AFTER THREE months of achingly sluggish progress, Ukraine’s counter-offensive is gaining some momentum. Close to the southern village of Robotyne, Ukrainian troops have pierced the primary of Russia’s three defensive traces. They’re now attacking the second. “Had we had this dialog two weeks in the past, I’d have been barely extra pessimistic,” says Trent Maul, the director of study for America’s Defence Intelligence Company (DIA). “Their breakthrough on that second defensive belt…is definitely fairly appreciable.” Can Ukraine breach it, and the third line past, earlier than shells grow to be scarce and winter beckons?
Mr Maul, whose DIA workplace on the Potomac river periodically shakes as Marine One, the presidential helicopter, shuttles from side to side from its heliport subsequent door, is charged with answering such questions. The job of his company, which is much less well-known than the CIA, is to take the navy measure of America’s foes. That usually requires quantitative judgments: the vary of an Iranian missile or the size of China’s fleet. An annual DIA report, “Soviet Navy Energy”, was learn avidly through the chilly struggle. However intangibles are simply as essential. Mr Maul singles out the desire to battle—and candidly acknowledges that his company received it improper in Iraq in 2014 and Afghanistan in 2021, the place American-built armies crumbled almost overnight.
“We thought the Afghans would battle till the tip of the calendar yr and attempt to have a heroic defence of Kabul,” says Mr Maul. As an alternative, “they principally folded fairly rapidly.” That have, together with the evaporation of the Iraqi military within the face of the Islamic State group, led DIA to “over-correct” when judging how Ukraine would fare when Russia invaded final yr. “We had an analogous thought that they had been simply overwhelmed on paper.” It has proved a teachable second. Mr Maul brandishes a 40-page “tradecraft word”, printed this January, which re-examines how the company measures a rustic’s will to battle.
The paper emphasises how nationwide components—as an example, Volodymyr Zelensky’s insistence on staying in Kyiv, in contrast with Ashraf Ghani’s choice to flee Kabul—can have an effect on the battlefield. It factors to the significance of management on the entrance traces, a military’s esprit de corps, the energy of its command and management, and whether or not it enjoys sustained logistical and medical assist. Such issues had been uncared for due to the presumption that Ukraine’s management could be outmatched and defeated rapidly. It’s to protect in opposition to that type of error that DIA analysts now fill out an in depth worksheet to assist them suppose by way of these components and the way they will work together in sudden methods.
This technique is essential on the subject of assessing the approaching weeks in Ukraine. Mr Maul says that the DIA can be looking ahead to indicators that Russia can sustain the stream of artillery ammunition to the entrance traces and keep management on the native stage. He concedes that American and Ukrainian officers failed to understand the depth of Russia’s defences and the way troublesome it could be for Ukraine to “smash by way of” them with armour. Ukrainian generals have instructed the Guardian newspaper that 80% of Russia’s effort went into constructing its first and second traces. However Mr Maul cautions that the majority of Russia’s reinforcements stay on the third.
In latest weeks American officers have privately sniped at Ukrainian commanders over their navy technique—particularly the choice to deploy skilled items within the east round Bakhmut moderately than on the important thing axis within the south. Mr Maul is extra tactful. “It’s open to debate whether or not the Ukrainians have deployed the type of ways that you’d hope would have made extra aggressive positive aspects in a shorter time,” he affords. Extra essential are two vital variables: Ukraine’s stockpile of ammunition, important for sustaining the artillery barrages that allow progress, and the climate, which turns into wetter within the autumn.
One Biden administration official says that Ukraine has round six to seven weeks of fight left earlier than its offensive culminates. There are personal disagreements over how a lot progress might be made in that point. Some reckon that Ukraine’s military, having thrown in most of its reserves previous to breaking the second line, and taking heavy casualties trying to breach it, is unlikely to get far. “In case you take a look at the battlefield in 5 years’ time, it may look broadly related,” says a senior American intelligence official, emphasising that the standard of each Russian and Ukrainian forces is declining over time.
Mr Maul is considerably much less gloomy. He notes that Sergei Surovokin, the Russian basic who constructed the defensive traces, and Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose Wagner Group mercenaries achieved Russia’s most tangible positive aspects of the previous yr, are each off the battlefield—the previous sacked and the latter lifeless in a airplane crash. Mr Maul, selecting his phrases with care, says that Ukraine’s latest successes are “important” and provides its forces a “life like chance”—intel-speak for 40-50% chance—of breaking the remaining Russian traces by the tip of the yr. However he warns that restricted ammunition and worsening climate will make this “very troublesome”.
Consideration is already turning to the following combating season. Even with no breakthrough this yr, the dia is reasonably assured that if Ukraine can widen the salient round Robotyne, maintain its positions and maintain ammo flowing in, it is going to be nicely positioned for a recent push in 2024. ■