Ukrainian counteroffensive operations are happening at points along the front line with mixed results.
The main attack likely hasn't started yet as each side tries to outfox the other, experts say.
One expert, a retired US general, says big armor formations may signal the start of the main effort.
Ukraine's forces are conducting counteroffensive operations, even achieving some breakthroughs, but we haven't yet seen a hammer blow to Russian lines.
Both sides, but Ukraine in particular, look to be playing a deadly "game" aimed at getting a read on the threat, as well as misleading and misdirecting the enemy, and the main attack is likely still to come, experts say.
The early stages of the Ukrainian offensive have been marked by limited but not insignificant pushes at various points along the front lines. Some of these efforts have yielded modest gains, even liberating some front-line villages, but other pushes have hit heavier resistance, which Ukrainian leadership has described as "tough battles."
As was expected, these opening moves have come at the cost of both people and equipment, including some of the newer weapons Ukraine recently acquired from the country's Western partners, like the German-made Leopard tanks and the American-made Bradley infantry fighting vehicles.
Russian forces, though unable to man every position along the front at full strength, are dug in, with an extensive network of trenches, minefields, and vehicle and infantry barriers like dragon's teeth and razor wire creating a complex, layered defense that presents a difficult obstacle for Ukraine, which hasn't reached the main defensive line yet.
Furthermore, Kyiv's forces are attempting to employ new weapons and tactics in a hard offensive fight without air support, and the Russians are in some places mounting a sound defense consistent with their military doctrine.
But this new phase of the war in which Ukraine is taking the fight to the invading Russian army is really just getting started, and while there has been speculation about Ukraine's objectives, the main line of effort is unclear, perhaps purposefully so.
"With their operations, the Ukrainians seek to play this shell game, this three-card monte game, where they're trying to use surprise and deception to get the Russians to commit to decisively defending certain parts of the theater at the expense of others," George Barros, a war analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, told Foreign Policy on Friday.
Barros said that "the actual intended main Ukrainian effort," whenever it comes, "is going to attack something else." Others have made similar observations as counteroffensive operations continue.
"We haven't committed our main forces," a source in Ukraine's General Staff told The Economist Sunday, adding that "the Russians haven't committed their main forces."
He said the Ukrainian and the Russian forces are playing a "chess game" aimed at drawing out the enemy, specifically those reserve forces needed to sustain a fight.
The Ukrainian military appears to have formed a dozen counteroffensive brigades, around nine of which are equipped with Western weapons, and the military seems "to have committed only a portion of the large reserve of forces available for counteroffensive operations," ISW said last week in an update on the war.
Expert observers predicted weeks ago that the deployment of Western heavy armor would be a telltale sign the counteroffensive had begun, and that largely proved to be the case. The main attack, according to a former US Army general, will likely also be identifiable by armored vehicles — but a lot of them.
Retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, a former US Army Europe commanding general, wrote in a Sunday Center for European Policy Analysis article that "there is a big difference between starting an offensive" and "the main attack."
"The offensive has clearly started," he observed, "but not I think the main attack."
He said he suspects a powerful attack by at least three armored brigades consisting of hundreds of armored vehicles, from tanks to infantry fighting vehicles to troop carriers, against a narrow section of the front will signal the beginning of the main attack, the effectiveness of which remains to be seen.
But even if we see those large armor formations, "be careful," Hodges cautioned, arguing "the Ukrainian General Staff will want to keep the Russians guessing about the location of the main attack for as long as possible."
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