Ukraine's counteroffensive has been slow, but Western support remains strong — even with new war in Middle East

Russian defensive positions have largely held, though at an enormous cost.

The "Motherland" monument is seen through a tattered tarpaulin in Kyiv. Earlier this year, Kyiv replaced the communist symbol on the shield of the Soviet-era monument with the Ukrainian national emblem. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

The fighting in eastern Ukraine has been slow — and brutal. For months, neither Ukraine nor Russia has made the kind of momentum-shifting gains that could bring either side closer to victory. Instead, the war, which began when Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022, has settled into trench warfare, a game of kilometers nobody seems to be winning.

President Biden has said the United States will support Ukraine for “as long as it takes.” But the recent chaos on Capitol Hill — with right-wing Republicans skeptical of more U.S. military aid to Ukraine ousting House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, then struggling to unite and elect his successor — could not have been inspiring to leaders in Kyiv. And the possibility of a second Donald Trump presidency could mean that aid to Ukraine could end altogether.

Meanwhile, cold weather will soon freeze both armies in Eastern Europe in place. Large-scale operations probably won’t resume until spring, when the war will be in its third year.

Recommended reading

Mixed results on counteroffensive

A member of the Ukrainian National Guard uses a metal detector to check an area near the Russian border in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine.
A member of the Ukrainian National Guard uses a metal detector to check an area in the Kharkiv region near the Russian border in September 2022. (Sofiia Gatilova/Reuters)

There are scant weeks of good weather left for Ukraine to make progress against Russia along a 700-mile-long front that bends from north to south along the occupied nation’s eastern flank, where Russia has illegally annexed four territories.

So far, gains have been exceptionally modest, with dug-in Russian troops proving difficult to dislodge. The goal of splitting Russia’s defensive lines and reaching the Azov Sea now looks to have been something of a fantasy.

“I see the counteroffensive as a failure, despite some mild gains and success targeting Russian ships in the Black Sea,” Benjamin H. Friedman, policy director of the Defense Priorities think tank, told Yahoo News. “They'd have been better served to stay on defense and hope to wear down Russian will rather than exhausting so much capability trying for breakthroughs.”

But others argue that Ukrainian attacks on Russia’s Black Sea fleet and positions in Crimea should not be understated — even if gains on the eastern front have indeed been modest.

“A crucial part of Kyiv’s long-term plan for the war is to push Russia out of the Crimean Peninsula and the rest of the Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine’s coastline,” Oz Katerji and Vladislav Davidzon pointed out in a recent article in Foreign Policy. They wrote, “Ukraine has achieved a series of startling victories in and around Crimea ... with major impacts on the Russians’ ability to operate on the peninsula and in the western Black Sea.”

New Russian offensive

A Caesar self-propelled howitzer from the 55th Separate Artillery Brigade is seen after firing toward Russian troops near the town of Avdiivka, Ukraine.
A howitzer from the 55th Separate Artillery Brigade after firing toward Russian troops near the town of Avdiivka, Ukraine. (Viacheslav Ratynskyi/Reuters)

Earlier this month, Russia launched an offensive of its own centered on the village of Avdiivka, in Ukraine’s southeastern Donetsk region.

“This offensive was not a surprise,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said during a White House briefing Thursday. “We’ve been watching this build and come.” He said that Russia “had suffered significant losses” since the offensive began about two weeks ago. The Kremlin has generally been willing to accept such losses, both of soldiers and equipment.

“We expect more Russian attacks to come,” Kirby acknowledged. “This is a dynamic conflict, and we need to remember that Russia maintains some offensive capability and may be able to achieve some tactical gains in the coming months.”

Russia is now producing its own drones (the unmanned vehicles were previously supplied by Iran) and is receiving shipments of ammunition from North Korea while continuing to forge an ever deeper economic relationship with China.

To compensate for its horrific battlefield losses — as many as 120,000 Russian troops have been killed in action, according to some estimates — Russia has been forcibly conscripting Central Asian migrants, according to the Institute for the Study of War.

Kirby also said on Thursday that Russia has been executing its own soldiers — perhaps a battalion at a time — for refusing to fight. The practice, which he deemed “barbaric,” recalls the “no retreat” order that Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin gave during the darkest days of World War II.

Two wars, one cause

President Biden delivers an address on Oct. 19 about the Israel-Hamas conflict, humanitarian assistance in Gaza and continued support for Ukraine.
President Biden delivers an address on Oct. 19 about the Israel-Hamas conflict, humanitarian assistance in Gaza and continued support for Ukraine in its war with Russia. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The conflict between Israel and Hamas that started earlier this month does not make things any easier for Ukraine, which was already facing “fatigue,” whether from donor nations like Poland or conservative Republicans on Capitol Hill.

When Biden announced funding requests for both Israel ($14 billion) and Ukraine ($60 billion), he described both nations — the only two in the world led by Jewish presidents — as locked in similar struggles against violent, autocratic forces.

“Hamas and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin represent different threats,” Biden said, “but they share this in common: They both want to completely annihilate a neighboring democracy.”

Backers of Ukraine welcomed the parallel, especially since the country's main foe, Russia, has also supported some of the forces most hostile to Israel in the Middle East.

“It’s clear that some people are keen to move on from Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine,” Uriel Epshtein, executive director of the Renew Democracy Initiative, told Yahoo News.

“This is deeply concerning, especially because these crises are connected. Putin has met with Hamas numerous times in recent years, has partnered with their chief backer, Iran, and hopes that by sowing chaos elsewhere, he can make the world forget about Ukraine.”

Recommended reading