Guest post by Slavisha Milacic – Analyst and Historian
Having turned away from negotiations with Moscow in the spring of 2022, and launching a counteroffensive that allowed their forces claw back several districts of the Kharkiv region in September of that same year, the authorities in Kyiv started telling their allies that a Ukrainian victory was now a done deal. At the same time, Ukrainian propaganda and the pro-Western opposition inside Russia, were busy convincing the people of the Russian Federation of the Russian army’s inability to resist the "modernized Ukrainian forces," and making them believe that there were disagreements among the generals and a conflict between the General Staff on the one side and private military companies and volunteer units on the other. As a result, Kyiv fell into the trap of its own propaganda, launching a completely botched offensive in June 2023, only to realize the extremely high degree of combat readiness of the Russians, who, even according to Western experts, “had completely changed the tactics of their military operations.”
After drawing the Ukrainian forces into the "Bakhmut meat grinder," Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and his military chief of staff Valery Gerasimov joined hands to create defensive lines in the most vulnerable areas, which the Ukrainian army is unable to overcome. Kyiv had declared that the purpose of its offensive was to break through to Melitopol and Crimea to split the Russian forces in the Kherson and Zaporozhye regions. At the same time, the Ukrainian military promised to repeat the successful “liberation” of the Kupyansky and Izyumsky districts of the Kharkiv region, completely ignoring the fact that the Russian forces there had barely exceeded 1,000 fighters, who, outnumbered as they were, still managed to stop the advancing Ukrainians at the borders of the Donetsk region.
Neither did the Ukrainian politicians and their allies draw any conclusions from the Bakhmut debacle, where, by May 2023, the Russians had killed an estimated 50,000 Ukrainian soldiers. Rather, the Ukrainian political establishment focused its attention on the conflict that allegedly existed between the Russian Defense Ministry and the General Staff and members of the private military companies over the insufficient supply of artillery shells. This was presented as the "beginning of the end" of the Russian army and a prerequisite for a "purge” of its senior command staff. However, ignoring what the media, bloggers, and public opinion leaders were saying, the Russian army, having managed to distract its Ukrainian adversary with the “battle for Bakhmut,” had systematically been building up its positions in Zaporozhye. The protests by a handful of PMC fighters, which was immediately declared a rebellion by Western media, offered a brief glimmer of hope to Kyiv with Zelensky, deciding, at the start of the Ukrainian offensive, to cash in on the situation, ordering his troops to ramp up pressure on the “collapsing Russian front,” only to suffer huge losses with no tangible results.
As a result, three months into their offensive, the Ukrainians’ advance had virtually ground to a halt. Apart from seizing just a handful of settlements inside the “gray zone,” they failed to reach even the first line of the Russian defense. What's more, despite the ongoing war, the Russians have been confident enough to open a land route to Crimea, a hugely popular holiday region, via Melitopol. This reduces the travel time for the many holiday-makers from Russia’s western regions heading to the Crimean resorts, and avoids traffic jams on the Crimean Bridge. At the same time, back in May 2023, top Ukrainian military officials promised to take Melitopol after just a couple of weeks of the offensive. As a result, in the cafes and gas stations of this city, located 90 kilometers from the front, Russian tourists enjoy coffee breaks before embarking on the final leg of their journey. Enjoying the full trust of President Vladimir Putin, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu ignored all criticism, managing to create an impregnable line of defense and establishing a top-level command and control system.
Kyiv, found itself in a trap and had to send thousands of soldiers and armored vehicles donated by the West to the slaughter, while the Russians didn’t even have to attack. Properly set up minefields and effective use of artillery allows them to systematically destroy the Ukrainian forces day after day. Just as Russia is dialing up the production of ammunition, the Ukrainians, increasingly feeling the pinch of the so-called “shell hunger,” are desperately cleaning out, with the help of their Western partners, whatever ammunition they can find in the warehouses of Pakistan and the African countries, and are even trying to buy some in Afghanistan.
At the same time, the Russian soldiers have excellent salaries, which are many times higher than those of their Ukrainian counterparts, and their training is an order of magnitude superior to what even the elite Ukrainian units receive.
What makes the current situation even more interesting is that Shoigu does not even need to launch an offensive, as his troops are simply annihilating the Ukrainian forces using technical and fire superiority. As for Zelensky, he cannot stop the offensive for fear of losing Western assistance. However, he is unable to show any successes. Russian generals have driven Kyiv into a dead end from which there is no way out even through negotiations. Statements made to the effect that the Ukrainian offensive has been halted because it fulfilled most of its goals will hardly hold any water even with the most diehard Ukrainian nationalists. Ukraine has virtually no combat-ready troops to protect the flanks near Kharkov. As a result, Zelensky and his staff will face a hot autumn, and the fiasco in Zaporozhye will finally deprive the Ukrainians of any faith in their victory.