Ukraine counter-offensive against Russia a 'score draw'

Very early days of attack make it unclear whether Nato-equipped troops will prevail against deep defences, British general tells The National

Ukrainian soldiers fire a grenade launcher towards Russian positions on the front line near Kreminna, Luhansk region. AP
Powered by automated translation

The Ukraine counter-offensive has made advances but also suffered setbacks in the very early phases, a leading military analyst has told The National.

Gen Sir Richard Barrons said Kyiv’s Nato-equipped brigades were being tested under fire for the first time and the “jury’s still out” on how successful they will be fighting high-intensity warfare.

Using football terminology, he described progress so far as a “score draw”.

He also sounded a warning over western “optimism bias” in thinking that Russia’s forces would quickly collapse.

“I would need to see Russians legging it and not just the conscripts but their harder forces legging it in the face of an overwhelming Ukrainian attack and I have not seen that yet, but it's still very early days,” he said.

With virtually no independent reporting from the front lines and Kyiv maintaining a strict policy of silence, assessing whether Ukraine was having success in penetrating Russian defences to drive out occupying forces is difficult.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has refused to confirm his counter-offensive plans.

However, it is now clear that Ukraine is advancing on the Russian lines in three different areas but with carefully prepared defences, the most extensive seen in Europe since the Second World War.

They have been met strong resistance.

Russia’s regular army has been able to repel some of the Ukraine advances made in the Zaporizhzhia region, south of Donetsk and around Bakhmut in the east.

Ukraine has said little about the clashes but Moscow reported repelling attacks with ground and air forces.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Ukraine had begun a major offensive against Russia's army but it had failed to achieve its objectives, despite intense fighting over at least three days.

“We can state for sure that this offensive has begun. This is evidenced by the use of strategic reserves of the Ukrainian army,” Mr Putin told Russian reporters in Sochi. “Ukrainian troops did not achieve their goals in any sector.”

Mr Putin said fighting had been very intense over the past three days but that “the enemy did not have success” in any of the battles.

A Ukrainian military success in the Zaporizhzhia region would enable its forces to break through the land bridge that connects Russia with the Crimean peninsula, which was annexed from Ukraine. This would be a major reverse for Moscow.

But the Russian army in recent months has strengthened its front lines in the region, digging kilometres of trenches and fortifying its defences.

“Ukraine’s forces have not broken through because they are encountering belts of trenches and obstacles, supported by pre-planned artillery fire and crucially linked to planned rapid counter-attacks which is the key to defence,” said Gen Barrons, the UK’s former chief of Joint Forces Command.

Having broken through the first line of defences, that at points stretch 25 kilometres deep, the Ukrainian forces have taken casualties, used ammunition and lost some cohesion.

“At that moment of vulnerability, you launch a pre-planned counter attack with your best troops,” he said.

“This is a combination of artillery to isolate the attackers and cut them off from reinforcement, then tanks and infantry that come forward basically to make them leave, which they did.

“The competence of the counter-attack indicates that some of Russia's better troops have been put there rather than conscripts.”

The counter-offensive is ultimately expected to involve thousands of Ukrainian troops trained and equipped by the West.

Ukraine has nine armoured brigades equipped with modern Leopard 2 and Challenger II tanks, along with Bradley infantry fighting vehicles and three brigades equipped with Russia-era tanks.

All will come with artillery, combat engineers and mobile air defence using every asset in combined arms warfare. The total attack force is estimated at 50,000, in addition to the 200,000 Ukrainians manning their front line.

But it is the first time the new brigades will have been in action together. Gen Barrons, who served on combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, suggested that they would initially be “blooded on an achievable task”.

“They then get used to the idea of people being killed and what it really feels like being under fire, that hardens them and then you can give them a stiffer challenge – as long as the brigade has survived.”

Ukraine and Russia conflict latest – in pictures

He added that no amount of training “makes up for being under fire properly” or can “replicate the enemy vote”.

After learning from setbacks in their February 2022 invasion, the Russians had also “learnt to fight the defence better”, which included connecting drones to artillery to bring down accurate fire.

“And they've had time to rehearse,” he added.

There have also been reports that Ukraine has already lost two Leopard 2A4 tanks to Russian fire.

“Nato armour is not completely invulnerable,” the general said.

“This is normal. The critical question is, will Ukraine’s offensive force with its Nato equipment be good enough to break through Russian defence or not? We don't know how good they are with it yet, but we expect that they are really up for the fight.”

Kyiv’s two thrusts in the south began at about 2am on Thursday and the brigades would probably be capable of offensive action until Monday.

“You can run a brigade into the ground over about five days, because there's not much sleep, and they take casualties,” the officer said.

Early next week, it will be down to another brigade to echelon through giving the initial brigade a chance to rest and rearm before continuing the fight.

“This is a battle that could take weeks and will come in fits and starts,” he said.

While the attacks on Bakhmut are likely to be more diversionary, the Ukraine plan is likely to push directly south down through the Zaporizhzhia region to reach the Sea of Azov ports.

Key will be cutting off the annexed Crimea peninsula that would put severe pressure on Moscow.

Gen Barrons suggested that the growing offensive would culminate in three different ways.

“It could fail absolutely, or be a Pyrrhic victory, where they take some ground but the cost is not repeatable or it could but very unlikely result in the entire rout of the Russian occupation by Christmas.”

A realistic assessment would be for Ukraine to demonstrate that “battlefield success is possible” but even penetrating the Russian front line was “not going to end the war”.

“The Russians are not going to give up and go home so we should stop obsessing about the ebb and flow,” he said.

The “vital question” was what happens if Ukraine was “sufficiently successful”.

“It will then dawn on everyone that it’s going to be a very long war and both Europe and the US will have to ramp up their industrial mobilisation to match their rhetoric,” he said.

“It makes no sense to conduct this attack if at the end of it you can do no more.”

Brig Ben Barry, of the IISS think tank, argued that if Ukraine was able to perform a substantial breach of the Russian lines it could “roll up” the positions from the rear.

He highlighted the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when the Israelis managed to break through Egyptian defences on the Suez Canal, allowing them to pour several divisions through that destroyed the air defences in the rear.

He added that the recent deployment of Britain’s Storm Shadow missile will also have a significant impact.

“It is so important because it has a big warhead that can really penetrate concrete bunkers and explode inside,” he said.

“Suddenly the Russian tactical air commander has got to worry that his airbases are vulnerable to attack.”

He also argued that a key differential was morale.

“That is in the fighting spirit, leadership, planning, command and control and so far in the war Ukraine has shown itself considerably superior in that.”

Updated: June 09, 2023, 3:50 PM