On Ukraine's "Slow" Counteroffensive: Do You Even Know When The War Began?
After months of anticipation, expectations were impossibly high when Ukrainian forces finally launched a counteroffensive into Russian-occupied territory. But those expecting a lightning advance, like last year's liberation of Kharkiv, overlooked one critical fact: the war is nearly 10 years old.
Of course, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reminded the BBC this week, life isn’t like the movies. Both because real "people's lives are at stake,” and also because time passes much more slowly in the reality of war.
We’ve seen months of expectation and speculation, deliveries of new weapons to Ukraine and the return to the battlefield of freshly-trained soldier – but when the action finally started, and it turned out that Ukrainians were liberating occupied territory through brutal fighting, one village per week, there was a sense of worry and disappointment.
There was a critical error in those optimistic calculations.
Fighting on the enemy's turf
Unlike before, Ukrainian forces are now pushing into territory where Russian troops have had almost a decade to dig in. Yes, a decade. The full-scale invasion of Feb. 24, 2022 was not the beginning of this war, which dates back to 2014 with the Russian takeover of Crimea and occupation of territory in the Donbas.
Troops loyal to Moscow have fortified the region with thousands of kilometers of trenches, minefields and bunkers. Arms depots and well-camouflaged artillery batteries litter the landscape, and occupying forces – by now familiar with the local terrain – can rely on local collaborators and police units to feed them information.
No, the war isn’t in its second year – it’s coming up on its second decade.
Great expectations always lead to disappointment.
Great expectations always lead to disappointment. Last year, Ukrainian forces retook the Kharkiv region so quickly in part because they were liberating territory that had only been in Russian hands for a few months. In Donbas and Crimea, on the other hand, even if they roll in with the newest tanks, Ukrainian soldiers are, to some extent, entering uncharted territory.
Advancement under such conditions could not be rapid. We must be prepared for a long war.
Ukrainian soldier reloading bullets
Putin's three-day dream
Of course, it’s true that Ukraine's pressure on allies to speed up their arms deliveries, and the constant repetition of the words "Ukrainian counteroffensive" in the headlines have held us hostage in nervous anticipation, as we await the beginning of the end of Russian aggression. This has also created unrealistic expectations about what Ukraine would be able to do with those new weapons.
We gave you all the tanks and missiles; bring us victory tomorrow.
“We gave you all the tanks and missiles; bring us victory tomorrow” – this seems to be what is expected. After 10 years of war in Donbas, Ukraine only received the means to fight back when Russian missiles started to hit Kyiv last year. Recall that from 2015 to 2019, the international community openly pressured Ukraine to follow the Minsk ceasefire agreements, to allow Russia to annex Crimea and the occupied Donbas and to pretend that the Russian army wasn’t even there.
Today, a lightning-fast counteroffensive and triumphant victory is out of the question. This is as accurate as Vladimir Putin's dream of “Kyiv in three days.” After fighting through the hell of the first year of the full-scale invasion, the Ukrainian army is now digging into Russia’s defenses, while trying to maintain maximum media silence.
Watch and wait
Everything we know about the hostilities on the Ukrainian front from open sources is a half-truth, at best. It would be funny, if it weren’t so sad, but perhaps only Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin is now saying anything remotely close to the actual state of affairs.
According to him, the Ukrainian army has recently moved much deeper into the Zaporizhzhya region – far further than Kyiv claims, and Moscow admits.
Yes, we know it’s unbearable to live in such suspense and uncertainty. And who, if not Ukrainians, would most like to know right now what our progress is on the front, or when Donetsk, Mariupol and Crimea will be free, and when we can return home?
The world community, too, would like to return to regular commercial trade routes, the mundane business of domestic politics and days not simmering with a revived threat of nuclear war. But both world leaders and certain Ukrainian oligarchs have fed the Kremlin leader for too long, and he has grown too fat to be shaken off quickly and easily.
This war will not end tomorrow, because it did not start yesterday.
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