Ukraine may have launched a major new thrust of its counteroffensive in the 74th week of the war, even as it tried to convince its Western allies to supply more long-range weapons.
Russia’s defence ministry said its forces had fended off “a massive assault” on June 26 by three mechanised battalions. The thrust of the new offensive had come south of Orikhiv, in western Zaporizhia, the ministry said.
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Unnamed Pentagon officials later told reporters that Kyiv had unleashed thousands of Western-trained reservists on the southern front. Geolocated footage suggested Ukrainian troops had advanced 2.5km (1.5 miles) towards Robotyne, a Russian-held village, before retreating somewhat.
Russian reporters disagreed on the size of the assault, putting the number of armoured vehicles between 30 and 80.
Ukraine’s strategy for much of the war has been to disrupt Russian ammunition logistics well behind the front lines, hampering Russia’s ability to bring its superior firepower to bear on the battlefront. That strategy dovetailed well with its guerrilla tactics in the battle for Kyiv in the first weeks of the war, which took out Russian tanks, planes and helicopters with Stinger and Javelin missiles.
Only in early June, when it launched its latest counteroffensive with Western armour, did Ukraine attempt large-scale mechanised assaults, but lost 20 percent of its new kit in two weeks, officials told The New York Times.
It quickly returned to its long-distance tactics in an effort to conserve manpower at the front lines until Russian occupying forces are sufficiently weakened to be frontally attacked.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told the Aspen Security Forum on July 21 that range was Ukraine’s only way of reaching parity with Russia’s superiority in quantity of arms and men.
“NATO weapons are better, but we have less of them. And if it is less, then there should be at least a long-range balance. We lack this,” said Zelenskyy.
This has meant Ukraine’s offensive has not yet made spectacular territorial gains, leading Russian President Vladimir Putin to declare it a failure.
“Today it is clear that the Western curators of the Kyiv regime are clearly disappointed with the results of the so-called counteroffensive,” Putin told a Kremlin meeting on July 21.
“There are no results, at least not yet. Neither the colossal resources that were ‘pumped into’ the Kyiv regime, nor the supply of Western weapons: tanks, artillery, armoured vehicles, missiles,” he said.
‘26,000’ Ukrainian soldiers killed, Russia says
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu estimated in early July that Kyiv’s losses during the counteroffensive were 26,000 men. Ukraine has not provided casualty figures, and Al Jazeera could not verify the numbers independently.
Reports surfaced during the week that the administration of US President Joe Biden was mulling over sending Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), with a range of 300km (186 miles), to Ukraine.
But The Washington Post reported that ATACMS are not an immediate prospect because production is limited to 500 missiles a year and all are marked for export to foreign buyers.
Currently, Ukraine’s longest-range missile is the Storm Shadow (SCALP), supplied by the United Kingdom and France, with a range of more than 200km (124 miles), and these were reportedly deployed against Crimea for the first time on July 19.
Some US officials have openly expressed their disagreement with sending existing ATACMS stockpiles to Ukraine. “This is a very valuable product, and it will be useful to us in the event of an unforeseen situation somewhere in the world, whether it be [North Korea] or China. Therefore, if we supplied them in significant quantities, this would directly affect our own readiness,” former US undersecretary of defence, Colin Kahl, told the Aspen Security Forum.
The US said on July 7 it had decided to provide Ukraine with cluster munitions as a way of evening the playing field with Russia. These release multiple bomblets and are considered effective against entrenched defensive positions. Ukraine started using them on June 20, The Washington Post reported.
Ukraine’s strategy of keeping Russia at arm’s length was causing 90 percent of Russian troops’ deaths, said Colonel Serhiy Baranov, Ukraine’s chief of missile troops, artillery and unmanned systems.
“Thanks to Western high-precision missile and artillery systems, we have combined and created a long-range ‘fiery fist’ that hits so powerfully and accurately that the Russians no longer have the ability to conduct an effective counter-battery fight with us,” he said on July 22.
Southern military command spokesperson Nataliya Humenyuk said Ukraine’s targeting of Russian ammunition depots was having an effect on Russia’s ability to resist Ukraine’s counteroffensive.
“They already have a certain hunger for shells,” she said on July 22, pointing out that shellings had decreased from about 90 barrages a day, citing 69 over the previous 24 hours.
Ukraine’s long-range strategy is also psychological.
Earlier this year, it launched drones that hit Moscow buildings for the first time during the war, highlighting gaps in the Russian capital’s aerial defences.
Russia blamed Ukraine for two drones that struck Moscow buildings in the small hours of July 24. One hit an administrative building on the central Komsomolsky Prospekt, the other an unfinished high-rise office building. The first drone appeared to have caused damage to the GRU military intelligence headquarters, said Bellingcat investigator Christo Grozev.
Russia’s foreign ministry accused Ukraine of attacking Crimea with 17 UAVs, claiming that all were disabled or shot down.
The eastern front
Both Russia and Ukraine have seen Bakhmut as a key prize on the eastern front. Since losing the city to Russian forces in early May, Ukraine has embarked on a flanking manoeuvre to surround it from the north and south.
Ukraine’s forces were trying to capture Klishchiivka, a village south of Bakhmut, in one of the key battles of the counteroffensive, according to Meduza’s analysis. Victory there could enable Ukraine’s forces to surround Bakhmut and push deeper into Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
A Ukrainian commander in the Bakhmut area said on July 19 that Ukrainian forces advanced 1.8km (1.1 miles).
Russian reporters said Ukrainian forces advanced on Bakhmut’s northern flank on July 20 and 21.
Geolocated footage published on July 25 showed Ukrainian forces making significant gains south of Klishchiivka.
On July 14, Russia tried to launch an offensive in Kupiansk, further north on the eastern front. On July 22, Ukraine’s armed forces said Russia’s Kupiansk initiative had failed. “It was a desperate attempt to somehow pull our forces away from other directions. But in general, the whole initiative is now on our side,” they wrote on Telegram.
Russia was still being thwarted in attempted offensives in Lyman, Avdiivka, and Marinka on the eastern front, said Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar.
Ukrainian forces were still making inroads only in Russia’s first two lines of defence, the armed forces said. “It is important that we progress every day. Somewhere by 100 meters, somewhere – by a kilometre. Every day, we gnaw away our territory, we gnaw away the first and second lines of defence where Russia was able to build something.” In places, Russian forces have many lines of defence.
The southern front
Major Valerii Shershen said Ukrainian forces advanced more than 1km (0.6 miles) towards Melitopol on July 19, and were making progress towards Berdyansk – the two main objectives of the southern counteroffensive. Russian forces were “losing fire control” over Staromayorkse, a front-line village on a commanding height, he said. Geolocated footage showed Ukrainian advances here on July 22, and in the neighbouring village of Pryyutne. The Ukrainian general staff said their forces had advanced 750 metres towards Staromayorke on July 25.
In western Zaporizhia, Ukrainian military officials said their forces were continuing to advance by roughly 100 metres a day south of Orikhiv, something backed up by geolocated footage on July 22.
A Russian military reporter said Russia was suffering from manpower rotation problems, and that is why it was unable to defend or recapture positions – recalling similar complaints from Russian generals.
Maliar said Ukrainian forces had advanced gradually on the southern front during the week of July 17-24.
The grain war
Russia on July 17 said it would no longer allow Ukrainian grain shipments to cross the Black Sea, but two days later Putin left open the possibility of returning to the grain deal.
“We are not against the deal itself,” he told a Kremlin meeting. “We will consider the possibility of returning to it.”
Russia’s demands must be met, he said. This entails lifting sanctions on banks that trade in grain sales and on agricultural machinery exports to Russia. Putin also placed a third condition – the lifting of sanctions on Russian grain and fertiliser.
The West has not imposed any such sanctions, but Putin insists there is undeclared discrimination against Russian products, which are left to pile up in European ports.
Zelenskyy, too, said he was talking to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to solve the Black Sea grain impasse. “We are looking for a way out,” he said in a video address to the Aspen Security Forum.
In the meantime, both pressed each other militarily in the Black Sea region.
Russia dealt a devastating blow to the port of Odesa on July 19, striking its Cathedral of the Transformation and two dozen other cultural landmarks. Two days later, its defence ministry said “sea-based long-range precision weapons” had struck “facilities where terrorist acts against the Russian Federation were being prepared using attack unmanned aerial vehicles”.
Russia’s deputy ambassador to the UN Dmitry Polyansky said Russia would consider all Ukraine port infrastructure “as a place for deployment and replenishment of the Armed Forces of Ukraine with Western weapons” and therefore fair game for further strikes.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin amplified this line of argument, saying the UN should not condemn strikes against Odesa because they were targeting “terrorist” activity.
Ukraine attempted more surface drone attacks, like the one that disabled the Kerch Bridge on July 17, prompting Russia’s suspension of Ukraine’s grain exports.
Russia said one of its Black Sea patrol boats had on July 24 thwarted a naval drone attack. The defence ministry said the Sergei Kotov had managed to destroy two surface drones 1km away.
Ukraine insisted it also had missile capabilities. Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister Volodymyr Gavrilov said Ukraine had the capacity to deny Russian military and commercial shipping access to a swath of the Black Sea. Ukraine’s ambition, he said, was to “drive this entire Black Sea fleet closer to Tuapse, Novorossiysk and prevent them from moving in the Crimean zone”.
Ukraine used US-supplied Neptune anti-ship missiles to sink the Russian Black Sea Fleet flagship Moskva last year. Since then, Gavrilov said, Ukraine has developed its anti-ship warfare. “Our capabilities are not limited to Neptune-type systems. There are other systems. We are much stronger on this issue than we were a year ago. And we are advancing in this direction even further,” he said.