“Tonight is the night of nights”.
These were the words in the ears of US paratroopers as they boarded planes on Monday 5 June 1944 in Kent.
They were about to step off on the most complex operation in history – the Normandy beach landings that eventually led to the liberation of occupied Europe.
Exactly 79 years later, Ukrainian officers have been quoting these words to their men and women. The long-heralded, much advertised, and anxiously expected Ukrainian counter-offensive against the Russian invader started this week, or at the very least it significantly stepped up a gear.
Over the last two months, the Ukrainians have been conducting preparatory shaping operations. These are designed to soften the enemy, confuse them as to your intentions, and gather intelligence about their strengths and weaknesses. In other words, to shape the enemy to your liking so that they are easier to defeat once you finally attack them.
Most strikingly, the Russian Freedom Legion – a Ukrainian armed and supported paramilitary group comprised of Russian citizens – have made bold and daring incursions into the Russian territories of Belgorod and Kursk. Judging by the lack of Russian defensive troops along their own border, these were clearly considered safe by the Kremlin. Not anymore. And as a result, the Russians now have to contend with a front line that is twice as long, further stretching their already stretched troops.
This week the Ukrainians moved on from shaping operations. They are now in to phase one of their counter-offensive. And rather than using the whole of their force and all of the western donated equipment – some nine armoured brigades and a supporting infantry force – they have opted for multiple mini-offensives with much smaller teams.
Here is how the week panned out.
At the start of the week, Ukraine launched several small-scale probes seizing slivers of territory around the town of Vuhledar in the south-east of the country. Alongside diversionary feints in the area of Velyka Novosilka, there were two company-sized attacks in the direction of the town of Vuhledar itself.
Vuhledar is an area that the Russians repeatedly launched assaults from in the late winter and early spring, and so the defensive lines there are less well prepared.
The town also occupies a key position with nearby railway lines which the Russians rely on heavily to supply their troops. It is also 45 miles to Mariupol on the coast. A successful offensive here would cut the Russian forces in Ukraine into two separate forces.
Most probably the Ukrainians are exploring the strength of the Russian defences in the area, in order to see whether this is a suitable area for a future assault.
The Ukrainian activity on Monday was a clear signal to the Russian forces that the counter-offensive had moved on to a different phase. They needed to do something, and at 2.50am they blew a hole in the Kakhovka hydroelectric dam in southern Ukraine. It’s likely that the Russians were intending a smaller breach of the dam, sufficient to make the river impassable to the Ukrainian counter-offensive.
As it was, a huge wave of water raced downstream, reaching the city of Kherson by the morning, flooding villages and settlements on both banks of the river. But this wave also took out multiple Russian positions on the south bank of the river, prompting videos of Russian soldiers wading through dirty floodwater or, in one case, climbing to the tops of trees to avoid being swept away.
In military terms, the river south of the dam is now completely impassable, restricting Ukraine’s options in the short term. Yet, in a little more than a week, the flood water will pass, and the river downstream of the dam will return to something like its original state. Upstream of the dam, what was a reservoir will become a river again, potentially making the area suitable for a crossing once the reservoir bed has dried out. In short, in the long term, the dam breach has not really helped either side, in fact it could be argued that it has given both sides extra things to worry about.
Regaining the momentum after the dam blast, Ukraine stepped up its attacks on Bakhmut, a small city in the east that the Russians recently took control of after over six months of heavy and costly fighting. That Russian takeover had been spearheaded by the Wagner mercenary group who, once they had taken control of the city, handed it over to regular Russian military.
On Monday, the Ukrainians began to attack them using Polish supplied T-72 tanks and Ukrainian BMP personnel carriers, specifically focussing on the northern and southern flanks of the town where the Russians were weakest. They made good, rapid progress with some reports indicating that they advanced 1.5km through the Russian military lines.
The role of the Bakhmut attack is twofold. First, the city is symbolically important to the Russians after spending so much blood and treasure in its capture. As a result, the Russians are terrified of reversals and keep thousands of Russian troops there. Second, any Russian losses of territory here greatly exacerbate the frictions between the regular Russian military and the Wagner mercenary group.
Thursday and Friday
Having launched speculative attacks in Vuhledar, and fixed large numbers of Russian troops in place in Bakhmut, Ukraine launched the biggest assault of the week from Orikhiv heading south towards the critical Russian logistics hub of Tokmak.
This area has long been considered the most promising place for Ukraine to focus its counter-offensive and so has been heavily fortified by the Russians with multiple overlapping lines of defence consisting of trench systems, anti-tank ditches and traps, all interspersed with minefields.
Stepping off in the early morning, four Ukrainians companies in American armoured infantry vehicles and German Leopard 2 tanks charged headlong into the prepared Russian defences. According to limited drone footage, they appear to have suffered heavy casualties, with Leopards and American Bradley Fighting Vehicles left smoking in a cratered field.
However, on the whole, the assaults managed to breach the first line in places, and more importantly they helped identify the exact Russian positions. The Ukrainians then picked these positions off with GPS-guided Himars rockets allowing the Ukrainian troops through. This is the area of the fiercest fighting, and Ukraine has since committed more troops to this axis, their eyes on the long-term prize of reaching the coast and cutting off Russia’s “land bridge” to Crimea.
Success so far?
Inevitably it is very difficult to tell even without the fog of war how successful the counter attacks have been in their early stages. In some areas, the Ukrainians have breached the initial Russian defensive positions, although at a cost in destroyed vehicles and high levels of casualties. Whether they can exploit these initial gains is a question we don’t know the answer to.
Michael Kofman, a top US war analyst, said of this week’s advances: “This isn’t something you judge based on a few days of fighting. Footage of combat losses, which are to be expected, can have an anchoring effect. The offensive will play out over weeks, and likely months.”
A more important question is where Ukraine chooses to deploy their main force equipped with Western equipment next. We have seen little of the total mass deployed yet. It seems likely that the two options are around Vuhledar or Tokmak, but the Ukrainians have surprised us before and gone in a totally different direction.
What is clear, though, is that the Ukrainians are now committed, the counter-offensive has begun, and it is only going to be more intense and more bloody.
Mike Martin is a senior visiting fellow at King’s College London, and the author of the recently published How to Fight a War