Ukraine’s counteroffensive is shrouded in confusion. That may be the plan

Ukraine’s counteroffensive is shrouded in confusion. That may be the plan

The columns of dozens of US-supplied M-ATVs kept coming, preceded by a police car, lights blaring, and tailed by dozens of muddy, civilian saloons. Where the armored vehicles were ultimately destined for was unclear. But they were still beige – the paint job they would have had for use in Iraq and Afghanistan – suggesting they were at least a spray can or mud-shower away from being ready for use on the front line.

Over five weeks reporting along the southern frontlines, it became hard to conceive that – at least in its limited, preparatory stages – Ukraine’s counteroffensive had not got under way in late April.

The relentless pinpoint bombing of Russian military targets; the hints of small Ukrainian landings along the occupied eastern bank of the Dnipro River; and the blasts hitting fuel depots and infrastructure inside Russia’s own borders and in occupied cities – these could all be seen as indicators.

Also, too, a helicopter attack we witnessed against a Russian target; the persistent signals from occupied officials of Ukrainian probing attacks along the Zaporizhzhia frontline; and the evacuation of the civilian population in occupied areas.

The signs have gathered in pace over the past month, and are the opening traces of the “shaping operations” that a senior US official told CNN began last week. Yet officially, Ukraine’s counteroffensive has yet to start.

Indicators have mounted that Ukraine's anticipated offensive may be underway.

Indicators have mounted that Ukraine’s anticipated offensive may be underway.Libkos/AP

Given the volume of US and NATO hardware, advice and training poured into this operation – with a senior US official recently telling Congress the US had coached Kyiv in how to “surprise” – it seems fair to assume this delay in declaring the start of the assault is a tactic, not the product of Ukrainian chaos, disorganization, and a relatively wet April leaving the ground too soft.

Announcing the start is entirely in the gift of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Declare the operation underway, and the clock ticks immediately for the first results. Say it has yet to get underway, and any mounting losses Russia sustains are just in the cut and thrust of normal frontline attrition. Over the past month, Zelensky’s obfuscatory comments that the operation’s “first important steps” would “happen soon,” or needed “a bit more time,” have just doubled down on Kyiv’s initial pledge they would not announce its start.

It is possible we only learn the counteroffensive has begun when its first tangible results are revealed. A lot of what is happening is not playing out in public.

The aim of this confusion is clearly to keep Moscow off-balance, unable to assess whether each new attack by Ukrainian forces is “it,” or just another probe.

The recent assaults around Bakhmut are evidence in point. The chief of the Russian mercenary group Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, spent 10 days in an elaborate conversation essentially with himself on Telegram, warning of Wagner’s collapse without more artillery shells from Russian top brass. He received almost no official public response to his pleas, and it is unclear whether they altered any of the Russian Ministry of Defense’s supply patterns.

Ukrainian troops fire a howitzer towards Russian fighters near the town of Soledar, in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region.

Ukrainian troops fire a howitzer towards Russian fighters near the town of Soledar, in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region.Sofiia Gatilova/Reuters

Prigozhin’s remarkable survival, after this bout of public criticism of the Kremlin’s men, is an expression of both need and fear: Putin perhaps fears the backlash Prigozhin’s removal would cause, and also needs Wagner forces to maintain their positions. He may also still need Prigozhin as a foil to a powerful military. As with so much Kremlinology, the truth is for now unknowable, but also not that consequential.

What is key is the resultant display of staggering disunity in Putin’s ranks – something unthinkable in February 2022. Prigozhin’s outburst has so far resulted only in slight territorial changes in control around the symbolic city of Bakhmut.

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