Western pressure on Ukraine to achieve ‘Hollywood-style’ breakthrough is damaging front line push, experts warn

Western pressure on Ukraine’s counteroffensive to achieve a “Hollywood”-style breakthrough against Russia was “unrealistic” from the outset, and Kyiv’s allies must be prepared for the war to “drag on far longer” than they imagined, analysts have said.

With rains expected to muddy the battlefield in Zaporizhzhia as soon as September, the “odds are getting longer” on the “triumphant breakthrough” many in the West were hoping for, experts told The Independent.

Facing heavily fortified Russian defences, including vast minefields, Ukraine has been forced to broaden its focus away from the frontlines to wider attacks, which are having “real successes” in degrading Russia’s military capabilities and zapping the morale of its increasingly stretched forces.

Ukrainian soldiers fire a mortar towards Russian positions at the front line, near Bakhmut

(AP photo/Libkos)

Those efforts to hit supply lines, and destroy weapons depots and artillery pieces, are “going to matter in the long-term a lot more than taking a village here or a town there”, said Mark Galeotti, director of the Mayak Intelligence consultancy – who still did not rule out a surprise breakthrough by Kyiv’s forces.

“Although one can be disappointed about the counteroffensive in the short-term, in the long-term it’s leading to a situation where, come next spring, the Ukrainians are going to increasingly be fielding a competent 21st century army – while the Russians are fielding a 20th century army,” he added.

The outcome of this year’s counteroffensive “may have been predetermined by Western choices” not to go far enough in arming Ukraine, meaning Kyiv’s forces are fighting “under conditions that no Western military would contemplate”, said Keir Giles, a senior consulting fellow at Chatham House.

Progress “was always going to be slow and painful” because Western hesitation “gave Russia more than ample time” to construct the defences Kyiv is now “having to push through at immense cost”, and allowed Moscow to retain air superiority, said Mr Giles.

“We should be prepared for this war to drag on far longer than people have imagined,” he said, stressing the need for Western voters to remain mindful of the “disastrous outcomes of a Russian victory”.

Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky visited troops close to the frontline in Donetsk on Monday

(Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

It is “the sad reality” that, rather than the West, it is Russia who “is holding the clock right now”, said Dr Marina Miron, of Kings College London’s war studies department, pointing to Vladimir Putin’s past questioning of Nato’s stamina in what the Russian president views as “a contest of political wills”.

But Dr Miron warned that the narrative of a fixed Ukrainian counteroffensive – facing a ticking clock as winter approaches – was simplistic, saying: “In this kind of contemporary warfare you don’t have clear-cut offensive/counteroffensive operations … it doesn’t fit squarely into those categories any more.”

Ukraine appears to be trying to hold out until it receives more military equipment, according to Dr Miron, while adopting asymmetric tactics, such as the use of cheap drones to hit the Black Sea fleet and targets within Russia, such as Moscow and Belgorod – for which Kyiv is reluctant to claim responsibility.

“It’s not just about taking territory, it’s about the psychological impact, it’s about degrading Russia’s logistic capabilities,” she said.

However, Dr Miron cautioned that attacks on Russian soil “might well be playing into Russia’s hands” by seemingly “reinforcing” Mr Putin’s narrative of the war, and lending him justification for a further mobilisation of citizens, while alienating Western allies fearful of escalation.

Ukraine has been targeting Russian artillery systems, which are pivotal to Moscow’s military approach

(AFP via Getty Images)

Despite scepticism over a huge Ukrainian breakthrough pre-winter, Mr Galeotti suggested that Kyiv will be hoping, if not to break Russia’s land bridge between Crimea and eastern Donetsk, to at least bring it within the range of shelling and rocket attacks.

In the south, there are reports of a Ukrainian push across the Dnipro River, near the recaptured city of Kherson, while Russian forces have mounted their own offensive towards Kupyansk in the north.

Russia’s efforts there “might delay but won’t alter Ukraine’s strategic objective to reach the Black Sea coast and break Russia’s land bridge”, said Jaroslava Barbieri, of the University of Birmingham.

Ukraine is seeking to advance on multiple fronts across a vast area

(Ministry of Defence)

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s positions near the land bridge could be strengthened by drawing more Russian troops to the Dnipro River, where the “symbolic role of Kherson as one of the first cities to fall under Russian occupation” could have a “strong demoralising effect on Russian soldiers”, said Ms Barbieri.

Warning that Western complaints over the pace of Kyiv’s counteroffensive are “a major source of frustration in Ukraine”, Ms Barbieri added: “Kyiv is aware of electoral pressures in key Western countries and feels the pressure to demonstrate that Western military aid is making a difference.

“But a bigger priority is urging international audiences not to look at the counteroffensive as a Hollywood film and warning of the dangers of accepting a peace on Russian terms.”

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