Ukraine’s counteroffensive begins: What do we know so far?

Al Jazeera’s Defence Editor Alex Gatopoulos explains the dynamics of a new phase in the 16-month war.

Ukrainian forces have proved highly adept at masking their strategic aims with feints, disinformation and by shuffling troops from one area to another, keeping Russian military planners guessing as to their next move.

Having promised to begin their counteroffensive in the summer, Kyiv’s forces are now stepping up attacks, and with some success.

Late on Monday, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy thanked troops for liberating territory from Russian occupiers. But so far, the gains are marginal; at least seven villages have been retaken, Ukrainian officials say.

As a potentially long and bloody series of battles begins, Ukraine is expected to struggle with all its might to retake territory lost in the opening months of the invasion. Much of Ukraine’s new weaponry is Western and Kyiv’s forces are well on the offensive, while in some areas, Russia appears to be strengthening defensive positions.

Here’s what you should know about the apparent beginnings of Ukraine’s push.

What has happened so far?

Ukraine has launched multiple attacks and gained ground in several places along its vast front line with Russia.

To the north, Ukrainian forces have pushed out east towards the country’s border with Russia’s Belgorod region.

In late May, Russia transferred troops to Belgorod after pro-Ukrainian forces launched raids all along that part of the border, attacking Russian towns and supply hubs.

In Ukraine’s east, around Bakhmut, fighting is raging near the city, now a burned-out shell.

Russia took Bakhmut in Ukraine’s Donetsk region last month after both sides lost thousands of soldiers in the battle. Ukrainian forces are now pressing Russian defensive positions to the north and south of the city, with the possible aim of surrounding it and trapping Russian units there.

But the main focus so far has been in the south, in Zaporizhia, the scene of intense fighting. Russian attacks were also recently repelled around the town of Vuhledar in Donetsk, with some highly trained Russian units utterly destroyed.

INTERACTIVE-Ukraine's counteroffensive under way

Now, with Ukraine on the offensive, there is a concerted push along a broad front, with several villages having been retaken in the last few days.

The fighting has been bloody.

Ukrainian troops have had to force their way through extensive and well-prepared Russian defensive lines and minefields while being shelled by carefully placed Russian artillery batteries.

​Ukraine’s long-range fire has been far more effective than that of its Russian counterparts, but Russian forces have learned hard lessons. Moscow’s drone and counter-drone operations are now much more efficient. They are far quicker at bringing their artillery to bear as both sides can now survey the battlefield more accurately, making tactical surprise that much harder.​​

This adds up to hard, positional fighting with smaller territorial gains before Ukraine makes a breakthrough it can exploit.

Accurate Ukrainian long-range fire from United States-supplied HIMARS batteries and Storm Shadow cruise missiles, sent by the United Kingdom, means that Russian forces will have a tough time keeping their front-line troops supplied, a key factor in any offensive.

What effect might the Nova Kakhovka dam​ collapse have?

The destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam on June 6 has been a significant setback for Ukraine, and the humanitarian and economic toll is painful.

Kherson now faces an ecological catastrophe, having already suffered the brunt of war and occupation. As they strive to help and evacuate large numbers of residents, while providing food and shelter, Ukrainian authorities are rapidly expending resources.​

Water levels for the upstream reservoir have lowered dramatically, making it increasingly difficult for water to be used to cool the reactors at Zaporizhzhia’s nuclear power plant at Enerhodar.

The dam’s collapse also affects Russian-held territory; the canal supplying most of Crimea’s freshwater has now been cut off.

The restoration of this water supply, initially cut by Ukraine in 2014 when Moscow annexed the peninsula, was a strategic Russian war aim.​

The loss of its supply will make life for Russians in Crimea much harder as local reservoirs run low, despite Moscow’s attempts at digging wells and diverting water.

Tactically, it is also a setback for any potential Ukrainian assault across the river.

The shape of the downstream part of the Dnipro river has altered significantly, while floodwater currents complicate any potential crossings by Ukrainian forces, making them less likely in the near future.

Russian forces were reportedly moved east from the far bank of the river, to reinforce defensive positions around the Zaporizhzhia front.

​Some of Russia’s best-trained units from the airborne and naval infantry, along with units from the well-equipped 49th Combined Arms Army, have now been moved away from the river and sent to plug any gaps the Ukrainians might make in the coming days.​

What are Ukraine’s strategic aims?

Observers have been surprised at the lack of movement so far by Ukrainian units in this counteroffensive.

Gains have been small as Ukrainian troops probe their way forward, knowing full well the Russian units opposite them have had months to prepare.

At the same time, this counteroffensive is being compared with Ukraine’s push last September, when Kyiv’s forces excelled in tough fighting and strategic deception to take swaths of territory back in a matter of days. Russian occupiers were set fleeing before advancing Ukrainian armoured columns, during the most kinetic and visible phase of an assault that had been planned for months.

Ukraine ground down Russian forces in last summer’s battles of attrition in the northeast, followed by a feint in Kherson, tricking Russia into sending tens of thousands of Russian troops to the region. They were then neatly cut off from supplies by Ukrainian long-range fire, the Russian forces left stranded and ineffective, while counterattacks punched through Russian lines that had been denuded of reinforcements.

Ukraine has always been tactically nimbler, controlling the nature of the battles its forces fight while the Russians have mostly reacted to situations not of their choosing.

Where Ukrainian forces will strike their main blows and in what sequence is not known, but their knack for strategic thinking shows that this counteroffensive has barely begun. When it does in earnest, it could very well catch the Russians by surprise.

Source: Al Jazeera