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Analysis: Ukrainian counter-offensive is shrouded in confusion; maybe that’s the plan

Columns of dozens of US-supplied military M-ATVs continued to arrive, preceded by a police car, flashing lights and dozens of muddy civil halls.

It is unclear where the armored vehicles were intended. But they were still beige – the paint they would have for use in Iraq and Afghanistan – suggesting they were at least a spray can or mud bath away from being ready for use on the front lines.

Over five weeks of reporting along the southern front lines, it became difficult to conceive that – at least in its limited preparatory stages – the Ukrainian counter-offensive had not begun in late April.

The relentless pinpoint bombing of Russian military targets; the evidence of small Ukrainian landings along the occupied east bank of the Dnipro River; and the explosions hitting fuel depots and infrastructure within Russia’s own borders and in occupied cities – these can all be seen as indicators.

A helicopter strike we witnessed against a Russian target; the persistent signals from officers busy of Ukrainian probing attacks along the Zaporizhzhia front line; and the evacuation of the civilian population in the occupied areas are also indicators.

The signals have gained traction over the past month and are the first vestiges of the “shaping operations” a senior US official told reporters. CNN that started last week. Officially, however, Ukraine’s counter-offensive has not yet begun.

Given the volume of US and NATO hardware, advice and training poured into this operation – with a senior US official recently telling Congress that the US had trained Kiev on how to “surprise” – it seems fair to assume that this delay in declaring the The start of the attack is a tactic, not the product of Ukrainian chaos, disorganization and a relatively wet April leaving the ground too soft.

The announcement of the start was entirely made by the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky. Declare the operation in progress and the watch will immediately mark the first results.

Let’s just say it hasn’t started yet and that any mounting losses Russia suffers are just the cutting and thrusting of normal frontline wear and tear.

Last month, Zelensky’s obfuscating comments that the operation’s “first important steps” would “happen soon” or need “a little more time” only doubled Kiev’s initial promise that it would not announce its start.

It is possible that we only know that the counteroffensive has begun when its first tangible results are revealed. Much of what is happening is not happening in public.

The purpose of this confusion is clearly to keep Moscow off balance, unable to assess whether each new attack by Ukrainian forces is “this” or just another investigation.

The recent attacks around Bakhmut are evidence of this. The head of the Russian Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, spent 10 days in an elaborate conversation essentially with himself on Telegram, warning of Wagner’s collapse without further artillery shells from the Russian top brass.

He has received almost no official public response to his appeals, and it is not clear whether they have changed any of the Russian Defense Ministry’s supply standards.

Prigozhin’s remarkable survival after this onslaught of public criticism of the Kremlin’s men is an expression of both need and fear: Putin is perhaps afraid of the backlash that Prigozhin’s removal would cause, and he also needs Wagner’s forces to hold his ground.

He may also need Prigozhin as a counterpoint to a powerful army. As with so much Kremlinology, the truth is for the time being unknowable, but not so consequential either.

What is key is the resulting display of staggering disunity within Putin’s ranks – something unthinkable in February 2022. Prigozhin’s outburst has so far resulted in only slight territorial shifts in control around the symbolic city of Bakhmut.

But more significantly it revealed a seismic difference in how Russia’s and Ukraine’s war machines are working.

So far, Kiev has managed to keep its intentions, preparations and possible false starts a secret. The Ukrainians seem to have the patience and ability to keep their plan private enough to methodically carry it out.

Instead, Moscow flaunted its dysfunctionality in full. This will be vital in the coming weeks: Moscow seems to process bad news very poorly and publicly.

So far, most of the information we’ve had about Ukraine’s operations has come from pro-Russian occupation officials and military bloggers. Sometimes it can be deliberate misinformation.

When Russian sources warned of the encirclement of Russian troops in Lyman this summer, it was probably a ruse designed to distract Moscow from executing a calm withdrawal.

But at other times, its online debate over policies and weaknesses projects chaos into ranks that clearly don’t need it. The Russian withdrawal from Kherson was another notable example of conflicting messages from senior officials.

Yet, as with the turmoil around Wagner and Bakhmut, the jumble of their messages around it cannot always be rationally explained as a deliberate fog of misinformation. No one wants to look so confused when frontline morale is so low.

In the coming weeks, we’re likely to see more confusion about what Ukraine is up to.

Attacks against specific and important Russian targets, deeper within the occupied territory, could pick up pace and ferocity, as with the apparent missile attacks against large buildings inside Luhansk.

We can also see more apparent fake Ukrainian starts along a 1,000 kilometer front line.

In the West, Ukraine must make occupied Kherson continue to appear vulnerable to a larger amphibious attack across the Dnipro River; and in the east, Bakhmut must still look precariously at risk of its city being surrounded by renewed Ukrainian advances.

And between these two flanks, the massive southern front of Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia must also remain vulnerable to a rapid advance through Russian fortifications by a better equipped and more accurate NATO-trained army.

Moscow cannot lose on any of these three fronts. However, he may be forced to choose – to prioritize – and with that choice will come the first risk of a broader strategic defeat for Putin.

Lose any one of these occupation “awards” and the whole project looks even more fragile than when the Kremlin had to admit, for whatever reason, to being attacked by drones in the heart of Moscow. A public strategic loss could leave the Russian ranks at risk of panic and widespread collapse.

Zelensky’s most telling comments about the operation were perhaps his renewed and blatant call for more Western weapons: he said victory was assured, but without better and faster equipment, more Ukrainian lives would be lost.

This is a fundamental tenet of the Kiev campaign so far: the sanctity of Ukrainian life. Their losses are undoubtedly significant, but they are less accepting of them than their enemy.

An all-out frontal assault against weakened Russian positions – where supply chains, command and morale are likely to be weak – is possible from Kiev at any time. But more weeks of Russian confusion, hype and public self-criticism are likely to reduce the ultimate human cost in Kiev.

While Moscow’s mixed messages may herald rare signs of internal rifts, Kiev’s are a sign of purpose and determination.

Source: CNN Brasil

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