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Ukrainian counteroffensive’s second week ends in failure

Originally published: Internationalist 360° on June 17, 2023 (more by Internationalist 360°)

Operation enters the second week of Ukraine’s long-awaited and highly touted counteroffensive, some basic conclusions can be drawn even though the fighting continues, and will continue to rage, for some time to come.

First and foremost, the counteroffensive gambit has failed. While there is still considerable combat strength left in the Ukrainian military, including more than 75% of the NATO-trained and -equipped 60,000-strong cohort Ukraine had assembled in the past eight months, fundamentally flawed assumptions about the quality of the force on which Ukraine and its NATO allies had placed their collective hopes for victory over Russia have been exposed. In short, Ukraine lacks the military capacity to overcome Russian defenses.

Ukraine’s most elite assault brigades, equipped with the latest Western military technology, failed to advance out of what Russian defensive doctrine calls the “cover” line of defense—the buffer that is designed to channel and disrupt an attacking force prior to reaching the “main” line of defense.

Ukrainian casualties were extremely heavy, with Russia achieving a 10:1 kill ratio in terms of manpower, which is unsustainable from the Ukrainian perspective. The reasons for the Ukrainian failure are fundamental in nature, meaning that they cannot be overcome as things currently stand and, as such, the Ukrainian military has zero chance of success, no matter how hard they press subsequent attacks.

First and foremost is the quality of the Russian defenses, especially in terms of the barrier network (minefields, obstacles, and trenches) which, when combined with the tenacity of the Russian defender and the overwhelming superiority Russia enjoys in terms of fire support (both artillery and air-delivered), is the reason the Ukrainians are unable to advance beyond the “cover” layer of the Russian defenses. Ukrainian equipment and tactics are insufficient to the task of breaching the Russian obstacle barriers in any meaningful manner, dooming the attacking forces to be destroyed piecemeal by Russian artillery and air strikes, as well as local counterattacks mounted by Russian special forces.

Besides the poor tactics and equipment deficiencies (yes, the Leopard tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles were not the miracle weapons Ukraine and its Western supporters had hyped them up to be), the Ukrainians are paying the price for Russia’s impressive suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) campaign that has been ongoing for many weeks now. Russia has not only neutralized Ukraine’s ability to defend strategic targets far beyond the front lines, but also to project any meaningful air defense capability into the actual zone of conflict. This, combined with the lack of any viable air force, leaves the attacking Ukrainian ground forces exposed to the full weight of Russian air power.

Russian fixed-wing aircraft have been able to deliver precision-guided munitions with deadly effect to the assembly areas used by Ukraine to gather their attacking forces prior to committing them to the battlefield. It is estimated that between 25-30% of Ukraine’s casualties occur from these strikes. Russian helicopters can use their anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) with lethal effect on Ukrainian forces operating in the zone of contact, and Russian loitering munitions (i.e., “kamikaze drones”) have taken a heavy toll of Ukrainian forces as well. Unless Ukraine can reassert some semblance of air defense onto the battlefield, both in the rear areas as well as the frontlines, and sortie its own air power capable of challenging Russian air superiority over the battlefield, then no amount of courage and tactical innovation on the part of the Ukrainian ground forces will alter the deadly calculus of war that currently prevails today.

One of the many tragedies of the ongoing Ukrainian-Russian conflict is the fact that much of what Ukraine does on the battlefield is dictated not by military necessity, but rather political imperative. The recently concluded months-long Battle for Artemovsk (Bakhmut) is a case in point, where Ukrainian President Zelensky insisted on pouring manpower and equipment into a battle for a town that most military experts believed to hold minimal strategic military value. The geography, however, did not dictate the scope and scale of the battle, but rather the perception of Ukrainian defensive tenacity, and as a result between 60-75.000 Ukrainian soldiers lost their lives in what was a losing effort.

Similarly, the Ukrainian army is being asked to make what amounts to a suicide attack against well-prepared Russian defenses under conditions which, as detailed earlier, can only result in a decisive Ukrainian defeat. This time, the culprit is Ukraine’s NATO allies who, on the eve of their annual summit, are desperate for any sign that the multi-billion-dollar investment they have collectively made in the Ukrainian military can pay even the most rudimentary dividends. For this reason, NATO will continue to pressure Ukraine to double down on defeat, pressing the Russians offensively even though any gains, if in fact any can be had, would be pyrrhic in nature and unsustainable over the long run.

The reality is that when NATO gathers in Vilnius on July 11, the Russians will be well into the process of destroying the third Ukrainian army built by NATO. The first was assembled during the buffer provided by the diplomatic “sham” of the Minsk Accords, from 2015-2022. Some 260,000 strong, this force was largely destroyed by June of 2022. The second army, consisting of some 80,000 newly trained and equipped Ukrainian soldiers backed by thousands of foreign mercenaries, the direct result of tens of billions of dollars of military aid provided by NATO, was able to launch the successful Ukrainian counterattack in the fall of 2022, before being decimated in the positional war that followed (including the Bakhmut slaughter).

The 60,000-strong 12-brigade Ukrainian counterattack force currently operating against the Russians, again the result of tens of billions of dollars in military equipment (including modern Western tanks, artillery, and infantry fighting vehicles), will most probably be destroyed, or facing imminent destruction, by the time the NATO summit convenes. The primary question facing NATO is does it have the political, economic, and military capacity to raise a fourth Ukrainian army, and after its demise, a fifth, sixth, and more?

NATO is politically committed to waging a proxy conflict with Russia “to the last Ukrainian.” This tragic reality means that, regardless of the battlefield reality that exists in Ukraine, NATO will continue to push Ukraine to sacrifice its manpower in a fruitless struggle against Russia for the simple fact that NATO is unwilling to willingly lose political face at home and abroad.

However, this political will does not automatically mean that NATO will be able to sustain this objective either economically or militarily.

While recent statements made by US General Mark Miley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, indicate that there are tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers in the US/NATO training “pipeline”, and that the US/NATO is assembling equipment sufficient to equip these soldiers, they will not be ready for combat for several months yet—long after the third Ukrainian army has met its fate on the field of battle.

Miley spoke of new air defense systems for Ukraine, and other NATO officials speak of the possibility of providing Ukraine with (old) F-16 aircraft. New air defense systems, however, cannot in and of themselves alter a military reality imposed by Russia on Ukraine through its strategic SEAD victory. Ukraine will simply continue a losing struggle against Russian air power. The same holds true of any F-16 fighters that might be provided to Ukraine—too little, too late, and in any event incapable of achieving a meaningful battlefield result.

In Vilnius, NATO will be confronted with the reality of its impotency as a military alliance when it comes to countering Russia in Ukraine. Any military analyst of any competence will know that, as things currently stand, Ukraine simply cannot prevail over Russia. NATO illusions of a “frozen conflict” that seem to drive their insane desire to arm Ukraine to infinity and beyond, moreover, are driven by fundamentally flawed assessments regarding Russian economic competence and capacity, Russian military proficiency, and the will of the Russian people to sustain this conflict.

Here is the root cause of NATO’s strategic failure in Ukraine—a complete lack of understanding about the reality of Russia today. Russia will be able to out-produce NATO from a standpoint of military technology until which time NATO nations fully transition into a wartime economy, something NATO nations neither have the political will nor economic means to accomplish.

The Russian military has largely overcome the deficiencies which plagued it in the initial phases of the Special Military Operation, and the Russia armed forces assemble in the Special Military Operation zone are highly trained, well-equipped, and properly trained for the tasks they have been assigned. Moreover, the Russian nation has rallied around the leadership of Russian President Vladimir Putin in an overwhelming fashion, united in the belief that the proxy war NATO is waging against Russia in Ukraine is existential in nature and, as such, one that Russia cannot lose.

NATO will not alter course in the immediate period following the Vilnius summit—there is simply too much political momentum in place to bring about any meaningful alteration of the current trajectory in Ukraine. But neither will NATO produce a winning formula in Ukraine. Rather, NATO will continue to pursue little more than a variation of an existing theme—to arm Ukraine so that it can fight as long as it is capable of sustaining the fight.

This short-sighted posture will result in the inevitable military collapse of Ukraine, probably sometime between late summer/early fall of this year. When this happens, NATO will be left scrambling to construct some sort of face-saving mechanism to salvage its weakened geopolitical position vis-à-vis Russia. What that will look like is unknown at this time. But one thing is for certain—because NATO refuses to consider an off-ramp from the Ukrainian conflict today, there will be no future for Ukraine tomorrow. NATO political pride will be the downfall and destruction of the Ukrainian nation, its military, and its people.

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