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Interview: Has Ukraine's Southern Offensive Finally Begun?

Ukrainian soldiers from a reconnaissance team take up positions at the front line in the Mykolayiv region in southern Ukraine on August 8.
Ukrainian soldiers from a reconnaissance team take up positions at the front line in the Mykolayiv region in southern Ukraine on August 8.

After a series of explosions on a Russian military airfield on Ukraine's occupied Crimean Peninsula, Kyiv officials told Western media that the blasts marked a new phase in the nearly six-month war and the start of a long-awaited counteroffensive in southern Ukraine.

The Ukrainian officials who spoke of the August 9 attack did so anonymously but said their country’s forces had a direct role in the blasts. Publicly, Kyiv has denied responsibility but also spoken coyly about the explosions in Crimea, which was forcibly annexed by Moscow in 2014.

I'm the most concerned about Russian annexation. Looking from the Russian side, there [are] several structural factors for why they need the fighting to stop.... My concern is that they might see annexation as the quickest way to achieve that."
-- Dara Massicot, RAND think tank

On August 11, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called on officials to stop talking to reporters about military tactics, announcing an investigation would be held into the disclosures.

Still, the blasts are the latest sign that a Ukrainian campaign to retake territory in southern Ukraine, including the port city of Kherson, may be approaching.

Military analysts and Western intelligence agencies have predicted such a push is coming following earlier statements by Ukrainian officials, although reporting shows that Ukrainian troops largely remain in their positions and face steady Russian artillery fire.

A successful counteroffensive would be a decisive loss to the Kremlin’s wider Ukraine ambitions, including potential Russian plans to annex parts of southern and southeastern Ukraine. But as time passes, analysts also warn that the war risks settling into a stalemate, decreasing Kyiv’s chances of recapturing its occupied land.

To find out more, RFE/RL spoke with Dara Massicot, a senior researcher at the U.S.-based RAND think tank and a former senior analyst at the Pentagon, where she focused on the Russian military's capabilities.

RFE/RL: Ukrainian forces claim to have destroyed several Russian airplanes recently and are believed to be behind the explosion at an air base in Crimea. How does an attack on Crimea change the war?

Dara Massicot
Dara Massicot

Dara Massicot: Well, I think the nature of the attack is what's different.

I'm still trying to determine what could have caused that, but it does look pretty precise. This is the largest attack that Russian naval aviation has had to deal with, so I think that really changes the dynamic. In terms of operational impacts, these types of [Russian] aircraft were used -- just like everything else in the region -- to launch attacks on Ukraine. It's one of many bases in Crimea.

But while this is a loss [for Russia], it's not overwhelming for them to deal with. I think it's more of an embarrassment and symbolic loss to them.

RFE/RL: There's been a lot of talk over the last several weeks that Ukraine is preparing for an offensive in the south. Are these attacks in Crimea the beginning of that long-awaited push?

That's the rumor from the Ukrainian side. I don't have insight into their plans, but they've been talking about this counteroffensive for weeks.

I think there's a psychological aspect to what happened in Crimea. The Russian Ministry of Defense has been very quiet about it. They have not really come forth with a lot of details. I think they're still trying to find how they're going to spin this [and] where they're going to go from here. They clearly don't have that narrative defined yet.

Smoke rises after blasts destroyed a number of Russian aircraft at the Saky Air Base near the village of Novofedorovka on August 9.
Smoke rises after blasts destroyed a number of Russian aircraft at the Saky Air Base near the village of Novofedorovka on August 9.

RFE/RL: Russia also appears to now be targeting the south and building up its forces there. How is this likely to culminate and are we seeing different strategies under way from Kyiv and Moscow as their sights are fixed on the southern front?

I've been watching what the Russian forces have been doing since the beginning of the summer [and] they certainly seemed the most vulnerable in Kherson. Since that time, however, they've moved significant assets into place there [and] they've doubled what they've got in that area, taking it from elsewhere in the Donbas.

So the question for me is: What's the status and health of those Russian units?

We know they've taken uneven, but significant, losses across all of their units. They're filling them rapidly with different groups of individuals who don't have a ton of training. It's now a numbers game, but then there's also a qualitative aspect to what the Russians are doing.

It's a little hard to predict the future, and there’s so many intangibles for when these Russian troops are tested on the battlefield. We also have very little insight into the health of Ukrainian units right now.

RFE/RL: In what ways are time and different time frames a factor here for how things will develop on the ground? We have seen commentary about colder weather limiting fighting in the fall and winter, as well as concerns over Russia using gas as a weapon to weaken the resolve of Ukraine’s Western backers, especially in Europe, and potentially annexing parts of southern Ukraine. Do you see those contributing to the strategy under way now?

There [are] two sides here that are on a collision course.

Russia is heading towards attempting to annex parts of Ukrainian territory. I think they want to do that through sham elections in the fall, with talk of doing so as early as September. So there's a strategy there on the Russian side. They've done that before in the past with Crimea, where they just annex a territory and hope to shock everybody into being too afraid to continue to support Ukraine or challenge that declaration.

The Ukrainians, meanwhile, have every incentive not to let that happen. Kyiv wants to push forward and deny Russia the ability to have a toehold or to have something to annex. So I understand the focus on Kherson city. The rest of Kherson Oblast is quite rural, so the Ukrainians are really going to focus on retaking control of the city itself.

RFE/RL: What’s on your radar right now that could be an important factor moving forward that you think people should be paying attention to?

Massicot: In the immediate term, I'm the most concerned about Russian annexation. Looking from the Russian side, there [are] several structural factors for why they need the fighting to stop, and they need to take a pause to repair and regenerate their forces. My concern is that they might see annexation as the quickest way to achieve that.

If there is a Ukrainian counteroffensive, it would benefit them the most if they were able to do that before annexation happened -- so that makes the fall a pretty decisive time.

RFE/RL: Explain how annexation can achieve that for Russia. It would only be recognized by a handful of countries and it would be contested militarily on the ground. So how does it lead to that outcome?

Massicot: After Russia annexed Crimea, there were basically no countries that recognized Crimea as Russian.... It’s still considered an illegal annexation, although de facto it’s treated as if it is Russia.

In this case, if Russia attempted to annex such a large part of really important pieces of Ukraine in the south, [Kyiv] has already stated they will contest it. So the Russian strategy relies on the assumption that if they declare it as Russian, that will change the dynamic, and it will make people more reticent to provide support to attack an area they now claim is “Russia.”

That's their plan, and if you go back in time and look at Crimea [in 2014], you can see why they would have such an assessment. But Ukraine has every incentive to continue to contest it and ensure that it is not recognized.

RFE/RL: Do you think from what you're seeing from the Ukrainian side that they’re capable of breaking through and regaining territory in the south and southeast?

There are methods for them to cause a lot of problems for the Russians.

I would say meeting them in the open road for a massive artillery duel is not going to play to Ukraine's strengths, [and] I don't expect them to try that. The Russians are vulnerable at certain times when they’re on the move or when they're transporting weaponry. I think Ukraine has some ability to impact that and cause attrition, but I don't see either side really having a lot of strength left for a massive offensive.

RFE/RL: Are you saying that we're effectively in a stalemate now?

I think we're settling into that -- although nothing is predetermined. The Ukrainians have been able to launch really damaging attacks against Russia with new weapons that they have, so there is still a state of flux. But I see things continuing to slow down this summer and into the fall.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China's Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.

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