Senior US military officials said Ukraine faces a tough fight in the ongoing counteroffensive against Russian forces and the campaign to take back territory will likely come “at a high cost”.
The US assessment of Kyiv’s counteroffensive came as Chechen fighters said they had deployed to Russia’s Belgorod region bordering Ukraine to prevent attacks from pro-Ukraine Russian partisan groups and as Ukrainian military officials on Thursday reported advances along the front line in several locations.
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“Ukraine has begun their attack, and they are making steady progress. This is a very difficult fight. It’s a very violent fight, and it will likely take a considerable amount of time at a high cost,” US Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Thursday.
Milley, speaking after a meeting of the US-led Contact Group of some 50 countries that give military aid to Ukraine, said it was far too early “to put any estimates” on how long the Ukrainian counteroffensive could last.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told the meeting that Kyiv needed both short-term and long-term support as the war was a “marathon, not a sprint”, and Ukraine needed even more weapons.
Austin also said that Ukraine still had plenty of firepower left to conduct its counteroffensive, despite initial losses inflicted by Russia.
Moscow has played up video footage showing German Leopard tanks and US-donated Bradley fighting vehicles it claims were captured at the start of Ukraine’s push to take back territory from Russia.
“I think the Russians have shown us [those] same five vehicles about 1,000 times from 10 different angles,” Austin said of the video clips. “But quite frankly, the Ukrainians still have a lot of combat capability, combat power,” he said.
“This is a war, so we know that there will be battle damage on both sides” and more important was Kyiv’s ability to repair damaged equipment, Austin said.
“This will continue to be a tough fight as we anticipate it, and I believe that the element that does the best in terms of sustainment will probably have the advantage at the end of the day,” he added.
The Ukrainian counteroffensive is in its early stages, and military experts say the decisive battles still lie ahead.
Ukraine has captured at least seven settlements and taken back 100 square kilometres (38 square miles) of territory in two major pushes in the south so far, Ukraine’s Brigadier-General Oleksii Hromov said on Thursday.
“We are ready to continue fighting to liberate our territory even with our bare hands,” he said. Ukraine’s army on the southern front had advanced by up to 7km (4.4 miles) in the area along the Mokry Yali, as well as by up to 3km (1.8 miles) on another axis further west near the village of Mala Tokmachka, Ukrainian military officials said.
“Our units and troops are moving forward in the face of fierce fighting [and] aviation and artillery superiority of the enemy,” Valeriy Shershen, a spokesperson for the Tavria military sector of southern Ukraine, told Ukrainian television. Advances in the east around the ruined city of Bakhmut, which Moscow seized last month, were also reported.
But the big test of Ukraine’s offensive still lies ahead as Ukrainian troops have yet to reach the heaviest Russian defensive fortifications, which are set back from the front line. Kyiv is believed to have prepared an attack force of approximately 12 brigades of thousands of soldiers each, most using newly arrived Western armoured vehicles.
Washington, DC-based think tank, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), said on Friday that current operations by Ukrainian forces are “setting the conditions for wider Ukrainian counteroffensive objectives that are not immediately clear”.
The current fighting “therefore represents the initial phase of an ongoing counteroffensive”, the ISW said.
3/ The UKR Tavrisk Group of Forces Press Center notably reported on June 15 that UKR forces have advanced up to one kilometer in the #Vulhedar area, and Tavrisk Commander Brigadier General Oleksandr Tarnavskyi stated that Ukrainian troops continue moving forward in this area.
— ISW (@TheStudyofWar) June 16, 2023
Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted this week that Russian forces were inflicting 10 times more casualties on Ukrainians than they were enduring and that Kyiv’s offensive had been a failure.
Chechnya ruler Ramzan Kadyrov also said on Thursday that fighters from the “Zapad-Akhmat” battalion had been deployed in Russia’s Belgorod region near the site of a cross-border attack in May by Russian-speaking pro-Ukrainian fighters.
“Residents of the territories adjacent to the border with Ukraine can rest easy … Whoever encroaches on our borders will receive a lightning response,” Kadyrov said in a post on the Telegram messaging app.