Ukraine Running Out of Options to Retake Significant Territory

Photo for The Washington Post by Heidi Levine
A couple stand looking at a heavily damaged war torn apartment building in Kharkiv, Ukraine on May 22.

Ukraine appears to be running out of options in a counteroffensive that officials originally framed as Kyiv’s crucial operation to retake significant territory from occupying Russian forces this year.

More than two months into the fight, the counteroffensive shows signs of stalling. Kyiv’s advances remain isolated to a handful of villages, Russian troops are pushing forward in the north and a plan to train Ukrainian pilots on U.S.-made F-16s is delayed.

Ukraine’s inability to demonstrate decisive success on the battlefield is stoking fears that the conflict is becoming a stalemate and international support could erode. A new, classified U.S. intelligence report has predicted that the counteroffensive will fail to reach the key southeastern city of Melitopol this year.

Meanwhile, a war weary Ukrainian public is eager for leaders in Kyiv to secure victory and in Washington, calls to cut back on aid to Ukraine are expected to be amplified in the run up to the 2024 U.S. presidential election.

Without more advanced weapons slated to bolster the front line or fully committing forces still being held in reserve, it is unlikely that Ukraine will be able to secure a breakthrough in the counteroffensive, according to analysts.

“The question here is which of the two sides is going to be worn out sooner,” said Franz-Stefan Gady, a senior fellow with the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the Center for New American Security, who visited Ukraine in July. “We shouldn’t expect the achievement of any major military objectives overnight.”

Gady said that Russia and Ukraine are now in an “attrition” phase, attempting to sap each other’s resources rather than secure significant territorial advances. With its ground forces largely stymied, Ukraine has mounted a flurry of new drone strikes on Russian soil, including targets in Moscow, but the strikes have caused minimal damage.

When asked about the counteroffensive’s progress, Western and Ukrainian officials call for patience, describing the fight as slower than expected, but insisting that it is steadily making gains.

However, the window of time for Ukraine to conduct offensive operations is limited. Last year, Ukrainian forces made little progress after recapturing the southern city of Kherson in early November, as inhospitable weather set in.

With its ground forces advancing slowly, Ukraine is using drone strikes to expand its military’s reach as it waits for more advanced munitions and training – including greater air power, said Yuriy Sak, an adviser to Ukraine’s minister of defense.

“We don’t have the F-16s yet so we have to find a way to make up for their absence and drones are somewhat used to compensate for the lack of aviation,” he said.

Ukraine’s main internal intelligence agency was behind the maritime drone attacks that recently struck a major Russian port and a Russian oil tanker near occupied Crimea, according to a Ukrainian intelligence official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter.

Kyiv’s statements on attacks in Moscow are more opaque. The government publicly distances itself from the strikes, while some officials acknowledge involvement.

But analysts caution that while the drone attacks can shift attention away from Ukraine’s slow-moving ground counteroffensive, they are unlikely to tip the balance of the war in Kyiv’s favor.

“The Ukrainians just don’t have enough capacity to build enough drones and strike deep inside Russian territory at enough targets to erode Russia’s will to fight,” said Bob Hamilton, a retired U.S. Army colonel and head of research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia Program.

Russia also has sophisticated methods to combat Ukrainian drones with jammers and detection. The Kremlin claims to have largely thwarted a wave of Ukrainian drone attacks over the past week. On Saturday, the Russian Defense Ministry said it downed 20 Ukrainian drones targeting Crimea overnight.

“I don’t think a single weapons system can be a silver bullet,” Hamilton said.

Photo for The Washington Post by Sasha Maslov
A self-detonating drone is launched on the southern front line of Ukraine.

Ukraine has been also striking Russian logistical targets with longer-range munitions far from the front line for months, but so far the effect of such strikes has not been reflected on the Russian front line, said Gady, who recently visited Ukraine.

“We know that the Russian position has deteriorated, but it hasn’t deteriorated to the degree where you could expect an imminent collapse,” he said. A campaign of longer-range strikes, also referred to as the “deep battle,” can be described as successful when the opponent’s forces can no longer call on reserve forces or conduct basic support functions like resupply.

Rather than crumble, however, Russian forces are putting up fierce resistance, and even making offensive advances. In northeastern Ukraine, authorities in Kupyansk ordered a mass evacuation of civilians. The city was part of a large swath of occupied territory that Ukraine recaptured in September and October of last year.

On the southern front, Ukrainian forces are continuing to employ a painstakingly slow approach to secure advances, rather than favoring speed as western allies like the United States recommended.

Last month, Ukrainian forces pushed into Staromaiorske, the first village to be retaken in weeks, raising hopes that the advance could be a tempo-changing breakthrough involving Western-trained reserve troops. It was not. It took another three weeks before Ukrainian forces liberated the adjacent village of Urozhaine, and they reportedly suffered heavy losses.

Reaching the sea of Azov and snapping Russia’s land bridge to Crimea is one of the publicly acknowledged goals of the counteroffensive. But the Staromaiorske advances did not involve new tactics. Reconnaissance units surveyed Russian defenses to strike weak points and allow smaller units – often on foot – to move in with a demining team, said Serhiy Kuzmin, the military spokesman for the area.

Sak, the adviser to the defense minister, said the slow progress clearing extensive mine fields along the front is preventing Kyiv from engaging the majority of its Western-trained reserve forces.

“To commit our reserve forces we need to be sure that the pathways are clear,” he said. “We would rather go slower and make sure that we preserve the lives of our troops.”

Ukrainian forces have retaken roughly 81 square miles of occupied territory since the counteroffensive began in June, with the greatest gains occurring near Bakhmut in the east and in the Zaporizhzhia region south of Orikhiv.

Photo for The Washington Post by Ed Ram
Black smoke rises in an industrial area in Zaporizhzhia after a Russian missile strike on July 7.

To create a sense of momentum, and raise the cost of the war for regular Russian citizens, Ukraine has increased its attacks inside Russia. But that effort to expand the battlespace must rely on Ukraine’s own drones rather than Western-supplied weapons because of restrictions on using NATO weapons to hit Russia on its own territory – and the strategy also comes with risks, analysts said.

The Biden administration has “very successfully” managed risk of a direct conflict with Russia by gradually providing Kyiv with more advanced weapons systems and longer-range munitions, said Kelly Grieco, who researches air power operations as a senior fellow at the Stimson Center, a D.C.-based policy group.

“From the start of this war, one of the things Ukraine’s allies have been concerned about is ending up in some inadvertent escalation,” she said.

Kyiv has requested longer-range missiles called ATACMS, the Army Tactical Missile System, from the United States for months, but the Biden administration has so far refused to provide them, citing limited supplies and fears of an escalating confrontation with Russia.

The United Kingdom and France sent Kyiv similar munitions earlier this year.

Biden administration officials have repeatedly said the United States does not encourage or enable strikes inside Russia.

Increasing the range of weapons systems provided by the United States and others has “come with a lot of assurances from Kyiv that would not use that equipment to target Russian territory,” Grieco said.

If Ukraine expands the use of drones – as the counteroffensive continues in a slow grind, she said, “that still has the potential to make the West anxious about whether Ukraine will continue to exercise that kind of restraint.”