The first week of Ukraine’s long-awaited counteroffensive has not brought any tangible results, nor even any clear vision of how events might develop in the future. Russia’s Defense Ministry produces daily reports of how Ukrainian attacks are repelled and, more importantly, how much Western equipment was destroyed. However, military bloggers warn against premature celebrations.
It seems that June 5 will be remembered as the date that Ukraine launched its counterattack. The previous night, Ukraine’s forces began “mass armed reconnaissance” in several directions and the next day Ukraine’s high command confirmed its offensive for the first time. The two main thrusts were as expected: Ukrainian soldiers are trying to break through Russian lines at Orikhiv in the Zaporizhzhia region (which could open the way to Russia’s regional command center at Melitopol, cutting off the land corridor to Crimea) while also attacking Vuhledar in the Donetsk region (which also controls a route to the sea, towards Mariupol). In theory, both of these could prove to be a feint, but the bulk of Ukraine’s efforts were concentrated here in the first week.
Ukrainian forces did not enjoy any big successes in the first week, and that was also to be expected. Unlike summer 2022, when Ukraine quickly overcame tired troops in ill-defended positions in the Kharkhiv region, they are now taking on multi-layered defenses that the Russians have built up over the past six months.
Ukraine’s greatest successes to date have come around Vuhledar on the so-called Vremenievsky ridge (map here). On Monday afternoon, Russian military bloggers reported that Ukraine managed to break through the first line of Russian defenses here. But this is an advance of just a few kilometers, with the second and third lines of defense still ahead. Both Western analysts and Russian military bloggers agree that it’s impossible to draw any useful conclusions about the real successes and failures of the offensive. Too little time has elapsed, and too much remains shrouded in the fog of war.
Russia’s Defense Ministry, meanwhile, is issuing daily reports under the personal signature of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu which detail the failure of repeated Ukrainian attacks and list substantial losses inflicted on the enemy. Accounts of the destruction of Western equipment get a special mention in these statements. The military’s eagerness to boast of the destruction of Leopard or Patriot systems has led to some embarrassing errors: this week the Defense Ministry showed a burned-out tractor and claimed it was a Leopard II. However, by the end of the week there were genuine images of burned-out Western tanks.
It’s hard to say whether the Defense Ministry believes that the Ukrainian assault will quickly fail, or whether these events are unrelated. Nonetheless, this week the Russian military embarked on an operation that would end the independence of the Wagner Group’s mercenary forces. On Saturday, Shoigu signed a decree that obliges all “volunteer formations” to sign a contract with the Defense Ministry and assume formal obedience to its orders. To nobody’s surprise, Wagner’s founder Yevgeny Prigozhin made a show of refusing to sign up, and his subordinates launched an equally defiant campaign of posting footage showing how they provided regular soldiers with weapons and provisions. The conflict between Prigozhin and the ministry is ever more pointed.
Why the world should care
There is little point in expecting a quick outcome from the Ukrainian counteroffensive. Most likely, it will be at least a week before we have any idea of the extent of any advances.
Meanwhile, we wrote about the potential consequences of Ukrainian military success for the Russian economy here.