U.S. and other Western officials say Ukraine’s grinding counteroffensive is struggling to penetrate entrenched Russian defences, in large part because too many forces, including some of its best combat units, are in the wrong places.
The main objective of the counteroffensive is to cut off Russia’s supply lines in southern Ukraine by severing the so-called land bridge between Russia and occupied Crimea. But U.S. officials said that instead of focusing on that, Ukrainian commanders have divided forces and firepower roughly evenly between east and south.
As a result, there are more Ukrainian forces near Bakhmut and other cities in the east than near Melitopol and Zaporizhia in the south, both of which are more strategically important fronts, the officials say.
American planners have advised Ukraine to focus on the front line toward Melitopol, Kiev’s top priority, and on breaching Russian minefields and other defenses, even if the Ukrainians lose more soldiers and equipment in the process.
Only by changing tactics and dramatic action can the counterattack change pace, said one American official, who like other Western officials interviewed for this article spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Another American official said that the Ukrainians are too spread out and need to consolidate their fighting power in one place.
Nearly three months after the counterattack, the Ukrainians may be taking the advice seriously, especially as casualties continue to mount and Russia still enjoys superior forces and equipment.
In a video conference on August 10, Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said; his British counterpart, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin; Gen. Christopher Cavoli, the top U.S. commander in Europe, urged Ukraine’s highest-ranking military commander, Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhny, to focus on one major front. According to two officials familiar with the call, Gen. Zaluznyi agreed.
Officials said Admiral Radakin’s role was of particular importance and has not yet been widely appreciated. General Milley talks to General Zaluzny every week or so about Ukrainian military strategy and needs. But the Biden administration has banned senior US officers from visiting Ukraine for security reasons and to avoid increasing tensions with Moscow. But Britain imposed no such restrictions, and Admiral Radakin, a suave officer who served three tours in Iraq, developed close relations with his Ukrainian counterpart during multiple trips to the country.
U.S. officials say there are indications that Ukraine has begun moving some of its most experienced combat forces from the east to the south. But even the most experienced units were re-formed several times after suffering heavy losses. These units rely on a shrinking cadre of senior commanders. Some factions often include soldiers who have been wounded and returned to fight.
U.S. and Ukrainian officials said Ukraine has breached at least one layer of Russian defenses in the south in recent days and is building up pressure. It is close to capturing Robotyn, a village to the south near the next line of Russian defences. US officials said the capture of the village would be a good sign.
A Ukrainian military spokesman did not respond to text messages or phone calls on Tuesday.
But some analysts say progress may be too little, too late. Fighting takes place on mostly flat and rough terrain, which favors the defenders. The Russians are fighting from hidden positions that Ukrainian soldiers only see when they are within feet of them. Hours after the Ukrainians have cleared a minefield, the Russians sometimes fire another missile, scattering more mines at the same location.
Under American war doctrine, there is always a major effort to ensure that maximum resources are directed to one front, even if supporting forces are fighting in other areas to hedge against the failure or spread of enemy defenses.
But Ukraine and Russia are fighting under the old Soviet communist doctrine, which seeks to reduce rivalries between army factions by providing equal amounts of manpower and equipment across the command. Officials say both militaries have failed to prioritize their most important targets.
Ukraine’s continued focus on Bakhmut, the scene of one of the war’s bloodiest battles, has puzzled US military and intelligence officials. Ukraine has invested huge amounts of resources in defending its surrounding Donbass region, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky does not want to appear to give up on trying to recover lost territory. But US officials say politics should, at least temporarily, take a back seat to sound military strategy.
American strategists say keeping a small force near the devastated city is justified to locate Russian forces and prevent them from using them as a base for attack. But Ukraine has enough troops there to try to retake the area, a move that US officials say would result in high loss of life for little strategic gain.
U.S. officials have told Ukrainian commanders that they can secure the territory around Bakhmut with far fewer forces, and must redistribute forces to targets in the south.
Ukrainian leaders have defended their strategy and troop distribution, saying they are fighting effectively in the east and south. They say the large number of troops is necessary to pressure Bakhmut and to defend against coordinated Russian offensives in the northeast. Ukrainian leaders compete for resources and have their own ideas about where they can succeed.
American officials’ criticism of the Ukrainian counteroffensive is often read through the lens of a generation of military officers who have never seen a war of this magnitude and intensity.
Moreover, American warfare doctrine has never been tested in an environment like Ukraine’s, where Russian electronic warfare is jamming communications and GPS, and neither army has been able to achieve air superiority.
US officials said Ukraine had another month to six weeks before rainy conditions forced a halt to the counterattack. Already in August, Ukraine postponed at least one offensive campaign due to rain.
“Terrain conditions are always primary drivers” of military operations, General Milley said in an interview with reporters Sunday. “Fall and spring are not ideal for combined arms operations.”
Wet weather will not stop the fighting, officials said, but if Ukraine breaks through Russian lines in the coming weeks, the mud could make it more difficult to capitalize on that success and quickly capture a large swath of territory.
More important than the weather, some analysts say, Ukraine’s main offensive forces may run out of steam by mid-to-late September. About a month ago, Ukraine rotated a second wave of troops to replace the initial force that had failed to break through the Russian defences.
Ukraine also changed its tactics on the battlefield after that, reverting to its old ways of wearing down Russian forces with artillery and long-range missiles rather than plunging into minefields under fire. And in recent days, Ukraine has begun to tap into its last strategic reserves – mobile air brigades designed to exploit any breakthrough. While the fighting could continue for months, U.S. and other Western officials say a Ukrainian counteroffensive will not have enough decisive firepower to retake much of the 20 percent of the country occupied by Russia.
American officials say they do not believe the counterattack is doomed to failure, but they concede that the Ukrainians have not had the success they or their allies had hoped when the offensive began.
“We don’t think the conflict has reached a dead end,” said Jake Sullivan, the White House national security adviser, on Tuesday. He added, “We continue to support Ukraine in its efforts to control territory as part of this counter-offensive, and we see that it continues to control territory on a systematic, systematic basis.”
And while a smaller, southern-based Russian force has fared better than American officials and analysts expected, the Kremlin still has systemic problems. A senior US military official said Russian forces were suffering from poor supply lines, low morale and poor logistics.
But Russia sticks to its traditional way of fighting land wars in Europe: underperforming in the early months or years before adapting and persevering as the fighting continues.
In contrast, the official said, when launching a counterattack, Ukrainian forces would have to climb a steeper hill. It took more than two months — instead of the week or so as officials first thought — to break through the initial Russian defences.
Several American officials said they expect Ukraine to be able to reach about halfway to the Sea of Azov by winter, when cold weather might call for another pause in the fighting. The senior US official said it would be a “partial success”. Some analysts say the counterattack will not even reach this narrow target.
Even if the counterattack fails to reach the coast, officials and analysts say that if it can get far enough to put the coastal road within range of Ukrainian artillery and other strikes, it could cause more problems for Russian forces in the south that rely on their own. This route for supplies.
Speaking to reporters on a flight to Rome on Sunday, General Milley said the counter-offensive over the past two months had been “long, bloody and slow”.
“It took longer than Ukraine had planned,” he said. “But they are making limited progress.”
Zolan Kanu Young Contributed to reports.