Call it a countercounteroffensive. Two months after the Ukrainian armed forces launched twin counteroffensives in eastern and southern Ukraine, rapidly liberating Kharkiv and Kherson Oblasts from months of brutal Russian occupation, Russian forces pushed back.
But where the Ukrainian counteroffensives resulted in major breakthroughs for the Ukrainians—and galloping retreats by local Russian troops—the Russian countercounteroffensive is a brutal, bloody slog that appears to be killing more Russians than Ukrainians. Worse for the Russians, they’re not gaining significant ground.
Three weeks ago, the Russians attacked west of Donetsk, the capital of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic. Their aim: to wrest control of all of Donetsk Oblast from the Ukrainians. Russian and separatist regiments and mercenaries from The Wagner Group attacked the Ukrainian garrisons in Bakhmut, Siversk, Pavlivka and other settlements in western Donetsk.
It’s not going well for the Russians and their allies. “The Ukrainians are fighting a very, very successful mobile defense,” U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters on Wednesday.
The ongoing battle for Pavlivka, 25 miles southwest of Donetsk, is a tragic microcosm of Russia’s failing campaign. For three weeks, the Russian marine corps’ 155th and 40th Naval Infantry Brigades and other forces have been trying, and failing, to pry the Ukrainian 72nd Mechanized Brigade from Pavlivka, which before the war had a population of 2,500.
The marines lost as many as 300 troops killed, wounded or missing in just the first few days of their assaults on Pavlivka. The losses continued over the next couple of weeks as Ukrainian artillery blasted exposed Russian infantry and Ukrainian missile teams knocked out Russian tanks.
Aleksandr Khodakovsky, a notorious separatist commander in Donetsk Oblast, described Pavlivka as a “furnace” for the Russian marine brigades. The problem, Khodakovsky explained, is marine commanders’ inability to concentrate their surviving troops in order to defeat Ukrainian troops at critical points in the defensive line and achieve a breakthrough. “Planning errors have led to unjustified losses with a meager result,” Khodakovsky wrote.
It’s possible Russian forces cling to the southern edge of Pavlivka: the “meager result” Khodakovsky referenced. But capturing a few blocks of a tiny village isn’t worth the cost of hundreds or thousands of lives in two of the Russians’ few intact brigades. The 155th and 40th Naval Infantry Brigades, which at their peak strength each oversaw 3,000 troops, surely can’t sustain these kinds of losses much longer.
The outlook is bleak for the Kremlin as the Ukrainian counterattack gains momentum and the Russian countercounterattack falters. “The Ukrainians have achieved success after success after success and the Russians have failed every single time,” Milley said. “They’ve lost strategically, they’ve lost operationally, and I repeat, they lost tactically.”