Latest reports show that Russia is stepping up its operations in eastern Ukraine, with a major offensive looking to be imminent. But international military strategists and tactical experts think that instead of sealing Kyiv's fate, this rushed assault could precipitate the demise of Vladimir Putin and his war.
There are growing signs that a Russian winter offensive in eastern Ukraine is underway. Ukrainian Minister of Defense Oleksii Reznikov said recently that his country expected a full-blown assault around Feb. 24, on the anniversary of the Russian invasion. “Of course we expect there may be Russian offensives, as they love symbolism,” Reznikov said.
One Ukrainian military adviser told the Financial Times that there was reliable intelligence indicating an attack may move up the calendar to mid-February — before the tanks and armored personnel carriers promised to Kyiv by the West are fully operational.
For weeks now, experts from the Institute for the Study of War have been reporting that Russia is moving troops and equipment into the Donbas region. Moscow is expected to introduce more troops into the battle around Bakhmut, where the Russian army is advancing slowly and suffering heavy casualties. According to Ukrainian estimates, this past Monday alone, more than 1,000 Russian soldiers were killed and 14 Russian tanks and 28 armored personnel carriers destroyed.
These figures can’t be independently verified, but they would confirm a clear upward trend and indicate that the fighting is indeed intensifying. Military expert Phillips O’Brien from the University of St Andrews in Scotland predicts that we will see a “winter/spring of slaughter,” adding that “It looks like it’s going to be a really bloody few months.”
So far, all the signs suggest that Moscow will focus on the Donbas region, with reports that President Vladimir Putin gave the order to seize the territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions by March.
The question is: Does Moscow have the means to do so?
It would not be the first time that the Russian leadership’s orders are out of touch with the reality on the ground.
Moscow's depleting army
We could point to last spring as an example, when Putin was reported to have ordered troops to take the Donbas region before Russian Victory Day, on May 9.
Forces have been mercilessly used as cannon fodder by their leaders.
According to the New York Times, the U.S. and other Western states believe the number of Russian troops killed and wounded in Ukraine is approaching 200,000. Russia has mostly had to replace the experienced troops that were wiped out at the start of the war with inexperienced recruits.
According to Kyrylo Budanov, Ukraine’s military intelligence chief, Russia has sent half of its 300,000 newly mobilized soldiers straight to the front, to shore up the Russian lines over winter. In the Bakhmut region, these forces have been mercilessly used as cannon fodder by their leaders, which caused consternation even among their Ukrainian enemies.
So the Russian military leadership has outlined a clear strategy, but can it work? “The influx of additional soldiers, as poorly trained and equipped as they are, has helped the Russian military better defend its lines and resume offensive operations,” writes military expert Gustav Gressel of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Additional forces totaling around 150,000-200,000 mobilised men in newly formed divisions and corps are still receiving training and will join the fight in Ukraine in the near future.”
War of attrition, Kyiv-style
The decisive question is how much Ukraine has at its disposal, to counter the Russian assault. Italian military expert Thomas Theiner told Die Welt that thanks to Western efforts to train troops, Ukraine should now have over 80 combat brigades — compared to 27 at the start of the war. However, they have not yet been able to incorporate the promised Western weapons into their units, which will make it more difficult to combat the Russian offensive.
“For Ukraine, this obviously poses a challenge, though in a bloody way an opportunity,” writes military strategist O’Brien. “Ukraine needs time to integrate all the new weapons it has been promised, from the artillery systems, IPCs, APCs and MBTs.” Therefore their current tactic of going on the defensive in the meantime and trying to keep their losses down is a sound one. After all, attacks tend to incur far heavier losses than defending established positions.
Moscow would have to call another wave of mobilisation to be able to hold expanded frontlines.
The Ukrainians adopted a similar war-of-attrition strategy in the summer: They inflicted such heavy losses on the Russians in defensive battles that at the end of summer they were able to launch their own offensives in Kharkiv and Kherson, pushing back exhausted Russian units. In Kharkiv, they needed only a few weeks to win back what it had taken Russia months — and cost them heavy losses — to conquer. What’s more, the Ukrainians’ fighting capabilities will be steadily improving as summer approaches, as they are able to integrate more and more Western weapons systems.
“Ukraine will be hard-pressed to defend against new Russian attacks in the first half of 2023,” writes military expert Gressel. “Russia will therefore likely remain on the offensive until the early summer … Moscow would have to call another wave of mobilisation by the end of this winter to be able to hold expanded frontlines. At that point, the overstretched Russian posture will be vulnerable to Ukrainian counter-offensives.”
A Ukrainian soldier walks toward a tank on the northern front of Donbas, Ukraine, on Jan. 15
Undermanned, inexperienced, unrealistic
Given the Russian army’s poor performance, however, some skeptics doubt whether the offensive could take significant ground. “Russian forces have only managed to gain several hundred meters of territory per week. This is almost certainly because Russia now lacks the munitions and maneuver units required for successful offensives,” according to the British Ministry of Defense.
The British believe that “senior commanders likely make plans requiring undermanned, inexperienced units to achieve unrealistic objectives due to political and professional pressure”. The Kremlin will expect swift advances, but it “remains unlikely that Russia can build up the forces needed to substantially influence the outcome of the war within the coming weeks”.
Former Australian General Mick Ryan agrees: “As we have seen from the first day of this invasion, Putin wanting battlefield victories and Putin getting battlefield victories are two very different things,” writes Ryan. “Despite the influx of tens of thousands of mobilised troops, it is highly likely that there will again be a gap between Putin’s expectations for the 2023 offensive operations of the Russian military in Ukraine, and their capacity to actually deliver their results.”