On July 20, Sergey Lavrov, minister of foreign affairs for the Russian Federation, declared that Moscow had new objectives in Ukraine, as it now wants to expand its gains beyond the borders of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” by capturing Kherson, Kharkiv, and Zaporizhzhia regions. Lavrov underlined Western military equipment transfer and the alleged need to protect the occupied territories from long-range weapons as main reasons for this shift (TSN, June 20).
On the Ukrainian side, Alexey Danilov, secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, stated in an interview that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has issued orders to liberate the occupied portions of southern Ukraine (YouTube.com/RadioFreeEurope-RadioLiberty, July 12). One potential area where Ukraine could launch an all-out counteroffensive is in Kherson region. Some progress has already been made, such as the liberation of several villages close to Kherson city and the destruction of the Antonovsky bridge on July 26 (Slovo i Dilo, June 26).
Despite official claims on the Russian side regarding successful air defense countermeasures, High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) missiles successfully hit multiple portions of the bridge, making it impassable for heavy military technical vehicles. Before that, on June 23, another important bridge in Kherson region, Dariiv, was eliminated by the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU), making the reinforcement of Russian occupational forces to the region much more difficult (Interfax, June 23). The destruction of the bridge has made Russian forces much more dependent on a single-lane bridge near Nova Kakhovka, which has almost been cut off from reinforcement.
On July 15, Oleksii Reznikov, minister of defense for Ukraine, stated that the first M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) had arrived in the country, but he did not specify the number of systems available. According to Reznikov, M270s “could be in good company with HIMARS” (Twitter/GeneralStaffUA, July 15). Oleksandr Motuzyanyk, spokesperson for the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, added that the AFU have destroyed more than 30 Russian logistical objects in a few weeks with HIMARS. At the same time, he stressed that, despite the recent successful attacks, the AFU still needs many more similar long-range MLRS systems (ZN.ua, July 15). Edgars Rinkevics, minister of foreign affairs for the Republic of Latvia, expressed a similar idea in a tweet: “More HIMARS and other [similar] modern weapon systems are needed to stop the war” (Twitter/EdgarsRinkevics), July 24).
HIMARS became a real game changer due to their high precision, distance, maneuverability, and speed of reloading. Destroying key command centers, logistics objects, and air defense, the missile system remains almost wholly safeguarded from countermeasures. This makes them a top-priority target for Russian forces. As such, on July 18, Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu ordered Russian forces to focus on destroying HIMARS in Ukraine (Lenta, July 18). Later, the Kremlin even claimed that four HIMARS had already been destroyed (Deutsche Welle, July 28). However, these claims were later refuted by General Mark Milley, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. Milley countered that, in reality, at the time of speaking, Russia had yet to destroy any of the HIMARS now situated in Ukraine (Business Insider, July 22). Meanwhile, according to Ukrainian intelligence, groups of Russian special forces have been deployed to Ukraine to focus specifically on hunting HIMARS.
Yet, according to Justin Kramp, a military expert and head of strategic advisory firm Sibylline, despite their early success, HIMARS are not a “silver bullet” that alone will turn the tide of the war (Deutsche Welle, July 28). This perspective is shared by Mykola Bielieskov, research fellow at the National Institute for Strategic Studies under the President of Ukraine. On July 28, Bielieskov wrote that the Guided MLRS (GMLRS) munition with 85-kilometer range currently used by the AFU is not enough to target all Russian military objects in the temporarily Ukrainian territories and a wider range is needed. Therefore, Kyiv urgently needs ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile Systems) to liberate the southern region. In his opinion, sending ATACMS to Ukraine runs no risk of escalation from Moscow, which has been shown already by the AFU’s use of its own Tochka-U short-range ballistic missiles (120-kilometer range) (Twitter/MBielieskov, July 28).
Furthermore, air supremacy remains a critical issue. By launching a counteroffensive, Ukraine first needs to destroy as many of Russian air defense systems as possible. On the other hand, Kyiv needs to protect its own forces from possible Russian airstrikes (Kyiv Independent, July 19). This requires a strong and multilayered air defense grid. According to Zelenskyy, Ukrainian representatives “have not stop working for a single day to obtain an effective air defense system” (President.gov.ua, July 20). Kyiv needs advanced antiaircraft defense systems, such as the IRIS-T, which could be provided by Germany before the end of 2022 (Defense Express, July 27). The first Gepard anti-aircraft self-propelled artillery units recently arrived to Ukraine, which should start to make a difference (Mil.in.ua, July 25). In truth, air defense is crucial not only for future counteroffensives but also for protecting civilians, as 70 percent of Russian airstrikes have hit civilian objects (Livyi Bereh, July 26).
Meanwhile, Ukraine is witnessing an information campaign aimed at undermining weapon supplies from Western countries. The Kremlin understands the importance of these Western supplements and seeks to limit supply by feigning threats of escalation. This disinformation activity involves several politicians, experts, media personalities and organizations from various regions. They specifically push publications and analysis that claim arming Ukraine will pose a major danger for the whole of Europe (Bild, July 29). Such efforts originate mostly in Germany and France and are most likely being directly orchestrated from Moscow, or at the very least, have some link to Russian authorities.
Indeed, the success of future Ukrainian counteroffensives depends heavily not only on the professionalism of Ukrainian soldiers and the speed of new weapons shipments but also on the ability of Ukrainian diplomats to more thoroughly explain the importance of new, and continued, armament support to Western leaders. Even so, it will be up to Western leaders to display the courage necessary to supply Ukrainian forces on the front lines with the adequate weapon systems and munitions needed to drive back Russian forces.