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Assessing Ukraine’s ongoing counteroffensive: Challenges and realities

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As Ukraine’s long-anticipated counteroffensive unfolds, Western officials are offering increasingly “sobering” evaluations of the country’s efforts to regain significant territory. Insights gathered from four senior US and Western officials, well-versed in the latest intelligence, reveal the complex landscape Ukraine’s armed forces are navigating in their bid to shift the conflict’s balance, according to sources briefed by CNN.

Despite weeks of endeavor, Ukrainian forces are encountering formidable obstacles in their quest to reclaim strategic land. A senior Western diplomat stated that while Ukrainian troops are expected to persist in attempting progress for a few more weeks, fundamentally altering the course of the conflict appears “extremely, highly unlikely.”

Rep. Mike Quigley, an Illinois Democrat, who recently engaged with US commanders training Ukrainian armored forces in Europe, echoed this sentiment. He noted, “Our briefings are sobering. We’re reminded of the challenges they face. This is the most difficult time of the war.”

The key challenge for Ukrainian forces lies in penetrating Russia’s multi-layered defensive lines entrenched in the eastern and southern regions. These defenses, characterized by extensive minefields and intricate trench networks, have presented insurmountable difficulties. Ukrainian troops have suffered substantial losses in these areas, prompting commanders to hold back certain units to minimize casualties and regroup effectively.

Highlighting this issue, a senior Western diplomat stated, “Russians have a number of defensive lines and they [Ukrainian forces] haven’t really gone through the first line. Even if they would keep on fighting for the next several weeks, if they haven’t been able to make more breakthroughs throughout these last seven, eight weeks, what is the likelihood that they will suddenly, with more depleted forces, make them? Because the conditions are so hard.”

The realization of the challenges Ukrainian forces face is acknowledged by senior US officials. While recognizing the hurdles, these officials remain hopeful for eventual progress. A senior US official emphasized, “We all recognize this is going harder and slower than anyone would like – including the Ukrainians – but we still believe there’s time and space for them to be able to make progress.”

White House National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, John Kirby, acknowledged the measured pace of Ukraine’s counteroffensive. He emphasized that the effort, while incremental and slow, is ongoing and reflective of Ukraine’s commitment. Kirby noted, “There is active fighting along that front, they are definitely trying to push forward. How far they’ll get, where that will be, what kind of breakthrough they might be able to achieve, I don’t think anybody can say right now. We’ve got to make sure we’re staying behind them and supporting them.”

As fall approaches, Ukrainian forces confront a narrowing window of opportunity to advance, as weather conditions worsen and the fighting becomes even more challenging.

The delay in progress also underscores the intricate task of transforming Ukrainian forces into combined mechanized fighting units. Some units have had as little as eight weeks of training on Western-supplied tanks and new weapon systems. A senior US military official suggested that the lack of advancement on the ground prompted Ukrainian forces to engage more frequently within Russian territory, aiming to expose vulnerabilities.

Despite the struggles, Ukraine’s armed forces chief, Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, communicated to US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley that progress is being made step by step, fostering conditions for advancement. Zaluzhnyi affirmed Ukraine’s steadfast defense, even amid active assault actions.

As the assessments transition from initial optimism to current realities, there’s a growing divergence between expectations and results. These discrepancies are causing pressure on Ukraine to consider peace negotiations, even potentially contemplating territorial concessions, which marks a shift from earlier optimism.

This evolution of perspectives could potentially strain the alliance between Ukraine and its Western supporters, and officials caution against the emergence of a “blame game” scenario. While challenges persist, it’s evident that Ukraine remains committed to forging ahead, with the hope of overcoming hurdles and achieving meaningful progress in the ongoing conflict.

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