Zelensky, Citing Equipment Gaps, Says It’s Too Soon for Counteroffensive

KYIV, Ukraine — President Volodymyr Zelensky said Thursday that Ukraine needed more time to begin a counteroffensive against Russia because it does not yet have enough military equipment from its Western backers, though Ukrainian officials had repeatedly described the assault as imminent.

In terms of personnel and motivation, Ukraine’s forces are ready for the operation, Mr. Zelensky said in an interview broadcast by the BBC on Thursday, but they are still waiting for some promised hardware from the West, specifically armored vehicles.

“We can go forward, and, I think, be successful,” he said. “But we’d lose a lot of people. I think that’s unacceptable. So we need to wait. We still need a bit more time.”

Ukrainian military and political analysts said Mr. Zelensky was right about the continuing shortfalls ahead of an operation that Ukraine and its supporters hope will be a turning point in the war. But they also pointed to other possible motives behind his remarks: to pressure the allies to ramp up deliveries, to lower expectations for the counteroffensive, and to confuse the Kremlin about Kyiv’s intentions.

For months, Ukraine’s political and military leaders have been signaling that they are preparing a major push to retake territory seized by Russia since it invaded last year, though they have not said precisely when or where the blow would come. Some analysts have predicted that the counteroffensive would be focused on the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions of southern Ukraine, not in the eastern Donbas region where the heaviest fighting has been taking place for months.

One Russian military leader claimed on Thursday that the Ukrainian counteroffensive was already underway.

Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, head of the Wagner private militia, said it was happening in the Donbas and centered on the city of Bakhmut, where his mercenaries have led a grueling assault that has claimed tens of thousands of lives. In an audio message posted on Telegram by his press service, he dismissed Mr. Zelensky’s comments as a ruse.

“The counteroffensive is taking place at full speed,” he said, adding that it would begin in the Bakhmut area and then shift to the Zaporizhzhia region. He said of the Ukrainians: “Those units that have undergone the necessary training, received weapons, equipment, tanks and everything else — they are already fully engaged.”

Russia’s Defense Ministry said in a statement it had repelled some Ukrainian “reconnaissance in force” operations in the east, but described the actions in routine terms and denied that there had been any breakthroughs.

Ukrainian forces have made gains around Bakhmut this week for the first time since March, commanders on both sides have said, but it is unclear whether those reflect opportunistic, small-scale attacks or the start of something bigger.

Mr. Prigozhin has in the past been ahead of Russian officials in acknowledging what is happening on the battlefield, but he has also made questionable claims in his campaign to pry more supplies out of a Russian military command that he criticizes bitterly.

A Russian military blogger, Oleksandr Simonov, who often embeds with Wagner fighters in Ukraine, posted on Thursday that they had made further advances inside the city of Bakhmut, but that Ukrainian troops had forced Russian troops into retreat in two spots north of the city. On Tuesday, the Russians ceded a few square miles southwest of the city.

Whatever Mr. Zelensky’s intensions, his point about being unprepared is correct, said Taras Chmut, who heads Come Back Alive, a charitable foundation that provides military supplies for the Ukrainian army. Despite tens of billions of dollars in weapons delivered, with more on the way, the Ukrainian military is lacking in matériel, including artillery shells, armored vehicles and air defense systems, he said.

“The amount we gathered in recent months is still not enough for a successful counteroffensive,” said Mr. Chmut, a former military officer. But, he added, “It is the decision of the senior military command whether to accept the risks.”

Maria Zolkina, head of regional security and conflict studies at the Kyiv-based Democratic Initiatives Foundation, said Mr. Zelensky’s interview “was part political statement to make the Western partners speed up those supplies.” She said he was also probably looking to temper any high hopes in case the counteroffensive “was not as successful as expected.”

But, Ms. Zolkina added, “I would not exclude that it was an informational trick as Ukraine is trying to hide its preparations.”

Shashank Joshi, defense editor at The Economist, put it more bluntly: “Of course this is what you’d say if the counteroffensive was about to begin,” he wrote on Twitter,

Ms. Zolkina said Kyiv was concerned that if the operation fails to deliver major gains, there could be pressure from some Western partners to negotiate an end to the war or accept reduced assistance.

On Thursday, Britain’s defense secretary, Ben Wallace, told Parliament that the government would provide Ukraine with air-launched cruise missiles that can strike at a range of up to 155 miles. The Storm Shadow missile, with a 990-pound explosive warhead, would enable Ukraine to launch powerful strikes on targets in Crimea, the peninsula that Russia illegally seized in 2014.

“Ukraine has a right to be able to defend itself,” Mr. Wallace said. “The use of Storm Shadow will allow Ukraine to push back Russian forces based within Ukrainian sovereign territory.”

The Biden administration has so far refused to send such long-range munitions to Ukraine, wary of provoking some kind of escalation by Russia. But the war has worn down resistance from the White House, which has agreed to send sophisticated weapons that had previously seemed off-limits, like Patriot air defense systems and HIMARS rocket launchers.

Ben Hodges, a retired lieutenant general who was the commanding general of the U.S. Army in Europe and supports giving Ukraine long-range weapons, said on Twitter that the British cruise missiles would threaten Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, based in Sevastopol, in Crimea. “This will give Ukraine capability to make Crimea untenable for Russian forces,” he said.

Ukrainian leaders have insisted that they intend to reclaim Crimea, but for now it may matter more as a staging and supply area for Russian operations in southern Ukraine.

If Mr. Zelensky’s comments about waiting to launch the campaign were an attempt at misdirection, it would be in keeping with an information war that has been full of feints and surprises.

Last fall, the Ukrainian military let it be known that it was planning a counterattack in the south, which led Russia to move troops to the south, leaving its defenses undermanned in the Kharkiv region in the northeast. The Ukrainian military command then attacked there, instead, surprising the Russians — as well of many of its own troops — and recapturing a vast swath of territory in a rout.

As recently as 10 weeks ago, Western weapons deliveries were still falling far short of what Ukraine needed for a counteroffensive, according to classified U.S. military assessments from February and March.

But two weeks ago, the top NATO military commander, Gen. Christopher G. Cavoli of the U.S. Army, said that Ukraine had by that point received 98 percent of the combat vehicles necessary to launch the battle.

Even so, Ukrainian officials regularly say they need more and better weapons. And in recent days, they have sought to manage the expectations of their own people and Western allies, saying that there may not be a single conclusive battle.

“It looks like we are in a Hollywood movie, where a great battle for Middle-earth begins, and one battle for Gondor will decide everything,” said Mykhailo Podolyak, a presidential adviser, making a reference to “The Lord of the Rings.” “It doesn’t happen like that.”

“It is not a matter of one week or one month,” he said. “This is a question of many events, because one can be more successful, and the other, less successful.”

Carlotta Gall reported from Kyiv, Shashank Bengali and Matthew Mpoke Bigg from London, and Lara Jakes from Rome. Oleksandr Chubko contributed reporting from Kyiv, and Anatoly Kurmanaev from Berlin.

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