After a week of heavy fighting, the real tests of the Kiev counter-offensive lie ahead, with Ukrainian troops some distance from Russia’s main defensive line and the bulk of the forces prepared for the attack still on standby.
Ukraine struck in two areas along the southeastern front last week as the main phase of its long-awaited operation began, reporting seven villages retaken but also suffering losses, including tanks and Western infantry fighting vehicles.
“On both sides, a lot of it will come down to attrition,” said Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Institute for Foreign Policy Research and one of the analysts who have reported losses on both sides based on satellite and photographic evidence.
“The risk for them (the Ukrainians) is that before they get to that (Russian) defensive line, they will suffer too much wear and tear and it will be too difficult to break through and exploit it.”
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has said that Western equipment, such as main battle tanks and armored vehicles, should help protect the lives of Ukrainian soldiers.
Russia has prepared thousands of defensive positions from the western edge of Russia to occupy Crimea on the Black Sea, including minefields, anti-tank ditches, rows of barricades and concrete “dragon’s teeth” trenches.
The positions, reviewed by Reuters using satellite imagery in April, are heavily concentrated in the strategically important south, where Kyiv may aim to cut Russia’s land bridge to Crimea and split Kremlin forces.
Ukraine, which has most of its counter-offensive forces behind the scenes, can see where Moscow assigns troops to shore up its lines and strike in less-defended areas, including in the east, military analysts said.
“Ukraine has options,” said Ben Barry, a land warfare senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“He cannot achieve strategic surprise, but he will do everything possible to achieve operational and tactical surprise. That will involve concealment, camouflage, deception, misinformation that they used quite successfully last fall.”
Moscow’s strategy in the south is likely aimed at maximizing Ukrainian casualties before Kyiv can reach the main Russian defense line some 10-15 km (6-9 miles) away, according to Lee.
“It makes no sense for (them) to fight to the death there or risk being surrounded,” he said.
Ukraine has been preparing for the counteroffensive for at least six months after recapturing the main southwestern city of Kherson in November, a swath of the Kharkiv region in September and forcing Russian forces to withdraw from around Kiev in April. .
Analysts say the military created 12 armored brigades for the operation, nine of them trained and equipped by the West. A brigade usually comprises at least 3,500-4,000 soldiers. Ukraine has said it formed eight assault brigades of 40,000 soldiers recruited by the Interior Ministry.
Konrad Muzyka, a Poland-based military analyst who is closely following the war, said only three of the 12 brigades had so far been seen in combat in the southeast.
The main attacks have occurred near the Kyiv-controlled city of Orikhiv in the Zaporizhzhia region and Velyka Novosilka in the Donetsk region, some 80 km to the east.
Those attacks may indicate that Ukraine’s generals have their eye on Tokmak, an occupied town in the Zaporizhzia region, some 25 km from the front line. 50 km further is the city of Melitopol. Both settlements are heavily fortified.
Near Velyka Novosilka, Ukraine liberated a group of four villages, including two visited by Reuters on Tuesday and Wednesday and two others nearby, Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said on Monday.
Troops advanced as far as 6.5 km (4 mi) and seized 90 km (35 sq mi), he said, of ground along a 100 km (60 mi) stretch of the southern front line. On Wednesday, he reported further gains of 300-350 meters in various areas over the last 24 hours.
“At first, they did pretty well,” Muzyka said.
“My main concern five or six days into this main phase is that progress seems to have stopped. The momentum they built up over the first few days is essentially gone and we don’t know why.”
Maliar also reported advances on the flanks of the eastern city of Bakhmut, which Russia said it had captured last month. Military analysts considered it unlikely that this would become the focus of the main Ukrainian offensive.
Ukraine’s lack of air power complicates the counteroffensive. Kyiv has pressed the West for months to supply F-16 fighter jets, but their deployment is at least several months away.
Kyiv imposed an information blackout to aid operational security, making independent assessments of the battlefield difficult. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has so far called the kyiv attack a failure involving heavy losses.
Images shared by Russian military bloggers showed destroyed or damaged Bradley infantry fighting vehicles and US-made Leopard 2 tanks, major items of military aid sent by the West for the counter-offensive.
Muzyka estimated that Ukraine may have lost up to 15% of its Bradley vehicles and a small percentage of its Leopards, although it was possible that Ukrainian forces might have recovered some of those vehicles and sent them for repairs.
Military analyst Jack Watling wrote for the RUSI think tank that it was too early to say whether the offensive had been successful or not.
“We must refrain from premature pronouncements of success or failure,” he said.