America’s top military commander is warning that Kyiv has limited time to pursue a stagnating military offensive as senior Ukrainian officials vow to push on, possibly putting Ukraine and its top backer, the U.S., at odds.
The warning comes as tensions with Kyiv’s Western allies were on display this weekend as the Group of 20 summit wrapped up in India.
In an interview with the BBC that aired Sunday, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said colder and wetter weather conditions will make it much harder for Ukrainian forces to maneuver, and Kyiv could have as little as a month to turn things around in a significant way on the battlefield.
“There is still a reasonable amount of time, probably about 30 to 45 days’ worth of fighting weather left, so the Ukrainians are not done,” Milley said.
He said that while the Ukrainians were showing “very steady progress,” it was still too early to assess if their counteroffensive had failed.
Milley’s comments came as Kyiv appeared to be determined to push on when the weather turns.
“Combat actions will continue in one way or another,” Ukraine’s intelligence chief, Kyrylo Budanov, said Saturday, according to Reuters. “In the cold, wet and mud, it is more difficult to fight. Fighting will continue. The counteroffensive will continue.”
Kyiv launched its much-anticipated counteroffensive to reclaim occupied territories in June, but aside from several small gains in the south, where Ukraine claimed last week to have broken though Russia’s first main defensive line, it has not significantly tipped the balance on the battlefield, which is heavily mined and fortified by the Russians.
With fall and winter approaching, weather could become a major factor, even if the Western supply of military aid continues.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appeared to emphasize Ukraine’s gains on the battlefield in his late-night video address Sunday.
“Over the past seven days, we have advanced,” Zelenskyy said, adding that there was “movement” in the south and east.
“Every week, our warriors continuously keep the initiative in the hands of Ukraine,” Zelenskyy added.
But whether holding the initiative will translate into new major gains that will keep the military aid flowing remains a big question.
Kyiv hopes that last week’s penetration of the Russian first defense line in the south around the villages of Robotyne and Verbove will turn into a major breakthrough that will allow its troops to split Russian forces in the south and threaten Moscow’s valued “land bridge” to the occupied Crimean Peninsula.
The Kremlin has already largely dismissed the Ukrainian counteroffensive as a failure.
Ukraine has also voiced its disappointment with a joint declaration by the G20 leaders over the weekend that avoided directly condemning Russia for invading and instead cautioned states to refrain from threatening the territorial integrity and sovereignty of others and calling for a “comprehensive, just, and durable” peace in Ukraine.
“G20 has nothing to be proud of,” Oleg Nikolenko, spokesperson for the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, said in a post on Facebook, while thanking the allies who tried to include “strong wording” in the text.
Nikolenko also attached a screenshot with an alternative version of the declaration that he said would look “closer to reality” and attribute blame directly to Russia. “Obviously, the participation of the Ukrainian side would allow participants to better understand the situation,” he added.
The G20, which includes the U.S., Russia and China among its members but not Ukraine, has been deeply divided over President Vladimir Putin’s invasion, so a consensus over the joint declaration’s wording on the war on Ukraine came as a surprise, leading Russia to praise the summit and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to call it a “clear success.”
Asked why the U.S. agreed to watered-down language in the declaration, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday that there was “real clarity” among the leaders in the room on Ukraine and that it was important that the G20 “spoke as one.”
“The fact that we have a statement coming out collectively of, again, affirming the importance of Ukraine, its territorial integrity and sovereignty, that speaks loudly,” Blinken said.