Two things stand out with Ukraine’s counteroffensive more than a week under way. Ukraine is pushing forward at several points, mostly along the southern front but also in the east. And in some places, its army is making incremental but real gains, liberating villages near the frontline.
In the last week Ukraine has attacked on the western edge of the Zaporizhzhia sector, where the frontlines meet the Dnipro River at a point; again south of Orikhiv 18 miles east and, most significantly, either side of a Russian salient at the border between Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk oblasts.
It is in the last of these that the most gains have been recorded, with Ukraine’s brigades recording videos of flag-raisings in a series of villages south of Velyka Novosilka, Neskuchne, Storozheve, Blahodatne and Makarivka. The last of these may still be contested, however, with Russian war bloggers reporting a successful counterattack.
That advance amounts to nearly four miles in a week, a far greater speed than Russian forces managed during their winter offensive, but it is only at one point. Nearby, about eight miles west, Ukraine says it has taken another village, Novodarivka, and Kyiv’s forces may be able to threaten Russian troops positioned in between.
On the eastern front, Ukraine continues to push both south-west and north-west of Bakhmut, the city that was finally taken by Russian forces after a year of exhausting fighting, at a time when Moscow’s Ministry of Defence appears to be trying to take direct control of Wagner, who led the effort to capture the mining centre.
These are most likely probing attacks to find a point of weakness on the Russian frontline. But the battle has not been going equally well: gains have been harder to come by south of Orikhiv, where a Leopard 2 tank and four Bradley fighting vehicles were abandoned on Friday after a failed Ukrainian attack.
Ukraine has not committed large numbers of tanks to the frontline so far, a point focused on by Ben Hodges, a former US army general. “When we see large, armoured formations join the assault, then I think we’ll know the main attack has really begun,” he wrote in a blogpost on Sunday.
That amounts, in his view, to two or three of the nine western trained and equipped brigades focused on a narrow front. Some of those nine have already been reported in action, such as the 47th brigade south of Orikhiv and the 37th farther east at Novodonestke, on the Donetsk sector of the southern front.
Others have not appeared at all, including the 116th, 117th and 118th brigade, all listed in the leaked Pentagon Papers as having at least some western equipment, again demonstrating that offensive, likely to run well into the summer, remains at its preliminary stages.
Meanwhile, last week’s catastrophic flooding following the breach of the Nova Kakhovka dam, is likely to have helped Russia on balance, making it harder for Ukraine to contemplate a risky marine attack over the enlarged Dnipro delta, even if some Russian defensive positions have been inundated.
Ukraine’s initial efforts remain well short of the Russian defensive lines erected over the past few months and mapped using satellite imagery. These lie eight to 10 miles farther south of where Ukraine has made the most progress so far: the villages south of Velyka Novosilka.
Kyiv also has to overcome its fundamental problem of a lack of combat aircraft – while it patiently waits for the west to eventually provide F-16s. Reports suggest Russia has been making use of air power in the Orikhiv sector in particular. If Kyiv’s forces look close to a breakthrough, it may well be dangerously easy for Russia to snuff it out.
Igor Girkin, veteran Russian ultra nationalist, said he hoped Russia was adopting a policy of “flexible defence” on his Telegram channel, that it would to some extent allow Ukrainian forces to advance beyond their air defences and then to subject their forces to a counter attack and reverse some of the advances. But he too warned that Ukraine had, in his estimate,five or six brigades in reserve.
Military campaigns of this size and significance are not decided in a week. What is certain is that Ukraine has begun by taking the initiative with some confidence, attacking from multiple directions, and it has made credible gains, probably where the Russians are weakest. For now, that is encouraging.