The Washington Post published a bombshell story today reporting that the “U.S. intelligence community assesses that Ukraine’s counteroffensive will fail to reach the key southeastern city of Melitopol.” The Post further notes that after being briefed on the intelligence report, Congress has split between Republicans wanting to halt additional aid, and Democrats and some Republicans arguing for doing even more.
While painted as a “grim assessment,” a close look at the supposed report doesn’t quite support that. Let’s take a methodical look at both the story and the purported contents of that report.
The story begins with the intelligence report, claiming that U.S. intelligence doesn’t believe Ukraine can reach Melitopol, which is on the Azov Sea, thus severing the “land bridge” connecting Crimea to mainland Russia. That’s one of Vladimir Putin’s key invasion goals, and the only one his forces have managed to accomplish to this day.
Of all of Ukraine’s possible counterattack options, they picked the toughest, best-defended direction—splitting the land bridge in half. It was always billed as the highest-risk, highest-reward option, and both sides have bet everything on it.
Ukraine’s forces, which are pushing toward Melitopol from the town of Robotyne more than 50 miles away, will remain several miles outside of the city, U.S. officials said. U.S., Western and Ukrainian government officials interviewed for this report spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military operations.
The story begins so grimly: “Ukraine won’t reach Melitopol.” Then it says that actually, they’ll get within several miles” of Melitopol. That’s … not grim at all!
If Ukraine punches their way 47 miles out from Robotyne (which they still haven’t secured) through three major defensive lines and end up a few miles away from Meltipol, the counteroffensive will have been a rousing success. Just look at the map!
Remember, the entire point of this counteroffensive is to sever the land bridge. Let’s say Ukraine gets down to Myrne, north of Melitopol. That’s an 8-kilometer drive from Melitopol, or around 5 miles. It’s also 8 kilometers, as the crow flies, to the M14 highway, the only road connecting the city to mainland Russia in the eastward direction. All other roads in that direction will have already been cut off by the Ukrainian advance.
Eight kilometers is well within tube artillery and drone range. Ukraine can severely limit Russia’s ability to supply the city from that direction. But what about Crimea?
Both the E105 highway’s entrance into southern Melitopol and the M14 highway’s entrance in western Melitopol are around 17 kilometers away, well within the typical 25-kilometer base range of Ukraine’s Western artillery guns. And quite frankly, if Ukraine is this close to Melitopol, the Kerch Bridge connecting Crimea to mainland Russia won’t last long. Ukraine has shown it has the drone capability to severely damage the bridge, and it will be under constant assault. Not to mention, ATACMS missiles have a range of 300 kilometers. Myrne is around 200 kilometers from the Kerch Bridge. Ukraine doesn’t have those long-range missiles yet, but like every other major weapons system, they will eventually get them after its allies stop hemming and hawing for no discernable reason.
So really, if Ukraine is able to push within a few miles of Melitopol, then they’ve effectively won. The land bridge is severed, Crimea is isolated, and Ukraine doesn’t have to assault Melitopol. It can simply lay siege to the invaders.
So how can the story paint this as a “grim assessment”?
Maybe the reporters and editors who worked on the article don’t know enough about the war and geography and artillery to know that “reaching Melitopol” isn’t the goal. The goal is to cut off the land bridge. And to do that, all Ukraine has to do is get within 20 kilometers of Melitopol’s supply roads.
The second option is that the report has gone through a game of telephone, and repeated tellings have mangled what it actually states. Heck, maybe it was leaked and selectively quoted by a MAGA Republican trying to build opposition to any further Ukraine aid. And, back to the point above, the people working on the story don’t understand what they’re writing and fell for bad spin.
Because, to be very clear, if U.S. intelligence truly says that Ukraine will get close to Melitopol, the headline should be very different.
Funnily enough, given the current state of the battlefield, I’d guess that Ukraine has a greater chance of reaching Mariupol, with just a single major defensive line separating the city and the advancing Ukrainians. Anyway, back to the story:
Joint war games conducted by the U.S., British and Ukrainian militaries anticipated such losses but envisioned Kyiv accepting the casualties as the cost of piercing through Russia’s main defensive line, said U.S. and Western officials.
But Ukraine chose to stem the losses on the battlefield and switch to a tactic of relying on smaller units to push forward across different areas of the front. That resulted in Ukraine making incremental gains in different pockets over the summer.
This is … interesting. Aside from some odd voices of caution, most Western (and Ukrainian) military and diplomatic sources expressed nothing but confidence that Russian lines would crumble in the face of a Ukrainian Western-equipped juggernaut. Now we’re hearing that NATO war planners assumed even higher casualties busting through the first lines? Even the idea that Ukraine got cold feet after the first assaults failed is fascinating. If true, it certainly feels like a plot twist.
Western gear is superior to Russian gear for two reasons. Firstly, it is designed to protect crew and passengers, so chances of survival are higher when vehicles are hit. It doesn’t mean they are impervious to destruction, just that the West values its soldiers and designs its vehicles to keep them alive. Secondly, Western vehicle and weapons optics allow for nighttime operation, at a time when Russian defenders are mostly blind.
We’ve seen videos of Ukrainian soldiers surviving direct hits or mine strikes on their vehicles. Yay! But their vehicles were still destroyed, and they are a finite resource .
The bigger problem is Ukraine’s inability to conduct nighttime operations. The original strike was supposed to happen at night, but reports claim that either commanders were late to get started, or were simply incapable of moving in the dark. As a result, they advanced in full sight of Russia’s surveillance drones and got predictably mauled.
Ukraine’s inability to move larger formations in concert, aka combined arms maneuvers involving armor, infantry, engineers, aviation (drones), artillery, electronic warfare, and logistics, made a single point of attack nonviable, unfortunately. I warned from early on that Ukraine didn’t have the time to properly train combined arms, and they clearly didn’t even have time to learn how to move in the dark. Without those skills, sending their new armor into the teeth of Russian mine- and drone-infested defenses was never going to succeed.
Ukraine’s small-unit advance is actually quite okay! Russia’s weird obsession with defending every inch of territory in front of their defenses means Ukraine has been able to severely attrit the Russian defense while systematically degrading Russia’s big artillery advantage through effective counter-battery fire. Who cares if the advance is slow right now, if Russia’s defenses are eroded to the point that Ukraine can get to the outskirts of Melitopol by the end of this year, the beginning of next year, or next summer? The point is to break Russia’s will to fight, and right now, they’re still fighting hard.
This kind of advance is also calendar-agnostic. The fall rains won’t have much of an effect on advancing infantry. Heavy armor gets bogged down, not infantry in Humvees with artillery coverage. Slow and steady can certainly win the race here, if things ultimately resort to that. I wouldn’t assume that’s the case, however. The possibility of a major breakthrough still exists.
The bleak outlook, briefed to some Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill, has already prompted a blame game inside closed-door meetings. Some Republicans are now balking at President Biden’s request for an additional $20.6 billion in Ukraine aid given the offensive’s modest results. Other Republicans and, to a lesser extent, hawkish Democrats have faulted the administration for not sending more powerful weapons to Ukraine sooner.
U.S. officials reject criticisms that F-16 fighter jets or longer-range missile systems such as ATACMS would have resulted in a different outcome. “The problem remains piercing Russia’s main defensive line, and there’s no evidence these systems would’ve been a panacea,” a senior administration official said.
“Some Republicans” were balking at any additional aid because they love Russia and Putin and want Ukraine to lose. This intelligence report, assuming it says what the article claims it says, is handy ammunition for this crowd, but they never needed it. The pro-Ukraine side actually has the stronger case here. The only possible excuse for not delivering ATACMS at this point is simply that there aren’t any to give, which would be surprising.
I continue to argue that F-16s wouldn’t make a real difference on the front lines, where drones and mines are the biggest challenge. Russia has hundreds or thousands of fighter jets, and you don’t see them at the front lines in any appreciable numbers. Why? Because both sides have incredibly dense air defense networks. Neither side will ever get air superiority. A few dozen F-16s certainly won’t change that equation. Those fighter jets would be critical for other key tasks.
It’s also hard to fault the West when Ukraine can only muster eight English-speaking pilots to train on the jets. I still can’t believe that they didn’t have all their key and senior military personnel learning English this past year. It’s the language of NATO. And you can’t have a translator with you on a single-seat jet fighter up in the air.
But M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles? They should’ve been sent earlier. Same with M1 Abrams tanks. We’ve long talked about the logistical challenges of fielding advanced Western gear, which is why Ukraine’s allies shipped 1960s-era M113 armored personnel carriers at the very start. But those should’ve merely been stopgaps while working through the more complex logistical challenges, instead of waiting and waiting and waiting to finally begin to plan for the better gear.
Given the fierce opposition from human rights groups, allied countries, and both opportunistic Republicans and well-meaning but naive Democrats in Congress, people underestimate just how courageous it was for President Joe Biden to authorize the shipment of cluster munitions. Ukraine’s current strategy relies on massive artillery fires to replace what NATO would accomplish via airpower. Given the global shortage of artillery shells, 2 to 3 million cluster rounds are as close to game-changing as you’ll get in this counteroffensive. But now, it’s time to authorize that new $20.6 billion aid package to send more ammunition, Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, Abrams main battle tanks, and desperately needed mine-clearing equipment in preparation for the next stage of the war in 2024.
Authorize everything, all at once. Signal to Putin that Ukraine will have hundreds of Abrams tanks and thousands of Bradleys next year. Putin needs to lose hope that the U.S. will lose interest, or that the 2024 presidential election (and a potential Donald Trump victory) will bail him out. By authorizing and announcing massive reinforcements today, it would go a long way to ending the war tomorrow.
U.S. officials said the Pentagon recommended multiple times that Ukraine concentrate a large mass of forces on a single breakthrough point. Though Ukraine opted for a different strategy, officials said it was Kyiv’s call to make given the profound sacrifice Ukrainian troops were making on the battlefield.
Ukraine can’t do combined arms warfare at scale. Massing their forces in one place then dribbling them into the Russian woodchipper would help no one. See how Russia’s vaunted marines were slaughtered at Vuhledar. Kyiv made the right choice.
And again, while it hasn’t led to a dramatic Ukrainian breakthrough, Ukraine is putting massive pressure along both the Tokmak and Mariupol directions, as well as causing havoc in Kherson, across the Dnipro River. Russia is fiercely defending, but its forces are being deployed outside of their prepared defenses. At some point, something will snap.
Analysts say the challenges Ukraine has faced are multifaceted, but nearly all agree that Russia surpassed expectations when it comes to its proficiency in defending occupied territory.
“The most deterministic factor of how this offensive has gone thus far is the quality of Russian defenses,” said Lee, noting Russia’s use of trenches, mines and aviation. “They had a lot of time and they prepared them very well … and made it very difficult for Ukraine to advance.”
We’ve seen video after video of Russians in trenches fighting to the death rather than surrender. It’s a real thing; they’re fighting hard. And it’s not because of “blocking forces” willing to shoot them from behind. It’s time that people stop denigrating the individual bravery of these Russian invaders. Yes, their drafted mobiks are a disaster. But where they have much higher-quality contract soldiers manning key defensive positions, they aren’t easy to dislodge.
The Ukrainians have for months poured tremendous resources into Bakhmut, including soldiers, ammunition and time, but they have lost control of the city and have made only modest gains in capturing territory around it. And while the close-in, trench-line fighting is different in Bakhmut from the problem of mines in the south, the focus has left some in the Biden administration concerned that overcommitting in the east may have eroded the potency of the counteroffensive in the south.
Ukraine did not deploy its elite forces to the Bakhmut defense, and those defenders engaged in a fighting retreat that bled Russia’s winter offensive dry. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s best forces had time to train in Germany, Sweden, and Poland because their comrades were dying in Bakhmut, tying up Russia’s advance. Despite high hopes for its winter offensive, all Russia had to show for it at the end was the dead husk of a strategically irrelevant city at a cost of tens of thousands dead and maimed.
Like the battle for Severodonetsk last year, military historians will argue over whether the defense made sense, but objectively, none of it impacted the troops now taking part in the Ukrainian counteroffensive. And it’s hard to complain about ammunition expended, since Ukraine would’ve had to hold off the Russian advance somewhere. It wasn’t like that ammo was gratuitously wasted. Funneling the entire Russian advance into a single axis likely allowed less ammo to be expended.
But it is reasonable to question whether it makes sense for Ukraine to expend resources to regain territory around Bakhmut. The reformed Azov brigade—one of Ukraine’s best fighting units—has been fighting trenchline to trenchline to advance north and south of Ukraine, and they now control strategic high ground around western Bakhmut. For now, they seem content to stay there, picking off Russians attempting to retake lost positions, occasionally ceding some ground when necessary to avoid losses.
Would those Azov soldiers be better used in the southern counteroffensive? I don’t see how. Ukraine still has a significant number of uncommitted reserves. It makes tactical sense for Ukraine to pin down a significant chunk of Russia’s forces in the Bakhmut area.
U.S. officials said Washington was still open to Kyiv surprising skeptics and overcoming the odds. One defense official said it is possible that Ukraine could buck historical norms and continue the counteroffensive through the winter, when everything including keeping soldiers warm and stocked with food and ammunition becomes much more difficult.
Yes, winter is more difficult … for both sides. So who suffers more: the side with the extended supply lines and a history of logistical difficulties, or the side with the shorter supply lines?
Let’s be honest: Ukrainians and Russians showed this past winter that they’re not afraid of the cold. It’s a hardship they’re well accustomed to. It will be important to equip Ukrainian troops with the proper cold-weather gear, and that’s a place where its allies can step up. It’s even a wonderful opportunity for those who refuse to donate military gear, like say, Switzerland or South Korea, to step up with this kind of “non-lethal” aid.
In any case, there’s undoubtedly an intelligence report that notes that Ukraine’s advance is slower than hoped for; that’s not controversial. But the rest? We actually don’t know what the report says, and if it indeed predicts Ukraine will eventually get a few miles from Melitopol, that is actually fantastic news. But I wouldn’t even bet on that.
All we know is what we see, and right now, Ukraine is putting extreme pressure on the Russian defense while effectively destroying their artillery advantage. They’re doing what they need to do to create the conditions for more dramatic gains down the road.
It’s not quick and it’s not painless. But it’s working within the confines of a drone- and mine-infested battlefield reality that even NATO has never had to deal with.