The footage is grainy and disturbing. A Ukrainian soldier from the 73rd Naval Special Operations Center fights his way through a trench, apparently on the southern front, shooting Russian soldiers repeatedly at point-blank range. The dust kicked up adds to the sense of chaos, and the dense panic and brutality of this counteroffensive’s start.
It was never going to be simple, and would always involve the sort of ghastly, face-to-face combat shown in the special forces video. But the success of Ukraine’s onslaught still rests on whether it can surprise and outwit Moscow’s forces – not in grinding close combat, but on a larger strategic level. And this is likely why we are seeing a slow – and at times incremental – start to this first phase of open operations.
“We would definitely like to make bigger steps,” Ukraine’s President Zelensky acknowledged in a BBC interview. “But nevertheless, those who fight shall win and to those that knock, the door shall be opened.”
For months, we have seen a patient bid by Ukraine to erode the readiness of Russian defenses. The slow drip of explosions at fuel depots, headquarters and on railway lines has been about weakening Russia’s ability to withstand and adapt to the first major assaults.
This painstaking work continues, with a reported blast Sunday in the occupied village of Rykove, in the Kherson region, that leveled an apparent ammunition dump. Open-source analysts have noted the huge blast pattern suggests significant secondary explosions. The attack is also, they noted, more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) inside enemy territory, suggesting either an acute lack of awareness among Russian ranks of the new dangers they face from longer-range NATO-supplied missiles, or an inability to adapt and alter their presence accordingly.
Rykove sits close to Crimea, in an area whose railway supply lines are already probably impaired by recent surgical Ukrainian attacks.
No single strike is terminal, but a slow accumulation of damage reduces Russian options and can, eventually, lead to cracks in their forces’ defensive network, or their basic ability to function. As Russia has moved to respond to Ukraine’s advances in recent weeks, it will have given away key signals about its readiness, supply issues and priorities. Western satellites are likely providing clear information about Moscow’s recalibrations to Kyiv.
At present, Ukraine appears to be keeping its options open. The priority is progress along the expansive southern front, which marks the valuable land corridor between occupied Crimea and the Donbas, and the Russia mainland. Most observers agree it is the singular goal of this counteroffensive to break that land bridge.
A Crimean peninsula isolated from the Donbas is much harder to resupply and defend, leaving Russian President Vladimir Putin with a stark choice: expose his military assets in Crimea to a long standoff, or cut his losses and pull them back.
Few analysts contend he can stomach the latter, and so we may face a long siege of the peninsula over the winter months, as Kyiv returns Moscow to the boundaries it stole in 2014-15, or worse. It is arguably a symbolic defeat for Moscow (and a definable victory for Kyiv) to see Russia’s past 16 months of carnage and losses end in no strategic gain.
The question for July is how this is achieved. Ukraine has been making the greatest public noise about its advances around Velyka Novosilka, to the southeast. Here the recent seizure of Blahodatne puts the 68th Brigade perilously close to occupied Volnovakha and its railway tracks leading to the vital occupied city of Mariupol.
Most of the villages Ukraine has publicly liberated lie in this direction. It is part of a costly and torturous push into Russian lines that, according to drone operators whom CNN met in late April, were acutely ready for attack, pulling back parts of their heavy equipment away from the front.
Ukrainian progress too is noted far to the west of Zaporizhzhia region, near Orikhiv. It has also been grueling, with Ukrainian losses reported around Mala Tokmachka, and now intense fighting near Pyatykhatky. Some pro-Russian bloggers have suggested the village has already been liberated.
Igor Strelkov, formerly the head of the Donetsk People’s Republic militia and now an occasional critic of the Russian military, said Tuesday heavy fighting had broken out in Zherebyanki, to Pyatykhatky’s west, a move that hints Ukrainian forces might be aiming to cut off the larger occupied town of Kamyanske along the Dnipro River.
This angle of advance – toward the occupied city of Melitopol – appears the more likely and profitable for Ukraine. While this front is braced for attack and heavily defended, it is closer to Zaporizhzhia city and to Ukrainian resupply, providing a helpful approach for Kyiv’s forces on to the Crimean peninsula. But to make significant progress, they will be counting on at least a partial Russian collapse somewhere along this elaborate trench network.
This defense is layered: the first trenches that Ukraine will hit will not be the last. But at some point, Russia’s elaborate systems of WW1-era dugouts and more modern minefields may give way, and then the Sea of Azov is an open drive across flat territory.
To keep Russian forces guessing yet still, Ukrainian gains are regularly trumpeted around Bakhmut, a city of minimal strategic significance whose center was captured by Russia at enormous cost last month. Moscow can hardly afford the loss of face of a reversal of fortune here. Finally, there are repeated reports of clashes to its north, around Kupyansk and Kreminna – yet another possible angle for a better-prepared Ukrainian force to advance. The aim is to force Russia into uncomfortable choices about where to send reinforcements.
Ukraine’s top commander, General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, may not yet know where he will sink the bulk of his newly trained and equipped forces. Some estimates suggest only a quarter of Ukraine’s fresh units, bolstered by NATO training and supplies, are now in the fight. Zalyuzhnyi has said nothing about his plans yet. He may be waiting to see where ammunition and resupply worsens first, or where Russia appears unwilling to sink extra reserves.
The wait is not without political cost. Kyiv needs to cement a change in the frontlines to validate the huge investment in its forces made by NATO. It should be acutely aware that elections in several countries over the next two years will likely alter the West’s appetite to bankroll Ukraine’s defense, regardless of how unwavering the West’s public commitments are. There is a risk that the background rumble of peace talks comes to the fore in winter, and Ukraine finds itself settling into a stalemate of the boundaries established by this November.
President Zelensky addressed this concern in his BBC interview. “Some want some sort of Hollywood movie but things don’t really happen that way,” he said.
Yet there is reason for optimism in Ukraine’s capital. Last summer, silence and gridlock eventually turned into a Russian collapse around Kharkiv. The withdrawal from Kherson showed too that Moscow was still then able to recognize realities and react to them. Putin’s top brass will have learned from last year’s defeats, and he likely will be enormously emotional about the fate of Crimea.
But, as the world has seen in graphic detail, the Russian military’s failings are abundant and losses horrific – and any steep tactical learning curve will not have been matched by a similar improvement in training and equipment. Russia has one option, to endure and hope this winter cements the survival of its current occupation. Ukraine has many choices ahead of it, and a significant surplus of resources to pounce on opportunities, even as the clock is now loudly ticking.