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Counteroffensive advancing slowly but Ukraine will succeed – experts at Aspen Forum

The Ukrainian counteroffensive is far from over and that Russia will inevitably lose the war, experts said at the Aspen Security Forum 2023
Ukraine's counteroffensive 2023
Ukrainian soldiers at the front. Photo by Ukraine’s General Staff
Counteroffensive advancing slowly but Ukraine will succeed – experts at Aspen Forum

Article by: Andriy Kovalenko, Voice of America, RFE/RL

The future of Ukraine was one of the key discussions at the 14th annual Aspen Security Forum in Colorado, US. Participants in the discussion, including representatives of the American expert community and Ukrainian civil society, expressed confidence that the Ukrainian counteroffensive is far from over and that Russia will inevitably lose the war.

Main challenges of Ukraine’s counteroffensive

Ukraine has already received long-range Storm Shadow missiles from the UK and Scout missiles from France and has successfully struck Russian command and logistics deep behind the front lines. This was emphasized by former US Deputy Secretary of Defense Colin Kahl.

“The problem of the counteroffensive now is not in the ability to strike. They have this ability now. The problem is not a hundred kilometers away, it is one kilometer right in front of them – minefields. We will continue to help with this, provide security assistance,” Kahl said.

According to the former US Deputy Secretary of Defense, it is especially difficult for Ukraine’s counteroffensive to break through the defensive lines of Russian forces in southern Ukraine.

“The Ukrainians are moving slowly but purposefully, and I will say the counteroffensive is not over yet. Most of the combat power has not yet been involved in the counteroffensive. Many people don’t understand this, and when the Ukrainians find a weak point in the Russian defense, they will find an opportunity to break through there and advance,” said the former US Deputy Secretary of Defense.

Ukraine's counteroffensive
A Ukrainian soldier at the frontline. Photo: Ukraine’s General Staff

The difficulties of the counteroffensive are also emphasized by CIA Director William Burns.

“I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone that the counteroffensive is a difficult task. An offensive is much more difficult than defense. The Russians had months to prepare not only to defend southern Ukraine but also to lay dense minefields. The counteroffensive will take time and it will not be easy to make progress. But I look at it optimistically, based not only on trips to Ukraine but also on intelligence data we have been able to gather – the Ukrainians will succeed,” said Burns.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken believes it is still too early to judge the successes of the Ukrainian counteroffensive but stressed that the US and allies have given Ukraine “everything needed” for its success. He said this speaking at the Aspen security forum on July 21.

“We have said from the very beginning that this would be difficult. You have probably heard, and many people have said, that the Russians have prepared serious and fortified defense lines. The Ukrainians are breaking through them,” Blinken said.

Ukrainian counteroffensive: What is going on?

He noted that, in his opinion, the Ukrainians, who have already liberated half of the territories that the Russians seized at the beginning of the full-scale war, “already have everything for success” because they “are fighting for their land, for their country, for their future, for their freedom.”

“And when they deploy and start acting with all the forces that have been trained in recent months, the equipment provided to them by us and about 50 countries, I think all this will be very important and will lead to changes,” said the US Secretary of State.

Uniting the democratic world in support of Ukraine

Last year, Ukraine lost 29% of its GDP, and more than a third of the Ukrainian population was forcibly displaced. This statistic is noted by lawyer and history professor at the University of Virginia Philip Zelikow.

He focuses on the damage the war has done to Ukraine’s economy and infrastructure: “More than a third of the Ukrainian population has been forcibly displaced. And a large part of them decided to leave the country and wonder if they will ever return home. There is no civil aviation. The transport system has returned to the 1950s. The country is losing access to the sea.”

Noting positive changes, Zelikow says that “Ukrainians are becoming stronger than they were before the war”: “A generation of Ukrainians who intend to build a new society is coming to the fore. The world is uniting in support of Ukraine.”

Head of the Center for Civil Liberties and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Oleksandra Matviychuk also talks about the unity of democratic countries in support of Ukraine.

“When the full-scale war began, the democratic countries decided to help Ukraine not lose. And Ukraine receives various weapons to be able to defend itself. Serious sanctions have been imposed against Russia. And we are extremely grateful. Ukrainians will always remember all the democratic countries that are with us in this dramatic time of our history,” says Matviychuk.

At the same time, the activist emphasizes that a change in the narrative of the democratic world is needed.

“Let’s change the narrative. Let’s help Ukraine win quickly. There’s a huge difference between ‘let’s help Ukraine not collapse’ to ‘let’s help Ukraine win quickly.’ The difference is measured in arms supplies, speed of decisions, and level of sanctions. The problem is that we have no time. Time for us is converted into numerous deaths on the front, numerous deaths in the occupied territories, numerous deaths in the rear,” emphasizes Matviychuk.

She is convinced that “Russia is losing because Putin is trying to return to the past; the future is against him,” so the democratic world already needs to develop a common vision of this future.

Questions from Russian elites to Putin after Prigozhin’s coup attempt

The Aspen forum also discussed the recent coup attempt in Russia. A month after the coup by the Wagner military company, Russian President Vladimir Putin still has not decided how to deal with the company’s founder Yevgeny Prigozhin. This was reported at the Aspen Security Forum by CIA Director William Burns.

According to him, the Wagner company is important to the Kremlin, including due to the presence of Russian mercenaries in Africa and the Middle East.

“Speaking of exposing weaknesses in Putin’s power, what I mean is that Putin constructed his image, cultivated it carefully, and his power rests on the image that he is the arbiter of order in the Russian system. We saw, especially in those 36 hours as the coup unfolded, that Wagner forces, these mercenaries, were able to move unopposed into Rostov, a million-person city in southern Russia,” the CIA director said.

Wagner mutiny Russia Rostov on don
Wagner Group’s equipment on the streets of Rostov-on-Don, southwestern Russia, on 24 June 2023. Credit: TASS

According to Burns, the fact that Wagner forces successfully and unopposedly captured Rostov, and the next day also unopposed passed two-thirds of the way on the road to Moscow, raises questions for Putin from both the Russian population and the country’s elites.

“For many Russians who watched this, who were used to Putin’s image as the arbiter of order, the question arose: does the emperor have clothes, or why does he need so much time to get dressed. For the elites – they should have had deeper questions circulating among the Russian elites since the beginning of the war in Ukraine about Putin’s judgments, his detachment from events, and his indecision,” noted the CIA director.

Zelenskyy believes Ukraine’s counteroffensive will “pick up speed”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy expects that the Ukrainian army’s counteroffensive will “pick up speed” after a slow start. As CNN reports, the Ukrainian leader stated this via video link at the Aspen Security Forum.

Zelenskyy at the front Syrskyi ukraine Donetsk Oblast
Commander of the Land Forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi (left) reports to President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy at a position near the front line in Donetsk Oblast, 26 June 2023. Photo: president.gov.ua

“We had plans to start this (counteroffensive – ed.) in the spring, but we did not do it, because, to be honest, we did not have enough ammunition and weapons, and we did not have properly trained brigades – I mean, properly trained for these weapons,” Zelenskyy said.

The President of Ukraine noted that, despite the difficulties, the Armed Forces of Ukraine are making progress.

“We did not want to lose our people, our personnel, and our military, we did not want to lose equipment, and therefore they approached offensive actions quite carefully. I would say that we are approaching the point when appropriate actions can gain momentum, because we are already passing through some mined areas, and we are demining these territories,” the head of state said.

Zelenskyy’s words came after Russian President Vladimir Putin said on 21 July that the West was disappointed with the results of the Ukrainian counteroffensive.

Since the beginning of Ukraine’s counteroffensive in June, fighting has proven fiercer than some experts expected, with progress often measured in hundreds of meters rather than tens of kilometers. Ukraine hopes to use the counteroffensive to expel many Russian troops from Ukrainian soil and turn the tide of the war.

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