Moment of truth in the Ukraine war

Ukrainian counteroffensive has begun in Kherson Oblast

The fog of war envelops the Ukrainian “counteroffensive” in southern Kherson region where Kiev hopes to regain lost territories. But by the sixth day of operations, the echo chamber in the West has fallen silent. There are no tall claims. 

Today’s update of the UK Ministry of Defence prefers to dwell rather on the “morale and discipline” issues in the Russian army, in general, their modest pay-packets and basic amenities like “appropriate uniform”, arms and rations — rather than on Kherson counteroffensive. 

There is media blackout in Ukraine. All we know is of military convoys of ambulances with wailing sirens rushing through Odessa city streets,  hospitals in Odessa and Nikolai regions overflowing with wounded servicemen, and eerie public calls for blood donation. Transcapathia region in western Ukraine from where the locally-recruited  128th mountain assault brigade was redeployed to the Kherson front declared a day’s mourning in memory of its brave sons who lost lives. 

Meanwhile, the latest word from Kiev is that its counteroffensive is a “methodical operation” to degrade the Russian forces in the south rather than make territorial gains. President Volodymyr Zelensky said with some irritation, “I’m not ready to predict when it (rollback of Russian forces) will happen. I don’t have the exact dates, but I have the exact understanding of how we will do it.” 

On Thursday (5th day of counteroffensive), Zelensky took a second meeting within the week of the Headquarters of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief, but only to add cryptically, “certain decisions have also been made. I think everyone will be able to see their outcomes.” 

The US media vaguely claims that Ukrainian forces are making “tactical gains” and are preparing “for a long and hard-fought battle before winter sets in… Western officials cautioned the counteroffensive won’t sweep the Russian forces out of Ukraine any time soon. However, success in retaking the region of Kherson and gaining control of the western side of the river would be “really significant.” (Politico) 

The daily noted, “Such a victory would show Ukraine’s Western allies that they are right to continue sending billions of dollars of weapons and supplies to help counter Russia.” 

This last bit is the crux of the matter. The arms supplies from European countries to Ukraine have virtually dried up to a trickle and a similar trend is discernible with the US supplies too. The Biden Administration is asking Congress to approve another $11.7 billion in aid for Ukraine but that is in anticipation of the likelihood that the 2023 budget may not be passed by the deadline of Oct. 1. The White House Office of Management and Budget announcement on Sept. 2 acknowledges that this is “a short-term continuing resolution to keep the Federal government running.” 

The OMB statement says the White House wants this anomaly because funds from previous packages to boost Ukrainian military are running low, with three-quarters distributed or committed, and more will follow in the next month. Importantly, though, of the $11.7 billion requested by the White House, $4.5 billion would go toward replenishing Pentagon’s depleted stockpiles, $4.5 billion to budgetary support for Ukraine’s government, and only $2.7 billion to defence and intelligence aid as such. This new round of aid is intended to last through December. 

Zelensky must be a worried man. He needs to convince the US that such massive multi-billion dollar military aid has been worth it. He should show at the very least, a bloody stalemate on the southern warfront. (Russia is gaining the upper hand in Donass already.) 

There is always the danger that Zelensky might overreach. Politico disclosed: “Western governments have warned Kyiv against spreading its forces too thinly in a bid to capture as much territory as possible, since the Ukrainians would have to hold any gains they make. The officials said they expect Ukraine to reassess its military goals if it retakes Kherson. However, the city of Melitopol, also in the south, remains too far away from the Ukrainian positions, while a ground attack against Crimea during this offensive is not plausible.” 

Now, all this juxtaposes with the upbeat tone but bare factual information shared in the official Russian statements on Kherson front. Other Russian reports say that the “counteroffensive” has been virtually muzzled and Ukrainian forces have taken heavy casualties running into several thousands. It seems to be an apocalyptic scenario , too tragic to recount. 

The solitary Ukrainian breakthrough remaining as of Saturday night was a bridgehead across the Ingulets river — the so-called Andreevsky bridgehead. There is speculation that Russians may have lured the Ukrainian troops into a “fire trap.” The river crossings have been cut off and Russians are probably encircling the Ukrainian troops trapped on the western side of Ingulets with no supplies or reinforcements reaching them. 

The counteroffensive has lost its bite and is now turning into positional battles on one or two sites in the Mykolaiv-Krivoy Rog direction. A Russian counterattack has also been mentioned to the effect that the frontline now touches the “administrative boundary” of Mykolaiv region (which is a crucial city en route to Odessa.) Heavy bombardment of Mykolaiv city has also been reported. The Russians claim to have destroyed vast quantities of weaponry. 

Russia’s “domain control” can be put in perspective: the enemy is, on the one hand, caught on the bare steppe and cut down with the overwhelming superiority of Russian artillery and aviation, and, on the other hand, encountering well-fortified, entrenched defence lines. 

That said, Zelensky cannot give up, as he is desperately in need of a success story. Kiev still hopes to reverse the situation, but how that is achievable remains to be seen. 

Against this sombre backdrop, more and more sceptical voices are being heard in the US about the Biden Administration’s policy trajectory. The latest is an opinion piece in Wall Street Journal by Gen. (Retd) Mark Kimmitt, formerly Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs in the Bush administration. Kimmitt predicts that “a breakthrough is unlikely” and soon, “logistics shortfalls” may force a change in US strategy. 

He explains, “NATO will have to deal with dwindling stocks of leading-edge weapon systems. This likely will mean muddling through a longer war, with more casualties. It means more pressure from supporting nations, sustained inflation, less heating gas and falling popular support.”     

In principle, the options are: i) “dig deeper into NATO stockpiles being held back for national defences”; ii) “ramp up critical shortfalls” by invoking Defense Production Act and its European equivalents; iii) escalate the conflict by targeting Crimea and Russia itself; or, iv) forcing Zelensky to face the grim reality that “diminishing resupplies” of weaponry actually contains “the message of declining outside support” for the war itself. 

The retired general with Republican Party leanings concludes: “Beginning the diplomatic resolution would be distasteful, and perhaps seen as defeatist, but as there is little chance of climbing out of the current morass, it may be better to negotiate now than later… Looking into a future of protracted war, diminishing high-tech systems and mounting casualties, Mr. Zelensky and NATO must face up to tough decisions before those decisions are forced on them.”