Ukraine’s Slow and Steady Southern Fightback

Operation focuses on destroying Russian fuel and ammunition stockpiles ahead of a Ukrainian infantry advance.

Ukraine’s Slow and Steady Southern Fightback

Operation focuses on destroying Russian fuel and ammunition stockpiles ahead of a Ukrainian infantry advance.

An abandoned, destroyed Russian tank.
An abandoned, destroyed Russian tank. © Chris McGrath/Getty Images
Friday, 9 September, 2022

Military analysts believe that although Ukraine’s southern counteroffensive may fail to achieve significant territorial gains in the immediate future, the long-awaited fightback marks a critical stage in the war.

On August 29 Ukrainian forces began a counteroffensive in the Kherson region, preceded by powerful artillery shelling of military infrastructure facilities, including strikes on the Antonivskyi Bridge and the nearby pontoon crossing. These preparatory efforts included destroying key goals in the close enemy rear, such as bridges over the Dnipro, warehouses, command posts and air defences. Southern command announced that the Ukrainian military broke through the first line of defence in the operation, aimed at retaking the entirety of Russian-occupied territory within the Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, and Mykolaiv regions.

Kyiv has been reticent about disclosing details of the counteroffensive, but on September 7 Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy announced “extremely successful hits in areas where the occupiers are concentrated”.

Experts note that the counteroffensive has not taken the classic format of huge convoys of military equipment, and thousands of soldiers attacking amidst multiple air strikes.

“Most probably, we will not see large columns of armoured vehicles and hundreds of infantrymen,” said Volodymyr Datsenko, a military analyst for Forbes Ukraine. “The last attempt to attack with a large column was in May and ended up with the defeat of the Russians near Bilohorivka [on the Siverskyi Donets river in the Luhansk region]. A large column is always a primary target. In modern conditions, when there are drones, satellites and long-range high-precision systems, this concept of attack is doomed.”

“Heavy, bloody battles await"

Instead, the Ukrainian counteroffensive is taking a more diffuse form. Right from the start, artillery cleared the way for infantry in several important strategic areas simultaneously. For instance, Ukrainian troops successfully encircled Vysokopillia as infantry forces crossed the Ingulets river and gained a foothold in several villages on the eastern bank of the river in the direction of Boryslav-Kakhovka.

This heightened confusion on the Russian side as to where they could best direct their own forces. With its supply lines under constant fire, they have been left with little choice but to retreat.

Future tactics are likely to remain the same, with artillery first destroying fuel and ammunition warehouses before the Ukrainian infantry advance on Russian units that will no longer be able to be sufficiently reinforced.

This will be a time-consuming process, said Ivan Kyrychevskyi, a military expert with the Ukrainian information and consulting agency Defence Express

“Heavy, bloody battles await the Ukrainian army,” he said. “We can expect something spectacular at the final stages of the war when the enemy's troops will finally be defeated and will be incapable of any resistance. This will be done solely for the purpose of final demoralisation of… the Russian army.”

The Russians, realizing their extremely vulnerable position on the western bank of the Dnipro, are transferring most of their landing forces there in the hope that they will be able to hold positions captured back in the spring.

This will be challenging, because no matter how well-trained Russian paratroopers might be, they depend on a constant supply of ammunition.

“The Russian command is overregulated and every action requires coordination at the highest level, which will definitely not play in their favor simply because it will not allow Russian troops to respond flexibly to different threatening scenarios,” Kyrychevskyi said.

Weather will also be a crucial factor in the next few months, he continued.

“From the end of October, the rainy season starts and the dirt roads which are used by the military from both sides will cease to be roads at all. Most of the wheeled vehicles will not be able to move normally. Under such conditions, it is impossible to carry out large-scale offensive actions”.

This meant that the Ukrainian army would do its best to conduct counter-offensive actions as long as the opportunity allowed. Even if they failed to make deep inroads into occupied territory before winter, Kyrychevskyi said, the southern counter-attack marked a significant achievement.

“We see that there is a critical mass of problems beginning to accumulate in the Russian Federation,” Kyrychevskyi said. “Russia is using its last reserves, but they are smeared along the entire front line, from Kherson Oblast to Donbas. In fact, the situation has reached such a level that the transfer of 2 BTG [battalion-tactical groups] from Belgorod is already a ‘victory’ for the Russians. In such conditions, the Ukrainian counteroffensive actions turned out to be extremely timely. In general, the weakening of the Russian army to a critically low level will be the best achievement of the counteroffensive operations of the armed forces of Ukraine."

The volumes and kind of weapon supplies Ukraine can access will also remain key.

Datsenko stressed that “the readiness of the Russian army to fight directly depends on the scale of losses they suffer. And here we can clearly state, that they indeed bear huge losses. However, it doesn’t mean that Ukraine has won already. The war continues and may last for a long time. Putin wants to destroy Ukraine and there are still a lot of those left in Russia ready to go to war and fight. So, we need to understand that the future is unclear and depends first and foremost on the weapon supply Ukraine receives”.

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