As Kyiv grapples with a faltering summer counteroffensive, Ukrainian soldiers face dire conditions on the east bank of the Dnipro river. Struggling to maintain a precarious foothold, logistical challenges hinder their ability to transport heavy weaponry, while Russian forces gain an advantage. As Ukraine shifts from an offensive to a defensive strategy, questions loom about western military support, especially after the US announced a drawdown. With President Zelenskyy emphasising the need for urgent aid, the nation braces for a protracted conflict, uncertain of its military prospects in the face of escalating Russian aggression.
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By Christopher Miller in Kyiv
After its summer counteroffensive ended in failure, Kyiv is shifting to a new strategy as it prepares itself for a third year of war
“I’m going to tell you the truth,” says Vanya, a Ukrainian soldier serving in a reconnaissance unit fighting alongside marines on the east bank of the Dnipro river in southern Ukraine. “The situation is deplorable.”
His damning assessment follows months of daring raids into enemy territory by Ukrainian forces last autumn to establish a tenuous bridgehead deep in the southern Kherson region. Under the cover of darkness, troops zipped across the river to inflict damage on Russian units and provide one of few bright spots since Ukraine’s much-vaunted summer counteroffensive ended in failure.
But the unit’s grip on the Dnipro foothold, near the village of Krynky, is slipping. Their positions on marshy terrain and in old enemy trenches are shallow and prone to flooding or filled with the rotting corpses of Russian fighters. Freezing cold temperatures also bite, slowing down operations and making it impossible to rest.
Ukrainian troops are suffering heavy casualties here, laments Vanya, declining to give specifics, citing military secrecy. The Russians, he adds, have an advantage of at least four or five soldiers to every one Ukrainian.
Part of the problem is logistical. Because the Ukrainians must cross the river in small vessels to remain undetected and more nimble, they are not able to transport larger, more deadly weapons. “Everything we take is what we can carry ourselves,” Vanya says. “There are at most some types of grenade launchers. In a very rare case, I saw one heavy machine gun brought across.”
The end goal was to create a position from which the Ukrainian army could launch new attacks deeper into Russian-controlled territory. That is looking less likely by the day, Vanya says. In recent weeks, Russian military bloggers and western analysts say that Russian forces have retaken some of the positions on the eastern bank.
Asked whether Ukraine can hold its base there long-term, Vanya was blunt. “Of course not,” he says. “The fact is that the Marine Corps was unable to maintain the pace of the offensive and for sure lost the initiative a long time ago.”
Vanya now expects the troops to fall back to defensive positions on the Dnipro’s west bank — or risk suffering heavy losses among its strongest units.
But to what extent it should adopt a more secure defensive position in anticipation of a difficult third year of war is no longer a question just for those stationed on the Dnipro river, but for Ukraine’s entire military and its commander-in-chief.
As the second anniversary of Russia’s all-out invasion nears on February 24, Ukraine’s military prospects appear to be dimming. It has abandoned hopes of a swift victory and is instead girding itself for a drawn-out war. One western official working on Ukraine policy believes there is “little prospect of an operational breakthrough by either side in 2024” let alone in the next few months.
This reality has been acknowledged in Kyiv, where President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared in early December that “a new phase” has set in. After his troops failed to recapture large areas of the south as planned, he ordered the army to build new fortifications along key segments of its 1,000km front line, signalling a shift from an offensive to a defensive posture.
The western official says that a strategy of “active defence” — holding defensive lines but probing for weak spots to exploit coupled with long-range air strikes — would allow Ukraine to “build out its forces” this year and prepare for 2025, when a counteroffensive would have a better chance.
But several factors are likely to determine Ukraine’s fortunes. Chief among them is the uncertainty surrounding western military assistance, including munitions, which Ukraine is burning through. There are open questions about the west’s resolve and whether it can and will continue backing Ukraine in its fight — and, if it does, to what extent.
The biggest concern lies with Washington, where the White House announced the final drawdown of weapons and military equipment for Ukraine on December 27. Though European nations, including the UK and Germany, are providing some financial support, the US is Ukraine’s biggest supplier of military aid. But right-wing Republicans in the US Congress are holding up tens of billions of dollars in future military funding for Kyiv. Until Congress acts, there will be no more support.
Fiona Hill, a foremost expert on Russia who served as a national security adviser in the White House, told Politico in December that Ukraine has succeeded so far “because of massive military support from European allies and other partners”.
“So in that regard, we’ve now reached a tipping point between whether Ukraine continues to win in terms of having sufficient fighting power to stave Russia off, or whether it actually starts to lose because it doesn’t have the equipment, the heavy weaponry, the ammunition. That external support is going to be determinative.”
Even if the White House strikes a deal with Congress to extend aid to Ukraine, it seems unlikely to be able to offer the leap in capabilities and technologies that would allow Ukraine to decisively regain the advantage this year.
Asked when the cessation of US aid to Ukraine would start to affect the battlefield, another western official working on Ukraine policy says: “We’re confident the Ukrainians have what they need [to hold their positions].”
During his high-stakes visit to Washington in December, Zelenskyy struck an urgent tone, pleading with congressional Republicans to approve without delay $60bn in new military assistance for his country. More air defences, in particular, are of immediate importance, Zelenskyy said, in order to safeguard Ukraine’s critical infrastructure. That need was evident earlier this month, when Kyiv’s nearly 4mn residents awoke to the roar of explosions from Russian attack drones as well as ballistic and cruise missiles.
All the signs suggest there is more to come. Jens Stoltenberg, Nato’s secretary-general, warned in November that Russia had stockpiled missiles for winter and was planning to launch them in massive waves over the coming weeks in an attempt to plunge Ukraine into darkness.
This bleak prediction arrives as the Kremlin’s unprovoked war against its neighbour goes into its third year, and 12 months after Ukraine appeared to have the upper hand in the fight.
It is a marked contrast from Zelenskyy’s visit to the US capital in early 2023, when he received several standing ovations from American lawmakers as he told them that “you can speed up our victory.”
Ukraine appeared to have the upper hand on the battlefield after counteroffensives in eastern Kharkiv and southern Kherson resulted in the liberation of the largest swaths of territory from Russian forces since they were pushed out of Kyiv and Chernihiv in the spring of 2022.
The sweeping advances gave troops a big morale boost and a weary Ukrainian society confidence that the war could end in victory.
“At that time, the country was living with the feeling that the only thing preventing the end of the war was the weather,” Ukrainian journalist Pavlo Kazarin wrote recently for the independent Ukrainian Truth news outlet.
Russia, meanwhile, was reeling from its defeats. When it launched an offensive in January 2023, the Ukrainians held off its forces. It eventually found limited success in the eastern city of Bakhmut, where it employed scorched-earth tactics. But it was a Pyrrhic victory in which tens of thousands of its battle-hardened fighters were killed and huge amounts of artillery munitions expended.
But in the months that followed, Ukraine’s counteroffensive fell short of its lofty objectives, including retaking territories controlled by Russia and severing their land bridge to Crimea. Thousands of Ukrainian soldiers were killed or wounded, and hundreds of western-supplied fighting vehicles and weapons were destroyed. As a result, Ukrainian spirits have fallen and polls indicate that the unprecedented unity shown at the start of the war may be fracturing.
More crucially, the country is now facing a mobilisation challenge.
Zelenskyy’s army chiefs have asked him to conscript upwards of 500,000 new soldiers, a figure that takes into account Ukraine’s staggering losses and the fact that many troops have fought for nearly two years without rest. But the president has said he needs to hear “more arguments” to support the move, while also worrying about making an unpopular decision when his own poll numbers are falling.
Echoing a growing fear among ordinary Ukrainians that the outcome of the war may not go in their favour, Kazarin said: “We enter this winter with an apparently smaller reserve of psychological resilience — and with an apparently greater collective fatigue.”
The nation’s worries are not entirely misplaced. Right now, it is Russian forces who are on the offensive.
Its military is trying to encircle the strategic industrial town of Avdiivka, where Ukrainian troops are barely clinging on, in their pursuit of capturing the entire Donetsk region. In December 2023, the Russians also took what was left of the destroyed town of Marinka, 40km north-east.
However, Kyrylo Budanov, chief of Ukraine’s military intelligence department, argues that Russian attacks have thus far failed to achieve any breakthroughs. “Their latest pathetic attempt . . . [has] been going on for two months,” he says from his Kyiv office. “No results.”
But it is Russia’s gains on the battlefield that have forced Ukraine into adopting a more defensive posture — a strategy supported by Kyiv’s strongest allies.
The Estonian defence ministry published a report in December saying Ukraine should switch to a “strategic defence” to give the country and its allies time to build up its industrial base, train reserves, increase manpower and boost artillery production capacity to resume an offensive campaign in 2025.
That aligns with the strategy that Washington is reportedly selling to Ukraine. The Americans are also pushing for a more conservative approach. Instead of ground offensives, the focus would be to hold the territory it has now, entrenching positions and beefing up supplies and forces over the coming months.
500,000 Number of soldiers army chiefs have advised Zelenskyy to conscript
In the meantime, according to the US view, Ukrainian troops could continue to look for weak spots in Russian defences to exploit when the opportunity arises. Equally, Ukraine could carry on with — and possibly step up — the long-range air attacks with missiles and drones that have proved successful in strikes on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Crimea and airfields there, for example.
Oleksandr Syrsky, Ukraine’s number two commander in charge of ground forces, suggested this week that the strategy does not amount to a drastic shift. “Our goals remain unchanged: holding our positions . . . exhausting the enemy by inflicting maximum losses,” he told Reuters.
There are others in Kyiv who worry that relying only on a defensive strategy would be detrimental to Ukraine’s war effort. Focusing on containment with no offensive component would be “a mistake of historic proportions”, warns Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a former defence minister of Ukraine. Without it, Putin “will be projecting around the world that the war is unwinnable for Ukraine”, he says. “It basically just hands him the initiative.” For that reason, Zagorodnyuk adds, keeping Russia on its toes is essential.
Budanov, the military intelligence chief, agrees that it is important for Ukraine to continue pressing Russian forces, particularly in Crimea through its air campaign, sea drone attacks and covert operations. “Our units repeatedly entered Crimea [last year],” he says, vowing to send more commandos to the peninsula to disrupt Russian logistics.
There are some reasons for Ukrainian forces to remain upbeat. Since it launched its offensive around Avdiivka in October, US intelligence estimates that the Russian military has suffered more than 13,000 casualties and over 220 combat vehicle losses, or the equivalent of six manoeuvre battalions.
Budanov says those figures have grown significantly in recent weeks but could not give exact numbers. However, the first western official involved in Ukraine policy suggests that in November 2023 Russia suffered an average of 1,000 dead and injured each day. Ukraine, the official adds, was in a “strong defensive position” around the industrial town that is home to a big coke plant that once powered the region’s metallurgical factories.
Another reason for Ukraine to increase focus on strengthening defences, suggest Ukrainian security officials speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues, is that Russia may be planning a large-scale offensive as early as summer.
Russia will always try to attack in winter
Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a former defence minister of Ukraine
Its goal would be to capture the remainder of the four regions — Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia — Putin claimed to have annexed in September 2022. In addition, the officials say, another attempt at Kharkiv or even Kyiv was not out of the question.
A newly declassified US intelligence assessment reviewed by the FT in December also notes that Putin’s ultimate goal in Ukraine of conquering the country and subjugating its people remains unchanged.
That explains why Russia is continuing its offensive operations in eastern Ukraine across multiple axes, particularly around Avdiivka, but also towards Lyman, and Kupiansk to the north-east, the document said.
Russia has been bolstered in recent months by shipments of artillery shells and rockets from North Korea and increased production of arms and munitions that are being helped by Chinese chips for manufacturing machinery. These efforts have put them in a better position than they were after being weakened in the 2023 battle of Bakhmut, the officials say.
Whether the Russians will be successful is another question. Budanov is not convinced that his enemies can produce as many shells and troops as they are losing, even with North Korea’s support. On top of that, Ukrainians have proven adept at defending their territory.
“It’s clear that both sides find it challenging to engage, train and sustain [their] armed forces,” says Mykola Bielieskov, a research fellow at Ukraine’s National Institute for Strategic Studies. “Neither is able to create and leverage [a] preponderance in numbers.”
But first, both sides must face the brutal winter. While the sub-zero temperatures will undoubtedly have an effect on Russian military logistics and operations, it will not completely put a stop to them, says Zagorodnyuk, the former Ukraine defence minister.
Being prepared to strongly defend its territory may be the smarter move. After all, warns Zagorodnyuk, “Russia will always try to attack in winter.”
But a military deadlock may benefit Moscow, according to the US intelligence. Putin, it adds, is banking that a stalemate will drain western support for Ukraine and ultimately give the Kremlin the advantage.
The western official working on Ukraine policy says: “It’s probably fair to say that the Ukrainian system is entirely dependent on the continued military assistance from the west.”
Additional reporting by Ben Hall in London and Felicia Schwartz in Washington
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