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Ukraine Counteroffensive Slogs Forward. The West Frets.

A Ukrainian soldier of the 10th Assault Brigade Edelweiss fires a D-30 cannon toward Russian positions at the front line near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, on July 5.
A Ukrainian soldier of the 10th Assault Brigade Edelweiss fires a D-30 cannon toward Russian positions at the front line near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, on July 5.

The soldiers of Ukraine's 47th Separate Mechanized Brigade pushed into Robotyne, driving U.S-supplied Bradley armored vehicles, and got a rapturous greeting from exhausted, sweaty, and thirsty residents waiting to be evacuated away from the front.

"Our soldiers are in the village of Robotyne," General Oleksandr Tarnavskiy, commander of Ukrainian southern command, wrote on Telegram on August 22.

Located on the T0408 highway south of the town of Orikhiv in Ukraine's southern Zaporizhzhya region, Robotyne is a tiny hamlet with just a few hundred residents even before Russia's February 2022 invasion. Its significance lies in the fact that it's on the way to the larger city of Tokmak -- and some 60 kilometers further down the road, the city of Melitopol.

First, though, the Ukrainians have to contend with holdout Russian forces in Robotyne.

"Roughly speaking, it's still divided into several zones -- some are controlled by our guys, there's a gray zone, and there are still a number of positions where the Russian occupiers are holding out," Kostyantyn Denysov, a soldier serving in a paramilitary unit called the Free Russia Legion, told Current Time by video message.

The recapture of Robotyne, partially corroborated by Russian military bloggers, is a small bright spot in Ukraine's 10-week-old effort to rewrite the narrative of the war.

In this section of the three-pronged axis of advance by Ukrainian troops, the goal is a march to the Sea of Azov, to cut the land route that Russian forces use to fortify the occupied Crimean Peninsula.

But despite the creation of nine newly constituted, Western-trained brigades, armed with Western-supplied weaponry, Kyiv's already slow summer counteroffensive has turned into a slog, bearing only faint resemblance to the surprise successes that its forces pulled off last year in the Kharkiv region in the northeast and the Kherson region in the south.

About 100 kilometers to the northeast of Robotyne, Ukrainian marine infantrymen moved into Urozhayne about a week ago. It took about nearly three weeks, however, for Ukrainian troops to recapture the village after inching toward it from the neighboring settlement of Staromayorske across the Mokri Yaly River to the west. Before that, it took Ukrainian troops several weeks to push Russian troops out of Staromayorske.

"What is new is the disappointing results of the Ukrainian counteroffensive so far," Mark Cancian, a former U.S. Marine colonel and now senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in an online analysis.

"Although the counteroffensive began two months ago, Ukrainian forces are still chewing their way through the Russian defensive lines," he said. "Frustration is building."

"It is fair that a lot of folks and analysts looking at the current situation with the offensive have probably become fairly pessimistic about how it's gone, and its prospects for attaining the sort of strategic gains, of either getting to the coast of the Sea of Azov or cities like Melitopol or Berdyansk," Michael Kofman, a veteran military expert and senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said in a podcast broadcast August 22.

"That doesn't mean that this offensive can't still make significant progress overall, or along some of the axis; a lot can change in the span of just a few weeks," he said. "But, you know, I think it's clear, based on what's been happening over the past several months, that folks are getting more pessimistic."

Know Thyself, Know Thy Enemy

After a winter of regrouping and resupplying -- and fending off a failed offensive by Russian forces -- Ukraine began mounting a concentrated counteroffensive at the beginning of June in three locations along the 1,200-kilometer frontline.

The effort was buoyed by hopes that legions of Western-supplied vehicles and weaponry -- U.S-supplied Bradleys; Leopard tanks, and Marder infantry vehicles from Germany; truck-mounted Caesar howitzers from France -- would help Ukrainian troops punch through Russian defenses and take back substantial territory.

A Ukrainian soldier of the 3rd Assault Brigade fires a 122mm mortar toward Russian positions at the front line near Bakhmut.
A Ukrainian soldier of the 3rd Assault Brigade fires a 122mm mortar toward Russian positions at the front line near Bakhmut.

In the days after the campaign got under way, however, Ukrainian units encountered the formidable defense that Russia had spent months building: anti-tank trenches, minefields, dragon-teeth obstacles.

For example, around June 8, near the village of Mala Tokmachka, about 10 kilometers north of Robotyne, Ukrainian forces, including the 47th Brigade, lost three Leopard tanks and as many as a dozen Bradley vehicles after being caught in a minefield and pounded by artillery and missiles fired from helicopter gunships.

Since then, the tempo of progress has decreased substantially, with Ukrainian troops making slow, painstaking advances, village by village, particularly in the Zaporizhzhya region.

Military experts also point out that Ukrainian forces do not appear to have breached the main lines of Russian defenses, still several kilometers further south in Zaporizhzhya.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy himself acknowledged the sluggish pace of advances in June, while also defending it.

"Some people believe this is a Hollywood movie and expect results now. It's not," he said in an interview with the BBC.

"Whatever some might want, including attempts to pressure us, with all due respect, we will advance on the battlefield the way we deem best," he said.

"We don't know if the Ukrainians have much left to exploit tactical success. It is claimed that they still have uncommitted brigades. Probably true. But I think they have already committed their most heavily armed brigades, and those were shot up by the Russians," said Barry Posen, an international professor of political science at the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"We also don't know…whether the Russians have significant uncommitted reserves in Ukraine now. I think they may," Posen said in an e-mail.

Russia Strikes Back

In addition to getting Western weaponry, Ukrainian troops got a crash course in NATO-style tactics and battlefield doctrine over a few months, including the concept of combined arms maneuver. Western militaries, by contrast, train for years to master combined maneuvers and coordination across different units: infantry, armored, engineering, artillery, and signals, for example.

Since the early setbacks, reports suggest Ukraine has retooled its approach, in some cases using older, Soviet-style strategies where artillery units pound a specific Russian position and then infantry units follow the attack.

They've also continued to concentrate forces -- including some of the Ukrainian military's best-trained units -- in an effort to recapture the Donetsk region city of Bakhmut, which was obliterated in a nearly 10-month campaign by Russian troops.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visited military units conducting offensive operations in the Melitopol region on August 15.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visited military units conducting offensive operations in the Melitopol region on August 15.

That's frustrated some Western officials, whose misgivings have shown up in leaks to U.S. media. The Washington Post reported that U.S. intelligence predicts Ukraine will fail to break through Russian lines and reach the city of Melitopol. And unnamed U.S. officials criticized Ukraine outright for spreading its forces too thinly and too widely across the front line in their estimation, according to The Financial Times and The New York Times.

Russian commanders, meanwhile, appear to have learned from some of the operational failures that plagued the early weeks of the invasion, experts said. And they've improved electronic warfare tactics, which has thwarted Ukrainian drone usage and reportedly interfered with GPS-guided missiles or rockets.

Impatience, if not outright opposition, is growing in the U.S. Congress, ahead of next year's elections. Earlier this month, the head of the U.S. Congressional Ukraine Caucus was publicly critical of the Ukrainian campaign.

"Is this more a stalemate? Should we be realistic about it? I think we probably should," Republican Representative Andy Harris said during a town hall meeting on August 15.

"I'm not sure it's winnable anymore," he said.

At the White House, meanwhile, officials have publicly maintained unquestioning support for Kyiv. President Joe Biden recently asked Congress for another $21 billion in weaponry and humanitarian aid for Ukraine.

WATCH: Speaking to RFE/RL's Maryan Kushnir, Ukrainian troops in the Zaporizhzhya region said their counteroffensive operations have been slowed by mines laid by Russian soldiers, enemy rocket attacks, and cluster munitions.

'The Longer It Lasts, The Harder It Will Be': Ukrainian Forces Face 'Difficult' Advance In Zaporizhzhya Region
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"Over the course of the past two years, there have been a lot of analyses of how this war would unfold coming from a lot of quarters," national-security adviser Jake Sullivan said on August 18. "And we've seen numerous changes in those analyses over time as…battlefield conditions change."

"We're doing everything we can to support Ukraine in its counteroffensive," Sullivan said. "We're not going to handicap the outcome. We're not going to predict what's going to happen because this war has been inherently unpredictable."

Military observers also note that Russian forces, rather than merely waiting behind defensive lines for Ukraine to approach, have moved to attack forward of lines in several locations.

"The Russian military has been defending forward," Kofman said. "They built a defense in depth, but interestingly, they choose not to choose not to employ it. They chose to deploy forward and to conduct an act of defense and to counterattack the Ukrainian military when they took positions."

Near the towns of Kupyansk, Svatove, and Kreminna, north of Bakhmut, Russian troops have made several advances, putting Ukrainian forces on the back foot -- an indication that Russian forces may not be as depleted as some experts thought.

"If they are strong enough to mount offensives in other parts of the front, then they are still pretty strong, and that does not bode well for the Ukrainians," Posen said. "I am not betting those offensives will succeed. Just observing that the fact that they happen at all means the Russians are simply not that weak."

Ukraine's major deficit is that its population a fraction of Russia's, said Kevin Ryan, a retired U.S. Army brigadier general.

"That's why Ukraine rightly chose to change the speed and tactics of its counteroffensive to make it safer for troops," Ryan said. "In a war, there are times when the fight is slower and dirtier. At those times you just lower your head and plow on. Something will change."

Wariness about Ukraine's battlefield prospects is growing in European capitals as well.

"You cannot sustainably change the overall military situation in Ukraine. This is the fundamental, predominant error of thought," said Erich Vad, a retired German Army brigadier general and former military adviser to Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"We are facing a stalemate situation along a 1,200-kilometer-long front line with only a few, regional limited counterattacks of the Ukrainians," he said. "The ongoing 'counteroffensive' of the Ukrainian Army, which has been running for 2 ½ months, does not change the overall military situation as long as NATO does not become a war party and play out its full potential, which nobody in NATO wants."

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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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