Ukrainian Counterattacks Are Pushing Back Russian Troops

“As we see, their Army is bullshit,” one Ukrainian official said.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Ukrainian troops patrol in eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian troops patrol in eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian troops patrol at the front line outside the town of Novoluhanske, eastern Ukraine, on Feb. 19. Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

Russian troops have been on the offensive in Ukraine for the better part of the monthlong war, making slow and grinding progress to occupy a handful of cities in the eastern and southern portions of the country.

But that has all begun to change this week, U.S. and European officials have indicated, with the still outmanned and outgunned Ukrainian forces beginning to go on the offensive to take back territory from Russian troops who have failed to take control of the skies and remain beset by logistical problems, trying to regroup.

In a major counteroffensive on Wednesday, Ukrainian troops pushed Russian forces that have been positioned outside the capital city of Kyiv for weeks as much as 15 miles further back, a senior U.S. defense official told reporters on Wednesday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to provide a battlefield update. The Russian forces are now nearly 40 miles outside of the capital. 

Russian troops have been on the offensive in Ukraine for the better part of the monthlong war, making slow and grinding progress to occupy a handful of cities in the eastern and southern portions of the country.

But that has all begun to change this week, U.S. and European officials have indicated, with the still outmanned and outgunned Ukrainian forces beginning to go on the offensive to take back territory from Russian troops who have failed to take control of the skies and remain beset by logistical problems, trying to regroup.

In a major counteroffensive on Wednesday, Ukrainian troops pushed Russian forces that have been positioned outside the capital city of Kyiv for weeks as much as 15 miles further back, a senior U.S. defense official told reporters on Wednesday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to provide a battlefield update. The Russian forces are now nearly 40 miles outside of the capital. 

The latest military push represents a remarkable turnaround for the Ukrainian military from the early days of war, when the capture of Kyiv by the numerically superior Russian forces seemed all but certain in the eyes of Western leaders and defense analysts. 

But experts caution that Ukraine may have just a small window of opportunity to seize on this momentum. Russian troops could learn from their initial blunders and begin to camouflage tactical positions, forward lines, and command posts, as well as to fortify logistics hubs with berms and other earthworks.

“The Ukrainians, if they are going to mount any kind of large-scale offensives, are probably going to have to do it in the next few weeks before the Russians are able to fortify the ground they’ve taken,” said Mick Ryan, a recently retired two-star general in the Australian Army. “Otherwise the Russians will dig in and they’ll be very difficult to dig out.”

Other experts say the United States and its NATO allies need to step up the delivery of weapons and other military supplies to Ukraine quickly so they can retain their momentum. 

“The Ukrainian military has performed way above expectations,” said William Taylor, a scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace think tank and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. “But in order for them to continue, it’s going to require a lot of support from NATO and from the United States. And that needs to come now.”

So far, Ukraine has been most successful on the counteroffensive instead of mounting attacks from scratch, hitting Russian troops away from the front lines and at weak points, such as blowing up the lead vehicles of a 40-mile Russian military convoy that was aimed at the capital in the early days of the war and blowing up bridges to foil ground movements. 

The intelligence arm of Britain’s Ministry of Defense assessed on Wednesday night that Ukrainian forces had probably retaken the towns of Makariv and Moschun to the east of the capital and could realistically encircle Russian forces in Bucha and Irpin directly to the west, according to a statement. Irpin, where Ukrainian forces blew up a bridge to stop Russia’s advance, has seen some of the heaviest fighting of the war so far. 

Ukrainian troops have also begun to have military success in the south and east, where Russia’s monthlong offensive has seen more success. British defense intelligence officials assessed on Thursday that Ukraine launched strikes at a landing ship and ammunition storage depots in Russian-occupied Berdyansk, in ongoing efforts to disrupt Russia’s military supply chain and hurt morale. Ukraine has also repeatedly repulsed Russian forces advancing on Mykolaiv, near the port city of Odesa. U.S. defense officials also believe that the town of Izyum, southeast of Kharkiv, that was overtaken by Russia last week is also being contested.

“Against the odds, they have snarled up Russia’s invading army, inflicting defeat after defeat,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said at a NATO summit in Brussels on Thursday. “The heroism of Ukraine has changed the geopolitics of Europe.”

U.S. defense officials and diplomats tracking the conflict describe Ukraine’s military gains as a surprise success story, given how many forces Russia had amassed on the country’s borders in the months leading up to the invasion. 

They point to a combination of the Ukrainian military’s savvy tactics, the arms supplies and multiyear military training missions Western countries have sent to Ukraine, and Russia’s military blunders and ineptitude.

“There’s another big factor here: Ukraine’s fighting spirit,” added one U.S. diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, as they were not authorized to speak publicly. “They’ve shown us, and more importantly [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, that they’re not just going to keel over, that they are wholly unified in the fight against Russia.”

But Russian troops have begun making tweaks to their approach, despite officials and experts pointing out the seeming lack of an overall Russian command structure for the war—as well as the deaths of numerous senior Russian military figures on the front lines. 

Yet some military analysts see the Russian tweaks as less of a strategic move and more of a face-saving measure, as the Russian military’s command structure has been decimated by the losses of top generals and colonels on the battlefield. 

“You can’t get food, you can’t get ammo, and you have nobody really telling you what to do,” said Mick Mulroy, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and CIA paramilitary officer. “Why not just stop what you’re doing?”

Satellite imagery shared with Foreign Policy and others by the space technology company Maxar last week showed Russian forces using berms to protect and conceal armored units near Antonov Airport, located less than 20 miles from Kyiv, where Russia has sought to build an air bridge to attack the Ukrainian capital, as well as in the nearby towns of Zdvyzhivka and Berestyanka.

U.S. and European officials have also said Russia is considering plans to send in reinforcements: a motley force that could include conscripts, foreign fighters from Syria, and members of the paramilitary Wagner Group. Some Wagner Group members are already engaged in battle against Ukrainian troops in the Donbass region. 

But officials and experts are not sure whether the introduction of new troops could further compound Russia’s command problems.

One Ukrainian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak with the media, said that many of the Russian conscripts already sent into the fight were in their late teens and had little specialized combat training. Many of them thought they were being deployed for training exercises in western Russia and Belarus. 

“As we see, their Army is bullshit,” the official said. Russia’s strategy is an effort “to try to beat us with [sheer] numbers of their troops,” the person said. “They’re trying to fight an ancient war, like in the 19th century. They don’t act like a modern army.”

Meanwhile, weapons have continued to flow to Ukraine from the West, with U.S. officials telling reporters that the first deliveries of a new $800 million weapons package announced by U.S. President Joe Biden is likely to begin landing in Europe in the coming hours.

The shipment will restock Ukraine’s supply of Javelin anti-tank missiles and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. A senior U.S. defense official said on Wednesday that the Western anti-air systems have prevented Russian pilots from lingering in Ukrainian airspace. 

The British government said on Wednesday night it would provide 6,000 new defensive missiles to Ukraine and over $30 million in new military aid commitments. Washington has also begun consulting with NATO about providing anti-ship missiles to Ukraine, a senior U.S. administration official said on Thursday, a move aimed at helping Ukrainian forces repel Russian naval and amphibious assaults from the Black Sea. 

But even as Ukraine’s military strength has earned Kyiv plaudits in Western capitals, the question of further military integration with the United States and Europe remains taboo.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has recently pressed Western countries to accept Ukraine as a member of NATO and the European Union, but that is unlikely to happen in the near term. 

Zelensky has also criticized NATO for not doing more to aid Ukraine’s fight against Russia, while touting the effectiveness of his country’s military. 

“Never, please, never tell us again that our army does not meet NATO standards,” he said in a televised address on Thursday. “We have shown what our standards are capable of.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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