What’s Next for Ukraine

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Before Ukraine’s military began a counteroffensive in June, officials hoped they could replicate last year’s successes and quickly retake large swaths of Russian-held territory. Instead, Ukrainian forces initially made almost no progress. In recent weeks, they have made more but still captured only a few small villages.

But perhaps we should have expected a result like this. War tends to be a grind. The types of routs that let Ukraine retake thousands of square miles in the northeast last year are rare. Fighting frequently involves chipping away at an enemy, like Ukraine’s retaking of a small but strategic village in the east yesterday. Such advances try to build toward a big breakthrough, although one may never come.

It was true most famously during the trench warfare of World War I but also in World War II, the Korean War and the U.S. Civil War. “War is not always the spectacular triumph,” said George Barros, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “It’s largely the really boring stuff that you don’t see — all the groundwork setting up the conditions for the triumphs.”

In other words: Ukraine and its allies, including the U.S., may have set their expectations for the counteroffensive too high. Ukraine is fighting one of the world’s strongest militaries. If Ukraine could succeed in forcing Russia to retreat in a significant way, it was always more likely to take years than months.

Today’s newsletter explains Ukraine’s modest recent progress and what could come next. Ukraine’s leaders still hope to achieve a breakthrough that divides Russian troops in the east and south. But by November, muddy season will have arrived, and movement will be more difficult.

Ukraine’s counteroffensive initially struggled to make progress. The military’s original plan was to use infantry, tanks and other armored vehicles supplied by the West to roll through Russian forces in Ukraine’s southeast. It aimed to split off Russian troops in the southern peninsula of Crimea from the eastern region of Donbas, hindering Russia’s ability to reinforce or resupply its armies in either area.

But the Ukrainians ran into Russian defenses that were more extensive than they expected, particularly large minefields. Initial efforts to break through proved costly in both lives and equipment. So Ukraine’s military changed its approach. It pulled back vehicles and tried to thin out Russian defenses with artillery, defuse the mines and slowly advance with infantry.

Last month, Ukrainians finally made modest but meaningful gains. They pierced Russia’s first line of defense in the southeast and recaptured small towns along the way. They are now pursuing two main routes, one through the recaptured village of Robotyne and another that could eventually lead to the Russian-controlled coastal city of Berdiansk. Either course could help achieve Ukraine’s main goal of dividing Russian forces.

The gains exemplify the often grinding pace of war. Working through minefields without major casualties and wearing down Russia’s defenses with artillery simply takes time. It looked like very little happened for months because the battle lines stayed the same. But now Ukraine has advanced, and could quickly make more progress.

“Offenses are not linear affairs,” said Stacie Goddard, an international security expert at Wellesley College.

Ukraine wants to widen the lanes it has opened through Russia’s first lines of defense. For example, Ukrainian forces could capture more area around towns like Robotyne to establish a wider corridor of territory. They could then use that larger space to move many more forces through and carry out their original plan — deploying ground troops and armored vehicles in a swift counteroffensive.

Russia may also have put its strongest forces on the front line, and Ukraine could break through the other lines more easily. “A lot depends on how strong these remaining Russian defenses are,” my colleague Eric Schmitt, who covers national security, told me.

But time is running out. As rain arrives this fall, the terrain will get muddier and harder to traverse, likely preventing major battlefield gains.

In the meantime, Russian forces have stepped up attacks in the northeast. In doing so, Russia hopes to retake some of the territory it lost last year, and force Ukraine to divert its troops and resources to the northeast. If enough Ukrainian forces are kept from the southeastern front, the counteroffensive’s last big push could fail.

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