Ukrainian troops fighting through a stalemate notched a victory this week by securing a foothold on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River, pushing Russian troops back from another front as Moscow struggles to make ground in its own offensive pushes across eastern Ukraine.
Though Ukraine’s counteroffensive launched in June sparked hopes in the West of a breakthrough, the war has since fallen into a brutal battle of attrition, with neither side making any real headway. As winter closes in, it’s unlikely the next few months will yield any surprising maneuvers across the 600-mile front of eastern Ukraine.
But Ukraine has opened a new front in the southern Kherson region by successfully landing troops across the Dnipro River and holding the ground, which could pressure Russian forces and divert their attention from battlegrounds in the southeastern Zaporizhzhia region.
“Against all odds, Ukraine’s defense forces have gained a foothold on the left bank of the Dnipro. Step by step, they are demilitarizing Crimea,” said Andriy Yermak, head of the Ukrainian presidential office, at an event this week. “We know how to achieve victory.”
David Silbey, a professor of military history and policy at Cornell University, said the latest developments show Ukraine maintains a tactical advantage, even if Kyiv faces a challenging task of a long war against a larger Russian army.
“Ukraine has a tiny bit of an upper hand, but it’s not much better than the stalemate itself,” Silbey said. “What we saw over the last couple of months reminds me nothing so much as the grinding, slugging matches of World War I, where progress is measured in yards rather than miles. Casualties are pretty horrendous.”
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But Ukraine’s Kherson foothold, a region that connects to a valuable stronghold in Russian-occupied Crimea, is promising, Silbey added.
“It’s certainly going to lead them to potentially threaten Russia’s control of the Crimea and make them concerned about whether they can keep their forces in Crimea,” he said. “The big issue is really keeping the logistics chain flowing. Because you have to carry everything over the river to support the troops there.”
Russian military blogger Rybar also noted the Ukrainian advance in Kherson is troubling after Ukraine secured a bridgehead in a nearby village.
“The situation at the site is consistently difficult,” Rybar wrote on Telegram. “At the moment, the enemy has not abandoned his plans to expand the bridgehead on the left bank of the [Dnipro]. The Ukrainian command is going to continue to carry out offensive operations in the area of the occupied territories, therefore, despite the relative stabilization of the situation, it is too early to relax.”
Ukraine has raided Russian positions across the Dnipro before but has yet to maintain a position on the eastern bank. Most of Ukraine’s counteroffensive push has been around the Zaporizhzhia region toward the town of Tokmak and around the destroyed city of Bakhmut in Donetsk. The offensive is expected to continue through the winter, though likely in a more limited way.
Russian forces are continuing offensives against Ukraine as well, working to seize the rest of Luhansk in the northeast and the eastern Donetsk region.
Meanwhile, a major push is also happening around the town of Avdiivka in Donetsk, where Russian forces launched a renewed offensive last month but have reportedly suffered heavy losses, similar to the assault against Bakhmut over the spring.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the defense of Avdiivka is crucial to his military’s objectives and is wearing down Russian power.
“Russia is already losing soldiers and equipment near Avdiivka faster and on a larger scale than, for example, near Bakhmut,” Zelensky said in an address this week. “It is extremely difficult to withstand this onslaught.”
Russian forces this week reportedly made incremental advances north of Avdiivka, advancing on a coke plant that is considered strategic for Ukrainian defenders. If the plant falls to Russian hands, that would boost Moscow’s ability to take the town.
The U.K. Defense Ministry said in an intelligence update that Russian forces are attempting a pincer movement to encircle the town, but they have failed to seize outlying areas from Ukraine and would suffer more losses in trying to take the coke plant.
“The industrial facility provides Ukraine with a localized defensive advantage and Russian forces will probably suffer significant personnel losses if they attempt to assault the facility,” the ministry wrote.
Ukraine’s notorious muddy season during the fall is coming to a close, which will open the door to the harsh winter. While cold temperatures usually slow the tempo of the fighting, the refrozen ground also opens up new opportunities for ground vehicles to advance.
But Ukraine’s top general has publicly admitted the counteroffensive will not see a breakthrough anytime soon, and U.S. primary elections begin in January, which will complicate the politics of Ukraine support for Kyiv’s most important backer.
The larger Russian army is more equipped for a long game, and Russian President Vladimir Putin appears willing to wait it out, said Michael O’Hanlon, director of research in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.
“Russia could afford the casualties more with a bigger population base,” he said, adding that Russia also “has no prospect of somebody winning their presidential election next year that’s going to turn this whole thing around, but the United States does. So time is not on Ukraine’s side at the moment.”
Former President Trump, the favorite for the GOP presidential nomination, would not be expected to provide firm backing for Ukraine if elected.
O’Hanlon doubted Moscow could achieve a “net victory” but also expressed little optimism for Ukraine.
“There’s certainly no perceptible momentum on either side and very little prospect that I can see [of] that changing anytime soon,” he said. “There are more things that could break Russia’s way in the next few months than there are things that could break Ukraine’s way in politics and in military terms. Ukraine is having a hard time developing momentum.”