Volodymyr Zelensky may be welcomed in the Western capitals he visits, but the Ukrainian president has said the slow progress of the Kyiv counteroffensive shows that the reality of war is not a Hollywood movie.

The speed of Ukrainian gains last year north of Kyiv shortly after Russia’s full-scale invasion and later in September in Kherson and Kharkiv oblasts raised expectations that Kyiv’s latest push it could recapture a similar amount of territory occupied by Russia.

Allied equipment, including HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems), Challenger 2 tanks, and Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, added to the pretense of what might happen when the counteroffensive finally began around the 4th. of June.

However, unlike last year’s advances, in which Ukraine claimed to have liberated 4,600 square miles between September 6 and October 2, the offensive that began more than seven weeks ago has seen roughly 80 square miles retaken and eight settlements, according to Kyiv.

While there are numerous reasons for this relative lack of success, including the strength of Russia’s defenses, some experts point to a less obvious influence: NATO. The alliance imposed an arbitrary deadline for the counterattack, they say, and then failed to prepare Ukrainian forces to carry it out fully.

Ukraine faces a well-prepared enemy.

“It’s fair to say that Ukraine is not doing as well as they would like,” Glen Grant, a military analyst who has advised Ukraine’s military, told Newsweek.

“But this is a learning process, remembering that few of them have ever been involved in an attack and when you are attacking, there is no hiding in a trench,” said Grant, a senior expert at the Baltic Security Foundation, a security organization and advocacy think tank in Latvia.

Moscow occupies 17 percent of Ukrainian territory, a fact pointed to by Harvard professor Graham Allison in The Washington Post, where he wrote that the current rate of progress means it would take Kyiv another 16 years to regain all of its territory.

Previous Ukrainian offensives were successful last year when they faced Russian forces that were thinly dispersed and struggling with logistical and command difficulties. Now Ukraine is advancing against the well-prepared Russian defenses.

New Western-supplied weaponry to Kyiv has been met with valleys of Russian-dug trenches along the 600-mile front line. These include minefields, anti-tank ditches, and “dragon’s teeth” – square pyramid-shaped pieces of concrete used to stop military vehicles.

On June 8, Ukrainian forces were trapped in a minefield during an assault near Mala Tomachka on the Zaporizhzhia front, and pro-Russian bloggers boasted about images of destroyed vehicles, including Leopard and Bradley IFV tanks.


In the first two weeks of Ukraine’s counteroffensive, up to a fifth of the equipment it sent to the battlefield was damaged or destroyed, The New York Times reported, citing US and European officials.

This has diminished after Ukraine focused more on wearing down Russian forces with artillery and long-range missiles than attacking the enemy, The Times said.

But the counteroffensive has slowed, with Ukrainian troops advancing only five of the 60 miles they need to reach the sea in the south and split the Russian forces in two. So Ukraine’s gains have been incremental rather than spectacular.

“Ukraine’s recent gains are remarkable given Russia’s massive defensive moves,” Jay Truesdale, a former US diplomat and chief executive of Veracity Worldwide, a geopolitical risk consultancy, told Newsweek.

“Ukraine has yet to make up for its lack of air superiority and ammunition, which are essential components of a successful offensive, especially given the higher Russian rate of fire.”

The 1991 Gulf War began with a 42-day air campaign before ground operations began, while the 2003 invasion of Iraq involved more than 1,800 combat and support aircraft. Ukraine does not have such an air advantage.

However, Truesdale still believes Kyiv’s allies are “optimistic” that Ukraine can turn a profit. However, it faces a pressing timetable to prove a success, caps imposed by next winter and the political cycles of its Westerners backers.

Ukraine's counterattack is not going according to plan (and NATO is to blame).

‘Doesn’t meet expectations

A US official told CNN that the offensive was “not meeting expectations” on any of the three fronts. Zelensky himself admitted that the push had been “slower than desired.”

But the world is watching growing concern that Ukraine is making military decisions based on a Western timetable, with results expected before the NATO summit in Vilnius. “The timing of the summer action was driven by dubious NATO decisions, not Ukrainian ones,” military analyst Allan Orr told Newsweek.

Orr said pushing Ukraine’s forces to switch from guerrilla defense to conventional offensive in six months “was always too much to ask.” Furthermore, it is his opinion that NATO did not provide adequate resources to Ukraine or give Kyiv enough time to master the equipment it provided to Kyiv.

The lack of fourth-generation aircraft, limited HIMARS and the late arrival of armor have contributed to their inability to penetrate well-prepared Russian defense lines, he said.

“The entire offensive has been based on the assumption that the Russian line would collapse under pressure due to low morale; it didn’t,” Orr said. “Actually, the Russians have adapted faster than the Ukrainians trained.”

“The counteroffensive was a case of single-spectrum warfare, a hasty one-dimensional drive against a defensive line that cannot be outflanked,” he added, resulting in many casualties and little benefit.

He said that Kyiv was trying to penetrate the entire front at once with limited resources.

“Rather, it needed to pool its limited resources to penetrate only a few points along the line, substantially overwhelming defenders at select points,” he said. “This is how a numerically inferior army fights.”

Noting that Kyiv had recaptured 50 percent of Russian-occupied land, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Monday the counteroffensive was in its “relatively early days,” indicating that hopes for quick gains have given way to an acceptance by Kiev’s allies that the push will take months, not weeks.

“The Ukrainians timed the counteroffensive with one goal in mind: to show up at the NATO summit with tangible results,” said Nicolò Fasola, a researcher at the University of Bologna in Italy whose work focuses on Russia’s military strategies.

Operational problems, such as a lack of air or artillery cover, may have bolstered kyiv’s orders for long-range weapons, but modern equipment alone is not enough.

“I think we pushed too hard on the technological side of the strategy in the hope that just giving Ukraine advanced Western weaponry would be enough for it to outperform Russian forces that have less equipment,” he told Newsweek.

Yes, we have given the Ukrainians state-of-the-art Western weapons, but we have not had enough time to train them thoroughly and properly. Even if at the tactical level, we have very skilled Ukrainian soldiers who can learn very quickly to use our weapons, it is difficult to integrate new weapons into their doctrine in a very short time.”

More sophisticated weapons are welcome, but Grant said more infantry equipment, such as grenade launchers, is required, especially in areas like Bakhmut, where infantry has mainly done the fighting.

“There is no right or wrong here,” he said. “You have to fight with what you have and if you don’t have everything you need, it gets harder and slower.”

The Institute for the Study of War said on Sunday that it is too early to assess Ukraine’s counteroffensive as Kyiv still has significant uncommitted forces and can launch decisive operations whenever and wherever it wants.

There are also differences on the battlefield between the last offensive and last year.

“It’s one thing to be on the defensive when you’ve got a foxhole, and they’re just asking you to survive,” Grant said. “When you’re actually asked to go into the devastating fire, that requires a completely different type of character.

“Ukrainians will be perfectly frank about this: some find it difficult, but fortunately, many do.”

Brendan Cole