Six months of war: Ukraine regains initiative, but makes no push

After six months of war, Russia has failed to overrun Ukraine, install a puppet government in Kyiv, or even fully conquer the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts in the east – its pared-back goal.

Ukraine’s battlefield successes also forced Moscow to lift a Black Sea blockade of Ukrainian food exports, bringing the assaulted country as much as $30bn this year.

On the other hand, Ukraine is also seemingly unable to score the decisive victory it wants – the reconquest of all the territory Russia has seized since 2014, when it recognised Luhansk and Donetsk as independent republics and annexed Crimea.

Offensive, redeployment, counterattack

Ukraine has overmatched expectations in all three main phases of this war. During the first month, Russia attempted a blitzkrieg offensive that likely aimed to capture Kiyv, the eastern half of the country and the southern littoral, decapitating the government, cutting off Ukraine’s access to the sea and seizing most of its sources of mineral wealth.

Ukraine devastated Russian supply lines with Javelin missiles, bogging down the entire offensive. It brought down Russian helicopters and fighter jets with Stinger missiles, depriving the invaders of command of the air. Three days into the war, Ukraine estimated that Russia had lost 4,500 men, 150 tanks, 700 armoured personnel carriers (APCs), seven fighter jets and 26 helicopters.

On March 25, Russia announced it was redeploying its forces to the east and refocusing on capturing the Donetsk and Luhansk districts. Ukraine took advantage of the lull to reclaim territory in the north. By May 4, Ukrainian and Russian reports agreed that a Ukrainian counteroffensive north and east of Kharkiv had pushed Russian troops 40km back from the city in a second major Ukrainian success.

On April 18 Russia’s eastern offensive began in earnest, and during May and June, Ukraine’s worst months, Russia succeeded in capturing the northwestern corner of Luhansk it did not already control, and settlements in Donetsk.

Yet, Ukraine still exacted such a cost that Russia again had to lower its sights. It gave up on a grand pincer movement that would bite off the entire east from Izyum to Mariupol.

“The Russians are using a special tactic to avoid the disaster they suffered in Kiyv,” said Lieutenant-General Konstantinos Loukopoulos, who has taught tank warfare at military academies in Moscow and Kyiv. “Massive artillery fire, destruction, reconnaissances-in-force to discover the size and arrangement of Ukrainian forces, followed by outflanking. That’s why they’re going so slowly.”

A Royal United Services Institute report researched on the front lines in June found that Russia was firing 20,000 shells a day to Ukraine’s 6,000, keeping defenders under such a cannonade as to render a counterattack impossible. The cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk fell on June 24 and July 3 after being pummelled so hard that Ukrainian officials said there were almost no structures left in which forces could take cover.

The arrival in Ukraine of high-precision rocket artillery systems with a range of 80km (49 miles) on June 23 disrupted Russia’s war of attrition in the east. By targeting Russian ammunition depots far behind the front lines, Ukraine thinned out Russian supplies and decimated its forces. Ukraine’s defence ministry estimates the Russian dead at more than 45,000. Russian forces have failed to overrun new settlements in the past two weeks with the exception of Pisky.

Even this apparent deadlock in the east is no small achievement for a country with a third of Russia’s population and an 18th of its gross domestic product (GDP). But Ukraine is promising a counteroffensive in the southern regions of Kherson and Zaporizhia, where sustained counterattacks have destroyed Russian command bunkers and ammunition depots deep in Russian-held territory. In August, Ukraine knocked out of action half of Russia’s naval aviation strength in occupied Crimea.

“By going on the offensive, which they’ve done, Ukraine has regained the initiative and can attack at a time and place of their choosing instead of just waiting for the Russians to attack,” Mark Hertling, a former United States Army officer, told CNN on August 21. “Russia now realises that they have to defend in more places, which further drains their forces from the fight.”

Is a Ukrainian counteroffensive coming?

Despite this strategy of “corrosion”, as Mick Ryan, a retired major general in the Australian Army, has called it, military and political experts have told Al Jazeera that mounting a strategic counteroffensive in the south is still a difficult proposition.

Ukrainian strategy is partly dictated by weapons deliveries from the West. Ukraine has been receiving a medley of Western artillery systems, armoured vehicles, drones and anti-air systems, but needs to train soldiers to use them. “Ukraine needs another five to six months to build a strategic reserve capable of mounting a strategic counteroffensive and taking back Russian-occupied lands,” said Loukopoulos.

Quantity is also an issue. Only 16 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) and a handful of M270 and MARS II systems – all variations of the same weapon – have arrived in the field. Ukraine’s defence minister Oleksii Reznikov has said he needs at least 100 to mount a counteroffensive.

The pacing of deliveries likely stems from Western concerns over how Russia would react in the event of defeat, said Lieutenant-General Andreas Iliopoulos, who served as deputy commander of the Hellenic Army.

Weapons
A Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces member holds an anti-tank weapon on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 9, 2022. The deliveries of Western weapons have been crucial for Ukraine’s efforts to fend off Russian attacks in the country’s eastern industrial heartland of Donbas [File: Efrem Lukatsky/AP Photo]

“If Russia is threatened with defeat, I don’t believe it would refrain from the use of nuclear weapons. We shouldn’t expect a nuclear war, but a limited use of tactical nuclear weapons that will bring Ukraine to its knees but won’t draw the US into the war,” he told Al Jazeera.

A final consideration is the Ukrainian need to eliminate uncertainty.

“The cost of a failed Ukrainian counteroffensive is probably greater than the gain from a successful one,” said Samir Puri, senior fellow at the International Institute of Strategic Studies. “If Ukrainians try and fail to retake Kherson, some of their international support may wither. Whereas even if they retake Kherson, this is just the first in many steps required to fully defeat Russia.”

To keep the West on side and avoid a nuclear attack, “Ukraine may be attempting to inflict ‘death by a thousand cuts’ on Russian forces,” said Puri. “This would leave Russians in Kherson to wither under the threat of an attack for some time, wearing them down slowly. Another theory is these are ‘shaping activities’ for a Ukrainian offensive that starts later in the year.”

A long game

Russia rebroadened its goals in July to include the southern littoral as well as the east. Set against this, Ukraine’s resilience, assuming unwavering Western support, means that both sides are playing a long game, and the war is unlikely to end any time soon.

“Annexing four regions is unlikely to be the end of Russia’s mission in Ukraine, but just one phase in Putin’s much longer project. Both Ukraine and its backers must be prepared for a protracted war,” Dara Massicot, senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, a US Air Force think-tank, wrote recently.

In this long game, economic war becomes more important. Here, more than on the battlefield, Putin has shown foresight.

Russia’s economy will contract by 11.2 percent this year, says the World Bank – but predicts that with war on its soil, Ukraine’s economy will shrink by 45 percent, requiring massive cash injections from Western allies to maintain the public payroll and armed forces.

By occupying the east, Russia has already deprived Ukraine of an estimated $12.4 trillion in energy, metals and mineral wealth in the occupied Luhansk and Donetsk regions, the Washington Post recently reported, offering an explanation as to why Putin prioritised them.

Russia also holds Europe in its thrall by supplying just under a third of its gas before the war. Russian state gas company Gazprom has cut deliveries to Europe in stages, threatening a shutdown of factories and recession in Germany. On July 26, it halved supply through its Nord Stream 1 pipeline to 20 percent of capacity, prompting European Union energy ministers to agree to voluntarily reduce the use of natural gas by 15 percent between August and March. Even so, experts say, Europe may face a gas deficit this winter.

The threat has a strategic use – to discourage European weapons deliveries and cash assistance to Ukraine. Russian foreign policy rhetoric has repeatedly aimed at highlighting differences between US and European interests.

At the same time, the war has raised Russia’s revenues from its dwindling exports of oil and gas because energy prices have soared, and this has paid for Russia’s war. The Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) found that Russia earned almost $1bn a day from oil and gas exports during the first 100 days of the war, outstripping its estimated daily war costs of $876m.

Time may not be on Russia’s side, either, over the longer term. The US has banned Russian oil and gas. An EU ban on Russian oil takes effect at the end of the year. A gas ban could follow if Europe secures alternative supplies. Western sanctions are slowly starving Russia of high-tech components it needs to replace tanks and planes.

In terms of money, men and technology, the Russia-Ukraine war appears set to be a fight to a bitter end.