KYIV, Ukraine — The war is far from over in Ukraine with a long winter ahead.
Analysts who once warned that Ukraine stood little chance of holding out for long against a bigger, better-armed enemy now say Kyiv must be wary of overconfidence and overestimation of the difficulties that lie ahead against a potent Russian occupying force.
The stunning Ukrainian counteroffensive against invading Russian forces that began this summer has been widely hailed as a resounding, if not decisive, “turning point” in the war. Yet even as President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was visiting a newly liberated Kherson this week and vowing to press his forces’ advantage, a contrarian, far more sober assessment emerged.
Ukrainian forces can boast of a string of victories since the summer — in Izyum, Lyman, Kharkiv and now Kherson — and the government in Kyiv has not been shy about touting its successes and highlighting Russian atrocities and battlefield mistakes.
The Ukrainians encouraged Western media to visit the liberated countryside around Lyman. They pointed to the destroyed convoys and piles of Russian dead on the roads as examples of their success. They also released intercepts of cellphone conversations between panic-stricken soldiers to stoke rumors of a potential Russian collapse.
Still, the Russian army is entrenched in large parts of Ukraine’s disputed Donbas region, and the battle lines in the eastern portion of Ukraine have stabilized as the daily artillery bombardments along the front line continue. As the Russian forces pulled back, they shortened and strengthened supply lines, presenting a more compact and formidable force for the looming winter.
Ukrainian soldiers who have just returned to the Kyiv area from the front in the east are giving reality checks to the largely positive media coverage.
One Ukrainian leader described the intense Russian artillery fire as his small, lightly armed company took part in the offensive to recapture Izyum and occasional chaos as hastily assembled and underequipped Ukrainian forces attempted to push forward against Russian armored units.
Lacking anti-tank missiles such as the U.S.-supplied Javelin and other supporting weapons, the officer said, the Ukrainian units sustained high casualties in spite of the overall success of the counteroffensive.
Some skeptics say glowing reports of Ukrainian successes obscure the Russians’ formidable position and their separatist Ukrainian allies.
By any measure, as the invasion nears the nine-month mark, Russia has gained and maintained a significant amount of territory in the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine. Although Ukrainians have recovered large swaths of this territory, it is a minor fraction of the overall ground still occupied by the Russians.
“The Russians know how to fight,” Ukrainian Maj. Roman Kovalev, who is leading a newly configured 500-member battalion on the southern front, recently told NPR. “They learn fast. They’re not the same forces as they were in the spring. It is hard to fight them.”
A close look at the map reveals that the amount of territory that the Ukrainians regained in September and October barely exceeds, if at all, the amount of ground captured by the Russians during their phase 2 offensive in June and July.
During that offensive, Russian forces captured Izyum and Severodonetsk, the de facto capital of the Luhansk region, as well as its sister city Lysychansk. The latter two cities remain firmly under Russian control, far behind the front lines.
Another critical aspect of the battle in the east is the fighting along the south Donbas front, centered largely on the city of Bakhmut. Along the eastern Donbas front, the Ukrainian line forms a salient to the east, anchored in the north at Izyum, extending east and anchored in the south on Bakhmut.
In the south, the Russian pressure on the Ukrainian line has been relentless and continues to advance slowly, even while the Ukrainians were on the offensive to the north. Now, in spite of the loss of Izyum, with the reestablishment of the line to the north, the Russian offensive against Bakhmut is gaining momentum.
In recent weeks, Russian forces have made significant gains and have begun to encircle the shell-torn city. Ukrainian units attempting to hold the line around Bakhmut report almost continuous Russian attacks and heavy casualties on both sides.
The stakes are high. The road network supporting the southern portion of Russian-occupied territory along much of Ukraine’s southern coastline runs through the Bakhmut area, and control is key to Russian operations there. The coming weeks will be critical in the battle for Bakhmut and with it the Donbas region.
Analysts caution that the significance of the recent Ukraine counteroffensive must be measured not just in terms of square miles and towns liberated, or even casualties. It must be viewed within the context of the overall strategic situation in the eastern Donbas area and the occupied southern coast.
While the Ukrainian armed forces have repeatedly demonstrated skill and resolve against a much larger opponent, the Russian position, being fortified by some 300,000 reservists called up by President Vladimir Putin, is strong, and the Russian pressure on the Ukrainian line in many areas remains relentless.