An impasse has appeared to descend on the Russia-Ukraine war which is now in its 73rd week.
Ukraine’s counteroffensive has made small gains and Russia launched a new offensive.
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Kyiv may have attempted to break that deadlock by disrupting Moscow’s arms supplies across the Kerch bridge, which is the only connection between Russia and the Crimean peninsula.
Russian authorities accused Ukraine of using two naval surface drones to blow up the bridge on July 17. A massive explosion left a section of road deck hanging askew over the Black Sea, in what Russia decided to treat as a “terrorist” incident. Gunfire preceded the explosion.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Mikhail Khusnullin reported to President Vladimir Putin that there was no damage to the supports holding up the road deck, and that the damage was fully reparable by November.
Independent media reported that the only remaining route from Crimea to Russia, via southern Ukraine’s occupied region of Zaporizhia, was clogged with military and civilian traffic.
In May last year, Ukraine’s military intelligence confirmed Kyiv was behind another explosion in November that sank a section of the bridge’s road deck and damaged a parallel railway line.
In retaliation, Russia said it was withdrawing from an agreement allowing the shipment of Ukrainian grain out of the Black Sea, brokered last July by the United Nations and Turkey.
To enforce this, Russia launched an overnight missile attack on Odesa and Chernomorsk, two of the three ports authorised to export grain under the deal, destroying silos and loading equipment.
Ukraine’s agriculture ministry said the raids destroyed 60,000 tonnes of grain in Chernomorsk. Russia’s defence ministry claimed that thousands of tonnes of fuel oil had been destroyed as well.
“According to experts, it will take at least a year to fully restore the objects that were damaged,” said Ukraine’s agriculture ministry, predicting a global food crisis similar to that in the first five months of the war.
“If we cannot export food, the population of the poorest countries will be on the verge of survival,” said Ukrainian Agriculture Minister Mykola Solskyi.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen condemned Russia’s actions, saying that the “EU is working to ensure food security for the world’s vulnerable” by using rail and barge transport.
More than six weeks into a Ukrainian counteroffensive, neither side seemed to be making significant territorial gains.
Eastern forces spokesman Serhiy Cherevaty said progress in Bakhmut, on the eastern front, was deliberately slow because Ukrainian forces had to contend with extensive minefields.
“We conduct detailed and step-by-step planning on how to pass minefields and obstacles,” he said in a television interview.
Southern forces commander Brigadier General Oleksandr Tarnavskyi told CNN that “complex and dense minefields” also plagued the southern front. An unnamed Ukrainian official told the Washington Post Kyiv had received less than 15 percent of the mine-clearing equipment it had asked for.
Al Jazeera has previously reported on satellite photography showing kilometres-deep lines of defence Russia had prepared.
On the southern front, Ukraine claimed to have advanced more than 1.7km towards Melitopol on July 14, and Ukraine’s general staff said their forces were still on the offensive two days later, advancing a kilometre towards Berdyansk.
Ukraine has portrayed the two port cities as its main objectives on this front.
On the eastern front, Ukraine continued a flanking operation north and south of Bakhmut, hoping to encircle Russian troops in the city, but faced stiff resistance. Ukrainian troops appeared to be pinned down in the northern manoeuvre on July 16. However, two days later, deputy defence minister Hanna Maliar said they had again advanced to capture almost all the dominant heights above the city.
After months of going head-to-head with Ukraine in Bakhmut, Russia succeeded in launching a new offensive in the east. On July 14, it began an advance towards Kupiansk in the Kharkiv region, trying to push Ukrainian forces to the west bank of the Oskil river – a position Russia had held until September.
“We are on the defensive,” Hanna Maliar wrote on Telegram. Ukraine’s general staff said its forces were holding their lines of defence.
On July 18, Maliar said Ukrainian troops had retaken the initiative and suggested a logic for Russia’s Kupiansk offensive.
“This is happening in response to our offensive in Bakhmut … in order to stretch our forces so that we cannot concentrate on the area where we are attacking,” Maliar said in a telethon.
Russia’s defence ministry claimed that Russian forces had advanced up to 2km along the front and up to 1.5km in depth in Kupiansk.
The New York Times reported a change in Ukrainian tactics that partly explained the counteroffensive’s slow progress.
Ukrainian forces were focused on wearing down Russian defenders with artillery and long-range missiles instead of large-scale assaults, in an effort to conserve manpower and equipment, it reported.
The change came after Russia reportedly destroyed a fifth of Ukraine’s Western military kit in the opening two weeks of the counteroffensive, and led to the loss of just 10 percent of the kit in the weeks since.
Insubordination in the Russian command structure
Despite its stout defence, Russia appeared to suffer from insubordination from top commanders.
A colleague of Major General Ivan Popov’s made his address to his troops public after he was dismissed from the command of the 58th CAA.
Popov had complained about shortcomings on the front facing a Ukrainian counteroffensive south of Orikhiv, in western Zaporizhia, directly to Russia’s Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov.
Russian military reporters said he complained that his troops needed to be rotated because they had been serving on the front lines since October. But Popov revealed other weaknesses as well, in a translation of his remarks by independent news outlet Meduza.
“I didn’t sugarcoat it. I pinpointed the main tragedy of today’s warfare: the lack of counterbattery fire, the lack of artillery reconnaissance stations, and the mass death and mutilation of all our brothers by enemy artillery,” Popov was reported as having said, suggesting that Ukraine’s counteroffensive was taking a serious toll on Russian troops.
A series of senior commander dismissals led to speculation among Russian sources on July 15 that the Russian defence ministry may be preparing to arrest Airborne Forces (VDV) Commander Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky.
Russian military reporters posted an audio excerpt the following day, purporting to be elements of the 7th VDV Division threatening to withdraw from their positions in occupied Kherson if the Russian defence establishment arrested Teplinsky.
The dismissal of Popov and speculation over Teplinsky came after the Wagner mercenary group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin mutinied against the defence ministry command last month.
“Popov’s… Teplinsky’s and… Prigozhin’s challenges to [Chief of Staff Valery] Gerasimov’s and [defence minister Sergei] Shoigu’s authority have established a precedent for insubordination that can hollow out support for the Russian military command among senior officers,” said the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.