The Guardian view on Ukraine’s counteroffensive: keeping up momentum | Editorial

As the wait for the long-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive continues, two strikingly different developments in the war have seized attention. The first is that Russia appears to have all but taken Bakhmut after a long, slow and brutal fight which has reduced another thriving community to rubble, cost a staggering number of lives and consumed huge quantities of ammunition. Each side is thought to have suffered tens of thousands of casualties in the battle for a city that is more important to Moscow symbolically than strategically. Both sides have referred to the combat there as a “meat grinder”.

The second development is the startling raid into Belgorod, a Russian border region – claimed by ethnic Russian, anti-Kremlin partisans, whom Kyiv says act independently; Moscow blamed the incursion on “Ukrainian militants”. Unlike previous attacks on an oil depot, munitions store and railway bridge in Belgorod, this does not appear to be about a major strategic target. But it has shifted attention from Russian military success to Russian military humiliation.

What matters in this war is not only the damage inflicted on supply lines or the precise territory commanded by troops, but the narrative it fosters or sustains, boosting or diminishing not only domestic morale but external support. Western aid has helped Ukraine to hold off a much mightier foe; but it is Ukraine’s success against the odds that has kept that support flowing. It has repeatedly shown itself to be defter and more energetic than its adversary, with the resources and creativity to embarrass Russia.

Its victories – first in fending off the assault upon Kyiv, then snatching back Kherson and occupied territory in Kharkiv oblast – may have raised the bar. In achieving what seemed highly unlikely or even impossible, it has raised expectations of what it can or should achieve next. It will embark on its counteroffensive armed with large quantities of weaponry from the US and Europe, including air defence systems and tanks. But questions remain about maintaining supplies of the enormous quantities of ammunition being consumed. Its troops have the motivation, but experienced personnel are dead or wounded, and the numbers are on Russia’s side. Moscow’s winter offensive made only incremental progress, and its campaign has been dogged by incompetence, top-heavy decision-making and internal divisions. But it has now entrenched its troops with a “defence-in-depth” strategy aimed at minimising the effect of any breach in the lines by Ukrainian forces.

Joe Biden’s agreement to an international effort to train Ukrainian pilots in F16s appears in part designed to signal that US support is not conditional upon the counteroffensive, and to help prepare Ukraine to defend itself in the longer term. The reality is, however, that Kyiv’s backers want to see results in exchange for their investment – and that, with next year’s presidential election looming, American support cannot be counted on indefinitely. While some in the US and Europe hope the counteroffensive could lead to ceasefire talks, Russia shows no interest in taking an exit even if it is offered, and Ukraine – for very obvious reasons – does not trust its foe to abide by any deal.

Whatever happens in the coming weeks may well be followed by another long and bloody stalemate, with more Bakhmuts. A war of attrition exhausts not only troops, but those battling poverty and power shortages on the home front. Territory regained will have ruined homes, shattered hopes and traumatised civilians. Ukraine needs this counteroffensive to renew a sense of momentum for both domestic and diplomatic purposes, but it is likely to be only one more stage in a long and punishing conflict.

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