The Ukrainian counteroffensive stumbles: Implications for American concerns

Khaled Okasha
Saturday 2 Sep 2023

Ukraine has turned to drone warfare as it faces mounting challenges in its ongoing conflict with Russia, signaling a shift in tactics that raises questions about the effectiveness of its counteroffensive.


Last Wednesday, Oleksiy Danilov, the head of the Ukrainian National Security Council, made a stark declaration, suggesting that the Russian populace must endure further hardships, hinting at more strikes on Russian soil. This Ukrainian statement followed a recent wave of drone attacks that penetrated deep into Russian territory.

This new development raises several questions about the strategic shifts Kiev may have resorted to in order to bolster the effectiveness of its counteroffensive, especially since these attacks garnered harsh criticism from its primary allies, most notably the United States.

The Washington Post reported a week ago, citing informed sources, that a US intelligence assessment indicates that the Ukrainian forces’ attempt to sever the land bridge between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula has failed. According to this intelligence evaluation, Ukrainian forces have made some progress on multiple fronts. However, they have yet to achieve a decisive breakthrough by breaching the Russian main defence line.

The United States does not believe that F-16 fighter jets or long-range missiles alone can provide a definitive solution to this dilemma. Instead, it sees a tactical deficiency in the performance of Ukrainian combat units along the frontlines with Russian forces.

The latter has demonstrated resilience and proven its ability to repel Ukrainian attacks on multiple occasions, maintaining their readiness and effectiveness.

This American assessment may partly explain Kiev's shift towards circumventing Russian defensive barriers by extensively using drones against Russian territory, as an alternative to the unsuccessful ground advances.

Simultaneously, the Ukrainian army employed a tactic it had used before: the simultaneous diversification of multiple targets to disrupt Russian military efforts and imply its capacity to launch multiple distinct attacks simultaneously. This was evident as the intensified drone strikes, including at the Baskov airport and Moscow, coincided with an attempted naval landing operation in the Black Sea aimed at the Russian fleet in this vital region.

However, it seems that the Russian side managed to thwart this operation by announcing the success of its naval fleet in destroying four Ukrainian fast boats, resulting in the loss of 50 paratroopers and the overall setback of the operation. Nevertheless, there is still a Ukrainian narrative with different implications concerning the long-range drone attacks that have become a substitute for missile systems not yet acquired by Ukraine.

Ukrainian sources interpret the Russian side's reluctance to disclose the extant of their losses at Baskov, located 800 kilometres deep within Russian territory, as an acknowledgment of the attack, emphasizing its vulnerability to a direct strike.

These details were revealed by Andrei Yusov, a representative of the Ukrainian Military Intelligence Directorate, stating that this Ukrainian attack on the night of 29-30 August resulted in the destruction of four Russian aircraft, with two others damaged.

This was achieved by 21 Ukrainian explosive drones that were able to bypass Russian defenses.

Retaliatory Russian strikes on Kiev less than a day after the Baskov incident was the most substantial attack on the Ukrainian capital since last spring. It served as a swift response to Kiev's determination to direct long-range drones deep inside Russia.

The Ukrainian side is making various efforts to demonstrate its ability to continually threaten Russian airspace. This hints subtly to the United States that the counteroffensive has a diverse and adaptable array of objectives. It is not solely focused on success in stubborn ground penetrations but also includes flexible tactics to shift the battle into Russian territory.

This might be a point of discomfort for the American side, which might not consider it a genuine accomplishment or a strategic gain equivalent to reclaiming cities and territories seized by the Russian army. In this context, the Wall Street Journal's editorial from a week ago criticized what American officials are currently whispering to the press: that the Ukrainian army does not measure up to the performance level expected in one of the bloodiest European battles in decades.

The newspaper found it inappropriate for President Biden's administration to withhold the heavy firepower required by Ukraine to repel the Russian invasion, only to lament Kiev's failure to swiftly reclaim significant portions of its territory. Ukrainians, from their perspective, are putting up a bitter struggle to breach heavily fortified Russian defenses.

This underscores their need for further assistance in clearing explosives and mines, which represent the main obstacle to their progress in the counteroffensive. Furthermore, the Wall Street Journal added that the counteroffensive is still in its early days, and Ukraine has yet to deploy most of the forces trained by Western support.

Therefore, American officials' continuous criticism, unsupported by evidence, that Ukrainians are lagging in joint weapons tactics, seems questionable.

The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff spoke to several journalists, justifying America's reluctance to provide Ukraine with F-16 fighters, citing their high cost and the time required for pilot training, maintenance, and sustainment. At that moment, those present cautioned that the bill for this hesitation is approaching its due date.

Erosion of political support within the United States is a specter haunting Biden, raising questions about what Washington is accomplishing and whether its concerns are justified or self-made.

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