Ukraine’s Counteroffensive: A Bleak Prognosis for the Future

Ukrainian troops are attempting to avoid being encircled by a multipronged Russian offensive in the eastern industrial city of Avdiyivka. Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces are crossing the Dnieper River, 500 kilometers southwest of the city, for nearly two weeks. They have been holding out against Russian assaults and frequent poundings from fighter jets and artillery. Experts say that river crossings are complicated and dangerous for even the best-equipped armies, and Ukrainian forces will need to move more troops and heavier armoured equipment across the water to open a major new front against Russian troops.

At best, the river crossing is a glimmer of good news as Ukraine’s larger counteroffensive boggles down against formidable Russian defences and wet, winter weather. At worst, it is a sign of desperation, as the push has fallen short of the goal of cutting through a Russian-held corridor and reaching the Sea of Azov. Russian defences are deep, well-prepared, and backed by reserves, while Ukraine’s forces, raised since 2022, haven’t trained properly, making it unlikely for quick offensive success.

Ukrainian troops have made slow progress on the southern front of the Dnieper River since breaching one or two sections of defences in September. The Center for Strategic and International Studies reported that Ukraine’s forces advanced an average of only 90 meters per day during the peak of their summer offensive. However, this slow progress presents a major challenge for the Ukrainian military and political leaders. The lack of a breakthrough in Ukraine’s summer offensive and the shift in material advantage towards Russia mean that Kyiv must fight carefully if it is to retain the initiative.

In the Kherson region, Ukrainian troops increased pressure on Russian brigades that had defended the western banks of the Dnieper. In November 2022, Russian forces withdrew to the opposite bank, building fortifications and launching rockets and missiles into the city of Kherson. Ukraine began sending small units across the river and its delta, but commandos have been unable to dislodge Russian forces there. The destruction of the Dnieper dam in Nova Kakhovka flooded thousands of hectares, complicating Ukraine’s advances and Russian defences. On October 18, Ukrainian troops crossed the Dnieper.

On October 30, Ukrainian troops entered the village of Krynky, about 20 kilometres upriver from Pishchanivka, and managed to gain a foothold. The settlement is being held by several dozen Ukrainian units, but the heavy fire of enemy artillery and electronic warfare operations complicates the settlement process. Ukrainian emergency officials reported Krynky was under aerial bombardment overnight, highlighting Russian difficulties in consecutive operations in the northeast, east, and south of the country, according to retired Australian Army major general Mick Ryan.

In the east, Russian troops launched attacks on Avdiyivka, Ukraine’s largest coking plant, on October 10. The city had been under Ukrainian control since 2014, giving its troops the ability to threaten road and rail lines towards Donetsk. Initially, Russian troops suffered heavy losses, with the White House claiming at least 125 Russian armoured vehicles and more than a battalion’s worth of equipment had been destroyed around Avdiyivka. The Institute for the Study of War estimated that Russia had lost hundreds of men and more than 100 armoured vehicles and tanks.

Russia has intensified its offensive by capturing positions north and south of Kyiv, escalating concerns of a “cauldron” – an encirclement of Ukraine’s troops. In recent days, Ukraine reportedly redeployed units from its 47th Mechanized Brigade from the front lines near Orikhiv to Avdiyivka, possibly due to fears of a collapse of their lines. Ukrainian military analyst Oleksiy Hetman predicts serious military operations using all available forces and bringing in reserves there.

The assault on Avdiyivka by Russia may indicate that the Ukrainian counteroffensive is petering out and Russia could seize the initiative. Russian forces expanded their effort and began trying to advance at five or six other locations along the 1,200-kilometer front line that runs through the Donbas, including Bakhmut and Kupyansk. The odds of a Russian breakthrough at Avdiyivka aren’t much higher, as if they pour enough resources into the fight, they can probably take the town. However, a clean breakthrough would be much harder, and exploiting a breakthrough with operational-level consequences would be even harder for a Russian army that has shown little ability to sustain advances into great depth in this war.

Ukraine’s counteroffensive inflicted a substantial cost on the Russian military, but the Ukrainian military did reasonably well under the conditions and level of training available. The odds of a Russian breakthrough at Avdiyivka aren’t much higher, as a clean breakthrough would be much harder and exploiting a breakthrough with operational-level consequences would be even harder for a Russian army that has shown little ability to sustain advances into great depth in this war.

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