Ukraine Situation Report: Kyiv Changes Counteroffensive Tactics

Despite tens of billions of dollars of weapons poured into Ukraine and training of many of the country’s troops by the U.S. and its allies, progress in the counteroffensive has been limited. So Kyiv is changing its tactics.

The New York Times on Wednesday reported that Ukrainian military commanders are now “focusing on wearing down the Russian forces with artillery and long-range missiles instead of plunging into minefields under fire.” This comes as a troop surge is underway in the country’s south, “with a second wave of Western-trained forces launching mostly small-scale attacks to punch through Russian lines.”

The results, to date, have “been mixed,” the publication reported. While Ukrainian troops have retaken a few villages, “they have yet to make the kinds of sweeping gains that characterized their successes in the strategically important cities of Kherson and Kharkiv last fall. The complicated training in Western maneuvers has given the Ukrainians scant solace in the face of barrage after barrage of Russian artillery.”

The tactical change up “is a clear signal that NATO’s hopes for large advances made by Ukrainian formations armed with new weapons, new training and an injection of artillery ammunition have failed to materialize, at least for now,” the paper reported.

The situation on the battlefield “raises questions about the quality of the training the Ukrainians received from the West and about whether tens of billions of dollars’ worth of weapons, including nearly $44 billion worth from the Biden administration, have been successful in transforming the Ukrainian military into a NATO-standard fighting force.”

The Times piece includes analysis from Rob Lee, Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and Michael Kofman, Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment and Principal Research Scientist, CNA. Kofman noted that there were challenges with how Ukrainian troops were trained to fight the NATO way. Lee said the training timetable was too compressed.

That dovetails with the findings we reported last month by Franz-Stefan Gady, a senior fellow with the Institute for International Strategic Studies and the Center for New American Security who traveled with Kofman and Lee to Ukraine recently.

Gady told us that in his view, Ukrainian troops were struggling to apply the lessons learned during the truncated training. You can read more about that in our story here.

Last week, Ukraine launched what appeared to be the main thrust of its counteroffensive. Given the challenges we’ve noted above, Kofman told the Times that the “counteroffensive itself hasn’t failed; it will drag on for several months into the fall.”

While the U.S. has repeatedly promised to back Ukraine for as long as it takes, it remains to be seen just how long the pace of support and donations continues. That could be an increasing concern as the Pentagon is now sending Taiwan military hardware in Presidential Drawdown packages like the ones provided to Kyiv. 

We will continue to monitor this situation and provide updates as warranted.

Before we head into the latest news from Ukraine, The War Zone readers can catch up on our previous rolling coverage of the war here.

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On the battlefield, there have been no major ground gains by either side. Ukraine continues to push its counteroffensive in Zaporizhzhia Oblast and the Donbas and Russian troops are fighting an offensive of their own trying to regain territory and sap Ukrainian resources.

Here are some key takeaways from the latest Institute for the Study of War assessment

  • The Russian MoD continues to posture Russian Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov as an effective and involved overall theater commander in Ukraine.
  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations on at least three sectors of the front and reportedly advanced near Bakhmut on August 1.
  • Russian forces conducted offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, on the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line, in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast on August 1 and made advances in certain areas.
  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations on at least three sectors of the front on August 1 and advanced near Kreminna and Bakhmut.

The Economist took a deep dive into Ukraine’s counteroffensive, spending times with troops in Zaporizhzhia Oblast.

“Ukraine’s push south is proceeding painfully slowly. Russian troops have prepared formidable defenses which the Ukrainians are finding hard to breach,” the publication reported. ”These include drones transmitting live pictures back to their operators, minefields and loitering munitions. They have hugely increased the challenges that Ukraine’s soldiers are facing compared with last year.”

“The worst are tripwires,” says Pole, one of the soldiers the Economist interviewed, “which you cannot see at night, and set off a whole string of connected mines.” 

Poland will deploy more troops the border with Belarus after it accused Minsk of violating its airspace, according to CNN, as tensions increase between the NATO member and Vladimir Putin’s vassal state. 

On Tuesday, Poland said two Belarusian helicopters allegedly violated it airspace during training exercises. The Belarusian defense ministry vehemently denied and dismissed that accusation as “far-fetched.”

All this comes amid increased activity near a thin strip of land between Poland and Lithuania, known as the Suwalki gap or corridor. Troops from Yevgeny Prigozin’s Wagner mercenary group are moving toward there in an apparent attempt to increase pressure on NATO and EU members, CNN reported.

Last week, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said Wagner mercenaries were heading towards the Suwalki corridor via Grodno, a city in western Belarus, in a situation that is “becoming even more dangerous” as Russian-allied forces attempt to increase their presence near the NATO border.

The Russian Defense Ministry (MoD) on Wednesday claimed Ukraine carried out a second unsuccessful uncrewed surface vessel (USV) attack on one of its ships in the Black Sea in as many days.

The latest attack came against a Russian Navy ship escorting civilian maritime transport, the MoD said on its Telegram channel, without offering proof. “As a result of professional actions of the Russian ship’s crew, the Ukrainian boat was promptly detected and destroyed.”

On Tuesday, the MoD claimed Ukraine “unsuccessfully attempted to attack patrol vessels Sergey Kotov and Vasily Bykov of the Black Sea Fleet, which are carrying out tasks to control navigation in the southwestern part of the Black Sea.”

Ukraine used three USVs in that attack, 340 kilometers (211 miles) southwest of Sevastopol, the MoD claimed.  

Russia claims its Navy ships were subjected to two unsuccessful Ukrainian uncrewed surface vessel (USV attacks) in the Black Sea in as many days. (Google Earth image)

“In the course of repelling the attack, all three unmanned enemy boats were destroyed by fire from the regular weapons of the Russian ships” which are continuing their missions. 

Following the Russian MoD claims, Ukrainian presidential official Mykhailo Podolyak on Tuesday told Reuters: “Undoubtedly, such statements by Russian officials are fictitious and do not contain even a shred of truth. Ukraine has not attacked, is not attacking and will not attack civilian vessels, nor any other civilian objects.”

These are the latest in a series of claims Russia has made about its ships coming under attack by Ukrainian USVs. The Russian MoD claimed the Sergey Kotov also repelled an attempted USV attack in June.

While it’s unclear if the attacks were real or staged, Ukraine clearly has developed a capacity to attempt increasingly advanced USV strikes. There have been several on Sevastopol, home of the BSF, and on Sunday, Ukrainian and Russian officials said the Kerch Bridge was attacked by Ukrainian USVs.

CNN was recently given exclusive access to the most advanced versions of Ukrainian USVs.

In a sobering analysis of the scope of this war that draws comparisons to World War I, The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday reported that between 20,000 and 50,000 Ukrainians have lost at least one limb.

The publication derived that figure from ”previously undisclosed estimates by prosthetics firms, doctors and charities.”

The actual figure could be higher, the publication reported, “because it takes time to register patients after they undergo the procedure. Some are only amputated weeks or months after being wounded.” The ongoing counteroffensive will likely greatly increase that figure.

“By comparison, some 67,000 Germans and 41,000 Britons had to have amputations during the course of World War I, when the procedure was often the only one available to prevent death. Fewer than 2,000 U.S. veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions had amputations.”

In the wake of recent Ukrainian drone attacks on Moscow, a member of the Russian Duma legislative body is pitching a 2 billion ruble ($21 million) AI-based air defense plan, the Russian PNP news outlet reported Tuesday.

“Our colleagues proposed a complex consisting of a detection device and a destruction device,” State Duma Committee on Defense member Dmitry Kuznetsov told the publication.

The detection device is “a software and hardware system based on artificial intelligence, which can detect drones by visual and acoustic features – in appearance, dimensions and the noise they produce,” Kuznetsov said.

The destruction device “is an air gun,” he explained. “It is capable of shooting at a distance of up to a kilometer, and its power and muzzle energy are quite enough to smash the drone into fragments that cannot harm anyone. These are the systems we now consider as a priority and we will send proposals for their installation to Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin and Head of the Department of Transport and Road Infrastructure Development Maxim Liksutov.”

The plausibility of such a plan is highly dubious.

Meanwhile, in Russia’s Belgorod Oblast – which has been subjected to repeated Ukrainian drone attacks – territorial defense forces there for the first time have been given weapons to defend against them.

“Small arms, anti-drone guns and [Russian Ulyanovsky Avtomobilny Zavod] UAZ vehicles were issued to members of the territorial self-defense in the Belgorod region,” the official Russian TASS news agency reported Wednesday. Ukraine has already developed a somewhat similar approach, which you can read more about here.

“We have come to the point that we are solving the issues of providing weapons for our self-defense within the framework of the current legislation. The situation continues to be difficult,” Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said at the ceremony.

Speaking of drones, we’ve seen many videos of grenade-like munitions being dropped by both sides. Now a group of Ukrainians has developed 3-D printed munitions they say pack more punch because they are filled with C-4.

“With a typical weight of just 300 grams, grenades are short on ‘killing power,'” an amateur weapons-maker based in Kyiv recently told the Economist.

Three months ago that volunteer and a group of friends, working in their homes, designed an alternative, the publication reported: “an 800-gram anti-personnel bomb called the ‘Zaychyk,’ or ‘Rabbit.’ The group uses 3D printing to produce the bomb’s casing, before sending it to be filled with C4, an explosive, and pieces of steel shrapnel.”

In tests, the volunteer said this shrapnel cuts into wooden planks ‘like butter.'”

Ukrainian officials say that thanks to the efforts of pro-Kyiv partisans working in occupied Kherson Oblast, dozens of Russian troops were spotted on the Dzharylach peninsula and killed in an ensuing strike by M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, according to Ukrainian Pravda.

Pro-Ukrainian partisans in Russian-occupied Crimea are stepping up their attacks on military facilities, the Ukrainian Defense Intelligence Directorate (GUR) claimed on Tuesday.

“In particular, attacks on military facilities using ‘Molotov cocktails’ (bottles with a flammable mixture) have become systematic. Civilians who support Ukraine are the organizers and executors of most of them,” the GUR claimed.

Russian troops “have been put on high alert to resist such attacks,” said the GUR, adding that . “‘suspicious persons’ who could potentially be involved in similar incidents are being monitored. Using physical force and weapons is allowed; mass detentions and arrests are carried out.”

Meanwhile, it appears that partisans sympathetic to Ukraine are continuing to operate inside Russia as well, in this case attacking railway equipment. As we have noted in the past, Russia relies heavily on railroads for supply.

Russian Ka-52 Alligator attack helicopters firing anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM) have proven a bane to Ukraine’s armor as can read about in our deep dive here. This video below shows an Alligator attacking Ukrainian armor near Robotyne in Zaporizhzhia Oblast, reportedly with a laser-guided 9A4172K Vikhr-1 ATGM that can reach targets at 5-6 miles.

New satellite imagery appears to show Russia has built out additional fortifications at the Russian occupied Berdyansk airport.

“This imagery shows the continued use of the site by Russian forces,” researcher Brady Africk told us. “The new revetments are also a bit interesting and are likely there for air defense systems.”

The U.S.-donated Bradley Fighting Vehicles continue to show their value saving Ukrainian lives. This video below shows one apparently outfitted with Bradley Reactive Armor Tiles (BRAT) surviving a hit by a Russian Lancet drone. You can read more about BRAT in our story here.

If you want to get an up-close and personal view of Ukrainian troops operating a Czech-donated Vampire multiple launch rocket system (MLRS), check out this video. The operators talk about how they can load in target coordinates and be ready to fire within four minutes.

Trenches offer only so much protection in this war, as once again demonstrated in this video below. Russian forces are seen trying to escape incoming Ukrainian rounds, that land in the trenches and fill them with billowing smoke.

Sometimes, you need a little elevation to hit armor with an anti-tank guided missile (ATGM). That’s what the Ukrainian troops in this video below did, climbing a tree to get some height to fire off a Javelin ATGM.

If you want a sense of what it is like for soldiers under indirect fire, check out this video below of Ukrainian forces scrambling from a building that appears to be under attack.

Ukrainians managed to save some history out of the rubble of a Russian attack on the city of Sumy.

And finally, pizza remains a universal happy snack, as this Ukrainian infantry fighting vehicle crew proves.

That’s it for now. We’ll update this story when there’s more news to report about Ukraine.

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Howard Altman

Senior Staff Writer

Howard is a Senior Staff Writer for The War Zone, and a former Senior Managing Editor for Military Times. Prior to this, he covered military affairs for the Tampa Bay Times as a Senior Writer. Howard's work has appeared in various publications including Yahoo News, RealClearDefense, and Air Force Times.