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Ukraine’s Big Summer Offensive Won’t Win the War Against Russia

T-90 Tank. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
T-90 Tank. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

As the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) celebrate the complete capture of the village of Robotyne, the long-anticipated offensive that began on June 5 could be nearing its culmination. After nearly three months, we can now make some preliminary assessments about the results of Kyiv’s attack, as well as assess potential courses the war may take for the rest of 2023. 

Bottom line: The counteroffensive netted marginal tactical success and exacted no meaningful change in the line of contact. No end to the fighting is in sight.

How Did the Offensive Play Out?

Ukraine had been signaling since at least March that it planned to launch a major offensive in the early summer. After a delay in late May to increase stockpiles of ammunition and other supplies, Ukraine launched its attack on June 5 across a broad front, centering on four major axes of advance: Kamianske in the west, Orikhiv and Velyka Novosilka in the center, and Bakhmut in the north. 

Ukraine had reportedly assembled 12 mechanized brigades for the operation, manned with up to 40,000 troops. They had spent the better part of a half-year preparing for the attack, and their preparation featured training on combined arms warfare in NATO countries. They were equipped with British Challenger 2 tanks, German Leopard 2 tanks, U.S. Bradley Fighting Vehicles and Stryker armored troop carriers, and other modern NATO kit. Given the circumstances, Ukraine was as prepared as any nation fighting an invasion could be.

But in May, Czech President Petr Pavel ominously warned that it would be “extremely harmful to Ukraine if this counteroffensive fails, because they will not have another chance, at least not this year.” Similarly, a leaked classified report cautioned that U.S. intelligence officials believed the Ukrainian offensive may only produce “modest territorial gains.” Nearly three months after the offensive began, those concerns have been borne out.

On the Velyka Novosilka and Orikhiv fronts, Ukrainian troops managed to push about 10 km, while in the Kamianske and Bakhmut fronts, barely 4 km have been gained. Yet the cost to Ukraine in men and material has been exorbitant. The New York Times reported that a full fifth of the offensive strike force had been damaged or destroyed in just the first two weeks. Shifting to an infantry-centric push did carve a few more kilometers out of Russia’s holdings, but the cost to Ukraine’s troops has been high.

In mid-August Forbes reported that Ukraine’s 82nd Mechanized Brigade had been committed to the battle on the Velyka Novosilka front, possibly Ukraine’s last operational reserve for the offensive. Almost the only axis where Ukraine is still making slow progress is the Velyka Novosilka front, where Ukraine captured Robotyne. While any victory is welcome, the situation facing Ukraine now is much more daunting than appears.

Ukraine and senior Western officials claim the capture of Robotyne represents a puncture in the first major line of Russian defense, implying that now the battles will get easier and progress faster. But Ukraine faces significant hurdles to push any further. 

What Is the Status Today?

First, it is not enough to break through a line of defense and push deeper into enemy lines. Every kilometer of territory captured must be garrisoned and held against expected enemy attacks from the flanks. 

Ukraine has apparently used up most of its offensive potential just reaching Robotyne. It is not clear they have sufficient strength in equipment, ammunition, or manpower to both push deeper into Russian lines and still hold the flanks against counterattack. In all likelihood, Ukraine is at the end of its push. It might soon be forced to revert to the defensive to ensure it holds the territory it has wrested back from Russia.

Second, some Ukrainian advocates seem to believe that the Russian side is a static entity, so that each meter of land the UAF recovers is a deepening wound on the enemy. The truth, however, is that Russia is constantly adjusting to new and emerging battlefield realities. The Russian high command likely observed that three of the four axes of attack have largely failed and have been reinforcing the subsequent layers of defense ahead of Robotyne. Thus, the farther Ukraine penetrates in this area, the more difficult and costly will be additional progress.

Third, the main reasons for Ukraine’s lack of success in this offensive are their fundamental disadvantages in air power, air defense, and artillery ammunition, and especially a dearth of mine-clearing equipment. Those problems have not been solved. 

What Next?

Combined with the high level of casualties sustained — and the approach within weeks of Ukraine’s rainy season — it is likely the Ukrainian offensive will be spent before the end of September. The net result of Ukraine’s large-scale offensive has been marginal gains in some areas. From the strategic point of view, the 1,000 km-long line of contact remains largely as it was at the beginning of 2023. 

As the Czech president warned, the chances are extremely remote that the UAF will be able to do anything beyond defending for the remainder of the year. Ukraine will hope to rebuild strength for 2024. The problem for Kyiv is that Russia, too, is rebuilding its strength for future offensive thrusts. It has weathered the best Ukraine and the West could throw at them in the occupied territories and surrendered very little territory.

Some are clinging to the hope that the appearance of American Abrams tanks and F-16 fighter jets in 2024 will finally be the game-changer Ukraine has been looking for. Sadly, they will be disappointed. A mere battalion’s-worth of Abrams were promised, with the first reportedly arriving in early fall, and there might be a small number of F-16s delivered to Ukraine in 2024. (Pilot training might not be completed before next summer). Those may provide tactical utility at the margins but will do nothing to move the needle strategically.

The harsh reality is that no matter how just and righteous Ukraine’s cause, it is likely a militarily unattainable task to seek the ouster of Russian forces from illegally occupied parts of Ukraine. At present, unfortunately, neither Kyiv nor Moscow shows any willingness to enter into serious negotiations to end the war, as neither is willing to compromise on its main objectives.

The chances are high, therefore, that the war continues in an attrition model, where the two sides will continue positional battles in key geographic locations, launching drone and missile strikes into the rear areas of each country and engaging in pulverizing artillery duels all along the line of contact. That type of war will inflict hundreds or thousands of casualties per day on both sides, continue wiping Ukrainian villages and cities off the map, and keep alive the possibility that an error, misjudgment, or miscalculation could result in the war expanding beyond Ukraine.

Given the failure of the offensive to achieve decisive results, Washington  should reconsider its policies and objectives. The United States likely cannot continue indefinitely to provide large stocks of tanks, armored personnel carriers, aircraft, air defense missiles, as well as millions of rounds of artillery shells and other ammunition. 

The Biden administration should devise new plans based on the battlefield realities and come up with a plan that protects America’s security interests and economic prosperity. Blindly supporting Ukraine “for as long as it takes” was never a strategy and is now appearing less sustainable than ever. 

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” 

Written By

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1.