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Ukraine's Southern Offensive To Reclaim Territory Will Come In Stages, Says Military Strategist

Ukrainian soldiers from a reconnaissance team take up positions at the front line in southern Ukraine last month.
Ukrainian soldiers from a reconnaissance team take up positions at the front line in southern Ukraine last month.

Kyiv’s long-discussed counteroffensive in southern Ukraine is under way and already making limited gains, but Mick Ryan, a retired Australian Army major general, says to expect the Ukrainian push to move slowly and come in stages.

Ukraine’s military has so far been tight-lipped about the operation it has launched to reclaim Russian-occupied territory in the southern part of the country, but early comments by officials point to a Ukrainian advance toward Kherson.

Kherson was the first major city captured by Russia following its February invasion and the broader region provides the Kremlin with a strategic “land bridge” that connects forcibly-annexed Crimea to Russia through southeastern Ukraine.

Should the Ukrainian drive toward the coast succeed, it would boost Kyiv’s future economic viability by relieving constraints on shipping routes along the Black Sea and also put new military pressure on Crimea.

But Ryan, who is also a fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, told RFE/RL that the current operation isn’t shaping up to be a “grand sweeping offensive” and instead is likely to be a multistep strategy to retake occupied territory that will build-up over time.

RFE/RL: We’re seeing a deeper push from Ukrainian forces in the south towards Kherson. While there’s still lots of fog around what exactly might be taking place on the front, what does this Ukrainian movement mean for the overall stage of the war and how successful is this likely to be?

Mick Ryan: I think, firstly, it's very early days in this offensive and generally in military operations -- especially large ones like this that are composed of many different attacks and supporting activities -- the first reports are generally wrong or grossly inaccurate about the real situation on the ground.

So it's really not going to be clear to us what the true Ukrainian objectives are exactly and how they're going towards meeting them probably for a little while just yet. If you add the Ukrainian operational security that they've thrown over this equation, I think we are going to lack clarity for some time to come.

RFE/RL: But even if we consider that these early reports might not give a holistic view of everything, how are things shaping up currently given what we’ve seen in the weeks leading up to this recent push?

Ryan: The Ukrainians over the last couple of months in the south have conducted a lot of activities that would be associated with traditional shaping in both the physical and information domains, as well as trying to break down the cohesion and morale of Russian soldiers by cutting off their supply lines [and] destroying [ammunition] depots and headquarters.

Ukrainian military fire at Russian Army positions on August 26.
Ukrainian military fire at Russian Army positions on August 26.

There's been a lot of shaping [to soften Russians defenses and put Ukrainian advancing troops in a better position] that's gone on, there's been a lot of preparatory activity that they’ve undertaken against the Russians. The Ukrainians have clearly war-gamed what they want to get out of this offensive and given what I’ve seen so far, I don’t think this is some grand sweeping offensive with which they expect to win the war.

I think it's more limited to geography and objectives that [Kyiv] knows it can achieve given its own force size and stockpiles of ammunition that will come up against Russian forces that now have had some time to prepare multiple defensive lines throughout the south.

RFE/RL: We have heard multiple high-ranking Ukrainian officials calling for patience and it seems that this fight will be slow and attritional. How well equipped is each side for such a fight and what does fighting an attritional war look like in practice?

Ryan: Personally, I don’t think describing it as attritional is exactly what we’re seeing. This [current push] is likely trying to dislocate Russian forces, particularly those that are north of the [Dnieper] River and around Kherson and induce them to actually withdraw. I think this is a campaign that is more about terrain and less about focusing on the Russian forces -- and it will come in stages.

A woman and a child walk in a park as Russian servicemen patrol in Skadovsk in the Kherson region in occupied Ukraine.
A woman and a child walk in a park as Russian servicemen patrol in Skadovsk in the Kherson region in occupied Ukraine.

The Ukrainians are keen to destroy and kill as much Russian hardware and soldiers as possible, but I think that is a secondary objective. The primary objective here is for them to take back the terrain that was seized by the Russians after the February 24 [invasion].

RFE/RL: We’ve been seeing reports for months about Russia turning to increasingly drastic measures to fill its ranks. As someone with a military background like your own, can you explain to our audience what kind of an impact on the battlefield having less-trained troops has and also how that can affect overall strategy?

Ryan: Both sides have curtailed a lot of their individual training. We've also even seen reports of Ukrainians [soldiers] only getting a few days of training [before being deployed] throughout this war, but the Russian problems around replacing their soldiers have clearly been exacerbated by the fact that [the Kremlin] refers to this as a “special military operation” rather than a war.

They haven't mobilized their people in Russia and they're clearly having a lot of trouble recruiting soldiers. There's no indication that this challenge is going to go away for the Russians. Right now, we’re seeing that a lot of the people who are returning aren't reenlisting after their service time in Ukraine ends and Russian officials are trying to keep their soldiers in Ukraine for as long as they possibly can for this very reason.

RFE/RL: Does this add any kind of tight window or time frame for things on the ground right now? Do you get any kind of sense from what you observe and hear that the Russians are feeling any kind of time pinch?

Ryan: From the Kremlin’s perspective at the political and strategic level, they think time is on their side.

Despite their manpower issues, they think publics in the West -- particularly in Europe -- won’t put up with very high energy prices and inflation and that will force political leaders in countries like France and Germany to put pressure on the Ukrainians and bring them to the [negotiating] table.

But I don’t see that happening, personally, and I don’t think this idea of them having time on their side is an accurate reflection of the situation. The Ukrainians are in no mood to negotiate and there's no reason they should negotiate right now unless the Russians are willing to fully withdraw from Ukraine.

RFE/RL: We’re entering another very pivotal period of this war, what are the big things on your mind that people should be watching closely?

Ryan: I think there's a couple of factors to watch closely around how this southern campaign that’s under way works out.

Mick Ryan
Mick Ryan

[They should look to see] if there's some kind of precipitous collapse on either side that will have a major bearing on the war and on morale of the populations of the country whose military collapses. That feels unlikely for the Ukrainians, but it’s at least conceivable for the Russians, so my attention is closely watching the south.

Also, if [Kyiv] is able to take back the south, then Crimea is in an interesting position given the range of some Ukrainian weapons. Sevastopol [where the Black Sea Fleet is headquartered] is a port that becomes increasingly untenable for the Russians. In the east of Ukraine we can't forget that the Russians are still trying to grind out advances there every day, but it's largely at a standstill for the moment.

Russia may choose to reinforce in the east to try and get some momentum going there and in the north they still have missile forces that they could use to attack the north of Ukraine, including targets in Kyiv.

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.