The war in Ukraine appears to be at another turning point. The early weeks of the conflict were defined by Russian forces’ failed attempt to take the capital, Kyiv, and overthrow the Ukrainian government. Then the fighting shifted to the eastern Donbas region, where Russia made slow, bloody but significant progress in taking Ukrainian territory and cities thanks to its overwhelming advantage in artillery and equipment. Now, with the arrival of more and more advanced weaponry from the U.S. and Europe, most notably High Mobility Advanced Rocket Systems (HIMARS), the Ukrainians are going on the attack, striking Russian logistics targets well behind the front lines and, this week, formally announcing the start of a long-anticipated counteroffensive in the south of the country. Early Western military assessments suggest this offensive is making progress, though it’s early to say anything definitive.
Still, Ukraine’s offensive against heavily fortified Russian positions carries significant risks, and looming behind it is the question of whether the West’s support for the Ukrainian resistance will outlast Russian President Vladimir Putin’s determination for victory. And this week’s visit by U.N. inspectors to the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is a reminder that despite the enormous losses already suffered in Ukraine, there may still be major calamities to come.
To get a better understanding of this phase of the conflict, Grid spoke with Alina Frolova, who served as Ukraine’s deputy minister of defense from 2019 to 2020 and is today deputy chair of the Kyiv-based think tank Centre for Defence Strategies.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Grid: This week, Ukraine formally announced the start of offensive operations in the south, around the region of Kherson. What do you see as realistic goals of this offensive? Is it to actually retake this territory or just to degrade Russia’s capabilities?
Alina Frolova: Well, I think that there are a mixture of targets. First of all, it’s to retake the territories. The south is quite critical for the Ukrainian economy and critical for access to the sea. And with this, we can also isolate the Russian forces on the right bank of the Dnieper River. This is the only point where they crossed the river and where they’ve tried to fix their position for further developments.
And, of course, this is the first big counteroffensive the Ukrainians have done. For us, it’s very important to demonstrate to Ukrainian citizens and to foreign decision-makers that Ukraine is capable of doing this. Everyone understands there can be different levels of success, but we need to demonstrate these capabilities because that will really influence the weapons supply and delivery.
And last, it also took some Russian forces away from other areas of the country.
G: So what are the major challenges associated with Ukrainian forces now going on offense after all these months of primarily defense? What can we expect to be different about this type of fighting?
AF: I can’t give you details, but obviously this is the first counteroffensive of this size since the war began eight years ago. It was started on a very symbolic date for Ukrainians because of what happened eight years ago. [On Aug. 29, 2014, hundreds of Ukrainian troops were killed by Russian and separatist forces while retreating through a “humanitarian corridor” near the city of Ilovaisk.]
Obviously, with any offensive or counteroffensive, there’s always more losses and more risk.
If you look at the pictures, the Kherson region is just fields. There are no trees, no forest, nowhere to make a good position. That’s why the counterattack to the south was possible only after you controlled the sky, only because of the work of the HIMARS and the work to destroy their capabilities on the Black Sea and their air defense.
G: You mentioned Russian troops being moved to the south from other parts of the country. What is the situation right now in the Donbas compared to the heavy fighting we saw there just a few weeks ago?
AF: We cannot compare it with a few months ago. This month, Russia hasn’t had any substantial advancements, maybe a few villages. A few months ago, we had very hard prevailing pressure from artillery. There was a daily routine, daily massive shelling of our front lines. Now, the whole situation is different. We at least have an equilibrium with artillery because of the weapons we’ve received. Since the HIMARS have been starting to work, they have a shortage of munitions, and it’s halted their offensive.
Now, a substantial part of their personnel is young and not professional military. It looks like they’re just bringing in new people who aren’t qualified to do the mission.
G: Right, there’s been a lot of focus on Russia’s heavy troop losses and its difficulty replenishing troops. But obviously, Ukraine has taken very heavy losses as well. Are Ukrainian forces also facing issues with manpower shortages?
AF: We don’t have such problems. From the point of view of manpower, we’ve never had a problem because high morale and motivation brings a lot of new people. We still have lines at recruitment points. Not all people who want to go to the army or armed forces are even in the reserves yet. The fact that [the military] haven’t announced any new campaigns to recruit, I think that shows they don’t have issues with personnel.
As for arms and equipment, the situation just one month ago was much worse. Now we have more and more intense arrival of foreign assistance and we have a clear prognosis of what will arrive and when it will arrive. It’s become more and more systematic. I still, frankly, don’t think we can expect to have the same numbers as Russia in terms of weapons and equipment.
The biggest concern for now is still ammunition. It’s quite heavily used. The delivery and production of ammunition is the principal point for now.
G: There’s been some discussion about the Ukrainian military’s ability to absorb some of these larger NATO weapons systems and the time it takes to train personnel to both operate and maintain them. Is that something that’s still an issue?
AF: I think that everyone sees now that there is no difficulty of terms of operation. This is what we hear from all the partners. They were expecting it to take months of training, but it’s taken one or two weeks. I think that motivation plays a huge role here. I would say we even have some examples of the adaptation of the NATO weapons to Ukrainian realities. For example, there are missiles that are not applicable for the type of jets we have but have been adapted. So I haven’t heard of any problem with operation.
In terms of service and maintenance, I don’t know the real situation from the field, but I do expect it could be a problematic issue. We now have what the military calls a “zoo”: multiple types of weapons and equipment from different countries, and all of them require a different approach to service. So, it’s a challenge obviously.
G: Another topic that’s getting a lot of discussion is what’s going to happen to the level of international support for Ukraine this winter when the energy situation could become really dire in Western Europe. Are you worried about Ukraine being able to keep its backers motivated in this fight?
AF: I sometimes think that Russia is doing more on this than us! They’ve been working to disconnect Europe from their supplies. From what I see, if you have already a very strong political decision, it’s something that cannot be changed. This train is already moving at quite high speed. So of course, the [energy crisis] will probably influence the popularity or motivations of some politicians in Europe. And it could cause crisis inside some countries. But it doesn’t seem like it will be as critical as we thought some months ago. The latest reports from the EU is that they’ve actually filled 80 percent of their gas storage. That’s likely enough already to pass through the winter. It seems like [European energy independence] is going much faster than was expected before because there was a recognition of the problem and a political decision was made.
G: U.N. inspectors this week are visiting the Russian-occupied nuclear plant at Zaporizhzhia. What is your assessment of the risks to the Ukrainian population from an accident at that plant, and what impact is it having on military operations in the area?
AF: Obviously, military operations on our side are not possible. We won’t shoot at the power plant. We’re not crazy. That makes everything more complicated because they are hiding vehicles and equipment there.
The reports which have come in from Zaporizhzhia station are extremely concerning. There’s torture of the personnel there, and disappearances.
Frankly, I don’t know how the [U.N.] mission can influence this. People who are under the guns, I don’t think they will be able to speak about the real situation, and the Russians won’t show what’s really happening. We need to take every chance we have, but I don’t think we should have high expectations for this mission.
G: Are you still concerned about Russia making another push to take Kyiv or a return to the more ambitious war aims it had early in the conflict?
AF: I don’t think they have a capability to do so. It’s an absolutely different situation now. They don’t have enough forces, their forces are not capable, they have a lack of equipment. They still try to send diversion groups and they still use the territory of Belarus for missile strikes. Right now that’s a much bigger danger than another offensive.
G: In the past few weeks, we’ve seen an increasing number of strikes on Russian military targets in Crimea and President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy recently reiterated that Ukraine’s goal is to restore Ukrainian control there. Given how long the Russians have been in control of Crimea and how fortified their forces are there, is that really a realistic goal?
AF: The discussions about “shall we speak about Crimea” or “shall we not speak about Crimea” have stopped. For many years, we have had a kind of suspended situation where many European players have said, “OK, let’s talk about the Donbas, but put aside Crimea because the issue is too complicated.” Or they would say that we can speak only about diplomatic ways of solving the Crimea issue. Now everyone understands that the release of Crimea will only be the result of military operations. Maybe it won’t be direct military operations on Crimea. But now what we have are [Ukrainian] subversion groups and some attacks which are not confirmed whether they are missiles or something else.
I think that Crimea will be released after all the rest of continental Ukraine is released. But before this will happen, a lot of actions need to be taken. And it’s still a question of if Putin will still be in power at this moment. If he is, it will be difficult.
I’m sure it’s something that our military and our general staff are planning for, but it’s not the first priority right now.
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.