Announcing the start of Kyiv’s offensive in the southern Kherson region, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky urged Russian soldiers to flee or surrender if they want to survive.
The long-awaited start of this offensive comes after weeks of gradual Ukrainian and Russian troop build-ups around the city of Kherson, where Ukraine had a relative advantage over Russian troops on August 27, according to EU analysts. While there has been a lot of enthusiasm in the Ukrainian media, with the the former head of the Foreign Intelligence Service, army general Nikolai Malomuzh, describing the offensive as a turning point in the war, western observers have been more reserved in their judgement.
In a Pentagon briefing on August 29, officials described the offensive as an “increased amount of artillery” fire, pointing out that there had been “some offensive action in that area for the past couple weeks”. This assessment was confirmed by the British Ministry of Defence in its update on August 30, noting that it was “not yet possible to confirm the extent of Ukrainian advances”.
There is, nonetheless, general agreement that Russia has been forced into strategic defence and that the frontlines have been relatively stable for several weeks now with neither side making significant territorial gains. This does not amount to a turning point in a war that is now well into its sixth month with overall catastrophic consequences – but it shows that Russia no longer has the initiative.
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This is a significant accomplishment for Ukraine, albeit one that has come at enormous cost in terms of civilian and military casualties and people displaced inside Ukraine and fleeing the country. A huge amount of the country’s infrastructure has also been destroyed.
Ukrainian resolve, Russian failings
Ukrainians’ determination to defend their country stands out among the reasons why Russia’s initial advances have now ground to a halt. But this undeniable heroism needs to be seen in a broader context to assess whether denying Russia further territorial gains is the endpoint of what Ukraine can achieve – or whether driving Russia from all of the territories it has illegally occupied since 2014 is a realistic option.
Three other factors have been critical. First, western military support has been absolutely critical to the Ukrainian defence effort. The United States alone has so far supplied Kyiv with US$13 billion (£11.14 billion) of military assistance, followed by the UK with about £3.4 billion, and the EU with €2.5 billion (£2.14 billion), according to data from the Kiel Institute for the World Economy.
A second factor is the western sanctions on Russia which have, according to a recent study by by academics based at Yale University, had a crippling effect on Russia’s economy. Among other things, they have negatively affected Moscow’s ability to manufacture and repair weapons and advanced munitions that were critical to its initial successes in Ukraine.
The third factor worth considering is Russian military capabilities. Ukraine has been increasingly successful in striking deep into Russian-held territories disrupting supply lines and increasing pressure through guerilla tactics. Russia has, from the start of the invasion, suffered from logistical failures and poor command-and-control structures.
Russia has attempted to improve its poor command performance as part of its preparation for Ukraine’s offensive. But this has so far been untested in its effectiveness – at best. At worst, it could prove detrimental to Russian efforts to hold on to territory captured in the early days of the invasion. Integrating the command structures of two armies – in this case the Southern Military District’s 49th and the Eastern Military District’s 35th – is a challenging undertaking at the best of times, but to do so in the middle of an ongoing war, is hardly a recipe for success.
On top of that, Russia also has a serious manpower problem, with about 75,000 dead and wounded and renewed efforts to increase the size of its military unlikely to succeed, according to US defence officials.
Prospects for success
Claims and counter-claims on the success or failure of Ukraine’s offensive are likely to persist for days, if not weeks, before greater clarity emerges on the battlefield. Yet, even if it takes time for Ukrainian gains to materialise – and even if these gains may not be as large in territorial terms as may be hoped – the offensive will further dent Russian military capabilities and diminish the likelihood of a decisive Russian breakthrough on the battlefield.
This will, in turn, damage Russia’s abilities to garner international support and further curb any remaining enthusiasm its putative allies have for the Kremlin’s adventurism. China, India, and others may not come out against Russia, but they are now even less likely to back Moscow in word, let alone deed.
Even a partial Ukrainian success in the current offensive should, on the other hand, significantly strengthen western resolve. Support for Ukraine and sanctions against Russia have been effective and put Ukraine into a position in which it has so far prevented a decisive Russian victory. Western unity and continuation on this course are the safest bet that Vladimir Putin’s aggression can be stopped.
Stefan Wolff receives funding from the United States Institute of Peace. He is a past recipient of grants from the Economic and Social Research Council of the UK, the British Academy, the NATO Science for Peace Programme, the EU Framework Programmes 6 and 7 and Horizon 2020, as well as the EU's Jean Monnet Programme. He is a Senior Research Fellow of the Foreign Policy Centre in London and Co-Coordinator of the OSCE Network of Think Tanks and Academic Institutions.