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The counteroffensive by the Ukrainian Armed Forces, much-discussed by official figures and military experts in Russia, Ukraine, and the West, appears to have commenced. However, experts interviewed by The Insider argue that it is more accurate to describe it as a “large-scale combat reconnaissance” or a “preparatory phase.”

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Content
  • Is the counteroffensive happening or not?

  • What is happening on the front line right now?

  • Proposed counteroffensive directions

  • Why so slow?

  • Can we judge success or failure at this stage?

  • Which side has more casualties?

  • What's next?

Is the counteroffensive happening or not?

The offensive actions of the Ukrainian Armed Forces in the Zaporizhzhia direction have unquestionably intensified during the first week of June. Notably, units trained by foreign instructors and equipped with Western weaponry, such as German Leopard 2 tanks, French wheeled reconnaissance and fire support vehicles AMX-10RC, and American infantry fighting vehicles Bradley, have entered the fray.

Both Vladimir Putin (on June 9) and Volodymyr Zelensky (on June 10) made statements regarding the counteroffensive. The Russian Ministry of Defense claims that the operation began on June 4, while analysts from the Conflict Intelligence Team suggest June 8 as the starting date (when the first evidence of heavy weaponry usage emerged).

However, the current scale of the offensive operation seems relatively modest. According to Konrad Muszyński, a Polish military analyst, the Ukrainian Armed Forces have only deployed three out of the newly established 12 brigades (with personnel from nine of them having undergone training in the West), and they are being utilized at the company and battalion tactical group level, indicating a limited scope. A brigade consists of 3,500 to 4,000 personnel, a battalion tactical group comprises 600 to 800 people, and a company tactical group consists of 100 to 200 people.

American Bradley infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) in Ukrainian camouflage
American Bradley infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) in Ukrainian camouflage
Defense of Ukraine / Twitter

According to retired Ukrainian military expert Colonel Roman Svitan's assessment, only 10% of the overall offensive force has been deployed. Igor Girkin, a former field commander of separatist forces in Donbass in 2014 and now a prominent Z-figure known as Igor Strelkov or Igor Runov, believes that 2/3 to 3/4 of the forces gathered for the offensive are being kept in reserve. Contrary to Russian propaganda claims, the units that have already seen combat action are not defeated and maintain their combat readiness.

Furthermore, a significant portion of the promised Western equipment for the Ukrainian Armed Forces is currently absent from the battlefield. German Marder infantry fighting vehicles, American Stryker armored personnel carriers, and British Challenger 2 tanks are still yet to be seen. Some of the weapons systems appear to have not been delivered or arrived after the start of the counteroffensive (such as Swedish CV90 IFVs), while others are being introduced to Ukrainian troops during training exercises abroad (such as Leopard 1A5 and M1A1 Abrams tanks).

Thus, the counteroffensive by the Ukrainian Armed Forces has begun but is currently in its early stages.

What is happening on the front line right now?

According to the Ukrainian side, during the two weeks of the offensive, eight population centers have been captured: Novodirovka, Levadne, Storozheve, Makarivka, Blahodatne, Lobkove, Neskuchne, and Pyatykhatky. The overall advancement reached up to 7 km into the defense lines, and a territory of 113 km² has been liberated.

According to Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, since June 4, the Ukrainian Armed Forces have launched 263 attacks on Russian positions, but due to the “competent and selfless actions” of the Russian military units, “all of them have been repelled, and the enemy has not achieved its objectives.”

Ukrainian troops in the captured settlement of Neskuchne
Ukrainian troops in the captured settlement of Neskuchne
Reuters

Following the active operations conducted between June 5 and 10, a period of calm has set in (referred to as an operational pause, according to analysts, including those from the American Institute for the Study of War). It is highly likely that the first wave has concluded, and preparations for a second wave of attacks are currently underway. This phase provides an opportunity for the Ukrainian command to reassess and refine their tactics, as the initial approach did not yield significant success.

Over the past few days, there have been battles for the small settlement of Pyatyhatky and the neighboring village of Zherebyanky, in the direction towards Vasylivka. This marks the establishment of the first foothold (or wedge) from where further advancement can be made along the Melitopol direction. The second foothold has been created in the so-called Vremevsky ledge.

Thus, currently, the Ukrainian Armed Forces are conducting limited attacks, but analysts indicate an operational pause is underway.

Proposed counteroffensive directions

At least three directions have been identified where Ukrainian forces are conducting offensive operations with potential operational-tactical (and, under favorable circumstances, strategic) objectives. Looking the map from west to east along the land frontline, these directions are:

  1. Advancement towards Vasylivka (with the settlements of Lobkove and Pyatyhatky having been captured).
  2. Movement from Orikhove towards Rabotyne.
  3. Southern movement from Velyka Novosilka towards Staromlynivka.
Operational situation in the counteroffensive zone of the Ukrainian Armed Forces
Operational situation in the counteroffensive zone of the Ukrainian Armed Forces
The Insider

Ukrainian sources (to some extent anticipating events) designate them as the Melitopol, Berdiansk, and Mariupol directions, named after the specific endpoints towards which the strikes may be directed.

The successes of the Ukrainian forces are concentrated in the so-called Vremevsky ledge, located south of Velyka Novosilka: several settlements along the Mokri Yaly River have been occupied in the direction towards Staromlynivka. However, these are tactical-level achievements for now, as they have not reached the main defense line of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and are still stuck in battles for advanced strongholds in other areas.

According to Ukrainian military analyst Alexander Kovalenko, the Russian forces are compelled to mobilize units from the 127th Motorized Rifle Division along this front, thereby diverting them away from the primary defense line positioned to the south. Kovalenko reveals that the Russian command has initiated the transfer of reserves from the left bank of the Dnieper River to the strategic “triangle” encompassing Vasylivka, Tokmak, and Melitopol, in anticipation of a potential deterioration in the situation. This intelligence aligns with reports from British military sources.

Ukrainian military expert Leonid Dmitriev, in a conversation with The Insider, highlights that the direction of the main offensive remains unknown. Consequently, the Russian command is compelled to keep significant reserves on constant standby to deploy them if necessary.

At least two directions clearly serve as auxiliary or diversionary in nature: the advancement on the flanks of Bakhmut and the activity along the border with the Belgorod region.

Thus, despite some tactical successes, there has been no breakthrough of the front line anywhere, and it is still uncertain where the main offensive will be launched.

Why so slow?

The most crucial aspect that is often overlooked in discussions about the Ukrainian counteroffensive is the lack of operational surprise. After successful operations near Kharkiv and on the right bank of the Dnieper in the autumn of 2022, most experts agreed that the next target of the Ukrainian Armed Forces would be the Zaporizhzhia region. It is precisely there that the main events are unfolding at present.

Another crucial factor is that the Ukrainian counteroffensive is being launched from well-prepared and fortified positions. The strategically constructed defensive lines along the front, where the primary conflicts are presently unfolding, constitute the most expansive system of fortifications since World War II. However, the Ukrainian forces have yet to breach even the first defense line out of the minimum of three established (further details regarding these defensive lines can be found in an extensive article by The Insider).

The third factor is related to the fact that the Ukrainians are attempting an offensive operation without air superiority and, seemingly, facing a shortage of air defense resources (in contrast to strategic air defense systems like the Patriot or S-300, these are installations with a shorter range designed for frontline operations). The use of aviation is also highly limited, except for the effective utilization of attack helicopters by the Russian side (additional helicopters have been deployed to Berdiansk).

Ukrainian soldiers in front of a destroyed Russian BMP-2
Ukrainian soldiers in front of a destroyed Russian BMP-2
Reuters

There are, however, factors that work in Ukraine's favor. For example, the shape of the front line in the areas of the offensive operations forms a semicircle, with the Ukrainian forces on the inner side and the Russian forces on the outer side. Consequently, during the redeployment of forces and resources, the Ukrainian side enjoys what is known as the “advantage of interior lines.” In contrast, the Russian side will be compelled to utilize a longer transportation route under equal conditions.

Another significant factor, although not directly impacting the warring parties, but rather those trying to navigate the flow of information, is the asymmetry of the information space. Ukrainian sources are notably sparing and delayed in providing information, often with a delay of several days (and not all parties on the Ukrainian side agree with this approach). Conversely, Russian official figures and “war correspondents” tend to “inject” a greater volume of information, presenting it in a favorable light for their own side. However, this is somewhat balanced by internal discord within the Russian forces. For instance, the Ministry of Defense receives more criticism from figures like Prigozhin and Girkin than from Ukrainian media.

Thus, the Ukrainian counteroffensive is hindered by the lack of the element of surprise, limited air support, and insufficient air defense assets.

Can we judge success or failure at this stage?

It is still too early to draw conclusions about the operation as a whole (even its initial stage), but so far the Ukrainian forces have achieved visibly less than anticipated, while the Russian troops, on the contrary, have demonstrated a much stronger defense than in the autumn of last year.

Alexander Kovalenko believes that it is more accurate to characterize the current situation as a “large-scale reconnaissance in force” rather than a “counteroffensive”:

It is not a counteroffensive because entirely different resources are involved. Currently, units ranging from platoon to company size are deployed along the entire front, primarily operating in the sphere of combat reconnaissance, operational intelligence, and deep reconnaissance. This functionality does not correspond to that of a breakthrough of the defense line or an assault group. This indicates that no offensive has been launched yet, but there is extensive reconnaissance in force from the Zaporizhzhia to Donetsk regions.

Colonel Roman Svitan, a retired officer of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, considers the actions of the Ukrainian troops as a “preparatory stage”:

We are currently in the stage of preparatory operations. Dangerous areas for breakthroughs are being cleared. The Vremevsky ledge is dangerous if left uncut until Staromlynivka—it is risky to leave it in the rear while moving towards the Sea of Azov coast. The Bahmut direction also has a dangerous ledge—the one that Prigozhin had lured the Russian army into—and it is now being cut off in case it is decided to advance along the Northern Donets towards Luhansk. That's what is happening on the front line right now.

Leonid Dmitriev notes the successful use of Russian forces' kamikaze drones, electronic warfare (EW) and electronic reconnaissance (ER) systems. According to him, under these conditions, the Ukrainian Armed Forces are focusing on disrupting logistical chains and striking command posts (such as the command post of the 80th Motorized Infantry Brigade), rear areas (such as the ammunition depot in Rykove), and enemy communications (such as the Chongar Bridge in Crimea). Also worth mentioning are Storm Shadow missile strikes, likely targeting Russian headquarters in Berdiansk and Mariupol shortly before the “official” start of the counteroffensive.

Satellite image of the aftermath of the strike on ammunition depots in Rykove
Satellite image of the aftermath of the strike on ammunition depots in Rykove
Brady Africk / Twitter

Dmitriev points out that during the first week of the counteroffensive (from June 4 to 11), according to Ukrainian reports, the number of destroyed multiple rocket launchers (MRLs), artillery pieces, and air defense assets has increased two to three times. An example (although it is unclear how representative it is) is the documented destruction of a battery of Russian self-propelled artillery systems “Msta-S” (presumably by HIMARS or M270 MLRS missiles). According to Russian sources, Ukrainian artillery has an advantage over the Russian forces in terms of accuracy and, primarily, range, allowing them to win counter-battery duels.

Both sides are seeking to disrupt logistics and troop movements of the enemy through remote mining of frontline roads and the immediate line of contact. It seems to be yielding certain results: Ukrainian sources claim that a Russian truck carrying ammunition detonated on one of these mines. However, the remote mining systems themselves are also vulnerable, for example, to drone kamikaze attacks.

Israeli military expert David Gendelman points out that the Russian forces are showing much better resilience in terms of combat command compared to how they acted during the Ukrainian offensive near Kharkiv last autumn.

The main factor that will determine the outcome of the operation is the troops' resilience under fire and the resilience of combat command. It was precisely this that the Russian forces lost on the Kharkiv front, resulting in their retreat. At this stage, the Russians are demonstrating much better performance in this regard than before, which is the main reason why the Ukrainian Armed Forces have not achieved greater success thus far. Further developments will depend on the quantity and pace of deployment of additional reserves and the accumulation of casualties in personnel and equipment on both sides.

As far as one can judge, Ukrainian forces are currently not utilizing aviation on the southern front. However, the Russian side is employing glide bombs and conducting strikes with Ka-52 helicopters.

During the initial stages of the counteroffensive, the Russian Aerospace Forces gained notoriety for destroying tractors and combine harvesters instead of Leopard tanks, although they likely have caused significant damage to actual military vehicles.

Assessing the effectiveness of Ukrainian forces against Russian attack helicopters is difficult. The Air Force Command of the Ukrainian Armed Forces reported the destruction of five Ka-52 attack helicopters since June 16, but there is a lack of independent confirmation regarding the loss of even a single helicopter. Only one helicopter's tail assembly damage is confirmed, as it managed to return to base for repairs.

The deployment of Ukrainian engineering vehicles designed to create pathways through minefields proved to be unsuccessful. Three Finnish Leopard 2R mine-clearing machines and one German engineering vehicle, Wisent 1, were lost. On the other hand, it appears that the Ukrainians are effectively utilizing mine-clearing systems such as the Soviet UR-77 and American M58, as evidenced by visible detonation traces on satellite imagery, even at lower resolutions.

Yet, it is indisputable that the Ukrainian Armed Forces currently hold the initiative, while Russian forces remain in a defensive stance and show no signs of launching any substantial counterattacks on this front (although there have been reports of attempts to regain initiative in the Kupyansk direction in the eastern part of the Kharkiv region).

Thus, it is premature to make conclusions about the success of the counteroffensive. At present, Ukrainian forces have achieved less than anticipated, while the Russian side has demonstrated a performance that is not as disappointing as predicted by independent observers.

Which side has more casualties?

The Russian Ministry of Defense, including Putin personally, have been presenting completely fantastical figures regarding Ukrainian losses.

In official reports, the Ministry of Defense claimed that on June 4, the Ukrainian Armed Forces lost 300 servicemen, 16 tanks, and 26 armored combat vehicles. On June 5, they reported an astonishing figure of 1,600 (!) servicemen, 28 tanks, and 136 units of other military equipment.

On June 13, during a meeting with military correspondents, Putin stated that the Ukrainian Armed Forces had lost over 160 tanks and more than 360 armored vehicles of various types during the counteroffensive, which amounts to 25-30% of the equipment imported from abroad. He also mentioned the Russian side losing 54 tanks, which is several times higher than what has been confirmed by independent sources.

During a plenary session at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum a few days later, Putin revealed a ratio of losses at 1:10, heavily favoring the Russian forces and claiming that the Ukrainian side had lost 186 tanks and 418 armored vehicles. Interestingly, as Putin was speaking, the number of destroyed Ukrainian tanks grew to 218.

The credibility of these figures can be questioned based on the previously mentioned incident involving the five destroyed Patriot systems, as recounted by Putin at the same forum.

According to publicly available information, Ukraine had only received two Patriot systems (batteries), along with a few individual launchers. It is possible that the Russian president is confusing the complete system with individual combat vehicles that are part of it. A surface-to-air missile system (SAM) battery includes command posts, radar stations, generators, auxiliary equipment, and the actual launchers. Missiles are launched from the launchers, but each battery operates as a unified whole.

However, even if there were five individual combat vehicles from a Patriot system, it would be difficult to strike (let alone destroy) them without it becoming known to journalists or independent observers.

The GeoConfirmed project conducted its own investigation and found that only one explosion occurred in the vicinity of the presumed position of a SAM system. Around the same time, American sources stated that one of the system's vehicles was damaged but later repaired on-site. Thus, it is implausible to claim the destruction of five Patriot launchers (as claimed by the Russian Ministry of Defense), let alone five complete systems.

Furthermore, on June 21st, Putin claimed that “our boys smashed” 245 tanks and 678 armored vehicles of various types. Despite the declared losses, which are unbelievably high for a 2.5-week operation, the Russian President inexplicably remains confident in the Ukrainian army's offensive potential.

In reality, the only significant failure of the Ukrainian Armed Forces was the destruction of a Bradley and Leopard column moving towards Rabotyne on June 8. Almost all the spectacular footage of burnt Ukrainian vehicles comes from that incident. Additionally, we can mention the unsuccessful Ukrainian attack with light armored vehicles on the village of Novodonetske, the aftermath of which the Russians continue to showcase.

The defeated Ukrainian column with a Leopard tank and Bradley infantry fighting vehicle
The defeated Ukrainian column with a Leopard tank and Bradley infantry fighting vehicle
Ministry of Defense of Russia / Telegram

In light of these developments, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin remarked that the Russians are simply showcasing the same five vehicles from different angles when reporting the extensive losses of Ukrainian Leopard tanks and American Bradley infantry fighting vehicles. Former Russian Air Force pilot Dmitry Mishov, who fled Russia, provided insights on the methods and motivations behind exaggerations in reports concerning the destruction of military equipment.

The head of Estonian military intelligence, Margo Grosberg, believes that the Ukrainian Armed Forces have incurred losses of less than 10% of the Western-supplied equipment during the counteroffensive. According to other assessments, the Ukrainian forces have managed to retain 96% of the modern armored vehicles that were provided to them. As of June 18, the confirmed losses for the Ukrainian side include five Leopard 2A6 tanks, two 2A4 tanks, two AMX-10RC “wheeled tanks,” and eighteen Bradley infantry fighting vehicles.

Based on analysis of photographic and video evidence, it is estimated that the overall equipment losses for the Russian Armed Forces and Ukrainian Armed Forces between June 1 and June 19 amount to 65 and 105 units, respectively. It is important to note that a significant portion of the Ukrainian equipment (43 units) has been abandoned by crews without being destroyed or captured, suggesting the possibility of evacuation and eventual restoration to operational status. Furthermore, it should be acknowledged that the confirmed losses in Russian artillery, including both barrel and missile systems, are three times higher than those of the Ukrainian side (14 compared to 4). However, drawing definitive conclusions from such a small sample size regarding representativeness is difficult.

Regarding the overall NATO equipment delivered, it is far from being completely destroyed. Visual confirmation indicates the loss of only 49 tanks out of 575 delivered, 27 infantry fighting vehicles out of 500, 79 armored personnel carriers out of 1180, and 67 mine-protected armored vehicles out of 905.

Interestingly, reports from open sources indicate the casualties of nine Russian military personnel ranked as lieutenant colonel or higher during the two-week counteroffensive (as of June 16).

Meanwhile, Western allies have already announced new shipments of heavy equipment to compensate for the losses. Specifically, the United States is providing a package of assistance consisting of 15 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles and 10 Stryker armored personnel carriers. The notable factor here is the higher survivability of crews manning Western equipment compared to Soviet models when they are destroyed. This means that the surviving crew members will be ready to immediately engage in combat using the newly received vehicles as replacements for the ones that were lost. The Netherlands and Denmark will finance the delivery of 14 Leopard 2A4 tanks. Additionally, the EU plans to expedite the delivery of weapons and equipment to support the Ukrainian offensive.

Thus, the most reliable data on the losses demonstrate that they are comparable for both sides, although it is generally believed that the attacking side usually incurs three times more losses than the defending side (a similar pattern was observed during Russian offensives in 2022 and winter 2023).

What's next?

It appears that the Ukrainian Armed Forces will continue to apply pressure on one of the three directions in Zaporizhzhia, but it is not necessary that the main strike will occur on that particular front.

Alexander Kovalenko believes that the main forces could be introduced in a “completely unexpected location.”

Roman Svitan regards July as the main phase of the counteroffensive and mentions the Kherson direction, which involves an operation to cross the Dnieper River.

Interestingly, President Vladimir Putin also mentioned this, stating that the destruction of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant dam disrupted plans to advance in that area.

Satellite image of the drained Kakhovka Reservoir
Satellite image of the drained Kakhovka Reservoir
Planet Labs

There is a possibility that the actual draining of the Kakhovka Reservoir could create an opportunity for an offensive in the area between Nova Kakhovka and the current dry land frontline, utilizing the exposed riverbed. However, this would still require crossing the natural width of the Dnieper River, and the newly accessible terrain may pose challenges due to poor maneuverability and lack of natural cover.

According to some evaluations, the current successful defense by Russian forces is achieved by deploying forces and resources that were originally intended to be held in reserve. Consequently, if (when) Ukrainian forces approach the first main line of fortified positions, the Russians will need to fill and maintain it with significantly depleted units. This will ultimately test the Russian forces' ability to demonstrate the necessary skill, discipline, and control to effectively hold their defense positions.

Jack Walting, an expert from the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in the UK, writes:

Russian units are currently fighting from prepared positions and their command-and-control infrastructure is mostly intact… If Russian units can be forced to reposition, however, the poor training and discipline of Moscow’s forces could see the defense become uncoordinated and susceptible to collapse. Bringing about such conditions would require some significant actions by the Ukrainians to get the Russians moving… Ukraine can endeavor to bring such a situation about, but it cannot be counted on.

In addition, the ultimate objective of the entire operation is widely known: it aims to fragment Russian forces in Ukraine, reach the Azov Sea, and isolate Crimea. However, the Ukrainian Armed Forces are still far from achieving this goal.

Consequently, as Ukrainian forces continue their offensive in Zaporizhzhia, experts expect that at some point they will choose a particular direction to launch a surprise breakthrough attempt along the front line.

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