July 8, 2023

Institute for the Study of War: U.S. says Ukraine’s counteroffensive is at the ‘beginning of the middle’ phase

Institute for the Study of War

Five hundred days ago Russia launched an unprovoked war of conquest against Ukraine. The Russian military intended to take Kyiv within three days but failed to accomplish any of its intended objectives in Ukraine. Determined and skillful Ukrainian resistance has forced the culmination of multiple Russian offensives including the one aimed at Kyiv and has liberated Sumy and Chernihiv oblasts, as well as the parts of Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, and Kherson oblasts that Russian forces had temporarily seized. Ukrainian forces have secured and retained the initiative and are conducting counteroffensive operations along most of the frontline with Russian forces focused almost entirely on trying to hold on to the Ukrainian lands they still occupy. With Western assistance, Ukraine has ensured its independence but faces the critical task of liberating the strategically vital territory still under Russian control.

Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations on at least three sectors of the front on July 8. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar reported on July 7 that Ukrainian forces advanced more than 1km on the southern flank of Bakhmut, and Russian milbloggers claimed that Ukrainian troops attacked Russian positions southwest and northwest of Bakhmut. Russian sources additionally claimed that Ukrainian forces conducted offensive operations in western Donetsk and western Zaporizhia oblasts. Ukrainian military sources confirmed that Ukrainian forces are continuing offensive operations in the Berdyansk (western Donetsk-eastern Zaporizhia Oblast) and Melitopol (western Zaporizhia Oblast) directions and are having partial success in unspecified areas of these directions.

US Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl noted on July 7 that current Ukrainian operations across the front are the “beginning of the middle” of the wider counteroffensive and that it is therefore “too early to judge” how the counteroffensive is going. Advisor to the Head of the Ukrainian President’s Office Mykhaylo Podolyak also emphasized on July 8 that Ukrainian forces are focusing on the destruction of Russian manpower as part of the first phase of counteroffensive operations and noted that the initial phase of the counteroffensive is focused on shaping the battlefield. ISW continues to assess that the current pace of Ukrainian counteroffensives is reflective of the deliberate and strategic effort to create an asymmetrical attrition gradient to conserve Ukrainian combat power and attrit Russian manpower and equipment at the cost of slower territorial advances.

The United States announced a new military aid package for Ukraine that includes cluster munitions on July 7. The $800 billion aid package includes dual-purpose improved conventional munitions (DPICMs), and more ammunition for Patriot air defense systems and HIMARS MLRS systems. US Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl stated that the US is providing cluster munitions to Ukraine due to the “urgency of the moment” to equip Ukrainian forces with artillery ammunition to use against Russian military targets during the counteroffensive.

Key Takeaways: 

  • Five hundred days ago Russia launched an unprovoked war of conquest against Ukraine.
  • Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations on at least three sectors of the front on July 8. US Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl noted on July 7 that current Ukrainian operations across the front are the ”beginning of the middle” of the wider counteroffensive and that it is therefore ”too early to judge” how the counteroffensive is going.
  • The United States announced a new military aid package for Ukraine that includes cluster munitions on July 7.
  • Russian forces conducted another series of Shahed 131/136 drone and missile strikes against Ukraine’s industrial and infrastructure facilities overnight from July 7 to 8.
  • Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that Ukraine “deserves NATO membership” ahead of the July 11 to 12 NATO summit in a press conference on July 7 in Istanbul with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Zelensky returned to Ukraine from Turkey with five Ukrainian commanders involved in the defense of Azovstal Metallurgical Combine in Mariupol, Donetsk Oblast whom Ukraine, Russia, and Turkey had previously agreed would remain in Turkey until the end of the war.
  • Ukrainian intelligence indicated that Russian authorities are capitalizing on the fear of a provocation at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) to drive out Ukrainian personnel and increase the Russian presence at the ZNPP ahead of the upcoming NATO summit.
  • A Wagner commander stated that the Wagner Group will go to Belarus after completing rest and recuperation through August 2023. The status of the deal between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prigozhin is unclear, and the deal may be in flux.
  • The Kremlin may be attempting to ensure that it has control over Wagner leadership and personnel in Africa and the Middle East.
  • A prominent Russian milblogger speculated that the Russian military leadership may be in the process of making the decision to replace Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, suggesting that the implications of the June 24 Wagner Group rebellion may still be having ramifications on the highest echelons of military command.
  • Russian authorities reportedly prevented former Russian officer and ardent nationalist Igor Girkin from holding a talk about the Wagner Group rebellion.
  • Russian forces conducted ground attacks along the Kharkiv-Luhansk Oblast border and south of Kreminna, and Ukraine likely continues to conduct strikes on Russian concentration areas deep within the rear of occupied Luhansk Oblast.
  • Ukrainian and Russian forces conducted ground attacks around Bakhmut.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces continued ground attacks along the administrative border between Zaporizhia and Donetsk oblasts on July 8.
  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in western Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reportedly observed combat training of Russian contract servicemen at the Southern Military District (SMD) training grounds on July 8, likely in an attempt to favorably portray Russian formalization efforts and incentivize personnel recruitment.
  • The Ukrainian government has indicated that Russian occupation authorities struggle to compensate staff in critical industries, resulting in staffing shortages that could hinder the Russian war effort.
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