- Ukraine’s ongoing counteroffensive is facing stiff Russian resistance and tough defensive fortifications.
- But the biggest threat to Kyiv’s troops right now are minefields, the top US general said this week.
- Minefields are one of several Russian defensive lines and have been a tremendous challenge.
Ukraine’s ongoing counteroffensive is moving slowly as its troops face formidable Russian defenses. The biggest of these hurdles for Kyiv’s forces are sprawling minefields and not Russia’s superior airpower capabilities, the top US general said this week.
In anticipation of Ukraine’s assaults, Russian forces built layers of elaborate defensive networks and fortifications behind the front line, which stretches hundreds of miles across the eastern and southern Ukraine. These threats to the Ukrainian offensive include barbed wire, networks of trenches, anti-armor obstacles, and minefields.
When the counteroffensive first got underway earlier this summer, Russian attack helicopters posed a major threat to Ukrainian ground troops and their heavy armor, such as tanks and infantry fighting vehicles. But now, Ukraine’s biggest headache is coming from below — not above.
“The casualties that the Ukrainians are suffering on this offensive are not so much from Russian airpower,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told reporters at a press briefing on Monday. “They’re from minefields — minefields that are covered with direct fire from anti-tank hunter-killer teams, that sort of thing.”
“The problem to solve is minefields, not the air piece right this minute,” Milley said, so Western countries are trying to provide Ukraine with additional equipment to help clear these obstacles, such as rocket-projected explosive charges like the M58 Mine Clearing Line Charge, or MICLIC.
“I’m confident that they can do this, and especially if they execute the tactics, techniques, and procedures that they’ve been taught, which they are doing, and execute these operations at night, which would deny the Russians the ability to use any of their airpower anyway,” he added. “So the real problem is the minefields. It’s not right now the airpower.”
Ukrainian officials and members of the military have repeatedly called for its international partners to provide it with greater airpower — specifically attack helicopters and American-made F-16 fighter jets — to support its ground forces. Kyiv has said several European countries will start training its pilots soon on the jets, although its unclear when they might actually arrive on the battlefield.
Russia has proven that it can outmatch Ukraine in the skies, thanks to disparities in weapons capabilities, electronic equipment, and overall force size. And officials have said that F-16s are unlikely to actually benefit Ukraine given the current battlefield conditions, but experts suggest that these aircraft could still be effective if they’re armed with the right missiles.
Even with a stronger air force, Russia is struggling to conduct operations over Ukraine due to the threats posed by Ukrainian air defenses. Ukraine, however, is also having similar problems with Russian air defenses, leaving the air space over Ukraine contested.
Milley said the best option right now is to continue outfitting Kyiv’s troops with surface-to-air defense systems that can help protect assault forces from Russian close-air support like the attack helicopters.
Milley noted the complexities of getting Ukraine to a point where it can match Russia’s airpower, saying it would take years to do maintenance, sustainment, pilot training, and generate the financial support.
“So the key thing is to focus on air defense, focus on the blocking-and-tackling sort of offensive combined arms maneuver, which is artillery, as both long-range and short-range artillery, and then get in your engineers and your mine-breaching equipment, he said. “That’s the kind of stuff they need. That’s what they want.”
Minefields are preventing Ukrainian forces from advancing at a faster pace. Clearing the mines is a deadly and painstaking process, and units have to work slowly to navigate them. In some instances, Kyiv’s troops have even been forced to abandon the heavy armor they received from the West and make advances on foot.
“Right now, they are preserving their combat power and they are slowly and deliberately and steadily working their way through all these minefields,” Milley said. “And it’s a tough fight. It’s a very difficult fight.”