Those discussions included engaging in “war games” with Kyiv, sources said, a analytic exercise designed to help Ukrainian forces understand what levels of force they need to muster in order to succeed in various scenarios.
Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told CNN that “The United States has routine military dialogue at several levels with Ukraine. We will not comment on the specifics of these clashes. Generally speaking, we provide Ukrainians with information to help them better understand the threats they face and protect their country from Russian aggression. Ultimately, the Ukrainians make the final decisions for their operations.”
Officials say they believe parity between the Ukrainian and Russian military is now on the rise. But Western officials are hesitant to call the nascent Ukrainian operation, which appears to have begun on Monday in southern Kherson region, a real “counteroffensive.”
How successful Ukraine will be in regaining lost territories remains an open question, sources familiar with the latest intelligence tell CNN. Ukrainian officials have already said the offensive is likely to be a slow operation as harsh winter weather and then early spring thaw approach, which could lead to a pause in hostilities.
However, there is a distinct feeling among Ukraine’s U.S. and Western advisers that the Ukrainian military is on a much more equal footing with Russia than even just a few months ago thought, several officials told CNN. Russia still maintains superiority in the total number of personnel and massive artillery.
But Ukrainian capabilities, backed by modern Western weaponry and training, have closed an important gap, officials say, in particular the highly mobile artillery rocket systems, or HIMARS, that Ukraine has used to attack behind Russian lines in recent months.
“It shows you what constant training and armament can do when forces are highly motivated and capable of doing their jobs,” a senior NATO official told CNN.
Another American military source was more direct: Ukraine compensated for Russia’s advantage in the volume of fire with its “competence.”
Ukraine has been signaling publicly for months that it intends to launch a major counteroffensive to reclaim territories lost to Russia in the six-month war. And even before Monday, when Ukrainian forces began intensifying rocket and artillery fire on the front lines in southern Ukraine, Kyiv was actively thwarting Russian resupply and command efforts in the region.
For weeks, Ukraine has used a mixture of partisan sympathizers, long-range fire and special operations forces to launch a series of attacks far behind Russian lines, including in Crimea, targeting logistics and command and control centers in preparation for the operation. south offensive.
“I don’t think it’s possible yet to confirm the extent of the Ukrainian offensives, but they certainly affected Russia’s ability to move north and south through [the Dnieper River] with their strikes on bridges,” a senior NATO official said on Wednesday. “And in terms of future prospects, I would note that Ukraine is much closer to parity in the number of troops in Kherson than it was in recent weeks” in the east of the province of the country, where fighting has been going on for several months.
The attacks in Crimea were a particularly clever strategy, one official said, because Russia is using the peninsula as a launching pad for its operations in southern Ukraine.
Russia has also been forced to withdraw resources from the east “simply because of reports that the Ukrainians may be attacking more in the south,” John Kirby, the National Security Council’s communications coordinator, said Monday.
“And so they had to exhaust certain units … in certain areas in the east of Donbass to respond to what they clearly saw as a looming threat of a counteroffensive,” Kirby said.
U.S. and Ukrainian sources tell CNN that earlier plans for the Ukrainian operation were initially broader and included more ambitious efforts to recapture other territories lost to the Russian invasion in the past six months, including the southeastern city of Zaporozhye.
But by Monday, Ukrainian officials seemed focused on retaking the Kherson region.
An administration official told CNN that in recent months Ukraine has been asking the US for weapons specifically suited to its planned southern counteroffensive. The US has complied with many of those requests, including more ammunition, artillery and darts, in several presidential aid packages provided to Ukraine over the past two months, the official said.
The planning exercise also helped the United States better understand what equipment, munitions, or intelligence it could offer that would be most useful to Ukraine. During the course of the war, the United States regularly provided Ukraine with military advice and intelligence, as well as billions of dollars worth of equipment and weapons.
“A slow operation to pulverize the enemy”
Officials say Ukraine now looks more balanced with Russian forces, not only because of the advanced Western weaponry Ukraine is using effectively, but also because the Ukrainians still have the advantage in terms of morale, unit cohesion, tactical acumen and superiority. the ability to improvise on the fly.
They have another advantage, the two officials said: a population largely appalled by the Russian occupation and ready to engage in guerrilla attacks to drive them out, such as assassinations and sabotage behind enemy lines.
Yet despite a more optimistic assessment of Ukraine’s combat capabilities, US officials are not betting that Ukraine will successfully recapture Kherson—yet.
“I’m not sure if it will be the big, massive counter-offensive that people can expect — perhaps fewer forces will be involved,” a US military source warned. A lot will depend on how well Russia can defend the newly captured territories, something that has not yet been required of it over the past six months, the source said.
The adviser to the President of Ukraine also warned that the offensive would be “a slow operation to destroy the enemy.”
“This process will not be very fast,” Aleksey Arestovich, adviser to the Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, said in a statement posted on his Telegram account late Monday evening, “but will end with the installation of the Ukrainian flag. in all settlements of Ukraine.