Ukraine is kicking off its big offensive armed with powerful Western tanks and weapons, but breaking Russian lines may be anything but easy

Ukrainian crews operate and fire the tanks on ranges in tough terrain conditions as the Russia-Ukraine war continues in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine on April 26, 2023

Ukrainian crews operate and fire the tanks on ranges in tough terrain conditions as the Russia-Ukraine war continues in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine on April 26, 2023.Muhammed Enes Yildirim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

  • Ukraine’s much-anticipated counteroffensive has finally begun.

  • The Ukrainians are armed with Western weapons, including tanks and armored vehicles, but they are facing tough Russian defenses.

  • The initial phases of this operation may be the most dangerous and costly, war experts say.

The Ukrainian counteroffensive has begun, kicking off a particularly dangerous time for Ukraine’s armed forces, even with its newly acquired arsenal of Western-made tanks, armored vehicles, and other weaponry that has been pouring in over months.

“Amidst a highly complex operational picture, heavy fighting continues along multiple sectors of the front,” the British defense ministry said in a Thursday update, noting that “in most areas Ukraine holds the initiative.”

Ukrainian forces, including combat units trained in Western tactics and armed with Western weaponry, are pushing against various parts of the front line, The Washington Post reported as The Financial Times reported Ukraine has committed Western-made tanks, which experts have said would signal the start of the offensive.

Kyiv hasn’t announced it, as it said it wouldn’t, but Ukrainian officials confirmed to ABC News that the counteroffensive is actively underway. An officer and a soldier told NBC the same, and the Institute for the Study of War, a think tank that has carefully tracked Russia’s war in Ukraine, said Thursday “the Ukrainian counteroffensive has begun.”

There appear to be Ukrainian offensive operations against Russian defenses in the Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk oblasts, among other locations along the front lines. Ukraine has seemingly made some gains, but other attacks appear to have been less effective.

The fog of war makes determining a main line of effort difficult, but one objective of the counteroffensive given Ukrainian activities may be severing the so-called “land bridge” connecting Russia and Russian-controlled territories in the southeast, cutting critical supply lines for Russian forces.

Regardless of the objective, Ukraine’s likely facing a tough fight, and failure to make meaningful progress could risk threatening the aid that has fueled Kyiv’s war effort and even push Ukraine to negotiate. As some experts have said, the stakes for the Ukrainian offensive are high.

Ukrainian soldiers work on Leopard 1 A5 tank

Ukrainian soldiers work on the gun of a Leopard 1 A5 tank at a Bundeswehr site in Klietz, Germany on May 5, 2023.Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert/picture alliance via Getty Images

Partner nations provided Ukraine with mountains of military hardware, such as formidable third-generation German-made main battle tanks, armored infantry fighting vehicles, and massive amounts of ammunition, ahead of its counteroffensive punch.

Ukraine also received training in Western tactics and best practices for employing the new additions to the Ukrainian arsenal.

US Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told CNN this week that Ukraine’s armed forces are “very well prepared” for the counteroffensive but also said that it’s “too early to tell what outcomes are going to happen.” Offense is hard, and fighting tends to favor the defenders.

Russia has spent months digging extensive trench networks and building barriers and reinforcing its lines in preparation for Ukraine’s much-anticipated offensive. Unlike last summer’s sweeping offensive around Kharkiv, Ukrainian forces are facing much more heavily defended positions.

Capturing a trench, as The New York Times reported earlier this week, is considered “difficult soldiering” that requires careful planning, coordination of combat assets, and significant amounts of ammunition and firepower. In a push to capture an enemy trench in May, assault forces fired 3,000 rounds from just two machine guns.

Paratroopers from the 81st Airmobile Battalion come out from a trench after a attack from a BM-21 Grad multiple rocket launcher on July 5,2022 in Seversk, Ukraine

Paratroopers from the 81st Airmobile Battalion come out from a trench after a attack from a BM-21 Grad multiple rocket launcher on July 5,2022 in Seversk, Ukraine.Laurent van der Stockt for Le Monde/Getty Images

“The initial counteroffensive operations may be the most difficult and slowest, as they involve penetrating prepared defensive positions,” ISW said Thursday. “Initial setbacks are to be expected. This phase may also see the highest Ukrainian losses.”

Citing two senior US officials, CNN reported Thursday that Ukrainian forces have met greater resistance than expected and have suffered heavy equipment and personnel losses trying to break through Russian lines in the eastern part of the country.

One official said the losses, which included armored vehicles, as “significant.”

The Russian Ministry of Defense has released a video, which Insider was not able to independently verify, that purportedly shows the loss of a German-made Leopard tank in a battle near Novopokrovka. Russia was recently mocked for presenting a strike on farm equipment as a tank kill, but the newest video does appear to show a loss, according to open-source intelligence channels following the war in Ukraine.

But losses, within limits, are an expected part of combat, especially high-intensity warfare like that in Ukraine, where both sides have suffered horrific numbers of casualties since the start of the conflict.

“We strongly believe that we will succeed,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told The Wall Street Journal last weekend, but he also said he expects “a large number of soldiers will die.”

ISW said Thursday that “militaries have long identified the penetration phase of a mechanized offensive as the most dangerous and costly.”

The think tank added, as Russia makes claims of thwarting Ukraine’s offensive, that “the success or failure of this phase may not be apparent for some time.”

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