Any Ukrainian counteroffensive is destined to be more of a psy op than an earnest attempt to retake conquered territory, I’d guess. Russia expected to take Kiev within a few days of invading. Three weeks later, the hard reality that they’ve not only failed to do so but are momentarily playing defense as Ukraine attacks should be another heavy blow to Russian morale.
And at a certain point, a thoroughly demoralized army will lose the will to fight.
For now, Ukraine is focused on making Russia lose its ability to fight. “Rather than seek to regain lost territory, Ukrainian forces tried to cause as much destruction and death as possible, attacking Russian troops and equipment with tanks, fighter jets and artillery,” the Times wrote of the new Ukrainian counteroffensive, citing a government official. More details from the WSJ:
The thump of distant shelling echoed through the center of Kyiv overnight, while Ukrainian forces appeared to counterattack in the outlying towns of Irpin, Bucha and Hostomel, which have been severely damaged in weeks of street fighting and artillery exchanges. The city and the surrounding region were under an all-day curfew Wednesday.
Ukrainian forces also said they pressed an offensive south and east of the southern port of Mykolaiv, moving in the direction of Kherson, the only Ukrainian regional capital occupied by Russia since the war began Feb. 24. Ukraine said it carried out an airstrike on the Kherson airport, which is now a Russian air base, and satellite imagery of the tarmac showed seven destroyed or damaged Russian helicopters, some of them engulfed in flames. Kyiv also said it shot down two Russian Su-30SM jets over the Black Sea off Odessa.
Satellite imagery captured by @Planet on March 16th gives us the best picture of the aftermath of the Kherson Airbase strikes. It shows 10 helicopters were likely destroyed in the attack, with an additional three likely being inoperable from damage.
cc @oryxspioenkop @UAWeapons pic.twitter.com/EMXsfYWgWZ
— Nathan Ruser (@Nrg8000) March 17, 2022
The harder it is for Russia to gain control over Mykolaiv, the harder it’ll be for them to launch their long-planned amphibious assault on nearby Odessa. Ukrainians really might have gained a bit of ground in that area:
— OSINTtechnical (@Osinttechnical) March 17, 2022
Even so, the status quo appears to be stalemate. Per the Times, “The war in Ukraine, about to enter its fourth week, has become a grinding daily slog with little evidence of significant gains for either side.” The UK’s ministry of defense agrees:
Latest Defence Intelligence update on the situation in Ukraine – 17 March 2022
Find out more about the UK government's response: https://t.co/OdjSV0U43C
— Ministry of Defence 🇬🇧 (@DefenceHQ) March 17, 2022
“Russian forces likely remain unable to conduct simultaneous attacks along multiple axes of advance” was yesterday’s assessment from the Institute for the Study of War, adding that Russia seems unable to complete the encirclement of Kiev needed to lay siege to the capital. All in all, between the various expert assessments and Ukraine’s sense that this moment was ripe for a counterattack, it may be that Russia’s offensive has finally culminated — just as some retired officers have been anticipating. The army might be able to advance in dribs and drabs but a sustained offensive from this point on might be impossible due to bad logistics and loss of manpower.
Especially loss of manpower:
The conservative side of the estimate, at more than 7,000 Russian troop deaths, is greater than the number of American troops killed over 20 years in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.
It is a staggering number amassed in just three weeks of fighting, American officials say, with implications for the combat effectiveness of Russian units, including soldiers in tank formations. Pentagon officials say a 10 percent casualty rate, including dead and wounded, for a single unit renders it unable to carry out combat-related tasks.
With more than 150,000 Russian troops now involved in the war in Ukraine, Russian casualties, when including the estimated 14,000 to 21,000 injured, are near that level. And the Russian military has also lost at least three generals in the fight, according to Ukrainian, NATO and Russian officials.
According to the Times, some Russian troops have been so demoralized by battlefield losses, including the losses of generals, that they’re parking their vehicles and walking off into the woods. The military has lost at least 230 tanks already, a product not just of superior Ukrainian technology but of poor tactics. H.R. McMaster told the WSJ that “It’s the inability to use artillery infantry and armored forces altogether” that’s made Russian tanks sitting ducks, not some defect in the tanks themselves. Go figure that Ukraine would want to press hard now, with Russia’s advance stalled, to inflict as many casualties as quickly as possible. They’re trying to break the Russian military — or to break it further, as it’s already pretty broken: “Two American military officials said that many Russian generals are talking on unsecured phones and radios. In at least one instance, they said, the Ukrainians intercepted a general’s call, geolocated it, and attacked his location, killing him and his staff.”
I’m skeptical that “the Ukrainians” have the ability to intercept a Russian general’s call. But I can think of a few western allies with the intelligence chops to do it and then feed that information quickly to Zelensky’s troops.
If the military advance really is out of gas then Putin can either reduce his demands in order to get a quick peace deal or ramp up the terror further, possibly with an WMD attack. Or both: Terror followed by an olive branch would allow him to negotiate from a “position of strength.” Assuming NATO doesn’t smack him in the face for escalating, which it seems primed to do.
I’ll leave you with this, a reminder that the “terror” phase of the campaign is already well under way.
The last hospital in Mariupol, by @AP. All others were bombed out by Russia. People doctors can't save are lined up in the basement, including infants. It's the most heart wrenching footage of this war. pic.twitter.com/By1J2hW1wD
— Christo Grozev (@christogrozev) March 16, 2022