There is growing alarm about the pace and prospects of Ukraine’s counteroffensive, with few signs of progress in recent weeks and Russian lines holding strong.
Those concerns picked up steam in the past week after Ukraine launched a second push in the southern Zaporizhzhia region and has still come up mostly empty in the eyes of Western allies.
U.S. officials told CNN on Tuesday that significant progress was “highly unlikely,” especially with fall and winter fast approaching. And another U.S. official told NBC News, “There is a frustration that they have not used more of the combat power that they have.”
The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft said in a “Time” magazine piece that Ukrainian forces are outmanned and outgunned and need a “Plan B,” which would include scaling back to focus on defense.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), a former football coach, gave voice to the growing skepticism, comparing Ukraine to “a junior high team playing a college team” in an interview with Fox News this week, adding: “They can’t win.”
Despite the sobering assessments U.S. officials are making anonymously in the media, the Biden administration maintains that Ukraine will recapture Russian-occupied territory and ultimately triumph.
The narrative has frustrated Ukraine, which continues to urge patience as it chips away at Russian fortifications — including thousands of landmines — and searches for weak spots along the frontlines.
Maksym Skrypchenko, the president of the Kyiv-based Transatlantic Dialogue Center, a nonprofit think tank that advises Ukraine’s government, said the current Western support is “enough to survive” but “not enough to effectively counterattack.”
“Without [the weapons] I think that nobody should expect some miracle like it was a year ago, because Russia is more prepared right now and already knows what to expect from the Ukrainian side,” he said.
Ahead of the offensive, which launched in early June, NATO members gave Ukraine hundreds of modern tanks, armored carriers and infantry fighting vehicles. The U.S. said Kyiv had everything it needed for the offensive. Some allies have also delivered Soviet-era jets and long-range missiles to supplement Ukraine’s needs.
But Skrypchenko noted the U.S. has held back on key weapon systems such as Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), which fires long-range missiles, and F-16 fighter jets. He also said Ukraine does not have nearly enough artillery shells because defense production in Western nations has been unable to keep pace with the war.
Skyrpchenko said Soviet-era jets are unable to cross into the front lines to execute certain maneuvers because they will be “shut down,” and the highly valued ATACMS would significantly boost the military’s ability to destroy key Russian-held bridges.
“Of course it’s not a silver bullet, but it would be dramatically easier for Ukraine to advance using better and more advanced weapons,” he argued.
The counteroffensive in Zaporizhzhia has big ambitions: Ukrainian forces need to break through miles of territory to the Sea of Azov and sever a land bridge from mainland Russia to the Crimean Peninsula.
Further north in eastern Ukraine, troops are trying to retake territory around the city of Bakhmut in a push to liberate the Donetsk region.
Both offensives face major obstacles of dug-in trenches, minefields, Russian air superiority and intense artillery defenses. And Russian troops are resisting Ukraine with its advances, with territory constantly being traded back and forth.
Branislav Slantchev, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, who studies the conduct of war, said Ukraine was moving slower than some supporters would expect because Kyiv wants to minimize casualties.
Slantchev predicted Ukraine is “very close to a breakthrough in Zaporizhzhia,” pointing out it took Ukraine months of work before big results were achieved in a successful offensive to retake Kherson last year.
“Nothing happens for several months and then suddenly the results come in. Because once they’ve degraded some sectors sufficiently to attempt a breakthrough, if the breakthrough works, you will see it very quickly afterwards,” he added.
Slantchev, however, said the delay behind key weapons and armor shipments has been an issue for Ukraine. He argued F-16s and ATACMS are not “wonder weapons” but more advanced weapons can be considered “game changers.” He also said Kyiv has only received some of the equipment promised earlier this year.
“A lot of the promises that we’ve made are longer term, that will take months,” he said. “It’s not that they’re lying. It’s just that the people who say we’ve given a lot make it sound like everything that’s been promised is actually delivered, or will be delivered shortly, which is just not true.”
Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder on Thursday characterized the current phase of the war as a “tough fight” but praised the Ukrainian army for its past victories and ability to overcome great odds.
“We’ve known from the beginning that regardless of when any counteroffensive started, it was going to be a tough fight,” Ryder told reporters. “Going forward, we’re going to continue to consult with them, we’re going to continue to provide them training so that they can take back sovereign territory.”
The White House doubled down on that commitment on Thursday, requesting another $13 billion in security aid for Ukraine from Congress. The Biden administration has also played down a CNN poll last week that found most Americans don’t want Congress to authorize additional aid to Ukraine.
The counteroffensive so far has achieved the liberation of around 100 square miles of territory within two months, compared to the thousands of square miles retaken in the Kherson and Kharkiv offenses last year.
Part of the problem for Ukraine is the extensive network of defenses Russia had months to construct and continues to fortify.
Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar this week admitted Russia was “seriously strengthening its defensive lines.”
“And our troops are now faced not only with mining, but also with concrete engineering fortification of key commanding heights,” she said in a Telegram post.
But Ukraine is adjusting its tactics and still maintains the initiative, said Mick Ryan, a retired major general from the Australian Army and a military analyst. Ukrainian forces are now seizing small bits of territory, holding the land and moving forward under the cover of artillery.
“Ukraine is making some progress. Because none of us, except the Ukrainian military high command and government members, know the actual Ukrainian objectives for each phase of the war, we cannot say with any certainty whether this is behind or on schedule,” he wrote in a recent analysis. “However, Ukraine is recovering its territory.”
One of the most difficult challenges for Ukraine outside of the battlefield is countering expectations in the West for immediate results.
In recent speeches, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly called for “maximum focus” and unity behind Ukraine and its allies during the offensive.
Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to the office of Zelensky, said Ukraine has already demonstrated that it can take on Russia and supporters should not get carried away by relentlessly commenting on the speed of the operation.
“Everyone needs to be patient and closely monitor the high-quality work of the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” he said.