Now Or Never? The Five Reasons Putin Is Moving Up His “Spring Offensive” To February
The Russian army is fighting fiercely for every kilometer in the Donbas, amid reports of new masses of troops arriving in Ukraine. By most accounts, it looks like Putin has moved up the calendar on a major assault that was originally planned after the winter thaw.
As February began, fierce battles were raging in both the Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, with elite units of the Russian army and fighters from the Wagner Group mercenary outfit engaged in the action.
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More Russian troops and equipment from all quarters are descending toward a widening front line, all overseen by General Valery Gerasimov, a veteran of the Russian military, who is now commanding both regular defense department battalions and the Wagner soldiers. Gerasimov took over last month, appointed by President Vladimir Putin who was apparently dissatisfied with three previous top commanders of the war.
Taken together, these and other signs from the past week appear to point to Russia launching a major offensive on Ukraine — now. Russia increased the number of missile launchers in the Black Sea with 16 "Kalibr" salvos. In the Luhansk region, they continue to conduct offensive actions in the Lyman and Bakhmut directions. Some reports say the attack will match in breadth and intensity the initial invasion last February.
If confirmed, this imminent Russian assault would be a significant acceleration on the battlefield calendar, after most had been expecting Putin to launch the attack in the spring. Why has Moscow changed its mind?
What does Putin expect from the assault? And what happens this time if things again don’t turn out as planned?
Here are five reasons for Russia’s (second) February assault.
Red lines, golden dates
February 24 marks exactly one year since the start of the war, and Vladimir Putin is famously obsessed with big dates in history. Marking anniversaries has been central to his propaganda and leadership style, able to show off successes and tweak history to make a point about the present and future.
In this case, however, the war launched last February has lasted far longer than Putin had planned, without any significant victories to account for. Thus it is important that battlefield momentum is going Russia’s way when the Feb. 24 anniversary arrives.
Putin still depends on the people's support.
Despite the authoritarian regime Putin built in Russia, he still depends on the people's support. After a year of a war that is costing lives and money, winter “quagmire” is not the message he wants on people’s lips.
Just days before the anniversary, Putin has to deliver his annual address to the Federal Assembly, which he canceled last year as the invasion was being launched. This year, however, canceling does not seem like an option.
Gerasimov's Window of Opportunity
Gerasimov, a longtime protege of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, became the chief commander of Russian forces in Ukraine on Jan. 11, taking over for Sergey Surovikin, who only held on to the job for a few months.
Since Gerasimov’s arrival, not only have the regular missile and drone attacks continued, but a major ground offensive began in eastern Ukraine, with small towns of Bakhmut, Soledar, and others being held there at great cost.
Also, under Gerasimov, the tactics of attacks on energy facilities have changed: despite the blackouts, Ukraine has not frozen, and refugees have not overwhelmed Europe. And so missiles now fly into residential buildings wreaking panic and hatred.
But Gerasimov needs significant ground war victories to bring to both his bosses, Shoigu and Putin, and they need to come soon — perhaps no later than the end of February.
Prigozhin's fate is on the line
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner PMC, had appeared untouchable, with a direct channel to Putin, who was happy to play the private mercenaries against the official army and defense ministry.
But Prigozhin has been sullied recently by public accusations about his past by Igor Girkin, a former commander of the separatists and mercenaries in the Donbas. Plus, the Wagner troops, who include masses of convicts, have been as disappointing on the front line as the traditional army units.
"Prigozhin is under great scrutiny and attention,” says independent Russian journalist Michael Naki. “The Ministry of Defense will use any weakness to take away the Wagner PMC and deprive Prigozhin of all the privileges he struggled to get."
Whether we see the continuation of the “two armies” strategy, or the ultimate predominance of the defense ministry and Gerasimov, or Prigozhin and Wagner, will need to happen sooner rather than later.
Still from a Wagner PMC recruitment video featuring owner Yevgeny Prigozhin
Ukraine's New Arms
Russia is seeking to move the Ukrainian army to a safe distance… That’s how Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov put it recently in an interview with Russia 24. "The more long-range weapons come to the Kyiv regime, the further it will be necessary to move it away from the territories that are our country," he said.
Yes, the past several weeks have seen Ukraine win the authorization for a range of new weaponry that is indeed farther-reaching. Kyiv will be receiving German and U.S. built combat tanks, 1,300 armored vehicles, while the new U.S. military aid package will also include GLSDB bombs, ultra-precise shells that could change the situation on the frontline: the line of attack will be not 80 kilometers (50 miles) but 150 km (93 miles), and hence the military bases and warehouses will be in danger—command posts and mobile targets in the south and on the approach to Crimea.
Still, all of this weaponry still needs to arrive, and the Ukrainian troops in some cases will need special training to use it. This too forces Russia’s hand to attack sooner, rather than later.
In parallel with the fighters of the Wagner Group, the Russian army has also been throwing its elite into the Ukrainian front since the early days of the war, using marines and paratroopers as assault infantry, and this is a quick expenditure of the most expensive and best-trained soldiers in the army.
Russia may soon announce another national draft.
The independent Russian publication Vazhnyye Istorii (Important Stories), reports that as late as September 2022, 40-50% of this personnel were eliminated. The commander of the paratroopers, Mikhail Teplinsky, who was against the idea to throw the rest of them into battle again, was dismissed. And this means another split in the Russian Defense Ministry.
To pursue Putin's goals, the military command also deployed special forces to Donetsk - to quell a simmering insurrection among disgruntled Russian troops, reports Ukrainska Pravda quoting Ukrainian Colonel Oleksiy Dmitrashkivsky.
"Russia deployed a special quick reaction force specifically to deal with the moral and psychological state of the troops, Dmitrashkivsky said.
Yes, Russia is sending more units to eastern Ukraine — and may soon announce another national draft. But the question of troop morale is one more reason Putin may have decided the new assault on Ukraine could not wait any longer.