Russian forces are finally conducting the kind of targeted offensive that Ukrainian and Western analysts feared in the weeks prior to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s audacious and abortive attempt to seize Kyiv and overthrow Ukraine's central government.

“Russians never had enough troops for that scale of operation, to attack everything like they did in the beginning,” a Ukrainian security official who requested anonymity to discuss the status of the conflict told the Washington Examiner. “It's much more difficult because right now, they concentrated all of their forces on some more realistic goals. ... It’s much more difficult for us to even defend our position.”

That recalibration may not have solved all the problems that thwarted Kremlin ambitions in the initial weeks of the war, analysts agree. Still, it has allowed the battered Russian military to deliver some of their most painful blows of the war, a bloodletting that has marred the joy even of Ukraine’s reclamation of Kharkiv from the invading Russian forces.

“It’s just because of concentration of Russian troops in Donbas. It’s not some sort of decisive battle of Kharkiv or whatever,” the Ukrainian official acknowledged. "They just moved their troops from Kharkiv because they never had enough troops to keep them in Kharkiv.”


If Russian commanders have had some sense knocked into them over the past three months, their battlefield improvement has come just as some Western governments seem inclined to revert to the habits of mind they cultivated in the years prior to Putin’s attempt to seize Kyiv. Western European leaders have signaled their desire to end the fighting even if it requires a deal that would frustrate Ukrainian aspirations to recover the territory seized by the Russians, while the U.S. government’s decision to provide heavy weapons to Ukraine reportedly is being tempered once more by fear of a confrontation with Putin.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi declared in a statement to Italian lawmakers Thursday that "a ceasefire must be achieved as soon as possible,” more than a week after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky claimed French President Emmanuel Macron urged him to relinquish some territory in the name of peace (an allegation Paris disputed). Draghi’s public address coincided with Ukrainian media reports that Italian officials have proposed a ceasefire agreement that would not require Russian forces to withdraw from the Ukrainian land they have seized since the offensive began Feb. 24.

“More than anyone in the world, we seek peace. But fair peace is crucial for us,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Andriy Yermak said during a Friday morning event with the Atlantic Council. “Peace at any cost is not an option for us. We did not start this war. We did not seize foreign territories. But we have to return and will return ours. Ukraine is Kherson, Donetsk, Luhansk, and Sevastopol. Our sovereignty and territorial integrity are not a compromise for us.”

Yermak’s remarks Friday morning raised the curtain on political debates that Ukrainian officials are conducting with Western allies, even as Russian forces hammer away at their positions in Donbas.

“The Armed Forces of Ukraine continue the liberation of the Kharkiv region. But in Donbas, the occupiers are trying to increase pressure,” Zelensky said in an update released late Thursday evening. “There's hell, and that's not an exaggeration. The brutal and absolutely pointless bombing of Severodonetsk ... this is a deliberate and criminal attempt to kill as many Ukrainians as possible.”

Severodonetsk has additional significance as the chief city in the Ukrainian-controlled portion of Luhansk, one of the two regions partitioned by Russian-led separatists at the outset of the war in 2014. “It is now tough around the Severodonestk area,” a senior European official told the Washington Examiner. “Ukrainians need heavy artillery and those kind of things as quickly as possible to survive. And then, if they are able to do it, then they can start to grab back the territories, but first, that's a difficult time there.”

President Joe Biden hailed the passage of bipartisan legislation to provide $40 billion in aid to Ukraine this week. That aid foreshadows a huge influx in military assistance, yet the details of the arsenal that funding will provide remain tempered by White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan’s misgiving that the provision of too much firepower to Ukraine might provoke Putin, according to two European officials and two former U.S. officials close to the situation.

“The U.S. wants Ukraine to win, but ... they’re not pushing with the full force so that Ukraine could win,” as a Baltic official put it. “The White House is a little bit more hesitant on a few fronts, and that’s worrisome. ... Each day means the loss of Ukrainian lives — and not just troops but civilians, and each day means the world is getting more and more accustomed to Ukraine’s war, and that’s really scary.”

White House officials remain hesitant to provide the kind of long-range weapons systems, known as multiple-launch rocket systems, that would allow Ukrainian artillery to outclass their Russian rivals due to the concern that such deliveries “could be seen as an escalation by the Kremlin,” according to a Politico report this week. Yermak took that demand public Friday morning.

“We are still waiting for them. That should not be the case,” he said. “In the first critical stage of the war, we spent too much time negotiating supplies, searching for these weapons. Meanwhile, people stopped tanks with bare hands in our cities. Now that we have a chance to completely liberate Ukraine from the aggressor, it is inadmissible to delay.”

If the perception of Western leaders is correct, that they want to help the Ukrainians win but not win too much, then the trans-Atlantic allies could risk trying to strike too delicate a balance if the first Ukrainian official’s assessment is correct.


“I don't think a lot of people realize the scale of the problem right now and the scale of our needs,” the official said. "Some of the systems are pretty good, and it's very good that we have them, but still, it's a huge, huge concern right now because without ammunition and even despite the ability of Ukrainian troops to continue this fight, for sure it could be a very, very dramatic shift in the current situation.”