The Russian offensive that began in the late winter has largely stalled after failing to make any significant gains in eastern Ukraine, including in the town of Bakhmut, which has become a symbolic battle of the war and a priority for Moscow.
Russian forces are still pounding away at Ukrainian lines across the eastern front, but the intensity of the assault, which just weeks ago had put immense pressure on Kyiv, appears to be dying out.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said Russian forces have not made any progress in the past 20 days from the southeast to the Luhansk region up north.
“The Russians are struggling in a big way,” Milley told a House Armed Services Hearing on Wednesday. “These forces are very undertrained, they are essentially doing frontal assaults into machine gun positions and they are getting slaughtered.”
“That’s also true across the entire frontline, from Kreminna all the way down to Kherson,” the top U.S. general continued. “The Ukrainians have fought a remarkable defensive fight and the Russians have not achieved their strategic objectives.”
With the Russian assault slowing down and more advanced western armor trickling in, including Germany’s Leopard 2 tanks and more Soviet-era fighter jets, Ukrainian forces have hinted they are poised to launch a long-anticipated counteroffensive.
Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrski, the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, said in a Telegram post last week the Russians have lost “considerable strength” during the offensive.
“Very soon we will take advantage of this opportunity, as we once did near Kyiv, Kharkiv, Balaklia and Kupyansk,” Syrski said, referring to successful Ukrainian counteroffensives last year.
The Russian offensive has lost steam but Moscow still has far more manpower than Ukraine, the biggest and most enduring obstacle for Kyiv in the war.
Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a partial mobilization last year that called up some 300,000 reservists. He also signed a decree on Thursday authorizing a semiannual conscription of 147,000 new conscripts between April and mid-July, although the servicemembers are likely to undergo training and it’s unclear if and when they will be deployed to the frontline.
Meanwhile, the Russian tactic of grinding out the war on the eastern frontline is wearing down both sides. Kyiv has inflicted heavy losses on Moscow but has faced a high death toll as well, particularly Bakhmut, according to the U.K. Defence Ministry.
Ukraine needs to transition the battle out of a defensive position with a strategic maneuver, said George Beebe, the director of Grand Strategy at the Quincy Institute for Statecraft.
“If you’re looking at this as a war of attrition, where the Russians are not actually focusing on big arrow movements on the map, but on grinding down Ukraine’s ability to bring manpower and munitions to the battle,” Beebe said, “then I think you get a different picture and the Russians may have more reason for optimism.”
Beebe also questioned whether Ukrainian troops have the capability to break through fortified Russian defenses — even with western armor, saying Ukraine needs hundreds of those to make a difference.
“I think the Ukrainians have their hands full,” he said. “I think what we’re headed for is a pretty long-term stalemate and the lines may move here and there, but I don’t think either side is going to win this war outright.”
For more than half a year, Moscow has applied much of its strength on taking Bakhmut, a mining town in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine that has been devastated and reduced to rubble by shelling.
Russia has come close to seizing the city after encircling it earlier this month but has failed to completely push Ukrainian defenders out.
Bakhmut sits at an important crossroads in Donetsk and serves as a regional supply hub. Russia has sought to capture the city in order to advance further west and fully capture the Donbas — the industrial heartland made up of the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Russia has seized most of Luhansk.
While Russia has undeniably seen Bakhmut as a strategic capture point, western analysts say its value is more symbolic because Ukrainians are dug in further west. The Kremlin is looking for a major victory it can tout to the public and Ukraine does not want to cede anything to Russia in fear of galvanizing the Russian war machine.
Ukrainian President Voldoymyr Zelensky told the Associated Press this week that losing Bakhmut could mean more international support for Russia. Putin could then push for a settlement unfavorable to Kyiv, he said.
“If he will feel some blood — smell that we are weak — he will push, push, push,” Zelensky said. “We can’t lose the steps because the war is a pie — pieces of victories. Small victories, small steps.”
Western analysts say Russian casualties have run high in the battle. Ian Stubbs, a senior military advisor at the United Kingdom’s Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), estimated about 30,000 Russian troops and soldiers with the mercenary outfit Wagner Group have died or been wounded in Bakhmut.
Stubbs said the offensive has stalled and Russia needs to regroup and resupply, also claiming the losses revealed a systematic problem for the Kremlin.
“The astounding levels of incompetence in Russia’s military leadership that have eroded Russia’s military reputation are clear for all to see,” Stubbs said in a Wednesday speech.
Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin has claimed control of most of the town but has repeatedly criticized the Russian military for not supplying his troops with enough ammunition.
Prigozhin recently admitted the battle for Bakhmut had “badly damaged” his soldiers but also “practically destroyed” the Ukrainian army, according to an audio tape obtained by Reuters.
Other Russian offensive operations in eastern Ukraine have also floundered.
Russia has failed to capture Vuhledar, a town in Donetsk that serves as a gateway to the southern Zaporizhzhya region, which was taken by Moscow early in the war.
The battle for Vuhledar resulted in an enormous number of Russian armor casualties as Ukraine devastated battle tanks around the town.
Russia may be preparing to reconstitute a brigade to resume another offensive operation in Vuhledar, but they have already done that multiple times and are unlikely to be successful, according to the Institute for the Study of War.
Moscow appears to have refocused its efforts on the town of Avdiivka, located about 50 miles south of Bakhmut.
Rybar, a prominent Russian military blogger, claimed in a Telegram post this week that Russian forces were advancing from the north of Avdiivka and south of the town.
The U.K. Defence Ministry said in an intelligence update on Tuesday that Russia is pushing to encircle Avdiivka but has failed to gain significant ground after suffering heavy armor losses.
For Ukraine, a potential counteroffensive could come if Russian forces slow down further to reorganize.
The most talked about opportunity is a break into the southern Zaporizhzhya region around the occupied city of Melitopol to cut off a land bridge to Crimea, but Ukrainian troops will face stiff resistance from Russian-held lines.
Stephen Biddle, an adjunct senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Ukraine will take ground in the counteroffensive — but the dispute is over how fast and at what cost. Pope released from hospital after being treated for respiratory infection Five things to know about the Texas ObamaCare ruling
Last fall, Ukraine faked that it would attack the southern Kherson region but instead went for Kharkiv.
Biddle said this was effective because the Russians “didn’t have enough troops to defend normal densities everywhere” and lost territory when it repositioned, but he said a similar scenario is unlikely this time.
“The Russians have subsequently mobilized an additional 300,000 soldiers and they spent months and months and months digging in and preparing defenses really all on the frontier,” Biddle said.” It would not be safe to simply assume that the Russians will have vulnerabilities to the kinds they had in the fall.”