Discover more from Phillips’s Newsletter
Weekend Update #44
A Pretty Good Week for the Counteroffensive--but keep things in perspective
Well this has been an interesting and relatively positive week for the Ukrainian counteroffensive. There was both an attempt to change the international narrative over how the operation was progressing and, I would say, an uptick in how the Ukrainians themselves think things are progressing. This does not mean that a major success is right around the corner—its almost certainly not. It just means that in the coming weeks and months, Ukrainian forward movements look set to continue. Its important that one balances optimism with caution at such times. Personally I don’t like the big talk of lots of ‘breakthroughs’ as that gives a false idea of what seems possible in this campaign (at least at present). People tend to think of a breakthrough as leading to a fast move forward, a form of exploitation—with armored columns streaking down miles of road. However in this war, even if one side creates a gap in the other’s lines, moving swiftly to take advantage by making a fast, deep advance remains extremely difficult. The tools to slow down an advance remain manifold and effective. Thus the attacking side needs to drastically weaken the defender, and so far, even while Russian forces are clearly being weakened (and they are) they dont seem to be at that stage as of yet—though give it time and we will see.
To provide a focus for this week’s update, I thought I would give reasons why the swing towards optimism in relation to the counteroffensive by Ukraine makes sense—but at the same time provide a note of caution at the end.
Phillips’s Newsletter is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
A Pretty Good Week for the Counteroffensive
Ive become fascinated by Ukrainian messaging in the war, the different tones, the way they address questions, the use of different mediums, etc. For the past 10 days or so there has been a major attempt to take on the notion that the counteroffensive was failing to too slow—which in some ways culminated in this video.
I know some people got upset—though really I think this is being ridiculous. The Ukrainians are fighting for their very existence against a power that is trying to deny their whole culture and history, who is abducting their children and who has committed countless atrocities against them. Normally the Ukrainians go to great lengths to assure everyone of the their gratitude for the aid they receive. (tbh, I think states that ask for this gratitude are being pathetic, Ukraine is doing immense work for European security and suffering massively in the process—we should be thanking the Ukrainians). However, at times their anger comes out, and they are angry at the work of mostly anonymous critics to try and cast the counteroffensive in a negative light. They understand the public opinion crisis this could cause (I wrote about it in the midweek substack).
Anyway, the narrative change over the counteroffensive by the Ukrainians was not just PR—they seem genuinely to believe that things are improving. They always had more confidence in what they were doing than many in the west, but now they seem to be getting signs that the strategy theyve been following for the last 10 weeks or so is bearing fruit. Interestingly, President Zelensky himself tweeted out a positive description of how the Ukrainians are moving forward (“despite what anyone says”—believe me this is a deliberate swipe at those trying to undermine the counteroffensive).
The fact that Zelensky personally intervened is a sign of the confidence. The Ukrainians would not want the president to be seen to give misleading information—particularly to the Ukrainian people.
Now what are the reasons for the optimism. There are a few which occurred this week.
First. The Ukrainians advanced and very importantly, breached the first serious line of Russian defenses (what is generally assumed to be the most formidable line the Russians constructed).This breaching happened in a growing Robotyne ‘bulge’ that the Ukrainians are pressing . In particular the Ukrainians advanced relatively rapidly (for this war) towards the town of Verbove (see below)
The fact that the Ukrainians have breached this line is a significant step. Once a defensive line loses its continuity, its a significant problem, as the attacker can move laterally to weaken the line. Indeed, in one of the more explicit interviews a Ukrainian military figure has given on a military subject, General Oleksandr Tarnavskiy, speaking to the UK newspaper The Obeserver went into great detail why he thinks this matters.
“We are now between the first and second defensive lines,” he said, speaking to the Observer in his first interview since the breakthrough. Ukrainian forces were now pushing out on both sides of the breach and consolidating their hold on territory seized in recent fighting, he said.
“In the centre of the offensive, we are now completing the destruction of enemy units that provide cover for the retreat of Russian troops behind their second defensive line.”
Futhermore, Taranavskiy estimated that the Russians put 60% of their overall effort into building this first line of defense, which means there following lines should be much weaker.
Second: The Russians are doing what looks to be rushed lateral redeployments from other parts of the front line or rushing what few reserves they have, to try and hold this front. Clearly the situation for Russian forces in less than ideal. The Institute for the Study of War has been counting, and they said on September 2 that they now think the Russians have made 2 significant redeployments recently to try and stabilize the situation.Redeployments are always worthy of note because it means that the Russians are having to take the risk of weakening the front line somewhere else to try and hold in Zaporizhzhia. This is never something a defender wants to do, and the fact that the Russians are taking the risk means that their reserve pool is very low and that they are very worried about the front. They really dont want this area to fall.
This also brings up a constant bugbear of mine—the lack of reporting on the condition of Russian soldiers. The Ukrainians have allowed a huge amount of access to their soldiers to outside reporters. This openness is to be commended, but it also means that we have had lots of stories about the difficulties and suffering that the Ukrainians are undergoing. Sometimes these stories are very effective (the one by Marc Santora in the New York Times yesterday was great), but it others they lead to ridiculous extrapolation. This happened regularly in the Bakhmut campaign. Reporters would engage with Ukrainian troops who had clearly had a hard time in the fighting, but would extrapolate from that that the Bakhmut campaign itself was a failure. Its easy to draw a connection between the horror of war and thinking an engagement is a disaster—but that is often wrong. The Bakhmut campaign was arguably the most important and succesful Ukraine has fought, not least for destroying Wagner and showing the cracks in the Putin regime.
Anyway, the access to Ukrainian soldiers and the lack of access to Russian soldiers at the same time, exaggerates the importance of the difficulty of the former and obscures the massive problems being faced by the latter. Actually, the Russian troops, as indicated by these lateral redeployments, are more than likely in far worse shape than their Ukrainian counterparts. The Russians are kept in the front line for far longer, are treated far more brutally by their own side, and are being pressed back. Remember that the next time you read a splashy story about the difficulties of the Ukrainians (which are real). Russians soldiers are almost certainly suffering greater deprivations and are in worse shape. You just wont read stories about it.
Third. The Ukrainian artillery campaign seems to be working. I made a point of discussing this in last weekend’s update and once again, the FIRMS data (treat with caution) shows that over a 7 day period, the fire from the Russian lines backward is heavier than from the Ukrainian lines backward.
Now, I would not go so far as to talk about a ‘genocide’ of Russian artillery,however it seems more and more evident that Ukrainian fire is more accurate and efficient than Russian fire (which remains heavy) and that will also be taking a heavy toll on Russian forces. I will return to a point that Ive been making since February 2022—Ukraine continues to get stronger qualitatively all the time, while Russia is probably stagnating. Ukraine is getting the better, more accurate and effective NATO systems, and almost certainly getting better at using them. The Russians seem very much to be relying on more an more older systems taken out of storage. The Russians still seem to be struggling in building and deploying large amounts of new heavy military equipment. Its worth noting that a month ago, it was admitted that the supposedly awesome T-14 Armata tank had been humiliatingly removed from combat in Ukraine, because of its problems.
Russia still has lots of artillery, but Ukrainian fire just seems to be better and is taking a toll on Russian resistance.
Fourth. Dont forget the rest of the line. One of the silliest attempts at criticizing Ukrainians in the past weeks by the anonymous sources was the idea that the Ukrainians should put everything into one great assault and stop asking the Russians questions in other places. It was a weird criticism, based on the idea that there could be a swift and deep breakthrough/exploitation and that there was nothing the Russians could do about it. Now, the best response to that criticism was given by Gen Jack Keane in the Wall Street Journal.Keane is on the board of the ISW, and rubbished this idea as militarily incoherent—the single thrust idea has rarely if ever been successful.
Anyway, the Ukrainians have not taken the genius advice of the anonymous sources and have continued to press the Russians in other areas (around Bakhmut). There might even be some more cross- Dnipro operations brewing if signs are correct. All of these pressure points are opening up possibilities. Remember, this campaigning seasons has many weeks, maybe months, to go. Creating a weak opening in the Russian line is the key thing. Putting all your efforts into one effort and bashing against Russian lines is the wrong way to do it. Its a good thing that Ukraine is keeping up the pressure in other places. If the Russians are redeploying desperately to Zaporizhzhia, dont forget about these.
A Note of Caution. At times this week I actually thought some of the commentary was getting too optimistic. The course of the counteroffensive seems to be progressing well and intelligently, but I get a little worried when I see talk about imminent Russian collaspes or great Ukrainian breakthroughs. The negativity of earlier was wrong, but we need to be careful not to allow the counter reaction to be overly optimistic. What the Ukrainians are doing remains extremely challenging—it will take time. At least, though, the negative stories should end for a while and the signs of progress are more tangible.
Have a great rest of the weekend everyone.