June 21, 2023

Institute for the Study of War: Progress slower than expected for Ukraine forces,says Zelenskyy

Institute for the Study of War

Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations on at least three sectors of the front on June 21. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar stated on June 21 that Ukrainian troops had partial success during offensive operations in the Bilohorivka-Shypylivka direction (about 10km south of Kreminna in Luhansk Oblast). A Russian milblogger additionally claimed that Ukrainian forces are counterattacking in the areas south and west of Kreminna. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces continued offensive operations in the western Donetsk-eastern Zaporizhia Oblast border area on the Vilne Pole-Makarivka line, and Russian milbloggers continued to discuss Ukrainian attacks in this area, particularly south of Velyka Novosilka. Ukrainian and Russian sources reported that Ukrainian troops continued offensive operations in western Zaporizhia Oblast, both south and southwest of Orikhiv and that Russian forces are counterattacking to regain lost positions in this direction. Russian sources noted a relatively slower pace of Ukrainian offensive operations in both western Donetsk and western Zaporizhia oblasts compared to the previous days.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky acknowledged that the progress of Ukrainian counteroffensives has been slower than expected, likely due to effective Russian defenses. Zelensky stated that Ukrainian counteroffensive progress has been “slower than desired” and will take time. Zelensky noted that Ukrainian advances are not easy because Russian forces have mined 200,000 square kilometers of frontline territory. Russian President Vladimir Putin also addressed ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensives and preposterously claimed that Russian forces have destroyed 244 tanks and 679 armored vehicles since these operations began on June 4. Russian forces’ doctrinally sound defense in western Zaporizhia Oblast and prepared defensive positions throughout southern Ukraine are likely slowing Ukrainian advances, as ISW has previously assessed. A Russian milblogger claimed that Russian defensive positions in southern Ukraine, dubbed the “Surovikin Line” after former overall theater commander Army General Sergei Surovikin, consist of several defensive zones between lines along dominant elevated positions up to 30km into Russian held territory. The milblogger claimed that the “Surovikin Line” consists of a forward line of defense with several dozen platoon and company strongholds, and a main defensive line roughly 25km back with minefields, anti-tank ditches, and other defensive structures in between, though the extent of these defenses along the entire front line is unclear. These Russian defensive lines are likely arrayed to enable a first echelon of Russian forces, deployed to the forward defensive line, to slow advancing Ukrainian forces while a second echelon of forces deployed closer to the main defensive line launch counterattacks against any Ukrainian breakthroughs, as well as providing prepared fallback positions for frontline Russian units. Localized Ukrainian territorial gains are unlikely to immediately disrupt these Russian defensive lines and localized Ukrainian attempts at rapid breakthroughs are less likely to degrade these lines than a wider concerted operational effort, one which may be focused on degrading Russian defenders and fixing reserves rather than the immediate liberation of territory.

The overall slower than expected pace of Ukrainian counteroffensive operations is not emblematic of Ukraine’s wider offensive potential, and Ukrainian forces are likely successfully setting conditions for a future main effort despite initial setbacks. Ukrainian officials have long signaled that the Ukrainian counteroffensive would be a series of gradual and sequential offensive actions and have more recently offered the observation that currently ongoing operations do not represent the main thrust of Ukraine’s counteroffensive planning. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar emphasized on June 20 that it is not useful to gauge the success of military actions based “solely by kilometers or the number of liberated settlements.” Malyar’s statement echoes Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s observation that war is not a ”Hollywood movie” that will deliver immediate and tangible results.

Key Takeaways

  • Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations on at least three sectors of the front on June 21.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky acknowledged that the progress of Ukrainian counteroffensives has been slower than expected, likely due to effective Russian defenses.
  • The overall slower than expected pace of Ukrainian counteroffensive operations is not emblematic of Ukraine’s wider offensive potential, and Ukrainian forces are likely successfully setting conditions for a future main effort despite initial setbacks.
  • Ukrainian defense industry conglomerate “Ukroboronprom” announced on June 20 that Ukraine built and successfully tested a 1,000km-range drone, indicating Ukraine’s intent and ability to target Russian military infrastructure in Russian-occupied territories and Russia with Ukrainian-made drones.
  • Russian occupation authorities continue to codify legal mechanisms for forcible deportations from occupied areas of Ukraine.
  • Russan and Ukrainian forces continued to engage in positional battles along the Kupyansk-Svatove line.
  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations near Kreminna.
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces continued limited ground attacks in the Bakhmut area and along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Ukrainian forces conducted limited ground attacks along the administrative border between western Donetsk and eastern Zaporizhia oblasts.
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces conducted limited ground attacks in western Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • The Russian military command is reportedly forming a new Azov Naval District as part of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.
  • The Russian State Duma passed a law in the third reading raising age limits for Russian contract personnel and officer, likely to keep personnel currently due to retire in the force.
  • Russian occupation authorities continue to deport children from occupied Luhansk Oblast to Russia under the guise of medical necessity.
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