Is Ukraine’s counteroffensive “stuck”, or just a slow starter? It’s way too soon to tell.


From “Kyiv will fall in three days” to “Why hasn’t Ukraine’s counteroffensive defeated Russia yet?”: In one year, the world’s expectations have swung wildly: from expecting rapid defeat for Ukraine, to expecting near-instant success.

Is Ukraine’s summer counteroffensive going “too slowly”?

Let’s dial our expectations back to reality.

In February of 2022, when most around the world expected Ukraine to fall in just a few days: could we have imagined that a little over a year later, many of these same people would now be complaining that Ukraine isn’t winning as quickly as they expected?

Yes, Ukrainians have fought the Russian army to a standstill, and even pushed it back on multiple fronts. They’ve had some stunningly successful counter-offensives in the last few months. But let’s not let these impressive successes – bought with the lives of many Ukrainian soldiers – fool us into expecting constant superhuman accomplishments.

“The pressure and the expectation levels on the Ukrainian troops is so high,” [Professor] Mykhnenko [of Oxford University] says. “I just hope we slightly ease up on those expectations and not demand that they retake Mariupol one week and then Crimea the next. People should understand that this is going to take months and months, not a week or two.”

[It] “pisses me off,” [General] Zaluzhny said, when he hears that Ukraine’s long-awaited counteroffensive in the country’s east and south has started slower than expected […]. His troops have gained some ground — even if it’s just 500 meters — every day, he said.

“This is not a show,” Zaluzhny said Wednesday in his office at Ukraine’s General Staff headquarters. “It’s not a show the whole world is watching and betting on or anything. Every day, every meter is given by blood.”

Speed is not a requirement for a successful offensive.

Nearly everyone is familiar with the Normandy Landings, immortalized as the successful start of the liberation of Europe from the Nazis in WWII. However, despite massive allied air superiority, naval fire support, and superior numbers, none of the first day objectives were reached, nor did the invasion proceed on schedule thereafter (Beevor, D-Day). Regardless, the overall success of the invasion did not require all operations to go according to schedule.

The same lesson can be applied to the counter offensive in Ukraine. A slow start is not indicative of a failure if other objectives like the degradation of Russian combat power are achieved.

While changes in territory might be easier to observe from afar, they do not tell the full story of events on the ground. Russia nearly reached Kyiv on the first day of the invasion but in doing so sacrificed troops, equipment, supplies, and organization that ensured the failure of the invasion over the long term.

The practical reasons

Russia has had months to fortify its lines in Southern Ukraine. These fortifications have progressed to be the most extensive in Europe, nearly 1000 kilometers long and consisting of trenches, bunkers, anti-tank obstacles, and prepared firing positions (

In addition to Russia’s constructed fortifications are layers of minefields that must be cleared before any advance. These defenses would be a formidable task for any army at any time, and this task can not be accomplished quickly.

Ukraine’s success depends on the tools it receives.

Countries around the world have sent huge amounts of military equipment and weapons to support Ukraine in fighting off Russia’s invasion. Some countries – the US and Britain – are sending military aid partly because they promised to do so, in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear arsenal under the Budapest Memorandum. Many other countries are sending aid to Ukraine out of concern for their own future security, or simply for moral reasons.

The total amount of aid may sound large. But let’s not forget: Ukrainians are facing off against the entire Russian military. They are fighting a war of a kind that Western armies haven’t fought in decades: a war between two conventional armies. This type of war requires massive quantities of materiel, much more than was required in counterinsurgency wars such as Afghanistan.

Demining equipment in particular is critical for advancing through areas heavily mined by Russian forces. However:

A senior Ukrainian official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military matters, said Kyiv received less than 15 percent of the quantity of demining and engineering materiel, including MICLICs, that it asked for from Western partners ahead of the counteroffensive. [Emphasis ours. -UFC]

Ukraine is going through supplies at a rate that foreign weapons deliveries are barely keeping up with – in particular, ammunition and artillery.

For Ukraine’s counteroffensive to progress faster, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, the top officer in Ukraine’s armed forces, says he needs more — of every weapon. And he is telling anyone who will listen, including his American counterpart, Gen. Mark A. Milley, as recently as Wednesday, that he needs those resources now.

In a rare, wide-ranging interview with The Washington Post, Zaluzhny expressed frustration that while his biggest Western backers would never launch an offensive without air superiority, Ukraine still has not received modern fighter jets but is expected to rapidly take back territory from the occupying Russians. American-made F-16s, promised only recently, are not likely to arrive until the fall — in a best-case scenario.

His troops also should be firing at least as many artillery shells as their enemy, Zaluzhny said, but have been outshot tenfold at times because of limited resources. […]

“Without being fully supplied, these plans are not feasible at all,” he added. “But they are being carried out. Yes, maybe not as fast as the participants in the show, the observers, would like, but that is their problem.”

Edited 7 Sept. 2023 to add:

Ukraine is “slowly gaining ground” in its counteroffensive despite difficult fighting, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday.

Speaking to members of the European Parliament, Stoltenberg said support from NATO allies helped to launch the Ukrainian counteroffensive which is now beginning to bear fruit.

“The Ukrainians are gradually gaining ground,” he said. “This is heavy fighting, difficult fighting but they have been able to breach the defensive lines of the Russian forces. And they are moving forward.”

His remarks come after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky sent out a strong message last week regarding Ukraine’s progress, tweeting: “No matter what anyone says, we are advancing, and that is the most important thing. We are on the move.”

Meanwhile, Ukrainian officials are cautiously optimistic that the second line of Russian defensive fortifications on the southern front may be easier to penetrate than the first.


As of the time of writing (August 1 September 7, 2023), it still too soon to judge the ultimate success of Ukraine’s current counteroffensive.

Anyone making confident predictions at this point in time is just guessing. As unsatisfying as it might be, we will just have to wait and see.

All sources:

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