Why Did the Ukrainian Advance Timed up to the NATO Summit Fail?
July 11, 2023
  • Nikolay Mitrokhin
    Associate scholar, Research Centre for East European Studies at the University of Bremen (Germany)
Nikolay Mitrokhin describes the developments at the front since the beginning of June and expresses cautious doubt that Western supplies of more powerful and effective weapons will help Ukraine defeat Russia militarily and liberate Ukrainian territories from occupation. Perhaps, it is time to look for other solutions to the crisis?
The NATO summit is being held in Vilnius on July 11-12. Source: VK
Speaking to the Spanish media on July 1, Volodymyr Zelensky said that “by the NATO summit” the Ukrainian army should “show results” from the counteroffensive, adding that every kilometer advanced was earned with blood. The speech was interpreted in the press as an intention to make more or less serious progress toward liberating Ukrainian territories – which has been repeatedly declared as the goal of the counteroffensive.

However, Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, basically the fourth person in the military hierarchy, quickly added: “the Ukrainian defense forces at this stage of active hostilities are performing task number one: maximum destruction of manpower, equipment, fuel depots, ammunition, command posts, artillery and air defense of the Russian army.” This was perceived as a change in offensive tactics, over which many had already grown disillusioned.

What happened in the last month, and why did the long-awaited offensive, repeatedly announced by the Ukrainian authorities, fail? What is Ukraine coming into the NATO summit with?

External support and internal reserves

Ukraine has been preparing for a decisive (counter-) offensive for about nine months – in fact, since October last year, after the autumn offensive got bogged down in mud near the border of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, near the cities of Kreminna and Svatove. The liberation of Kherson in November was part of the successful idea of destroying Russian crossings over the Dnieper but was not about effective “breakthroughs” of defensive lines.

The Ukrainian authorities have insisted that for an offensive, first of all, they need Western armored vehicles and shells. By April, they had received several hundred pieces of equipment and ammunition, which allowed the Ukrainian army, on paper, to become the technologically stronger and better equipped army in the field. After that, a pause took hold for a month, interrupted by vague comments on the personal social media accounts of high-ranking officials and the Ministry of Defense that a counteroffensive would certainly follow.

At that time, the military units were mastering the new equipment and trying to organize joint exercises. As the June videos from the battlefield showed, they did not quite succeed in this. The Ukrainian assault groups with Western armored vehicles have shown how infantry should not act in conditions of shelling and mining.

Start of the offensive

As much as it is possible to reconstruct the actions of the Ukrainian army in June, the plan of the Ukrainian military leadership included the following stages.
The first was the diversion of Russian reserves from the front line to defend Russia’s border regions, where there were no permanent garrisons.
This was done through attacks on border villages in Belgorod region, undertaken by units of the Ukrainian army under the flag of the Russian Volunteer Corps.

The second was a demonstrative attack on Bakhmut, more precisely on its western, northern and southern suburbs, to first unblock the roads in the area, and then demonstrate readiness to liberate the city through a “counter-encirclement.” This plan was also generally successful – mainly thanks to the fact that Wagner PMC units had been withdrawn from the area, and the Ukrainian army was able to advance up to 5 km (a significant distance, by the standards of this war) west and south of the city, though not a single settlement was liberated.

Thirdly, a serious “reconnaissance by fire” was to be carried out in about six sections of the Zaporizhzhia front to find the weak spots in the Russian defense, and then, perhaps, to “punch through” them with motorized units. This would have already been a real offensive, not an imitation.

And, finally, fourthly, the dam at the Kakhovka HPP was to be captured, where theoretically it would have been possible to transfer (despite last year’s damage) heavy equipment from the right to the left bank. As well as to strike with landing units at the settlement of Oleshky, located on the left bank, through the islands in the channel of the Dnieper between Kherson and Oleshky.

The Ukrainian army has partially controlled these islands since April, but not the dam, meaning the landing units could be “washed away” should the dam break. After the capture of the dam, as well as the assault on Oleshky from the Dnieper islands and the floodplain of the Dnieper, Ukrainian troops expected to reach the Kherson-Skadovsk-Krym highway in two places, thus hitting the Russian Zaporizhia front in the flank.
Knocked out Bradley Fighting Vehicles and a Leopard tank. June 9, 2023, Zaporizhzhia front.
Source: Yandex
What actually happened

Russian troops were ready for the announced offensive. Over the previous year, they had mined the fields in front of the advanced defensive lines of the Zaporizhzhia front (the so-called gray zone) and built four lines of defense. The Ukrainian army and their Western allies were generally aware of this, as evidenced by the publication, in various sources, of maps with the Russian defenses taken from space and broken down by experts.

However, besides the mining and defensive fortifications, Russian troops had prepared many “surprises” for the advance. Thus, when the shock groups of the Ukrainian army – consisting of one or two tanks with a mine-clearing device, two conventional tanks and three to five Bradley-type armored personnel carriers – went in columns through the mine fields in the “gray zone,” they were met by an integrated defense.

Its first element was mines, which in some areas were missed by the “trawls” and exploded under the tanks pushing them – thus preventing the column from moving forward or turning around. The use of a variety of anti-tank weapons, including missiles and drones, allowed Russian forces to shoot apart stalled columns. In addition, the Ukrainian army failed to suppress the work of Russian surveillance drones. Judging by videos, they practically hung over the battlefield. Meanwhile, the activity of Ukrainian drones over the defensive lines was seriously limited, almost impossible.

This quickly led to high losses of Ukrainian equipment (at least eight Leopard tanks and several dozen Bradley tanks were destroyed), as well as significant losses of personnel. As a result, in just three days, the plan of the offensive turned out meaningless.

In addition, as mentioned above, the Ukrainian military failed to sufficiently master the new equipment. In particular, they simply abandoned some of the tanks (judging by this video with the engines not turned off).

In the end, the Ukrainian army switched back to its tactics used for the last nine months of the war, moving along the steppe dissected by forest belts. Here, the bet is on the infantry, which, supported by artillery, mortars and drones (including quadrocopters), slowly moves along the trees, taking one “stronghold” after another under control. When a stronghold is located, the infantry storms it with the support of artillery or a tank located at a considerable distance. Often, the stronghold can be taken only after several assaults. Then, after 200-300 meters, the attackers discover the next one, and the operation is repeated.
At such a pace, the units of the advancing army pass 250-300 meters per day along the forest belt, or about 1.5-2.0 kilometers per week. In the latest reports of the Ukrainian army, this is considered a successful offensive.
In many sections where the Ukrainian army is on the offensive, the situation is much worse.

As a result, in a month across the entire Zaporizhzhia front, the Ukrainian army has managed to either penetrate the Russian defenses in about three or four places or come close to its first line. The biggest success was cutting-off the so-called Vremievsky salient near the town of Velyka Novosilka (about 7 kilometers deep and up to 10 kilometers wide), allowing the Ukrainian army to approach the second line of defense of the Russian forces in this area and liberate the ruins of seven villages.

Still, the Ukrainian army has not thrown in about 85% of what it had built up – both in terms of people and equipment. It became clear that with the tactics of breaking through in columns, as planned initially, it would be very quickly wasted. With new tactics, the Ukrainian army will use this potential if the right circumstances arise: if the forward detachments find a “weakness” in the defense or some Russian unit leaves its position, unable to withstand attack in the rear or having been left without ammunition.

Perhaps US-supplied 155-mm cluster artillery shells (DPICM) will help – they can remotely clear fields, strike at anti-tank groups hiding in forest belts and strongholds, and create wide, deep corridors for the advance of tank groups. In the steppe, their effectiveness is theoretically significantly higher than in forests or cities. However, we will see only when the shells are fired.

Meanwhile, some US allies expressed unease at Washington’s decision to supply Ukraine with cluster bombs, so US President Biden, in an interview with CNN on July 7, considered it necessary to explain himself:

It was a very difficult decision on my part. […]I discussed this with our allies… This is a war relating to munitions. And [the Ukrainians] are running out of ammunition… I took the recommendation of the Defense Department to – not permanently – but to allow for this transition period, while we get more 155 weapons, these shells, for the Ukrainians.

Dnieper front

The front line along the banks of the Dnieper (about 400 km) is often called the Dnieper front, but there are practically no clashes and things are limited to shelling.

Since April 2023, the Ukrainian army has begun to occupy numerous islands in the course of this wide river, especially in the area mentioned above between Kherson and Oleshky. Popular Russian war bloggers, basically broadcasting the position of Russia’s GRU, were very worried on June 5 about the start of a Ukrainian offensive in the Oleshky area and in the area of the Kakhovka HPP – a few hours later the dam was blown up from the inside (see this article by the author in Russia.Post about this).

Thus, the Russian military prevented a likely Ukrainian offensive to its flank and made it impossible until at least the end of July – until the soil on the islands and in many places in the Dnieper floodplain dries out after the flood caused by the dam explosion and becomes passable for heavy equipment.

In late June, the Ukrainian army tried to take advantage of the situation when the bank emerged from under the water on the left bank of the Dnieper, while further, in old channels and floodplains, the water was still high. The Ukrainian army landed a relatively large force (according to Russian data, up to 100 people) around the largest bridge in the area – the Antonivka Road Bridge – which was partially destroyed.

The landing party has been holding out for more than three weeks, though on June 30, after being hit by a Russian Iskander missile on the remains of the bridge, it was partially eliminated. In any case,
“It remains impossible to establish large crossings across the Dnieper. Even if Ukrainian landing forces capture some territory conducive for landing troops, Russian missiles and artillery are likely to steadily destroy the crossings.
Some opportunities for the attackers were opened by the discharge of water from the Kakhovka Reservoir. Its bed has been largely exposed, allowing the Ukrainian army to cross the river, set up battle lines on that part of the left bank where there are no Russian fortifications and mines, and hit the Russian defenses, which in this area are presumably not designed for attacks by heavy equipment and were only prepared to repel attacks from the water.

Russian forces are trying to frighten the enemy, threatening to radioactively contaminate the area – by blowing up the Zaporizhia nuclear plant, located on the coast, roughly in the middle of the potential zone of the offensive. In addition, it will not be easy to execute a crossing given the fact that most of the suitable pontoons remain aground near the northern (right) bank of the reservoir.
President Biden arrives in Vilnius to take part in the Vilnius NATO summit. Before his arrival, he said the war with Russia should end before NATO could consider membership for Ukraine. Source: YouTube
Summing up

The Ukrainian columns being shot apart, coupled with the explosion of the dam, allowed the Russian army to thwart Ukraine’s big summer offensive in just a few days. The Ukrainian army had to back away from the idea of a breakthrough in favor of “pushing back” the Russian defense, and after more than a month of fighting, the successes are very modest. The weather did not help the Ukrainian army either. After prolonged rains in mid-late June, the soil in the theater of operations was far from ready for moving of heavy equipment.

It is likely that by the end of the summer, the Ukrainian army will be able to partially surround Bakhmut and begin to liberate the blocks of the destroyed city, or will reach the second and even third line of the Russian defense on the Zaporizhzhia front at several points. However, in the meantime, the Russian army will have time to build new, reliable defensive lines in the rear.

It cannot be ruled out that cluster bombs and shells will help the Ukrainian army to advance, like how Javelin missiles and HIMARS rocket launchers helped last year. However, it also cannot be ruled out that there will not be much benefit from them. Especially with the concrete fortifications of the second and third lines of the Russian defense.

With great confidence, we can say that the supply of Western attack aircraft to Ukraine is also unlikely to fundamentally change the situation, just as the provision of tanks and large-scale deliveries of armored vehicles have not changed it. The Russian army still has enough air defense, and several dozen Western fighters are likely to meet the fate of the Leopard tanks. Some will be destroyed, while the rest will be used at too great a distance to be truly effective. This will help Kyiv, including in the fight against Russian attack drones and missiles aimed at Ukrainian cities, but will not lead to a radical change in the situation at the front.
“Going into the NATO summit, Ukraine does not seem to have an answer to the question of what the war is going to be like moving forward and when it will end.
The main, practical question remains – is it even possible to defeat Russia by military means and liberate Ukrainian territories from occupation? If a big and well-prepared offensive failed (albeit without too significant losses), what can and should be done for Ukraine to win? Will supplying the more powerful and effective weapons that Ukraine’s political and military leaders are asking for help, or should other solutions be sought?

Besides the obvious idea of freezing the conflict within the existing borders, there will be talks about the need to raise the effectiveness of the Ukrainian Defense ministry, in terms of preventing corruption, improving the quality of troop training, and reviving the national defense industry. As it emerged after the resignation of the head of the state conglomerate Ukroboronprom, for the last year and a half the Ukraine’s defense industry has been mainly engaged in reorganizing its ownership structure and repairing equipment, not increasing output and mass producing new equipment.

However, perhaps Zelensky will bring to the summit a new plan for the offensive, developed by the Ukrainian army, the details of which we will learn later. For example, it could include a flagrant march of the Ukrainian army into internationally recognized Russian territory, which until now the Ukrainian army has tried to avoid. With almost three months left before the start of the autumn rainy season, the Ukrainian army will undoubtedly be trying to rectify the situation.
Share this article
Read More
You consent to processing your personal data and accept our privacy policy