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Ukraine's Counteroffensive Isn't Going As Well As Many Had Hoped. The Prognosis Isn't Great Either.

A bullet-riddled road sign for Avdiyivka in Ukraine's war-torn Donetsk region
A bullet-riddled road sign for Avdiyivka in Ukraine's war-torn Donetsk region

In the obliterated eastern industrial city of Avdiyivka, Ukrainian troops are trying to avoid being encircled by a multipronged Russian offensive -- the largest single coordinated effort since Moscow launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022.

About 500 kilometers to the southwest, something else is happening: The Ukrainians are crossing the Dnieper River.

For nearly two weeks now, at a location along the marshy wetlands along the east bank of the river, Ukrainian marine infantry and other units have been holding out against assaults from Russian paratroopers and frequent poundings from fighter jets and artillery. A closely watched Russian war blogger this week reported a second Ukrainian bridgehead, further upriver.

It’s far from clear whether the effort will succeed; river crossings are complicated and dangerous for even the best-equipped armies. Ukrainian forces will have to move more troops and heavier armored equipment across the water if there’s to be any hope of opening a major new front against Russian troops, experts said.

At best, the river crossing is a glimmer of good news as Ukraine’s larger counteroffensive, launched at the beginning of June, bogs down against formidable Russian defenses -- and soon, wet, winter weather. At worst, it’s a sign of desperation, a last gasp in a push that has fallen short of the goal of cutting though a Russian-held corridor and reaching the Sea of Azov.

“Russian defenses are now deep, well-prepared, and backed with significant reserves, whereas Ukraine is now fighting mostly with forces raised since the 2022 invasion and which have never had the luxury of time to train properly at brigade level and above,” said Stephen Biddle, an adviser to U.S. General David Petraeus during the Iraq War and now a professor of international relations at Columbia University.

“This combination is not propitious for quick offensive success,” he said.

Russia Strikes Back

In the southern Zaporizhzhya region, one of the three locations that Ukraine focused on when it launched its long-anticipated counteroffensive in June, Ukrainian troops used Western-supplied weaponry -- Leopard tanks, Bradley armored vehicles, Marder infantry vehicles -- to try and punch through Russian defenses: a series of trenches, anti-tank obstacles, and mine fields collectively known as the Surovikin Line.

The effort fell short, and a large amount of Western equipment was damaged or destroyed.

After breaching one or two sections of the defenses in September south of the Zaporizhzhya town of Orikhiv, Ukrainian troops have not gone much further. Kyiv’s forces “advanced an average of only 90 meters per day on the southern front during the peak of their summer offensive,” the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies said.

However, it added, “Slow progress on the southern front does not mean that Ukraine is failing or will fail in its objectives.”

A Ukrainian soldier rides along a road in a BMP-1 armored fighting vehicle amid Russia's attack on Ukraine in the town of Avdiyivka on October 17.
A Ukrainian soldier rides along a road in a BMP-1 armored fighting vehicle amid Russia's attack on Ukraine in the town of Avdiyivka on October 17.

Still, the slow progress presents a major challenge for the Ukrainian military, as well as political leaders.

“The lack of a breakthrough in Ukraine’s summer offensive and the shift in materiel advantage [toward Russia] mean that Kyiv must fight carefully if it is to retain the initiative,” the Royal United Service Institute, a London research organization, said in a report last month.

'Give It A Go'

In the Kherson region last year, Ukrainian troops ratcheted up pressure on Russian brigades that had defended the western banks of the Dnieper, which Russia had controlled since the early weeks of the invasion.

In November 2022, after months of attack, Russian forces withdrew to the opposite bank. There, they built fortifications and lobbed rockets and missiles into the city of Kherson, terrorizing civilians and pounding Ukrainian positions.

Ukraine began sending small units across the river and its delta in the weeks following; commandos staged small attacks on the Kinburn Spit, at the mouth of the Dnieper, but have been unable to dislodge Russian forces there.

After a major Dnieper dam at Nova Kakhovka that had been under Russian control was destroyed in June, thousands of hectares downstream were flooded, simultaneously complicating both Ukraine’s advances and Russian defenses.

On October 18, Russian war bloggers reported that troops from Ukraine's 35th and 36th Marine Infantry Brigades had crossed the Dnieper, about 8 kilometers upriver from the now-destroyed Antonivskiy Bridge in Kherson. One report said units reached the village of Pishchanivka, about 2 kilometers southeast of the riverbank.

Russia's Defense Ministry later appeared to corroborate the reports of a river crossing.

On October 30, meanwhile, Rybar, a Telegram channel linked to a former Russian Defense Ministry press officer, said Ukrainian troops had entered the village of Krynky, about 20 kilometers upriver from Pishchanivka.

Ukrainian forces “managed to gain a foothold: the village center is being held by several dozen members of Ukrainian units. Sweeping the settlement [of Ukrainian forces] is complicated by the heavy fire of enemy artillery and enemy electronic warfare operations,” the channel said.

There was no independent confirmation of the report, though Ukrainian emergency officials reported that Krynky was under aerial bombardment overnight.

“The fact that they have been able to successfully cross the river and establish two or three bridgeheads is a significant achievement and shows that the Russians are having issues dealing with the array of consecutive operations in the northeast, east, and south of the country at the moment,” said Mick Ryan, a retired Australian Army major general who has written extensively on the war in Ukraine.

“That said, it is still early days and it remains unclear whether this is a demonstration to draw Russians away from further to the east or is a significant operation in its own right. My sense is the Ukrainians have decided to 'give it a go and see what opportunities might fall their way,’” he told RFE/RL.

In the east, Russian troops launched attacks from two separate directions on Avdiyivka on October 10. Heavily fortified and home to Ukraine’s largest coking plant, the city had been in Ukrainian control since 2014, giving its troops the ability to threaten road and rail lines to the east and southeast, toward the major city of Donetsk.

Initially, Russian troops suffered heavy losses; the White House last week claimed at least 125 Russian armored vehicles and more than a battalion’s worth of equipment had been destroyed around Avdiyivka. The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War estimated that Russia had lost hundreds of men and more than 100 armored vehicles and tanks.

'A Substantial Cost'

Russia has upped the ante, seizing several positions north and south of the city and adding to growing fears of a “cauldron” -- an encirclement of Ukraine’s troops. In recent days, Ukraine reportedly redeployed units from its 47th Mechanized Brigade -- one of the more experienced and better equipped units -- from the front lines near Orikhiv to Avdiyivka, a possible indication that Ukrainian commanders feared a collapse of their lines.

“Тhere’s a political decision, a political order to capture this city in the near future, and…I think there will be serious military operations using all with the forces they have there; they’re also bringing in reserves there,” Oleksiy Hetman, a Ukrainian military analyst, told RFE/RL’s Donbas.Realities.

The assault on Avdiyivka may also be an indication that Russia believed Ukraine’s counteroffensive was petering out and its forces could seize the initiative, Ryan said.

This photograph taken on October 29 shows a residential building heavily damaged during Russian attacks in the southern city of Kherson.
This photograph taken on October 29 shows a residential building heavily damaged during Russian attacks in the southern city of Kherson.

“The Russians clearly thought that it was a weak point in the Ukrainian line, and…had a sense that the Ukrainians were close to culminating [the counteroffensive] and this might be an opportunity to test that hypothesis,” he said. “I think the Russians have found that the Ukrainians have not yet culminated and have units and effort in reserve able to deal with it.”

More than a week later, Russian forces expanded the effort and began trying to advance at five or six other locations along the section of the 1,200-kilometer front line that runs through the Donbas -- the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

That includes places like Bakhmut, a Donetsk region city that Russia captured, with massive casualties, in May after months of pulverizing street combat. Further to the north, Russian forces are also targeting Kupyansk, on the Oskil River in the Kharkiv region; Ukrainian troops captured the city amid a surprise offensive last year.

“The odds of a Russian breakthrough (e.g. at Avdiyivka) aren't much higher,” Biddle told RFE/RL in an e-mail. “If they pour enough resources into this fight, they can probably take the town, as they did at Bakhmut.

“And if the Ukrainians try to hold out too long, they could even lose some forces to an encirclement. But a clean breakthrough would be much harder, and to exploit a breakthrough with operational-level consequences would be even harder still -- especially for a Russian army that has shown little ability to sustain advances into great depth in this war,” he said.

Ukraine’s counteroffensive “certainly inflicted a substantial cost on the Russian military,” Michael Kofman, a Russian military analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said in a podcast broadcast on October 18.

“From the standpoint of an offensive operation, where usually the attacker bears the larger share of casualties and material losses, the Ukrainian military did reasonably well, certainly about as well as could be expected under the conditions and the level of training that they had available,” he said.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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