Ukraine recap: counteroffensive makes slow progress while diplomacy fails to make any ground at all

So the Ukrainian counteroffensive is well and truly underway, even if progress is measured in metres rather than the rapid advances that characterised Ukraine’s highly successful push last autumn. Volodymyr Zelensky himself has confirmed this, saying progress has been “slower than desired” and noting that the Russian invaders have an estimated mined 200,000 sq km of frontline territory.

But then, as he has also noted, this war is not a “Hollywood movie” that will neatly resolve the way many might wish. And the analysts at think tank the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) believe we are more likely to see a series of testing exercises, designed to highlight Russian weak points in preparation for a bigger push later in the campaigning season.

One expert pondering the timing of the counteroffensive is Cyrille Bret, an expert in defence studies at Sciences Po, who asks: why now and to what end?

On the one hand, waiting a month or so would undoubtedly give Ukraine the advantage of more advanced western military hardware. But there are other factors – strategic and political – that would have driven Zelensky to give the order to begin. Not least of these is that he faces a general election in Ukraine in the autumn and needs to have something to show voters.

Since Vladimir Putin sent his war machine into Ukraine on February 24 2022, The Conversation has called upon some of the leading experts in international security, geopolitics and military tactics to help our readers understand the big issues. You can also subscribe to our fortnightly recap of expert analysis of the conflict in Ukraine.

And round about then is when the interminable US 2024 presidential election machinery starts to grind in earnest. A growing number of Americans becoming increasingly ambivalent about the huge sums their government is ploughing into the war. So some good news from Kyiv could be just what Biden needs to bolster his chances against Republican candidates who are openly questioning their country’s involvement. A great deal hangs on the next weeks and months.

Read more:
Ukraine’s long-awaited counteroffensive has finally begun – but why now and to what end?

There’s been a fair bit of politics going on inside Russia, too. It’s long been no secret that the country’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, and the boss of the Wagner Group private military company, Yevgeny Prigozhin loathe each other. Not being held back by the constraints of public office, Prigozhin has been liberal with his criticisms of Shoigu and Russia’s military commander, Valery Gerasimov, calling them “stupid” and responsible for “criminal orders”.

Shoigu, a politician to his bootstraps, has opted for a rather subtler play – talking Putin into passing a law which will bring all Russia’s non-state militias under the control of the ministry of defence. It could be awkward, to say the least, writes Tracey German, a professor of conflict and security at King’s College London.

Read more:
Ukraine war: Kremlin attempt to control private militaries like Wagner Group fails to address rivalry between factions

From the sky to the seabed

One of the reasons we know so much about what is happening on the battlefield is that, to an unprecedented degree, progress is being watched and relayed by satellites which can plot the action to just about the nearest metre.

Christopher Morris, who teaches military strategy at the University of Portsmouth, believes access to superior commercial satellite tech has given Ukraine a significant edge in targeting Russian armour. Hi-res images of Russian defensive installations will allow Ukraine’s planners to work out ways to target, destroy or circumvent them.

Read more:
Ukraine war: offensive use of satellite tech a sign of how conflict is increasingly moving into space

Map showing areas of Ukraine under Russian control in red.

The progress of the conflict in Ukraine as of June 21.
Institute for the Study of War

Meanwhile at the bottom of the oceans there are more than 1.4 million kilometres of vitally important infrastructure – data cables – without which the world would be plunged into chaos. So when one of Putin’s most senior political allies, Dmitry Medvedev, declared that Moscow now considers them a legitimate target, it’s a threat to be taken seriously.

But – as maritime security expert Christian Bueger of the University of Copenhagen writes – subsea cables are the backbone of the contemporary digital economy. Almost all of our internet connections depend on them. And a number of “chokepoints” exist in places such as the English Channel and the Red Sea, which would be extremely vulnerable to sabotage, as would islands such as Ireland, which does not have terrestrial connections as backup.

Bueger stresses that we must take the security of these cables – as well as other maritime infrastructure such as wind farms, power cables, hydrogen pipelines and carbon storage projects – very seriously indeed, and make them the focus of a global strategy to prevent a potential disaster.

Read more:
Ukraine war: Kremlin’s threat to interfere with undersea data cables may be bluster, but must be taken seriously

Neighbourhood threat

Medvedev also has habit of popping up from time to time to threaten the use of nuclear weapons against the west. And it goes without saying he learned at his master’s feet. Vladimir Putin announced the other day to let us know he planned to station nuclear warheads in neighbouring Belarus.

Belarus was the first former Soviet bloc country to get rid of its nukes after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But the people there have little say in the matter of whether they want to become a target of retaliation in the (it must be said) unlikely event that the Russian president is unhinged enough to escalate to the use of tactical warheads against Ukraine.

Dmitry Mevedev speaking to a seated audience in front of large missiles.
Threats: former Russian president and close Putin ally and deputy head of Russia’s national security council, Dmitry Mevedev, visiting a weapons factory in April.
EPA-EFE/EKaterina Shtukina/Sputnik/Government Press Service Pool

Natalya Chernyshova, a historian of the Soviet Union and Belarus at Queen Mary University of London, has tracked Belarusian attitudes to Russia and the war in Ukraine and finds a country that is deeply ambivalent about both questions. Not that that matters. Since the late 1990s, the two countries have been what’s known as a “union state” (read, decisions are taken mainly in Moscow).

The longtime dictator of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, is thought to do very little without consulting Putin. He had to call in Russian troops in 2020 to keep popular protests at what appeared to be his rigged election to keep him in power.

In a survey taken in March 2023, Chatham House found that 74% of respondents objected to deployment and only 24% were in favour of stationing Russian troops there. And it’s important to remember, writes Chernyshova, that for years – as in Russia – Belarus state media has been banging a relentlessly pro-Moscow drum.

Most likely though, according to the ISW, the plan to ship nuclear warheads and their accompanying troops across into Belarus is simply Putin’s way of taking an ever firmer grip over its unfortunate neighbour.

Read more:
Ukraine war: Russia’s threat to station nuclear warheads in Belarus – what you need to know

Prospects for peace?

While all this has been going on, a delegation of African leaders spearheaded by South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa have visited both Zelensky and Putin in their various capitals to plead for the two sides to come together and talk. This, writes Stefan Wolff, an international relations expert from the University of Birmingham, has a lot to do with Africa’s concern at the prospect that Moscow may decide to call a halt to the grain and fertiliser deal that has kept prices down and helped stave off starvation.

But, as Wolff notes, like so many attempts to bring the two sides together, the red lines in Moscow and Kyiv are irreconcilable and will remain so as long as Russian troops remain in Ukraine, killing people and shelling innocent civilians.

Read more:
Ukraine war: failed African peace mission underscores need for more powerful political and military pressure on Putin

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