Ukraine’s stunning successes on the battlefield in recent days have sparked renewed optimism in Kyiv that a lasting, decisive victory over Russia may be within reach.
Still, the rapid pace of the Ukrainian counteroffensive comes with high-stakes questions. Military analysts openly cautioned Kyiv on Tuesday to slow its attacks or risk overextending its forces and giving the shellshocked Russian army an opportunity to regain its footing.
Striking the right balance between pressing its advantage and exercising strategic restraint will be the key challenge to Ukrainian military leaders — and their U.S. and other Western military advisers — over the coming days and weeks. After months of defense against relentless Russian ground attacks and artillery barrages, Ukraine’s counteroffensive campaign has quickly retaken ground, including the strategically vital northeastern city of Kharkiv, with more modest gains in the south near Kherson.
Ukrainian military officials said they had retaken about 2,300 square miles of territory over the past several weeks. Ukrainian troops on Tuesday took control of Vovchansk, just 2 miles from the Russian border. Russian troops have controlled the city since the early days of the nearly 7-month-old war.
U.S. military officials confirmed that Russian troops in some instances have been pushed back across their border and were seemingly unprepared for the well-coordinated Ukrainian counterattack. The military blog Oryx, which has kept a meticulous list of weaponry gained and lost in the fighting based on open sources, is reporting that Ukraine captured or destroyed at least 151 Russian infantry fighting vehicles and 104 tanks in the past two weeks.
“If anyone was surprised … it was probably the Russians,” Air Force Brig Gen. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters at a Tuesday briefing.
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Russian morale has taken a significant hit, foreign intelligence estimates suggest, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has come under fire even at home as the battlefield losses mount and questions grow about the competence of the military.
With momentum clearly on their side, Ukrainian leaders insist their goal is to push Russian troops out of Ukraine entirely, including from Crimea, which Russia has controlled for nearly nine years after a forced military annexation in 2014. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Tuesday that Russia has again resorted to indiscriminate, long-range shelling of cities such as Kharkiv because it has finally realized it cannot defeat Ukraine on the battlefield.
“This is a sign of the desperation of those who contrived this war,” Mr. Zelenskyy said. “This is how they react to the defeat of Russian forces in the Kharkiv region. They can’t do anything to our heroes on the battlefield.”
Ukrainian troops now appear poised to press forward with a major offensive in the Donbas region, arguably Moscow’s most fortified stronghold in the country. Serhiy Gaidai, Ukrainian governor of the Luhansk region, told Reuters that he expects a significant counterattack in the region soon.
Russia controls virtually all of the Luhansk province, which with Donetsk makes up the Donbas. Russian military commanders have said in recent days that they are pulling troops back from Kharkiv, presumably to reinforce their defensive lines in the Donbas.
Against that backdrop, some foreign officials seem to share Kyiv’s optimism and are talking openly about a total Ukrainian victory.
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“Our aid & Ukrainian desire for freedom is literally booming but there is still more we can do,” Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu said in a Twitter post Tuesday. “We shall not rest until [Ukraine] has won this war.”
Proceeding with caution
Ukraine still faces significant hurdles. Although it has used U.S.- and NATO-supplied weapons and equipment to great effect, Ukraine is outgunned and outmanned by the Russian military. That means pressing forward too fast and in too many theaters at once could quickly leave the Ukrainians overextended and exposed.
“In truth, there are some elements of Ukraine’s force that can’t ‘keep up’ with the front-line fighters. That’s not an insult, it’s an understanding of the [Ukrainian] force,” retired U.S. Army Gen. Mark Hertling wrote in a series of Twitter posts Tuesday analyzing Ukraine’s posture.
“Right now, [Ukrainian] field commanders — while excited about gains — must consider operational tempo,” he said. “It’s required.”
Ukrainian commanders don’t have to look far for object lessons. Russia’s inability to install the proper operational tempo is widely believed to have been its undoing in the early weeks of the war. Russian troops pressed ahead quickly with an assault on the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv but failed to establish sustainable, well-defended supply lines, leaving them highly vulnerable to Ukrainian drone and rocket attacks. Dozens of Russian tanks and other vehicles were stranded on the highways outside Kyiv because of Russia’s inability to get fuel to the front lines.
Russian commanders also failed to bring into Ukraine their most sophisticated electronic warfare systems that could have disabled Ukrainian drones. Military analysts say that mistake cost the Russians dearly in early attacks.
For Ukraine, the possibility for overextension is likely greatest in the Donbas. Before Moscow launched its Feb. 24 invasion, it was the site of years of bitter but indecisive fighting between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian militias. Russian troops and their proxies have a significant foothold in the Donbas, and Moscow has installed its own governing structure and appointed its own local officials in parts of the two provinces.
Pushing all Russian elements out of the area is likely a long-term proposition. Western military officials have repeatedly stressed that fighting in the Donbas could drag on for months or even years.
Still, continued Ukrainian gains could change Mr. Putin’s calculus and willingness to continue the war, especially if criticism at home keeps mounting. Russia’s military has sustained significant damage in recent weeks, presenting long-term problems for Mr. Putin’s war machine.
The Russian leader faces what could be an uncomfortable conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of a security conference this week in Uzbekistan. Chinese state media have backed the Kremlin rhetorically in the war and blamed Ukraine and NATO for “provoking” Russia. Still, Beijing’s wariness of offering economic or military aid to Russia is likely to increase given the losses on the ground.
The British Ministry of Defense said Tuesday that Russia’s premier 1st Guards Tank Army was “severely degraded” during the war.
“It will likely take years for Russia to rebuild this capability,” the ministry said in a Twitter post.
The Ukrainian advance appears to be gradually pushing back Russian forces in the south near Kherson. That suggests Russia is suffering simultaneous defeats on multiple fronts.
Ukrainian officials said this week that Russian troops outside Kherson on the banks of the Dnipro River are attempting to negotiate for their surrender, and images on social media appeared to show Russian soldiers lying on the street waiting to be captured and Russian tanks abandoned as their forces hastily drew back.
“Ukrainian operations in Kharkiv Oblast are unlikely to have had such a dramatic psychological effect on Russian troops this far south, and both the withdrawal of troops from forward positions in Kyselivka and reports of surrender negotiations are indicators that Ukrainian counteroffensives in the south are progressing in a significant way, even if visibility on this axis is limited by the shift in focus to Kharkiv,” researchers with the Institute for the Study of War wrote Monday.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu as the Estonian defense minister.