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Ukraine's devastating counteroffensive is having difficulty breaking through entrenched Russian defenses, largely because it has too many troops, including some of its best combat units, in the wrong places, US and Western officials say.
The main goal of the counteroffensive is to cut Russian supply lines in southern Ukraine by cutting the so-called land bridge between Russia and the occupied Crimean peninsula. But instead of focusing on that, Ukrainian commanders have distributed troops and firepower roughly equally between east and south, US officials said.
As a result, there are more Ukrainian forces near Bakhmut and other towns in the east than near Melitopol and Berdiansk in the south, both far more strategically important fronts, officials say.
American planners have advised Ukraine to focus on the front moving toward Melitopol, Kiev's top priority, and on breaking through Russian minefields and other defenses, even if the Ukrainians lose more soldiers and equipment in the process.
Only a change in tactics and one dramatic move can change the pace of the counteroffensive, said a U.S. official who, like half a dozen other Western officials interviewed for this article, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal considerations.
Another US official said the Ukrainians were too spread out and needed to consolidate their fighting power in one place.
Almost three months into the counteroffensive, the Ukrainians may be taking the advice to heart, especially sincecasualties continue to riseand Russia still has an advantage in troops and equipment.
In an Aug. 10 video conference, Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said; his British counterpart, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin; and General Christopher Cavoli, the top US commander in Europe, urged Ukraine's top military commander, General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, to focus on one main front. And according to two officials briefed on the call, General Zaluzhnyi agreed.
Admiral Radakin's role has been particularly important and so far has not been widely appreciated, the officials said. General Milley talks with General Zaluzhnyi about every week about Ukraine's strategy and military needs. But the Biden administration has banned top US officials from visiting Ukraine for security reasons and to avoid further tensions with Moscow. However, Britain has imposed no such restrictions and Admiral Radakin, a polished officer who served three tours in Iraq, has developed close ties with his Ukrainian counterpart during several trips to the country.
US officials say there are signs that Ukraine has begun moving some of its most experienced fighting forces from the east to the south. However, even the most experienced units have been reconstituted several times after suffering heavy losses. These units rely on a shrinking cadre of senior commanders. Some platoons consist mainly of soldiers who have been wounded and have returned to fight.
In recent days, Ukraine has penetrated at least one layer of the Russian defense in the south and isincreasing pressureAmerican and Ukrainian officials say so. He is close to taking control of Robotyne, a village in the south close to the next line of Russian defense. Taking the village, US officials said, would be a good sign.
A spokesman for the Ukrainian army did not respond to text messages or phone calls Tuesday.
But some analysts say progress may be too little, too late. The battles take place on practically flat and unforgiving terrain, which favors the defenders. The Russians fight from hidden positions that Ukrainian soldiers often only see when they are a few meters away. Hours after the Ukrainians clear a minefield, the Russians sometimes fire another rocket that scatters more mines in the same location.
Under US war doctrine, there is always a primary effort to ensure that maximum resources go to a single front, even as supporting forces fight in other areas to guard against the failure or spread of enemy defenses.
But Ukraine and Russia are fighting under the old Soviet communist doctrine, which seeks to minimize factional rivalry in the military by providing equal amounts of personnel and equipment to all commands. Both armies have failed to prioritize their most important objectives, officials say.
Ukraine's continued focus on Bakhmut, the scene ofone of the bloodiest battles of the war, has targeted US military and intelligence officials. Ukraine has poured huge amounts of resources into defending the surrounding Donbas region, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky does not want to appear as if he is giving up trying to recapture lost territory. But U.S. officials say that policy, at least temporarily, must return to a sound military strategy.
American strategists say it is justified to keep a small force near the destroyed city to immobilize Russian troops and prevent them from using it as an assault base. But Ukraine has enough troops there to try to retake the area, a move that U.S. officials say would involve heavy casualties with little strategic gain.
US officials have told Ukrainian leaders that they can secure the country around Bakhmut with far fewer troops and that they should redeploy forces to targets in the south.
Ukrainian leaders have defended their strategy and distribution of forces, saying they are fighting effectively in both the east and south. The large number of troops is necessary to put pressure on Bakhmut and defend againstCoordinated Russian attacks in the north-eastern part of the country., they say. Ukrainian commanders are competing for resources and have their own ideas about where they can succeed.
Criticism of Ukraine's counteroffensive by US officials is often cast through the lens of a generation of military officers who have never experienced warfare of this scale and intensity.
Moreover, American warfare has never been tested in an environment like Ukraine's, where Russian electronic warfare blocks communications and GPS, and neither army has been able to achieve air superiority.
U.S. officials said Ukraine has between a month and six weeks before rains force a pause in the counteroffensive. Already in August, Ukraine postponed at least one offensive due to rain.
"Ground conditions are always key factors" in military operations, General Milley said in an interview with reporters on Sunday. "Fall and spring are not optimal for combined arms operations."
The wet weather won't stop the fighting, but if Ukraine breaks through Russian lines in the coming weeks, the mud could make it harder to capitalize on that success and quickly capture a wide swath of territory, the officials said.
More important than the weather, some analysts say, is that Ukraine's main strike forces could run out of steam by mid-to-late September. About a month ago, Ukraine rotated in a second wave of troops to replace an initial force that failed to break through Russian defenses.
Ukraine then also changed its battlefield tactics, returning to its old ways of wearing down Russian forces with artillery and long-range missiles instead of diving into minefields under fire. In recent days, Ukraine has begun to draw on its last strategic reserves: mobile air brigades aimed at taking advantage of any breakthrough. While the fighting could continue for months, U.S. and other Western officials say Ukraine's counteroffensive would not have enough decisive firepower to retake much of the 20 percent of the country that Russia occupies.
U.S. officials say they do not believe the counteroffensive is doomed, but acknowledge that the Ukrainians have not been as successful as they or their allies had hoped when the advance began.
"We don't think the conflict is at an impasse," Jake Sullivan, the White House national security adviser, said Tuesday. "We continue to support Ukraine in its efforts to capture territory as part of this counteroffensive, and we see it continue to capture territory in a methodical and systematic manner."
While a smaller and more entrenched Russian force has fared better in the south than US officials and analysts expected, the Kremlin still faces systemic problems. Russian troops are suffering from poor supply lines, low morale and poor logistics, a senior US military official has said.
But Russia maintains its traditional way of waging ground wars in Europe: getting poor results in the first few months or years before adapting and holding on as the fighting drags on.
On the contrary, when the Ukrainian troops start the counteroffensive, they have to climb the steepest hill, the official said. It took them more than two months (rather than a week or so as officials originally believed) to overcome the initial Russian defenses.
Several U.S. officials said they expect Ukraine to be about halfway to the Sea of Azov by winter, when cold weather could dictate another pause in the fighting. The senior US official said it would be a "partial success." Some analysts say the counteroffensive will miss even that narrower target.
Even if the counteroffensive does not reach the coast, officials and analysts say that if it can go far enough to put the coastal highway within range of Ukrainian artillery and other attacks, it could cause even more problems for Russian forces in the south who rely on it route for supplies.
Speaking to reporters on a flight to Rome on Sunday, General Milley said the last two months of the counter-offensive had been "long, bloody and slow".
"It has taken longer than Ukraine had planned," he said. "But they are making limited progress."
Zolan Kanno-Youngs contributed reporting.
Erik Schmittis a senior writer who has traveled the world covering terrorism and homeland security. He was also a correspondent for the Pentagon. A Times staff member since 1983, he has shared four Pulitzer Prizes. More about Eric Schmitt
Julian E. Barnesis a Washington-based national security reporter covering intelligence agencies. Before joining The Times in 2018, he wrote about security issues for The Wall Street Journal. More about Julian E. Barnes
Helena CooperHe is a correspondent for the Pentagon. A former editor, diplomatic and White House correspondent, she was part of the team awarded the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for their coverage of the Ebola epidemic. More about Helene Cooper
Thomas Gibbons-NeffHe is a Ukraine correspondent and former Marine. Mere om Thomas Gibbons-Neff
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