AUSTIN, TEXAS, UNITED STATES, August 31, 2022 (ABCNews247) — In preparation for the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive, the United States has urged Kyiv to keep the operation limited in both its objectives and geography to avoid becoming overextended and entangled on multiple fronts, multiple US and Western officials, as well as Ukrainian sources, tell CNN. .
Those discussions included engaging in “war games” with Kyiv, the sources said, analysis exercises intended to help Ukrainian forces understand what force levels they would need to succeed in different scenarios.
The Ukrainians were initially considering a broader counteroffensive, but in recent weeks have reduced their mission to the south, in the Kherson region, US and Ukrainian officials said.
Pentagon spokesman Brigadier General Pat Ryder told CNN that “the United States has a routine multi-level military-to-military dialogue with Ukraine. We will not comment on the details of those meetings.
Generally speaking, we provide Ukrainians with information to help them better understand the threats they face and to help them defend their country against Russian aggression. Ultimately, the Ukrainians are the ones making the final decisions for their operations.”
Officials say they believe there is now greater parity between the Ukrainian and Russian militaries. But Western officials have been hesitant to label the fledgling Ukrainian operation, which appeared to start Monday in the southern province of Kherson, as a true “counteroffensive.”
Ukraine’s success in regaining lost territory remains unknown, sources with knowledge of the latest intelligence tell CNN. Ukrainian officials have already said that this offensive will likely be a slow operation, with very cold winter weather ahead and then early spring mud, which could force them to pause fighting.
However, there is a distinct sense among U.S. and Western advisers to Ukraine that Ukraine’s military is much closer to Russia’s than was believed just a few months ago, several officials told CNN.
Russia remains superior in numbers of troops and artillery. But Ukrainian capabilities, bolstered by sophisticated Western weapons and training, have closed a major gap, officials say, in particular the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, which Ukraine has been using to launch attacks behind the Russian front lines in recent months.
“This shows what sustained training and provisioning of weapons can do when the force is highly motivated and capable of being employed,” a senior NATO official told CNN.
Another US military source put it more bluntly: Ukraine has offset Russia’s advantage in volume of fire with its “aptitude.”
Ukraine has been publicly signaling for months its intention to launch a major counteroffensive to recover the territory lost to Russia in the six months of war. And even before Monday, when Ukrainian forces began to increase their rocket and artillery missile fire on Ukraine’s southern front lines, Kyiv had been actively disrupting Russian resupply efforts and command and control throughout the region.
For weeks, Ukraine has used a mix of partisans, long-range fire and special operations forces to launch a series of attacks deep behind Russian lines, including in Crimea, targeting command and logistics centers and control in preparation for the southern offensive.
“I don’t think it’s possible yet to confirm the extent of the Ukrainian advances, but they have certainly impacted Russia’s ability to move north and south through [del río Dniéper] with its attacks on the bridges,” the senior NATO official said on Wednesday. “And as far as future prospects go, I would note that Ukraine is much closer to parity in troop numbers at Kherson than it has been in recent weeks.” the country’s eastern provinces, where fighting has been going on for months.
The attacks in Crimea have been a particularly smart move, an official said, because Russia has been using the peninsula as a launch pad for its operations in southern Ukraine.
Russia has also been forced to withdraw resources from the east “simply because of reports that the Ukrainians might go more on the offensive in the south,” John Kirby, communications coordinator for the National Security Council, said Monday.
“And so they have had to deplete certain units … in certain areas of the east in Donbas, to respond to what they clearly believed was an imminent threat of a counteroffensive,” Kirby said.
A more limited mission
US and Ukrainian sources have told CNN that previous plans for the Ukrainian operation were initially broader, including a more ambitious effort to recapture other territories lost to Russian invasion in the past six months, including the southeastern city of Zaporizhia.
But on Monday, Ukrainian officials seemed focused on taking back the Kherson region.
An administration official told CNN that, in recent months, Ukraine had asked the United States for weapons specifically tailored to the counteroffensive planned for the south. The United States met many of those requests, including additional ammunition, artillery and javelins, over the course of several presidential drawdown assistance packages provided to Ukraine in the past two months, the official said.
The planning exercises also helped the United States better understand what kinds of equipment, ammunition or intelligence it could offer that would be most useful to Ukraine. Over the course of the war, the US has been regularly providing Ukraine with military advice and intelligence, along with billions of dollars worth of equipment and weaponry.
“A slow operation to crush the enemy”
Officials say Ukraine appears to be more on par with Russian forces now, not only because of the advanced Western weaponry Ukraine has been using effectively, but also because the Ukrainians continue to have an advantage in terms of morale, unit cohesion, tactical acumen and a superior ability to improvise on the ground.
They also have another advantage, two officials said: a population that is largely horrified by the Russian occupation, and willing to engage in partisan attacks to drive them out, including assassinations and sabotage efforts behind enemy lines.
Yet despite a more optimistic assessment of Ukrainian combat capabilities, US officials aren’t betting on Ukraine successfully retaking Kherson — just yet.
“I’m not sure it’s going to be the big massive counteroffensive that people expect, but it could be a smaller number of forces,” the US military source warned. Much will depend on Russia’s ability to defend newly claimed territory, the source said, something it has yet to be asked to do in the last six months.
A Ukrainian presidential adviser also warned that the offensive will be a “slow operation to crush the enemy.”
“This process will not be very fast,” Oleksiy Arestovych, adviser to the head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, said in a statement posted on his Telegram account late Monday, “but it will end with the installation of the Ukrainian flag on all settlements in Ukraine”.