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Ukraine’s Counteroffensive Looms Large as Zelensky Addresses U.N.

President Volodymyr Zelensky will be addressing the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday against the backdrop of Ukraine’s slow-moving and bloody counteroffensive to drive Russian forces from the country’s south and east.

When the campaign launched in June, officials had hoped Ukraine’s military could replicate the successes of last year and quickly retake large swaths of Russian-held territory.

Instead, Ukrainian forces initially made almost no progress. The pace of gains has increased in recent weeks, although Kyiv’s troops have yet to decisively penetrate the Russian defenses while also taking heavy casualties.

But war tends to be a grind. The types of routs that let Ukraine retake thousands of square miles in the northeast last year are rare. Fighting frequently involves chipping away at an enemy, like Ukraine’s retaking of a small but strategic village in the east on Sunday. Such advances try to build toward a big breakthrough, although one may never come.

That was true most famously during the trench warfare of World War I but also in World War II, the Korean War and the U.S. Civil War. “War is not always the spectacular triumph,” said George Barros, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “It’s largely the really boring stuff that you don’t see — all the groundwork setting up the conditions for the triumphs.”

In other words: Ukraine and its allies, including the United States, may have set their expectations for the counteroffensive too high.

Ukraine’s leaders still hope to achieve a breakthrough that divides Russian troops in the east and south, but movements will become more difficult in the weeks ahead: By November, muddy season will have arrived.

The military’s initial plan was to use infantry, tanks and other armored vehicles supplied by the West to roll through Russian forces in Ukraine’s southeast, splitting off Russian troops in the occupied peninsula of Crimea from the eastern region of Donbas, hindering Moscow’s ability to reinforce or resupply its armies in either area.

But Ukrainian forces ran into staunch Russian defenses, particularly large minefields, and those early efforts proved costly, in both lives and equipment. So Ukraine’s military changed its approach, focusing more on wearing down the Russian forces with artillery and long-range missiles.

Last month, Kyiv’s troops finally made modest but meaningful gains, piercing Russia’s first line of defense in the southeast. Ukraine’s military in recent days says it has retaken two more villages in the east.

“Offenses are not linear affairs,” said Stacie Goddard, an international security expert at Wellesley College.

Ukraine’s military wants to widen the lanes its forces have opened through Russia’s first lines of defense, which could allow it to move many more forces through and try to carry out the original plan for a swift counteroffensive.

And if Russia has stationed its strongest forces on the front line, Ukraine could break through subsequent lines more easily. “A lot depends on how strong these remaining Russian defenses are,” my colleague Eric Schmitt, who covers national security, told me.

But the time to make a rapid advance could be dwindling. As rain arrives this fall, the terrain will get muddier and harder to traverse, likely preventing major battlefield gains.

In the meantime, Russian forces have stepped up attacks in the northeast. In doing so, Russia hopes to retake some of the territory it lost last year, and force Ukraine to divert its troops and resources to the northeast. If enough Ukrainian forces are kept from the southeastern front, the counteroffensive’s last big push could fail.

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