Russia and Kyiv both need a breakthrough but a major offensive will be loaded with risk whoever strikes first
27 Jan 2023
In the clear sky over the winter-yellowed marsh grasses on the outskirts of the town of Huliaipole, the bang and crump of artillery picked up pace like the thunderclaps of a distant but approaching storm.
The Russian armed forces declared on Sunday that they had launched a new offensive in Zaporizhzhia region, but the Ukrainian soldiers seemed unperturbed. The frontline here has not moved for 10 months, and the Russians are hunkered in their trenches, which run across the rolling hills of black-soil farmland. They are not going anywhere soon, the soldiers said. “There is more activity in these past couple of weeks with shelling from artillery and even from tanks, but they don’t send infantry over the line because they’re scared,” said Vitaly, a senior sergeant in the 56th Mariupol motorised infantry brigade, which is holding the line around this town 60 miles (100km) east of Zaporizhzhia city.
However, Vitaly acknowledged that the frozen line was beginning to heat up. The number of incoming shells and rockets on this segment of the southern front has more than doubled this month to 4,000 a day. Two weeks earlier, the Russians had twice sent a handful of tanks forward to probe the Ukrainian lines only to pull back under fire.
Sooner or later, most likely in the next few months, one side would make its move and try to break the deadlock. The question is: who will strike first and where. “The big battle is coming this spring, or even before,” Vitaly said. Whether it arrives here or somewhere else along the 750-mile frontline, the storm is expected to break this spring, ushering in what may prove to the most intense phase of the war so far.
In anticipation, both sides are using this time to strengthen their defences. Vitaly’s men use every day to harden their shelters and across the plain to the south, the invading force has erected two more lines of defence, comprising minefields, slit trenches, tank traps and phalanxes of small concrete pyramids known as dragon’s teeth.
One is to protect a railway line that brought supplies from Russia and the Russian-held town of Melitopol, a strategic hub. A nearby village, Polyanivka, was reportedly emptied of its population this month so that it could made part of the defensive wall. The second, most formidable line of fortifications guards the neck of land that leads to Crimea.
While these defensive preparations are obvious, it is less clear whether the Russians are stealthily accumulating the means to go on the attack. The Ukrainians have been watching carefully, through drone, satellite and human sources, as the Russians move mechanised units from Crimea towards the eastern front in Donetsk and Luhansk. They are looking for signs of any armour being quietly diverted north towards the line around Huliaipole, and they have noticed that the troops on the other side are not all raw recruits, but include a tough and experienced marine unit.
Russia is relentlessly building up its forces while Vladimir Putin is moving the economy towards a war footing to churn out new tanks and missiles. The chief of the Russian general staff, Valery Gerasimov, has been put in direct charge of Ukrainian operations, a move seen by many analysts as presaging a major offensive.
The first phase of Russia’s all-out invasion ended in debacle for Putin’s forces, which were driven back from the north, then from the Kharkiv region in September, and from northern Kherson oblast as well as Kherson oblast west of the Dnieper in November.
The second phase has been an attempt at a war of attrition, with thousands of Russian mercenaries and convicts sacrificed for small territorial gains around the towns of Bakhmut and Soledar, combined with an effort to freeze Ukrainians into submission with mass missile attacks on power plants, electricity transmission infrastructure and water facilities. This second phase was almost as complete a defeat as the first. Russia has used much of its cruise missile arsenal, and while Ukraine’s power grid is battered, the lights are still on and the Ukrainian will to fight is undimmed.
The third phase is about to start, an all-out battle for decisive advantage using combined arms – mechanised infantry, artillery, air power and possibly waterborne assault – to overcome fixed positions. The world has not seen anything like it since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, while Europe has witnessed nothing of its sort since the second world war.
The Bosnian war death toll of 100,000 has most probably already been surpassed. In Bosnia most of the dead were civilians, slaughtered by Serb forces. In Ukraine, most of the dead are drawn from the ranks of the aggressor, Russian soldiers. Ukraine claims the number of Russian war dead alone has reached 100,000. Norwegian intelligence suggests that Russian dead and wounded combined are 180,000, with total Ukrainian casualties at 100,000.
Mounting a major offensive in this coming phase of the war will be an enormous undertaking loaded with risk for either side in the conflict. Attacking fixed positions has always been more costly in human lives and machinery than defending them.
Military manuals say the attacking force has to be three times stronger to prevail. The 21st-century warfare being fought in Ukraine has steepened that gradient even further. Drone and satellite surveillance can spot an attacking force as it masses for an attempted breakthrough, while the devastating firepower of multiple launch rockets can all but wipe out the threat before an attack is even launched.
It is a defensive aspect of warfare where Ukraine has a substantial edge, with better integrated drone and satellite technology and more accurate rockets, the US-supplied Himars system.
The race is now on to constitute forces capable of overcoming such odds and achieving a breakthrough. Moscow already has a substantial troop reserve. Last year, it mobilised 300,000 recruits and sent half of them straight into battle with minimal training. The remaining 150,000 are being trained but it is not clear to what end. They could just be rotated in piecemeal to replace casualties, or Russia could be building a new armoured brigade.
Outfitting such a force with effective equipment will be a challenge. The Russian army has been bringing antiquated equipment out of storage to replace its losses, and there are many signs it is trying to economise on its use of missiles and artillery shells. The force that Russia is assembling is an inferior, cheaper version of the force with which it began the war.
There are also serious questions over whether Russia forces have learned the tactical lessons from the fiasco a year ago and are in any better shape now to mount properly coordinated attacks. “I think the Russian ability for offensive manoeuvre on a large scale right now is really challenged,” said Dara Massicot, former senior Pentagon analyst on Russian military capabilities, who is now a senior policy researcher at the Rand Corporation. “They attempted this last year, and it didn’t go well, and the forces that they have left are not as professional, and the equipment’s not as good.”
However even badly led, poorly equipped, and lightly trained troops can be overwhelming in sufficient numbers, and every week that goes by is another opportunity for the Russian army to retrain, re-equip and rethink.
There is a growing sense of urgency among Ukrainian forces, who desperately want to seize the initiative and go on the offensive first, preempting such a Russian attack. But there is also frustration at not yet having the tools they need to do the job.
In Huliaipole, Ukrainian senior sergeant Vitaly pointed out he had had to buy his own gun, a US-made AR-15 assault rifle. The staff car he arrived in was provided by volunteers. If he needs tank support he has to ask another
battalion. “If we had just six tanks and the artillery to cover them, we would break their lines right here and really fuck them up,” he said.
The sergeant and an aide, Sergei, were speaking in the orchard of one of the region’s distinctive white and blue cottages on the day Ukraine’s foreign partners were meeting in Ramstein, a US airbase in Germany, discussing what equipment to send for the critical battles to come. A few days later, the decision was made to send Leopard 2 and M1 Abrams tanks into the fight. A lot of equipment is already on the way to the Ukrainian army, including hundreds of infantry fighting vehicles from the US, France, Sweden and Germany, a squadron of Challenger 2 tanks and 30 self-propelled howitzers from Britain that will all go towards building mechanised units that can go on the attack.
For each weapons system supplied by Kyiv’s western backers there will be a lag of a couple of months at least for delivery and training Ukrainians how to use it. About 20,000 soldiers, about a 10th of the armed forces the country began the war with, have so far been trained in Nato countries, and the number is expected to grow dramatically in the first months of 2023.
Ukraine will try to strike wherever it judges the Russian lines to be the weakest and that may be in the east in Luhansk where enemy troops are more exhausted and demoralised. “I think the Ukrainian military command will try to play the same approach as they did before, simultaneously preparing the battleground for possible operations in different directions, and then striking where the conditions are the most favourable,” said Oleksiy Melnyk, co-director for foreign relations and international security programmes at the Razumkov Centre thinktank in Kyiv.
There are three fronts on which these critical battles could be fought in the coming few months, and they will interact with each other in different ways. An attack on one front may be a diversion for a bigger offensive elsewhere, or it could be designed to sap an adversary’s ability to mount its own attacks.
The Luhansk and Donetsk fronts, the scene of the most intense combat in the past few months, are arguably the most likely venues for major offensives on either side in the spring.
Supporting Russian-speakers in both oblasts was Putin’s original pretext for the war, and the failure so far to occupy either entirely is an embarrassment. Moscow has already sacrificed thousands of men so as to be able to claim battlefield successes in Soledar and Bakhmut. For purely political reasons, analysts argue, a new eastern offensive is a strong possibility.
It could make sense for Ukraine militarily. Massicot thought that the immediate weak spot in the Russian defences could be in Luhansk, where the Ukrainians have been pressing relentlessly around the town of Kreminna, with the aim of cutting off Russian supply lines across Luhansk and northern Donetsk. “The Russian frontline there looks problematic to me, with more shortages, with soldiers complaining and more discipline problems,” she said.
What happens on the southern front will ultimately decide the outcome of the whole war. Whether or not Ukraine’s armed forces launch their first offensive in the east, at some point this year they will have to turn south if they are to liberate Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions and ultimately Crimea. One route would be a big armoured assault overland from around Huliaipole south towards Melitopol.
The other more daring option would be a waterborne assault across the Dnipro into Kherson. There is already a little-reported struggle between special forces for control of the islands in the Dnipro estuary. “It is a war of small groups of special forces on boats,” said Yaroslav Honchar, the head of an Istar (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance) unit on the southern front. He said the Russians have sent a specialised unit, the 80th Arctic Brigade from the northern fleet which he described as “elite special forces trained to fight where it is cold and wet.
Ukraine is also believed to be developing its own waterborne special forces and the US has provided riverine patrol craft in its latest package of military support that could be used in raids across the Dnipro.
The south also offers Russia the prospect of springing a strategic surprise, and the Ukrainians are aware of the danger. A Ukrainian intelligence officer said the Russians could push to the east of Huliaipole, at the hinge between the Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk fronts at a place called Velyka Novosilka. “It is a very strategic point where, if the Russians do well and capture this area, they can drive north and our troops in Donetsk could be trapped,” the officer said.
Some of the newly mobilised Russian troops are being trained in Belarus but most military analysts argue another major offensive from the north is unlikely, in view of the debacle in February 2022. The Belarus buildup, they say, is at most a feint to draw Ukrainian forces away from the south and east. So far, there are no signs the Russian troops there are organised in the form of a strike group, with the sort of command structure such an offensive unit would need.
The Belarusian dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, has announced joint deployments with Russian forces and issued threats against Ukraine, but would face huge resistance within the population and the army if he was to throw his country into the war in a cross-border offensive. “Belarus is not going to declare war on Ukraine because it will be a political death for Lukashenko,” Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s national security and defence council, said.
Even the most successful offensive on either front is unlikely to end the war. Ukrainians have seen too much of Russia’s genocidal intent in occupied territory to contemplate surrender, while Putin has made victory an existential matter for his regime.
However, the offensives and counter-offensives over the coming few months could be decisive in setting the trajectory for the rest of the conflict. Ukraine’s success or failure will have an important effect on the stamina of the country’s backers to continue supplying advanced armaments, Kyiv’s strategic advantage.
Moscow’s most important strategic advantage is its vast reserves of manpower, coupled with the cheapness of Russian life for the regime, and so far for the population as a whole. “Russia’s leadership can afford to throw into battle enormous numbers of people and suffer enormous casualties without social consequences,” Melnyk said. “So that is the biggest threat for us in a long war.”
To cut the conflict short, Ukraine is hoping to deliver a defeat big enough to shock Russia out of its current state of passive acceptance. It is far from clear yet what that will take.