Russian attack helicopters showed up in force on the front lines
Russian attack helicopters have been putting dents in Ukraine's armored assaults.
Ukraine's armed forces are gaining ground and pressing ahead with counteroffensive operations, but Russia is fighting back and deploying aviation assets to the front lines in ways they haven't done before to thwart Ukrainian efforts to retake captured territory.
Ukrainian forces are pushing beyond the protection of some of their fixed air defenses in the absence of the kind of mobile air defenses they require, and Russian attack helicopters, such as the Ka-52 Alligators, capable of causing damage with their 30mm cannons or anti-tank missiles, are emerging as a threat to Ukraine's ground forces, which must be quickly engaged with air-defense missiles before they can eliminate its heavy armor, such as tanks and infantry fighting vehicles.
Senior Ukrainian military officials have expressed concern about Russia's "aviation and artillery superiority" during counteroffensive operations, which they say are encountering "fierce fighting," and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told The BBC on Wednesday that the counteroffensive is moving "slower than desired."
Britain's defense ministry noted in a recent intelligence update that "Russia has re-enforced its attack helicopter force in" southern Ukraine, giving the Russians an advantage in an area where tougher fights have been taking place.
According to a Ukrainian soldier, Russian helicopter attacks on Ukraine's armored vehicles have proven to be a "very powerful technique" that Ukrainian forces have struggled to match with their available capabilities.
Despite the fact that Russia is fighting a Ukrainian offensive, it continues to launch loitering munitions and missiles at Ukrainian cities, forcing Ukraine to divide its already stretched air defenses between two priorities: supporting front-line operations and defending civilians and critical infrastructure.
"It's possible that Ukrainian forces arrayed their air-defense umbrella to focus on that campaign," the constant bombardment of Ukrainian cities, "and they weren't prepared to have that air-defense umbrella cover the front line as extensively," Bailey speculated.
"Russian forces deployed aviation in a way they haven't recently, to front-line positions, and were able to use it more successfully than they had in the past," he said.
"We haven't seen Russian forces really use aviation super extensively on the front line," Bailey said, adding that "they have been concerned about having aviation losses." However, Ka-52 and Mi-8 helicopters, as well as other rotary-wing aircraft, are now conducting close-range operations near the front, undermining some Ukrainian efforts.
"Ukrainian forces are having to adapt to how Russian forces are employing these in southern Ukraine," he said, noting that they are seeing signs of this as the Ukrainians prepare for their main offensive. Ukraine, for example, claimed on Wednesday that it had shot down a Russian Mi-24 helicopter.
Counteroffensive challenges include effective Russian defenses by experienced troops, in which a first echelon degrades an enemy advance with artillery and mines, followed by a second-line counterattack. Electronic-warfare systems are another threat to operations.
Ukrainian navigation, targeting, and reconnaissance have all been hampered by Russian electronic warfare. Minefields planted remotely by artillery pose a constant problem for battlefield engineers and sappers clearing assault paths.
Addressing the Russian land mine threat will be "kind of an ongoing process that they'll have to do as they try to break through Russian lines of defense," which also include complex trench networks and anti-tank barriers like concertina wire and dragon's teeth.
Fighting a counteroffensive on a 'starvation diet'
Ukrainian forces are conducting broad counteroffensive operations along the front in eastern Ukraine, including around war-torn Bakhmut, the border between the Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia oblasts, and the Western Zaporizhzhia oblast.
Ukraine has paid a high price for its operations, both in terms of personnel and equipment, including Western armor. Analysts have cautioned against using these losses to judge the success or failure of the counteroffensive, arguing that doing so would be premature.
Russia is also suffering significant losses. According to the British defense ministry, "both sides are suffering high casualties, with Russian losses likely to be the highest since the peak of the battle for Bakhmut in March."
Bakhmut is a destroyed city of limited strategic value that was captured at a tremendous cost in human lives for the Russian military and irregular Wagner mercenaries, the leader of which claimed losses of up to 20,000 fighters over the course of the battle.
Part of what makes Ukraine's ongoing counteroffensive fighting difficult is that its forces are fighting a complex war without all of the necessary equipment, such as mobile air defenses, breaching equipment, airpower, and additional armor.
Over the course of the war, Ukraine's military has received billions of dollars in security assistance, weaponry, and training from partner nations, with Kyiv's forces recently receiving capable Western armor, but the current operations are a complex undertaking that necessitates a high level of combat capability.
"Whatever Ukraine can receive" for "conducting large-scale mechanized advances and penetrations into Russian-held territory would be useful," ISW analyst Karolina Hird told Insider. However, the counteroffensive will take place even if Ukraine is unable to obtain the additional capability.
"Ukraine needs continued assistance in all forms," she said, "but they will do it whether or not they have the assistance, which is what we saw in 2022 with the previous counteroffensive operations that Ukraine conducted while essentially on a starvation diet in terms of Western military aid."
It remains to be seen how the counteroffensive will unfold, whether the Ukrainians will break through Russian lines or be halted by a strong defense.
But it's still early days. The fog of war is thick with chaos and confusion, but the main attack does not appear to have occurred yet, implying that this fight is far from over.
In a Wednesday update, ISW wrote that "the overall slower-than-expected pace of Ukrainian counteroffensive operations isn't emblematic of Ukraine's wider offensive potential," adding that "Ukrainian forces are likely successfully setting conditions for a future main effort despite initial setbacks."
Ukraine has not committed the majority of its dedicated counteroffensive forces to a major offensive operation, and, as ISW's George Barros recently stated, "big fireworks are still to come."