Earlier this month, Ukraine’s top general, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, made an admission that upset allies in the West — and leaders in Kyiv, including President Volodymyr Zelensky.
“There will most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough” anytime soon, Zaluzhnyi wrote in an Economist essay that seemed to give fodder to American skeptics who say that Washington needs to cut back on its funding of the grinding war, soon to enter its third year.
But since then, Ukrainian forces have made small but significant advances on the southern front, even as progress in the east remains scant. Victory — in the form of a complete expulsion of Russian forces from Ukrainian territory — may be far away, but the recent advances suggest that pessimism may be premature.
Crossing the Dnipro
The Dnipro River (known as the Dnieper in Russian) flows into the Black Sea north of the Crimean Peninsula. It has acted as a natural dividing line between Russian forces on its southern bank and Ukrainian forces on the northern bank.
Two weeks later, Kyiv launched a major counteroffensive. Since then, much of the focus has been on the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, where heavily fortified and mined Russian defensive positions have made for exceptionally slow going.
In recent weeks, however, Ukraine has made steady progress in the south by making targeted crossings of the Dnipro and assailing Russian positions on the east bank of the river.
“Ukrainian forces likely conducted initial company-sized assaults across the Dnipro River onto the east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast on Oct. 17 and 18,” the Institute for the Study of War recently reported. “The reported battalion-size Ukrainian force grouping on the east bank suggests that heavy Russian interdiction efforts along the Dnipro River have not prevented Ukrainian forces from transferring additional personnel and materiel to positions on the east bank.”
Russian forces appeared to confirm these reports, describing a sophisticated Ukrainian operation centered on the village of Krynky, where they have established three beachheads. “Two of our battalions were wiped out overnight. Ukrainians have entrenched themselves on our side in the Krynky area, and so far, we can’t knock them out,” a Russian soldier told the BBC.
Zelensky praised the operation in a social media post that showed Ukrainian soldiers crossing the Dnipro. “The Kherson region's left bank. Our warriors. I thank them for their strength and for moving forward,” he wrote.
Miles to go before Crimea
Once across the Dnipro River, Ukrainian forces have — in theory, at least — a straight path to the Crimean Peninsula, which holds great cultural and geopolitical significance for Russians and Ukrainians alike. First seized by Russia in 2014, it is also a crucial Black Sea hub.
“Demilitarization of Crimea is a crucial and systemic action,” top Zelensky adviser Andriy Yermak wrote in a social media post earlier this week. “The Russian Black Sea Fleet must be removed from Crimea as a real threat to food security. It is also a matter of our Ukraine's national security. Crimea is Ukrainian territory. Period. And we'll get it back,” he vowed.
But the distance of only 60 or so miles from the east bank of the Dnipro to Crimea can be deceptive: With Russian troops heavily dug in, Ukrainian troops consider gains of mere yards progress. And soon, winter will make any progress at all impossible.
“Neither side is currently capable of mounting decisive offensive operations on the land in the foreseeable future,” a Western intelligence official told the Associated Press.
Yahoo Finance:Why there’s a new urgency to win in Ukraine
The big picture
War in the Middle East has taken some focus off Eastern Europe. Leaders in both the United States and Europe have signaled a growing unease about the length of the conflict, which will enter its third year next February.
“We know how to achieve victory,” Zelensky adviser Yermak said in a speech in Washington, D.C. earlier this week, during a visit intended to reassure American supporters that Ukraine can defeat Russia — if military aid continues.
Crossing the Dnipro could help Ukraine make that case.
“It’s certainly an important accomplishment to get a foothold east of the Dnipro, less for the pure military value than the ability to argue that they are still making progress and can still evict Russia from their land by force,” Ben Friedman, policy director of the think tank Defense Priorities, told Yahoo News.
But, he added, “it's not likely to be a prelude to any breakthrough. So I think it's a bit helpful politically to buck up Western supporters but won't matter much.”