A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jul 17, 2023

The Reason the Ukraine Counteroffensive Is Smart, Not "Slow"

Ukraine has adapted intelligently, not been defeated or given up as the chronically negative New York Times continues to insist. 

Ukrainian attacks on Russian logistics are having a demonstrable effect on the Russians' ability to support its troops with artillery backup and the Ukrainians are continuing to advance at Bakhmut as well as on the central Zaporizhzhia front, despite minefields and the absence of air superiority. This bodes well for the counteroffensive. JL 

Phillips O'Brien reports in his substack:

Maps analyses dont distinguish between the retaking of territory and the destruction of Russian forces. Risky vehicle assaults have been dialled down and the campaign to destroy Russian artillery, ammunition and command and control has been accelerated.  This is getting major Ukrainians resources, and is starting to show results. Ukrainian counter-battery fire seems to be taking a heavy toll of Russian artillery.  Russian capabilities are degrading.Ukrainians are making sensible advances, around Bakhmut and in the central front. Crucially—they are fighting these campaigns while keeping their own losses down. Ukraine is being smart, not slow.

Hello Everyone, well the big story of the week was the NATO summit at Vilnius, and in particular what that said about how the war might develop and then what will happen with Ukraine and NATO after the war. There were also some very predictable stories that the Ukrainian counteroffensive was slow, but once again they are line on the maps analyses that dont distinguish between the retaking of territory and the destruction of Russian forces. So, the focus of the update must deal with these stories first and foremost.

The Vilnius summit was, as the old sports cliche goes, a game of two halves. The first half was, as I said in my midweek substack, a case primarily of the US (but almost certainly with some major western European states), trying to be too clever by half. What I meant by that, is that they seemed to think that if they wrote an overly elaborate, multi-qualified statement on the future of Ukraine that they could please everyone—including the Ukrainians.

As was bound to happen—they pleased no one, particularly the Ukrainians. The text about Ukraine and eventual NATO membership was so weird and confusing that I will put the whole paragraph here.

 We fully support Ukraine’s right to choose its own security arrangements.  Ukraine’s future is in NATO.  We reaffirm the commitment we made at the 2008 Summit in Bucharest that Ukraine will become a member of NATO, and today we recognise that Ukraine’s path to full Euro-Atlantic integration has moved beyond the need for the Membership Action Plan.  Ukraine has become increasingly interoperable and politically integrated with the Alliance, and has made substantial progress on its reform path.  In line with the 1997 Charter on a Distinctive Partnership between NATO and Ukraine and the 2009 Complement, Allies will continue to support and review Ukraine’s progress on interoperability as well as additional democratic and security sector reforms that are required.  NATO Foreign Ministers will regularly assess progress through the adapted Annual National Programme.  The Alliance will support Ukraine in making these reforms on its path towards future membership.  We will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the Alliance when Allies agree and conditions are met.


So Ukraine’s future was in NATO, but the Ukrainians still were seemingly a long way from being in a position to even be considered for an invitation for membership. Needless to say, President Zelensky was upset, as this word-salad uncovered one of the greatest fear that exists amongst Ukrainian policy makers, that eventually Ukraine’s supporters in Washington will put pressure on them to sign away parts of Ukraine or even the actually the idea of Ukraine joining NATO, to force some deal with Putin. Zelensky was so worried about that statement, that he even openly stated that it seemed to him that it was crafted in such a way that Ukraine’s eventual membership of NATO could be offered to Putin as the part of some unseemly deal. Here is Zelensky’s whole tweet on the subject, but Ive put the worry about bargains with Putin in Bold.

We value our allies. We value our shared security. And we always appreciate an open conversation. Ukraine will be represented at the NATO summit in Vilnius. Because it is about respect. But Ukraine also deserves respect. Now, on the way to Vilnius, we received signals that certain wording is being discussed without Ukraine. And I would like to emphasize that this wording is about the invitation to become NATO member, not about Ukraine's membership. It’s unprecedented and absurd when time frame is not set neither for the invitation nor for Ukraine's membership. While at the same time vague wording about "conditions" is added even for inviting Ukraine. It seems there is no readiness neither to invite Ukraine to NATO nor to make it a member of the Alliance. This means that a window of opportunity is being left to bargain Ukraine's membership in NATO in negotiations with Russia. And for Russia, this means motivation to continue its terror. Uncertainty is weakness. And I will openly discuss this at the summit.


Zelensky’s harsh reaction seemed to catch some in the Biden administration by surprise. This alone is surprising—there are some in Washington that don’t seem to understand that Ukraine is fighting this war for its existence, and sometimes being clever or qualified is not helpful. If this Washington Post story was to be believed, there was then some tough talking (internally) with even mentions that US support for Ukraine would be watered down because of anger at Zelensky.


This would have been disastrous on many levels. First, because it makes the administration look mean and petty (its a very Trumpian thing to have considered). Bad Ukraine, didnt do what we wanted, so we will punish it. Its not the act of a responsible partner.

Secondly, and Im not sure this is understood enough, because the Biden Administration would be hurting itself politically. It has actually invested more politically in a Ukrainian success than it perhaps understands. Democrats as a group have massive majorities that support military aid for Ukraine. 81% of Democrats in the most recent poll voiced such support—thats higher than for almost any other major policy.


Biden has both brought Zelensky to Washington he made his own dramatic statement by visiting Kyiv. The power between the two states has more balance than people understand. If the Biden Administration somehow decided to backtrack on support, it would look both vain and supercilious. Thankfully it didnt.

Biden declares 'Kyiv stands' in surprise visit to Ukraine - WHYY
Biden and Zelenksy in Kyiv, Feb 2023

Once the decision not to cut off their nose to spite their face was made, the Biden Administration actually behaved with great statesmanship. First and foremost, for the next day from the President on downwards, great emphasis was put on Ukraine joining NATO very soon once the war was concluded. Biden even (partially joking) replied that he could see it happening 80 minutes after the war was over. He even interrupted a question meant for Zelensky to make the point.

“Q    President Zelenskyy, how soon after the war would you like to be in NATO?  How soon after the war would you like to join NATO?
PRESIDENT BIDEN:  An hour and 20 minutes.  You guys ask really insightful questions.”


This chorus of support for Ukraine joining NATO quickly after the war is over continued even after Vilnius. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made a very robust intervention on the subject two days later.


And all these new statements matter—basically this is why I’ve ended up in the half-full camp when it comes to the Vilnius summit. What is has revealed is that Ukraine is in a stronger political position than perhaps people realized, that the US administration has now gone on record with more robust statements on Ukraine in NATO than it would have had it written a better statement at the start, and Ukraine’s supporters in Europe (who are increasingly vocal about getting Ukraine into NATO as soon as is reasonably possibe) have greater motivation.

Basically we are in a position where only a new Trump administration might keep Ukraine out of NATO after the war, and, just as important, it will now be politically almost impossible for Ukrainian membership of NATO to be bargained away.

The other reason I’m a half full person, is that Vilnius showed just how committed Ukraine’s European supporters are. There were many major announcements of supports, from French long-range missiles to Norwegian long-term finance. Some, indeed, were so sensitive that Ukrainian defense minister Reznikov made a point of saying that they needed to be kept quiet. The ones he could list, though, were in and of themselves impressive.


Don’t underestimate the increasing commitment of Europeans (take a look at Reznikov’s list). The more Russia mires itself in atrocity, the more many European states want Russian defeated. Anything that looks like Russia got a good deal at the end will look like some kind of acceptance of atrocity. For states not looking just 10-20 years down the road, but 50-100 years, and which sit on or near the border with Russia, a clear Russian defeat is now an imperative.

So Vilnius makes it more likely Ukraine gets into NATO not long after the conclusion of the war and ended up with really important pledges of support. It made NATO states realize that they need Ukraine to do well—this is why Im optimistic.

The Ukrainian counteroffensive is not 'slow' (yet again)

We were bound to come back here—though it was even sooner than expected. I tried to warn against using the word ‘slow’ about the Ukrainian counteroffensive a few weeks ago.

Just yesterday the New York Times jumped back into this narrative with an article about how Ukraine’s offensive had slowed after the initial losses. Once again it focussed on what happened in the opening 10 days, when it was shown what should have come as no suprise—that vehicles are very vulnerable on the battlefield. This article even recycled the one picture of a large group of Ukrainian vehicles disabled together that Russian sources endlessly reuse—even though it is a month old.


All I will say about this is that the Ukrainian offensive has not ‘slowed’. The risky vehicle assaults have been dialled down and the campaign to destroy Russian artillery, ammunition and command and control has been accelerated. Indeed this campaign seems to be getting major Ukrainians resources, and is starting to show some results. Ukrainian counter-battery fire (amongst other things) seems to be taking an extremely heavy toll of Russian artillery and Russian capabilities are degrading.


At the same time, Ukrainians are making small, but sensible advances, both around Bakhmut and then as reported last night, in the central front.


Crucially—they are fighting these campaigns while keeping their own losses down. This is where the Ukraine is slow narrative makes little sense. Ukraine is being smart, not slow. As the New York Times article showed, at first Ukrainian vehicle losses were high, maybe 20% in the first two weeks, but then they dropped by half.


This is important. Though the Ukrainians are fighting this counteroffensive and are taking a heavy toll on Russian artillery, they have reduced their own losses. This is a sign of success not failure. So, please dont obsess about lines on the map now—what Ukraine is doing, as Ive been saying for months, is really hard. It will take time. Lets see where we are nearer the end of the summer. My strong guess is that the Ukrainian counteroffensive will not be seen as a failure.


Anonymous said...

Unfortunatlly the American public has never understood war. The general public grows up on unfortunate miss information about previous wars. In you the old movies you think the United States single handedly won WW1 & 2. The truth is when the US entered WW1 the Germans were almost completely exhausted. The addition of the American forces simply allowed for finishing the enemy off. In WW2 with Hitler's help the Russians had brutally malled the German army and were advancing on them rapidly while a good portion of Hitler's crack troops were tied up in Italy due to the poor performance of Italy's troops against The British and Americans.

Entering both WW1 & WW2 were strongly opposed by the American public until!!!
in WW1 Americans were killed due to Germany's new unristricted sub warfare policy and in WW2 Pearl Harbor was attacked. Then the American public suddenly became indignant.

Today I hear that Ukraine should end the war by giving up some of its land to the aggressor. Well then the US might think of giving up say Alaska to the Russians. Didn't
they own it when the US bought it for a song? Give them the people, minerals, improvements, etc. Russia might think that would be a good deal. That would stop the bloodshed and bring peace to everyone.

Today many so called Republicans are calling for Capitulation, Surrender to the Russians.
Doesn't anyone remember the Budapest Memorandum where Europe and the US pledged to Ukraine that they would assure its protection if Ukraine gave up Its Nuclear weapons to( of all countries) Russia!

I'm a life long Republican and If the Republicans stab Ukraine in the back they will never again get my vote or support. It's just one little vote but I will use it in a way I can look in the mirror each morning.

Post a Comment