Even Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky now says it: the country’s long-awaited counteroffensive to recapture Russian-occupied territory has begun. After months of defending against a barrage of airstrikes, Ukraine is on the attack, searching for vulnerabilities along its 600-mile front line and even launching strikes on Russian soil.
But after days of sometimes intense battles, it was hard to understand the state of the art in Ukraine. Why don’t we have a better idea of the success of the counteroffensive? It’s complicated, for a variety of reasons related to the way wars are fought. Here because.
Offense is more difficult than defense.
Military history has long shown that it is much more difficult to conquer territory than to defend it. That’s partly why Russian troops didn’t arrive in Ukraine’s capital Kiev last year after President Vladimir V. Putin sent them across the border.
Their convoys bogged down and became easy targets for Ukrainian troops armed with shoulder-fired missiles. Their air force has largely cowered at the border due to Ukraine’s mobile air defenses and their inability to wage combined armed warfare (when all parts of the army know what they are doing and coordinate each other) meant that Putin’s plans to take over the entire country have not come to fruition.
But he managed to capture territory in eastern and southern Ukraine. Since then, Russian troops have used their time as occupiers to dig and build fortifications to defend themselves.
Now it is Ukraine that is fighting back and the Russians are preparing.
« Russian fortifications in Ukraine are the most extensive defensive works in Europe since World War II, » wrote military analysts Seth G. Jones, Alexander Palmer and Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. in a paper published last week by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. « The Russian military has built trenches, minefields, dragon’s teeth and other barriers to slow down Ukrainian forces during offensive operations. »
That means advancing Ukrainian troops must seek out areas where Russian defensive lines are weak and poorly reinforced before attempting to break through, military experts say. At the same time, Ukrainian troops must try not to let weaknesses cause them to venture too deep behind enemy lines before they have adequate reinforcements.
Erect the dragon’s teeth.
During WWII, Germany used reinforced concrete pyramids to fend off Allied tanks. The general idea was that evenly spaced rows of structures – some with landmines embedded between them – would force the tanks into positions where they could be more easily targeted.
The pyramids were called dragon’s teeth because, about three or four feet high, they resembled a fanged mouth.
Satellite images showed this year that Russian forces had erected dragon’s tooth barricades between anti-tank ditches and trenches across eastern Ukraine and towards Crimea.
Will Ukraine suffer many losses in the counteroffensive?
This is already happening. US officials confirmed that Ukrainian troops suffered casualties and loss of equipment in the early fighting. Little information is available on Russian losses, but officials have stressed that attackers typically suffer heavier initial losses than entrenched defenders, for the reasons described earlier.
On D-Day, for example, German casualties were estimated at between 4,000 and 9,000 killed or wounded, while Allied casualties were documented at around 10,000, with 4,414 confirmed dead.
Videos and photographs released last week by Russian pro-war bloggers, verified by the New York Times, showed that at least three of the Ukrainians’ German-made Leopard 2 tanks and eight of their American-made Bradley fighting vehicles had recently been abandoned or destroyed.
Does that mean the counteroffensive is failing?
No. Two US officials said on Monday that the main thrust of the counteroffensive had probably not started. Most of the nine Ukrainian brigades that have been trained in the past year and a half by American and allied countries have yet to engage in the fight, one of the officials said.
“When we see large armored formations in the attack, then I think we will know that the main attack has really begun,” Frederick B. Hodges, former US Army commander in Europe, said in an email. « To date, I don’t think we’ve seen those large armored formations, namely several hundred tanks and infantry fighting vehicles. »
He added that a Ukrainian tank battalion should have 31 tanks and an armored brigade would have around 250 armored vehicles of different types. Such a large combat formation would be easily spotted on satellite imagery.
« When we see two or three of those brigades concentrated somewhere on a narrow front, then I think we can tell where the main attack has begun, » said General Hodges. “But even then, that’s not certain. The Ukrainian General Staff will want to keep the Russians guessing the place of the main attack for as long as possible. »
The Allies did the same thing on D-Day, keeping the location of Operation Overlord a secret and misdirecting the Germans, who thought the offensive was more likely to take place in northern France, near Calais, than in Normandy .
Could Ukraine use an element of surprise?
Perhaps, but it would be difficult. Modern warfare comes with satellite images at the disposal of the adversaries. Ukraine cannot sneak 150,000 soldiers into the Russian lines, as the Allies did in Normandy.
« The Germans would have been able to see it through satellites » if such technology had been available, Mr. Jones of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said in an interview. « So you don’t have that option. »
What Ukraine has, he said, is what it is doing right now: launching attacks at various sites, looking for weak spots but also forcing the Russians to try and defend themselves in multiple places.
Also, Mr. Jones said, Ukraine has its own satellite images.
« What we’re seeing right now, I think, is Ukrainians testing for weaknesses in the Russian lines, » he said. With some areas poorly defended, « there’s definitely a chance for the Ukrainians to punch through shoddy fortifications and the poor Russian forces that are defending those areas. »