
It is not known exactly how many tanks and other Western military equipment Ukraine has and this is the first confirmation that Leopards have entered the battlefield, but it seems very likely that the majority of recently delivered weapons are being kept back in preparation for hammer blow in Phase 2 of the counteroffensive.
Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in April that 98% of combat vehicles promised to Ukraine have already been delivered, including over 1,550 armoured vehicles and 230 tanks. Last month, bne IntelliNews reported that Western allies have sent Ukraine 575 tanks and 28 planes. Yet recent battlefield reports say that ammunition is still in short supply and solders on the frontline are still using outdated Soviet-era arms.
The major assault will likely come sometime in the next few weeks, wherein the full Western arsenal could be used to smash through Russian positions. One of the few ways Ukraine could win this war quickly is to sufficiently demoralise Russian troops, many of whom are under-equipped and unwilling conscripts, with a rout that would then trigger a catastrophic collapse in morale and a mutiny that could end the war.
The Russian military leadership is already standing on a precipice, with Evgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner mercenary group, claiming the Russian Armed Forces fired upon Wager troops last week and has repeatedly blamed Russian Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu and Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov for military failures around Bakhmut.
Lt Col Roman Venevitin of the Russian Armed Forces stated that Wagner troops stole equipment and kidnapped and tortured his soldiers to extort weapons from Russia’s Ministry of Defence during the Bakhmut battle, the Guardian reported. The claims have not been verified but show the level of division within Russia’s forces.
Russia’s command structure of the four military leaders in southern Ukraine is also unclear and is “likely overlapping”, according to the ISW. The analysts noted that the command relations between Colonel General Alexander Romanchuk, Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky, Colonel General Sergey Kuzovlev and General Gerasimov are ambiguous.
Ukraine’s counteroffensive has been talked about for months, although Kyiv said the start would not be announced. Zelenskiy stated on June 3 that Ukraine is ready but that “the operation could take a long time and be costly.” The ISW believes that the counteroffensive will unfold as “many undertakings at numerous locations of varying size and intensity over many weeks” rather than one large operation.
Ukraine’s counteroffensive could prove to be a decisive point in the conflict that has been raging for almost 16 months. There is a real chance that Russia’s military effort could collapse, but with ample time to dig in since the last successful Ukrainian assault in September, Russia could rebuff the attack and return to a grind war of attrition.
With a population three and a half times larger than Ukraine’s, time is on Putin’s side as Russia can simply wear down Ukraine’s forces by mobilising more troops. Russia’s economy is also area on a war footing and it is outproducing Ukraine with things like shells, whereas Ukraine is running out of ammunition and could face a crisis later this year. Morale in the Russian army is clearly low and the army’s command clearly uninspired and disorganised, but whether both are poor enough to allow Ukraine to rout its forces remains to be seen.
“Exactly how much territory, in which places – it will depend on the developments on the ground when the Ukrainians launch this counter-offensive,” said US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan last week.
“But we believe that the Ukrainians will succeed in this counter-offensive,” he added.