September 29, 2023 - 7:00am

“Every metre that Ukrainian forces regain is a metre that Russia loses”, Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said yesterday during a joint press conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. That he is now speaking in terms of metres is perhaps revealing of the slow pace of Ukraine’s counter-offensive. 

In truth, the frontline has moved by miles rather than metres but not by that many. According to analysis by the New York Times, less territory changed hands in August than in any other month of the conflict so far and, since the start of this year, Ukraine has gained 143 square miles compared to Russia’s 331 square miles in that time. 

As the four-month anniversary of the counter-offensive approaches, the situation is unlikely to alter dramatically in the coming weeks. Though Ukraine has recently made some progress, Zelenskyy’s strategy seemingly hinges on making progress in the south by forcing Russia to commit forces in the east. At the weekend, Ukrainian Brigadier-General Oleksandr Tarnavskyi said that the next significant breakthrough would come if Ukrainian forces were to take the strategic hub of Tokmak in the south, describing this as the “minimum goal” for the counter-offensive. However, Ukrainian forces were still 20 kilometres from the city and struggling against Russian fortifications. 

Even Tarnavskyi has acknowledged the slow progress of his forces, admitting that the counter-assault was not advancing as “fast as expected”, not least because the Russians have learnt Ukrainian tactics from earlier counter-assaults and adapted accordingly. 

That is not the end of the challenges besetting Ukraine. In October, heavy rains are expected, which will transform the battlefield into intractable mud. Winter temperatures will then set in, making frontline progress difficult. However, Ukraine may be able to counter-balance this by using its new ATACMS long-range missiles to hit targets beyond the frontline and thus prevent winter being a total loss. 

For its part, despite its larger population and resources, Russia is not in an especially strong position either. This week, the British Ministry of Defence reported that Russia’s military has this month been committing forces “piecemeal to reinforce the over-stretched line”, meaning that “a concerted new Russian offensive is less likely over the coming weeks”. Meanwhile, the reappearance of some Wagner forces on the frontline may indicate a shortage of personnel.  

Ukraine’s troops and allies having understood that they are in for a prolonged and bloody slog, one must consider what could spur change on the battlefield. The provision of F-16 jets, which the Ukrainians optimistically hope to use in combat as early as this winter, may allow Ukraine to counter Russia’s current air superiority and offer ground forces better air cover.  

Alternatively, change on the battlefield could come far from the frontline. Even staunch allies like the US and UK have had spats with Ukraine since the invasion. Poland’s recent threat to withdraw supplies of arms to Ukraine following tensions over grain imports demonstrates the ease with which allies can use weapons to Ukraine as a weapon against Ukraine in diplomatic disputes. 

Visiting Washington DC last week, Zelenskyy vowed that his country is fighting “for every inch of Ukrainian land”. As two overstretched forces continue to be pitted against each other, for the foreseeable future, they truly will be fighting inch by inch.