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The war in Ukraine is reaching a critical moment

Kyiv’s counterattack in the Russian-occupied city of Kherson could push the war into a much more dynamic phase.

By Lawrence Freedman

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on 29 July 2022 and has been updated in light of recent events. On 29 August, Ukrainian officials said that the country had launched a counteroffensive against Russian forces around the city of Kherson, with the help of Western-supplied weapons. Kherson is a strategically important centre that was captured by the Russians months ago and this counteroffensive signals a new phase in the war. 

In my two most recent pieces, here and here, I have been arguing that the war with Russia has shifted in Ukraine’s favour. This is because of Russia’s difficulties in replacing its lost equipment and trouble recruiting more men for the front, and Ukraine taking advantage of its influx of modern Western weapons. Ukraine’s defence minister Oleksy Reznikov has praised his “gunners” for using the US’s High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (Himars) multiple rocket launchers “very precisely – they work like a surgeon with a scalpel”. Over recent weeks these gunners have successfully attacked more than a hundred “high-value” targets, including, according to a Pentagon official, Russian command posts, ammunition depots, air-defence sites, radar and communications nodes, and long-range artillery positions. In response the Russian military has been told that the elimination of Himars and other long-range artillery systems is a high priority. In this effort, and despite Moscow’s occasional claims to the contrary, they have not yet been successful. They have been thwarted, at least so far, by the ability of these systems to “shoot and scoot” (to get away from their firing positions in minutes).

This same Pentagon official was also quoted as observing that Russia has committed nearly 85 per cent of its military to the war in Ukraine, which means that its armed forces will be progressively unable to fulfil its other tasks protecting their borders and supporting Russian foreign policy goals around the world. It has used up a lot of its smart munitions and so is relying on simpler capabilities. They therefore can launch fewer precision strikes even when they have the intelligence to guide them. While estimating the scale of Russian casualties still requires a lot of guesswork, they have undoubtedly been heavy, including officers at all levels, leaving a command structure struggling to cope.

The intensity of Russian operations has declined. Artillery is the workhorse of the Russian campaign, but the barrages, which reached 20,000 rounds a day at the height of the battle for Severodonetsk in Luhansk, eastern Ukraine, are now much reduced. A Ukrainian battalion commander told a reporter from the Washington Post that following an attack on an ammunition depot in Izyum near Kharkiv shelling has been “ten times less” than before. The problem Russia faces now is not a shortage in either artillery pieces or ammunition stocks but of the supply lines between the two, which are attenuated because of forward ammunition dumps either being lost or becoming vulnerable. With more accurate Ukrainian systems reaching the front, Russians gunners will be getting worried that they cannot shoot and scoot fast enough.

Under these new conditions, there has been a corresponding decline in the rate of Ukrainian losses. Whereas the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky reported that at the height of the battle, Ukraine was taking 100 to 200 casualties a day, he now says the number is down to some 30 a day. This, it should be noted, is still a significant number. It means Ukraine loses more troops in a week than the UK lost during six years in Iraq, and in two weeks more than 20 years in Afghanistan.

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[See also: The battle for Kherson has begun]

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The stage is now set for a full counter-offensive to retake Kherson, which has long been identified as Ukraine’s top priority. This is an area of vital importance to the Ukrainian economy because of its power plants and ports, yet was taken during the first days of the war in what many Ukrainians consider to be suspicious circumstances. Although Russian reinforcements have been coming in, it is not as well defended as the more established areas of their occupation and has the added disadvantage, from Moscow’s perspective, of an active resistance movement that has been harassing troops and local collaborators.

As always there are reasons to be cautious. Observers, such as Jack Watling of the Royal United Services Institute, a British defence think tank, worry that Ukraine’s best forces took something of a battering during the recent fighting, and so need time to replenish and recuperate while their reserves do not yet have adequate training. Ukraine depends on ammunition supplies, which are being expended at an alarming rate, to keep on arriving from its partners. It needs more unmanned aerial vehicles (such as drones) to locate targets and means of suppressing Russian electronic warfare capabilities so that they can’t be jammed.

A second reason for caution is that Ukraine must watch out for the Russians picking up where they left off with their presumed priority – occupying the rest of Donetsk to complete its control over Donbas. The pace of Russian offensives may have dropped off, and the Ukrainians claim each day that they have repulsed probing actions, but it could be risky to over-commit to Kherson if that meant losing out in Donetsk. Russian forces have made some marginal territorial gains in eastern Ukraine, including the Vuhlehirska power plant on the northern edge of Novoluhansk. This is an area they have been trying to take for two months but it is one that does not help them prosecute more offensives, so progress still appears to be meagre. As they decide what to do next, the Russians must make a similar calculation to the Ukrainians, except in the other direction – dare they allow vulnerabilities to develop in Kherson while they persevere Donetsk?

That is one reason why the Ukrainians want to get a move on. After months of being on the defensive, they are anxious to get the Russians responding to their initiatives, especially while Moscow’s general staff is still working out how to adapt to the damage being done to their supply lines and command chains. Richard Moore, the head of UK’s MI6, has expressed the view that Russia could be “about to run out of steam” in Ukraine, as they find it increasingly “difficult to supply manpower material over the next few weeks. They will have to pause some way and that will give the Ukrainians opportunities to strike back.” He concluded that the “Ukrainians may have a window in which they can take advantage of what may turn out to be only a temporary Russian weakness”.

It is because of this potentially short window that the counter-offensive now appears to have begun. The Kherson regional military governor has claimed that Ukrainian troops have liberated 44 towns and villages along the border regions, about 15 per cent of the territory, and are now about 50 kilometres from Kherson city at their closest point. Another local official has spoken of how Kherson will be free by the end of September, although Zelensky has been more careful, promising only step-by-step progress. Yet another military official has compared the Ukrainian campaign to “waves”. “Right now we’re making small waves and creating conditions to make bigger ones.”

How might this work? The only sure way to dislodge Russian troops from established positions is to mount a large-scale counter-offensive, following up artillery fire with assaults combining armour and infantry. This may become necessary, although for the moment Ukrainian brigades are insufficiently equipped or prepared to mount such an attack with confidence. But while it might be difficult to push the Russians out using overwhelming force, it is not necessarily the only Ukrainian strategy. Alternatively it might be possible to render the Russian positions so uncomfortable that forces have to be withdrawn if they are to be preserved. Illia Ponomarenko of the Kyiv Independent has outlined a likely Ukrainian plan:

“As part of a counter-offensive operation, Ukraine would likely seek to block the occupied city, cut the Russian garrison off from supplies and reinforcements, and hold the blockade until Russia surrenders.”

He noted that the region’s front line, at over 200km, is too long for the Russians to secure completely, even with reinforcements. Instead they have, according to one expert Ponomarenko spoke to, “strong points in certain populated areas or road junctions”. Their ability to reinforce vulnerable units in a timely fashion is being limited by the continual targeting of logistical systems and command posts. Capable commanders are the scarcest military resource and they matter even more in a hierarchical system such as Russia’s. Most importantly they will need to worry about their forces getting trapped. Just as the big challenge for the Ukrainians in the battle for Luhansk was to know when to evacuate their forces before they were surrounded, this could now be the challenge for the Russians. Conspicuous attacks on the key routes in and out of the region – the Antonivsky bridges (hit again on 26 July) and a bridge by the Kakhovka hydroelectric dam, both over the Dnieper river, reduce the Russians’ ability to move heavy equipment in and out, and put them on notice that the Ukrainians can cut off their lines of escape.

[See also: Western leaders praise Mikhail Gorbachev in the wake of his death]

Alongside the military considerations that are encouraging Ukraine to mount counter-offensives, there are also strong political and humanitarian ones. Conditions in Kherson are deteriorating for residents, with a recent report by Human Rights Watch documenting egregious human rights abuses, including detentions, torture and disappearances. In addition, preparations are being made for a rigged referendum in September that would justify Russia’s annexation of the province, along with Donbas. This is something the Ukrainians are keen to disrupt.

It is also essential that Ukraine demonstrates that the weaponry received from the West is making a difference. The war has added to the troubles of the global economy, and exceptional measures are being introduced to deal with gas shortages this coming winter. For the moment, Russia more than Ukraine is blamed for the crisis, and most political leaders understand that any semblance of a Russian victory would have disastrous long-term consequences for European stability. At the same time they do not want to be taking economic and political pain for a hopeless cause, and the prospect of a deadlocked war of attrition remains unnerving. Put simply, Ukraine needs a breakthrough in the next couple of months.

The risk for Kyiv is not that Western governments will suddenly terminate financial and military assistance but that they will start to explore peace terms with Moscow that would fall far short of Ukraine’s objectives. This sort of reasoning can already be found in commentaries by those of a realist persuasion; they warn that good intentions can’t overcome the logic of the military balance of power. Starting with the assumption that the idea of a Ukrainian victory is delusional, Barry Posen, professor of political science at MIT, argued earlier this month that the US effort would be better spent arranging a peace settlement.

Leaving aside the question of whether Posen’s military analysis might now be less sure – it was written before matters turned in Ukraine’s favour – it is worth considering his proposed political solution:

“A negotiated solution to the war would no doubt be hard to achieve, but the outlines of a settlement are already visible. Each side would have to make painful concessions. Ukraine would have to relinquish considerable territory and do so in writing. Russia would need to relinquish some of its battlefield gains and renounce future territorial claims. To prevent a future Russian attack, Ukraine would surely need strong assurances of US and European military support, as well as continuing military aid (but consisting mainly of defensive, not offensive, weapons). Russia would need to acknowledge the legitimacy of such arrangements. The West would need to agree to relax many of the economic sanctions it has placed on Russia. Nato and Russia would need to launch a new set of negotiations to limit the intensity of military deployments and interactions along their respective frontiers.”

This is probably as good a description as any of what a deal negotiated under current conditions would look like. It is also totally unrealistic. Even if this represented a desirable outcome (in my view it would be a recipe for continuing and chronic instability in Europe) it is not going to happen. As I explained in an earlier piece, Ukrainians will not accept any deal that requires them to “relinquish considerable territory”. Yet though such a deal would represent at least a partial victory for Russia, it is also not something that Moscow is proposing.

One of the curiosities of the current situation is that while one might assume that Moscow would jump at the chance to secure tangible gains, especially as these could be jeopardised if Ukraine makes military progress, it has shown no interest in doing so. Instead of assuming that Ukraine is the only reluctant partner in negotiations and that Russia is waiting to sit down and talk, we therefore need to look at what Russian leaders have actually been proposing.

[See also: “The Lighthouse of Stalingrad” by Iain MacGregor review: how Putin exploited a wartime myth]

Ukraine’s demonstration of what it can do with its new artillery has been cited by Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov as a reason for Moscow to expand rather than contract its objectives. He blamed Western governments for leaning on Ukraine to continue fighting rather than negotiate, before going on to explain that Moscow’s military “tasks” in Ukraine have had to be extended beyond the Donbas region to Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. “Now the geography is different, it’s far from being just the DPR and LPR [the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, respectively]… it’s also a number of other territories. This process is continuing logically and persistently.” By providing Ukraine with long-range systems, the West – out of “impotent rage” or a determination to aggravate the situation – had obliged Russia to go as far as required to track the weapons down. Russia could not allow Zelensky “or whoever replaces him” to threaten its territory or that of the DPR and LPR.

Speaking last weekend Lavrov revived regime change as a clear objective. Moscow, he said, is determined to help Ukrainians “liberate themselves from the burden of this absolutely unacceptable regime”. Lavrov also contributed his own account of the history of the conflict which essentially blamed everything on a series of Nato or Ukrainian fabrications, as if they have inflicted one wound after another on their own people (including the atrocities at Bucha) simply to make the innocent Russians look bad. ”The Ukrainian regime and its Western patrons have descended to staging bloody incidents to demonise our country in the eyes of the international community.”

Lest anyone think that Russia is getting softer, an agreement that enabled exports of Ukrainian grain was followed immediately by missile attacks on Odesa. These were justified routinely as strikes against military targets, although none were hit. The grain negotiations had already indicated the problems of getting a future peace deal (the Russian and Ukrainian delegation signed separate documents rather than the same one). These strikes confirmed that Moscow did not want anyone to think that this was something positive on which diplomats might build.

Furthermore, Russian public opinion is not being prepared for the compromises necessary for a successful negotiation. The constant flow of menace and venom from the Russian media continues unabated, with outlandish claims about how they are gearing up to take on Nato countries directly. Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president who kept the seat warm for Vladimir Putin from 2008-12 but has since slipped down the pecking order and is now the deputy chairman of the Security Council, was once considered a moderate. Now he warns that Ukraine “may lose what remains of its state sovereignty and disappear from the map of the world”.

What is going on here? The simplest explanation is the Russians dare not show any weakness or uncertainty and need to keep up the pretence that all is going well and that the war will end with a resounding victory. It is hard to say whether they are going through the motions until the moment comes when they have to change course.

Descriptions of the mood in Moscow at the moment are of a preoccupied Putin, speaking only to the siloviki, who run the security apparatuses and are busying themselves clamping down on dissent, even of the mildest sort. Meanwhile rivalries among the elite fester. An intriguing possibility raised by Timothy Snyder is that characters such as Lavrov and Medvedev are now making their statements of aggressive intent because they wish to demonstrate their commitment to a hard line as a means of securing their future positions. Their “doom propaganda” shows loyalty to Putin while also acting as “rhetorical preparation for a power struggle after Putin falls”.

Snyder says that he is “not convinced Medvedev, who for years was seen as the liberal alternative to Putin, believes the antisemitic, anti-Polish, anti-Western hate speech he publishes on Telegram. He’s creating a profile that might be useful later (just as his technocrat profile was once useful).” Despite the bluster, the reality is that the “equilibrium that keeps Putin in power—mastery over rivals, soft support in the population, integrity of the army—is challenged by the realities of an unpredictable, costly war. Putin has been good at keeping us all in a fog. But now he himself seems lost in the fog of war.” He concludes that “Putin’s gamble, as ever, is that the West will feel the pain faster than he will. This is how his foreign policy works: generate losses for everyone, including Russia, in the hope that the other side will concede first.” (See also Snyder’s recent Substack on why Russia might lose.)

This hope indeed seems to be at the core of Russian strategy – holding on militarily while trying to bring matters to a head politically. This requires coercing the West as much as fighting the Ukrainians. Its main instrument of pressure is Europe’s energy dependence. Prior to the war, Europe imported about 45 per cent of its gas and 30 per cent of its oil from Russia. On 26 July, claiming maintenance issues as opposed to political blackmail, Gazprom said gas flows to Germany through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline would be cut to a fifth of the pipeline’s capacity. The result of this progressive pressure is that European gas prices are now 450 per cent higher than a year ago. In addition, the Ukrainian state pipeline operator reported that Gazprom had increased pressure sharply in the pipeline that runs through Ukraine, risking emergencies including pipeline ruptures.

The meaning of this was spelled out by Medvedev. He accused EU leaders, who have imposed sanctions on Russia, of “completely losing touch with reality”. He said they are “forcing the unfortunate Ukrainians to sacrifice their lives to join the European Union” while forcing “ordinary Europeans [to] be fiercely cold in their homes this winter”. (Russian propagandists can never quite make up their mind whether Ukraine is a puppet of the West or whether the West is being manipulated by Kyiv.)

He added that the EU and US have “lost their multi-billion dollar investments in the Russian economy”. Despite the sanctions, he insisted “Russia will achieve all its goals. There will be peace – on our terms.” In an even more threatening tone, but again displaying contradictory messaging, as he boasted about coming Russian victories, he warned Nato against backing future Ukrainian offensives, especially any attempt to retake Crimea. That would lead to a “Judgement Day” that would “come very fast and hard”. Should Ukraine retake Kherson then it will have more opportunities to take action to cut off Crimea. If it can succeed in this operation it will undermine the Russian narrative of victory in ways that will be apparent to domestic audiences. That is why Medvedev felt obliged to step in with more lurid threats to deter any attempt to retake Crimea.

[See also: How Vladimir Putin is weaponising children for its propaganda about Ukraine]

Russia is banking on economic distress leading to political upheavals in Europe and North America that will weaken support for Ukraine. This is something of an endurance test because Russia’s economy is also showing signs of stress. The finances may be in good shape because of energy sales but there is not a lot to buy, and industrial production is steadily shutting down. Europe is also hurting but for the moment this has not translated into flagging support for Ukraine. With its own signal that it is prepared to see this crisis through, the EU has agreed to implement a 15 per cent voluntary reduction in consumption of natural gas for this winter. As a Czech minister put it: “Today’s decision has clearly shown the member states will stand tall against any Russian attempt to divide the EU by using energy supplies as a weapon.”

This is why the battle for Kherson is important. Ukraine is anxious to recover its territory and justify the confidence of its people that this war can be won. In the process it seeks to encourage its Western partners to keep the faith.

It is always the case that the next few weeks represent a critical moment in the course of this conflict, because each stage sets the terms for the next. But this is more true now than ever. After a period in which the fighting seemed stuck in a groove and was threatening to turn into an attritional slog, it may be about to enter a dynamic period. If this does not happen, and there is little movement, the harsh weather of winter will be matched by tough choices about the future conduct of the war.

Lawrence Freedman is a regular contributor to the New Statesman. This piece originally ran on his substack “Comment is Freed”.

[See also: Ukraine’s offensive has left Putin with few options]

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