Military briefing: can Ukraine push the Russian army from the country?

Only a fortnight ago, Russian forces were shelling Kharkiv from their positions on the outskirts of Ukraine’s second-biggest city.

Those same troops have now been pushed up to 30km back towards the Russian border following a successful Ukrainian counter-attack that has emboldened Kyiv to raise its military ambitions and its hopes of driving the invaders out of the country.

“Victory is an evolving concept,” Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba told the Financial Times this week. Ukraine could liberate all its territory and defeat the Russian naval fleet in the Black Sea “if we are strong enough on the military front” and if Kyiv is given “more military support,” he said.

US president Joe Biden, who on Monday signed into law a $40bn Ukrainian aid package, has also said Russian President Vladimir Putin “doesn’t have a way out” of the war.

Some former Ukrainian officials believe their forces could push Russian troops out before the year end, including from the eastern Donbas region where fighting is now concentrated.

“If we have everything we needed by June, we could get them out by October,” said Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a former defence minister and director of the Centre for Defence Strategies in Kyiv.

A Russian soldier in Mariupol © Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

Many Western defence officials and analysts are more circumspect.

Avril Haines, US director of national intelligence, warned this week that Russia was steeled for a prolonged conflict and that Putin still had goals that went “beyond the Donbas.” Russian air strikes and missile attacks continue to hit Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, from railways and power facilities to storage facilities for fuel and ammunition.

“There’s an emerging narrative that Ukraine is winning,” said Samuel Cranny-Evans, a military analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think-tank. “A more realistic picture, I think, is that Ukraine is not losing and Russia is not winning.”

Even so, the surge in Ukrainian optimism reflects how the military balance has shifted dramatically during almost 80 days of fighting.

Before February 24, when Putin ordered the attack, many thought Russian troops would rapidly overwhelm Ukrainian forces. But following the spectacular failure of the Russian advance on Kyiv and the north of the country, the psychological boot is now on the other foot.

“Victory is a subjective mental space, a narrative, and Ukraine and its allies need to own it more,” said Mathieu Boulègue, senior research fellow on the Russia and Eurasia programme at the Chatham House think-tank. “It’s about amplifying not what Russia has lost but what Ukraine continues to gain, and that Western support makes a difference.”

Ukrainian soldiers treated at a frontline field hospital © Roman Pilipey/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

A case in point is the information battle over the small town of Popasna on the western edge of the Luhansk region in the Donbas. Russian forces have only made incremental progress there since they refocused their strategy on capturing the vast region in late April.

When Russian forces took Popasna on May 8, the day before Moscow’s annual victory day celebrations, Russian media described it as a “liberation” and a “significant victory”. Ukrainian media called it a tactical “withdrawal”. 

Meanwhile, a nearby Russian attempt to cross a river ended in a rout, with drone images posted on social media showing more than 30 armoured vehicles destroyed or abandoned.

The overall picture is a deadlock. The Wagner Group, the private Russian mercenary group believes Russia needs as many as 800,000 troops to beat Ukraine decisively, according to a Telegram channel it runs. Yet Russia only has 100,000 or so troops currently deployed in Ukraine.

“The Russians are sitting back from the front lines and shelling hard with artillery, but they lack sufficient infantry to follow through and their combined arms operations remain poor,” Cranny-Evans said. “The Ukrainians are in the opposite position: they have the troops and tactical skills, but lack the firepower. The result is something of a stalemate.”

To go on a full counter-offensive, Ukraine has said it needs more long-range artillery to attack Russian positions deep behind front lines. Western allies have supplied about 120 long-range guns.

Ukraine’s military also needs more trucks, armoured vehicles and fuel, said Myroslav Hai, an officer in one of Ukraine’s special brigades.

“Ukrainian forces have more experience, better tactics, superior logistics, better command and control. That’s why we can use less armour more effectively than the Russians. But it is not enough to change the war absolutely,” he said.

Liudmyla Buimister, an MP who also serves as an army commander, said Ukraine also required more fighter jets, armed drones and sophisticated air defences to launch a full scale counter-attack. “Without air power protecting the sky, a huge offensive is going to be challenging,” she said.

Over the long run, continued western provision of military aid could swing the balance in Ukraine’s favour, analysts say.

Russia’s forces have suffered heavy losses. The UK has estimated 15,000 killed in combat and another 30,000 or so wounded, while the Ukrainians say the Russian death toll stands at 26,000. And while Moscow can still count on massive supplies of artillery, US officials say that western sanctions have forced Russia to use computer chips from dishwashers in some of its military equipment.

Ukraine’s army, meanwhile, has a solid manpower base, and western military equipment is slowly replacing its Soviet-era weaponry, which will make it easier to supply ammunition.

Ben Wallace, UK defence minister, said this week that Britain also supported any former Warsaw pact country such as Poland if it supplied their Soviet-era MiG jets to Ukraine — a plan that was shelved in March following US concerns that doing so would invite Russian reprisals and escalate the war.

Still, whether that support will enable Ukraine to retake the whole country is far from clear.

“Ahead of us is a difficult and long stage of struggle to the complete cleansing of our country and the establishment of sovereignty within state borders,” said Hanna Maliar, Ukraine’s deputy defence minister. “Russia still has many resources that it can use.”

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