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Ukraine aims to sap Russia’s defenses, as U.S. urges a decisive breakthrough – The Washington Post Tuesday July 18th, 2023 at 2:37 AM

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Ukraine is making limited advances in its counteroffensive against Russian forces but has yet to employ the kind of larger-scale operations that American officials believe could enable a breakthrough, officials and analysts say, deepening questions among some of Ukraine’s chief backers about whether Kyiv can move fast enough to match a finite supply of munitions and arms.

Five weeks into the highly anticipated operation, Ukrainian forces are attempting to weaken Russian defenses by firing fusillades of artillery and missiles and sending small teams of sappers into the sprawling minefields that constitute their adversary’s outermost ring of defense. But the pace of progress, in three main areas along a vast 600-mile front line, has generated concerns in the West that the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky may not deliver as powerful a blow as it could.

A U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share the American assessment of the operation, said the United States and other nations had trained Ukrainian troops on integrated offensive maneuvers and provided mine-clearing equipment including rollers and rocket-fired charges.

“Applying all those capabilities in a way that enables them to breach those obstacles, but do it quickly, is paramount,” the official said. At the same time, the official added, as Ukrainian forces face intense attacks from antitank munitions and armed Russian drones: “We don’t underestimate or under-appreciate that it’s a very tough situation.”

Underlying the evolving assessments of the operation, which Kyiv launched in early June after months of preparation, is a debate about the tactics that can best enable Ukraine to penetrate highly fortified Russian lines and recapture sufficient territory to potentially nudge President Vladimir Putin toward abandoning his goal of cementing permanent control over vast swaths of Ukraine.

Western officials and analysts say Ukraine’s military has so far embraced an attrition-based approach aimed largely at creating vulnerabilities in Russian lines by firing artillery and missiles at command, transport and logistics sites at the rear of the Russian position, instead of conducting what Western military officials call “combined arms” operations that involve coordinated maneuvers by large groups of tanks, armored vehicles, infantry, artillery and, sometimes, air power.

Ukraine’s military leaders argue that, lacking aviation might, they must avoid unnecessary losses against an adversary with a far larger pool of recruits and weaponry. To preserve manpower, Ukraine has fielded just four of a dozen trained brigades in the current campaign.

“We cannot use meat-grinder tactics as the Russians do,” Oleksii Reznikov, Ukraine’s defense minister, said in an interview. “For us, the most precious thing is the lives and health of our soldiers. That is why our task is to achieve success at the front while protecting lives.”

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank that tracks daily battlefield developments, calculates that Ukraine has liberated some 250 square kilometers since the beginning of the offensive, far short of Western hopes and, as Zelensky acknowledged, slower than Ukrainian leaders had wished.

Expectations are high: a Ukrainian counteroffensive last fall yielded shocking gains against unprepared and undermotivated Russian troops, including the recapture of strategic areas in the Kharkiv and Kherson regions.

Military analysts say there are important differences this time that come down in Moscow’s favor. Unlike last fall, when Kremlin leaders appeared to doubt Ukraine’s ability to punch back, Russian forces have had months to plant mines, dig trenches and position anti-armor and drone units that have slowed Ukraine’s advance. And unlike in Ukraine’s recapture of the port city of Kherson, where Moscow struggled to resupply and defend positions across the Dnieper River, Russian forces along the front line have no major obstacles at their back.

While Russia’s military is showing signs of strain, including the dismissal of one senior commander, the reported death of another in a Ukrainian strike and the withdrawal of mercenary Wagner forces, it has shown itself to be a formidable adversary. Moscow has been able to ship fresh troops to the front lines, powered in part by Putin accelerating mobilization at home.

Another important feature of Moscow’s defenses are the omnipresent drones that provide Russian forces granular, real-time information about Ukrainian troops’ whereabouts, enabling them to conduct kamikaze attacks or tee up targeted strikes, a challenge that not even American forces — for all their combat experience in recent decades — have faced on this scale.

Analysts say that Ukrainian attempts to breach Russian defenses with armored units early in the offensive were met with overwhelming artillery, antitank missiles, loitering munitions and helicopter fire, generating significant losses. Ukrainian officials say Russia is especially quick to fire on armored vehicles and anti-mine equipment such as the Mine Clearing Line Charge (MICLIC) when they press forward.

As a result, Ukrainian commanders have embraced more low-profile advances involving groups of 15 to 50 people on foot, said Kateryna Stepanenko, a Russia analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. Some are sappers who advance on their bellies to find and disable enemy mines. Other infantry teams lie in wait with surface-to-air missiles to take down Russian helicopters.

Rob Lee, a former Marine infantry officer now at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said Ukraine’s tactics could minimize losses — but they come with trade-offs.

“Advancing on foot will likely reduce the attrition they sustain,” he said. “But it means the advances will be slower and have less opportunity to achieve a rapid breakthrough.”

Ukraine got a boost this month when President Biden authorized the provision of U.S. cluster munitions to Ukraine, unlocking an arsenal of controversial artillery ammunition that has the potential to tide Ukraine over until Western nations can produce more standard shells.

Analysts say that another impediment to mounting larger-scale operations is the limited training that Ukrainian troops received over the winter on those combined-arms tactics, something that American forces rehearse at a specialized training center year after year.

U.S. officials have been reluctant to comment extensively on Ukraine’s tactics because they don’t want to be perceived as criticizing a close partner at a time of existential threat.

Lt. Gen. Douglas A. Sims, a senior official on the U.S. military’s Joint Staff, noted that Ukrainian troops were being asked to employ new equipment and tactics “all while being shot at and bombed” as they attempt to traverse a massive minefield. He noted that it took months before breakthroughs occurred in other major historical battles.

“And so where they are gaining hundreds of meters a day, maybe a kilometer a day in some places, they’re doing that at great cost in terms of effort,” he told reporters last week. “This is hard warfare; it’s in really tough terrain; it’s under fire, and really, when you consider all of that, it’s pretty remarkable,” he said.

But as the campaign continues without large-scale gains, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, Ukraine’s top military officer, is making urgent appeals for donations of Western air power to offset Ukraine’s disadvantages.

While the Biden administration has not agreed to directly provide the F-16 fighter jets that Ukraine wants, the White House relented in permitting other countries to transfer their own U.S.-origin planes to Ukraine. A European-led training effort is expected to get underway next month.

Ukrainian officials have pointed out that Western militaries would never attempt a massive operation — which he said was the most intense since World War II — without air support.

“So, to say that it is slow or too fast is at least ridiculous to hear from those who have no idea what it is,” Zaluzhny said in an interview. “They do not know what it is. And God forbid they should ever experience it.”

American officials privately say that Western jets would have little utility in the current fight because of Russia’s extensive air defenses.

“It’s just a matter of continuing to apply pressure in a combined-arms approach,” the U.S. official said.

U.S. officials say they expect Ukraine to eventually push though minefields and close in on Russia’s main defensive lines. But Ukrainian forces “have to be careful and calculating here about using all your artillery when they’re still sorting through minefields,” said a second U.S. official, who like other officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to share a candid assessment. “Because you’re going to need that artillery down the road.”

Zelensky’s government has pointed out that the pace of the assault and the timing of its launch in June — after months of officials preparing the “spring” offensive — was partly a function of the gradual supply of Western arms, which have often come only after months of bargaining and logistical delays.

“It’s very much in the hands of the West how far [Ukrainians] advance,” a senior NATO defense official said of Ukraine’s forward movement. “The West is doing all the right things, just six months late.”

Ukrainian officials continue to push for longer-range missiles, something that analysts agree could help diminish Russia’s ability to maintain forward positions. Russia responded with outrage on Monday to the second major attack on the Kerch Bridge, a major supply route connecting Russia to Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, which Putin annexed illegally in 2014.

While France announced last week it would provide longer-range SCALP missiles to Ukraine, following a similar decision by Britain to send Storm Shadows, the Biden administration has so far denied Ukrainian requests for the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), which has a range of 190 miles, due to concerns about U.S. reserves and the potential for escalation with Russia.

A second NATO official said that “intangibles” — including morale and motivation — still favor Ukraine. “But it is reality that Russia does have more resources broadly speaking, and has more people, and that’s why it’s so urgent,” the official added, to have “an eye toward pressing and constantly maintain that momentum.”

Khurshudyan reported from Kyiv.

The latest: The Ukrainian military has launched a long-anticipated counteroffensive against occupying Russian forces, opening a crucial phase in the war aimed at restoring Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and preserving Western support in its fight against Moscow.

The fight: Ukrainian troops have intensified their attacks on the front line in the southeast region, according to multiple individuals in the country’s armed forces, in a significant push toward Russian-occupied territory.

The front line: The Washington Post has mapped out the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces.

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