Ukraine counteroffensive against Russia finally showing signs of progress

It's slow going, but Ukraine is making gains in the Zaporizhzhia region.

Three people, two of whom wear camouflage fatigues, huddle together in a wooded area and look at handheld devices, while a fourth person sits with their back to them.
Students of a school for drone pilots during a lesson in an undisclosed location in Ukraine on June 30. (Alina Smutko/Reuters)

Throughout the summer, Ukraine has struggled to mount a counteroffensive that could puncture defenses Russia had spent months erecting. Allies watched in frustration as the Ukrainian military used sophisticated weaponry from Western Europe and the United States to seemingly little effect. The Russians were dug in and, it seemed, going nowhere.

But this week, the Ukrainians appeared to be showing signs of forward momentum in the Zaporizhzhia region. The village of Robotyne was liberated earlier this week. Since then, Ukrainian forces have advanced toward nearby Novoprokopivka and Verbove.

The recent advance does not mean the counteroffensive can be deemed a success — far from it, in fact. The objective of reaching the Azov Sea is a distant one, and the Kremlin is no less determined to keep territory than Kyiv is to reclaim it.

Still, the news from the front was better than it had been for weeks for Ukraine and its supporters.

“There have been some successes,” acknowledged Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar in a message posted to the Telegram messaging app.

Read more from Yahoo News: Is Ukraine's counteroffensive turning out to be a bust?

Weeks of slow going

A few soldiers appear to approach partially demolished buildings beyond a field of wildflowers.
Ukrainian soldiers in Klishchiivka, Donetsk region, in a video screengrab released on Aug. 16. (Reuters)

Throughout the spring, Ukraine prepared for the counteroffensive with the help of the U.S. and allies like Germany, France and the United Kingdom, which all supplied tanks and heavy armor, as well as training. But during those months, Russia fortified its positions, laying down mines across huge swaths of countryside and installing antitank barriers along the front.

When the counteroffensive launched in June, Ukraine reported heavy losses — and little progress. Some officials at the Pentagon have reportedly been frustrated that the Ukrainians were not relying on the concept of combined arms operations — a complex coordination of infantry, artillery and armor — in which some soldiers had been trained.

In response, the Ukrainians bristled at being micromanaged from afar. “You don’t understand the nature of this conflict,” one top Ukrainian general said.

Read more from USA Today: Why the Ukrainian counteroffensive is making little progress against Russian defense

Gains in Zaporizhzhia

Ukrainian commander Valeriy Zaluzhnyi with other generals during the counteroffensive against Russia.
Ukrainian commander Valeriy Zaluzhnyi with other generals during the counteroffensive against Russia, in an image from video released June 19. (Commander-in-Chief of Ukraine's Armed Forces via Reuters)

It is not entirely clear if the fighting around Novoprokopivka and Verbove has allowed the Ukrainians to fully or only partially penetrate the Russian defenses there.

“Contrary to the 'armchair experts,' the Ukrainian Armed Forces have only approached the first line of enemy defense,” read a Telegram post on an account purportedly belonging to the 46 Air Mobile Brigade, which is involved in the fighting in Zaporizhzhia. “The fighting is not behind the occupiers' defense line — there is no need to hype this.”

In Thursday’s assessment of battlefield dynamics, the Institute for the Study of War confirmed that Ukrainian forces had made advances around Verbove but had failed to decisively rout the Russians there.

Read more from Kyiv Independent: General Staff: Ukrainian forces continue advance south of Robotyne

What lies ahead?

Volodymyr Zelensky stands near people wearing camouflage fatigues.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in the town of Izium, liberated by Ukrainian forces during an earlier counteroffensive, Sept. 14, 2022. (Ukrainian presidential press service handout via Reuters)

Along with Zaporizhzhia, Russia controls three regions in eastern Ukraine: Luhansk, Donetsk and Kherson. Those four territories were formally — and illegally — annexed by the Kremlin last year.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said he wants all the land Russia has seized — both in the current war, which began in 2022, and in an initial, more limited foray eight years earlier. To restore Ukraine’s pre-2014 borders, however, Zelensky would have to reclaim the four annexed territories while also retaking the Crimean peninsula.

Few think the current counteroffensive will achieve such grand ambitions. But some believe that the Ukrainian forces have been underestimated.

War does not proceed in a linear fashion,” retired Gen. David Petraeus and military scholar Frederick W. Kagan recently wrote in the Washington Post. “Defenders can hold for a long time and then suddenly break, allowing an attacker to make rapid gains before the defense solidifies further to the rear. The Ukrainians aim to generate exactly this effect — and there is reason to think they can.”

Read more from UPI: Zelensky hails use of Ukrainian-developed long-range missile