Has Ukraine's counteroffensive become a 'war of attrition?'

An expected thrust has turned into a slog

ukraine war of attrition
(Image credit: Illustrated / Getty Images)

Ukraine's long-touted counteroffensive against the Russian invasion doesn't seem to be getting anywhere fast. The Washington Post reported this week that there's been "no sign yet of a major breakthrough" despite "intense fighting" across southeastern Ukraine. Russian defenses — "a phalanx of trenches, tripwires and anti-personnel and anti-armor mines" — have proven incredibly stout. (One other factor: Weeds and shrubs.)

If Russian defenses are proving tough, though, NATO-trained Ukrainian forces have also demonstrated some shortcomings. The New York Times reported that despite some advances, those troops "have yet to make the kinds of sweeping gains that characterized their successes in the strategically important cities of Kherson and Kharkiv last fall." That failure "raises questions about the quality of the training" provided by the West. One eternal military truth, however, is that "offense is harder than defense" — as Russia proved last year when its invasion quickly petered out.

Two months after the Ukrainian counteroffensive began, it's become clear that it was probably "unfair" to expect "dash and drama" from the offensive, said The Economist. Ukraine's forces have been armed and trained by the West, but they don't have "overwhelming firepower and air supremacy" to mount a blitzkrieg-style lightning thrust against Russian defenses. This means that the war may be reduced to a grind-it-out affair. Is it time for Ukraine and its backers to accept "the logic of attrition?"

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What are the commentators saying?

The slow advance of the counteroffensive is "the price of allies' hesitation" in providing Ukraine with advanced weaponry, Brady Africk of the American Enterprise Institute wrote for the Washington Post. While Russians constructed their defenses at a "frantic pace," America and other Western countries didn't let that influence "the speed of their decision making." Instead, there is a "pattern of delay" when Ukraine asks for missiles, tanks and cluster munitions. That delay "makes a protracted, grinding conflict more likely." It's time for Western leaders to move more quickly. "Ukraine needs our help, not our excuses."

"The fact that the Ukrainians are on the offensive at all is something of a miracle," Tom Nichols wrote for The Atlantic. But wars don't have the same "narrative arc as action movies." It's always not the case that the "good guys" can deliver a swift, crushing blow to the bad guys. Ukraine is taking the war to its Russian enemy — both on the battlefield and with drone attacks on Moscow. The U.S. should speed up its aid to Kyiv, yes. Even then, the task won't be easy. This means "the summer of drones and trenches will drag on — as it must."

"The first casualty of the Ukrainian counteroffensive was wishful thinking," Julian Borger wrote for The Guardian. Russian troops haven't fled the advance. Instead, Ukrainian troops — slowed by Russian minefields — have had to proceed "at walking speed." That means there will be no "dramatic breach of Russian lines." But the offensive may yet pay off. "It's not going to be easy," one official told Borger, "so we shouldn't shy away from that."

What's next?

Even as Ukraine and Russia duke it out on the battlefield, there are some efforts underway to bring the war to a peaceful conclusion. Politico reported that Saudi Arabia is hosting "dozens of national security advisers and senior-ranking officials" this weekend as part of an effort "to broker a peace plan" in Ukraine. (Russia is not invited, but China is.) "What is important is that we have an outcome that is acceptable for the Ukrainian people," said one European Union official.

And if Ukraine is having a tough time executing its counteroffensive, it is important to remember that Russia has found this war much more difficult than it originally anticipated. "Putin is not close to achieving any of his war aims while the price of his gambit grows ever steeper," Lawrence Freedman wrote at Foreign Affairs. After the recent rebellion by Wagner mercenaries, it is Vladimir Putin who needs to show his country there is a path to victory. In Ukraine, by contrast, "that this is a war that had to be fought." So for now, "this has become a war of endurance."

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