In January and February, Russian forces intensified their assaults on Ukrainian positions, signalling the beginning of a pivotal period in the conflict. Russia is likely attempting to regain the initiative in Ukraine and make territorial advances before additional supplies of western military aid are delivered to Ukrainian forces, allowing them to launch an counteroffensive of their own. Both countries are under pressure to achieve battlefield successes in the coming months, but neither side holds all the cards. So what happens next?
RUSSIA ROLLS THE DICE
Amid significant battlefield setbacks in 2023 and Russia’s failure to achieve its pre-war objectives of ‘demilitarising’ and ‘denazifying’ Ukraine, the Kremlin is desperate for success. In addition to regaining the initiative it lost in the 2022 summer, territorial advances in eastern Ukraine and the rest of Donbas would boost President Vladimir Putin’s domestic image. However, there are also important strategic reasons for the timing of Russia’s offensive operations. The recent announcement of additional western military aid will enhance Ukraine’s ability to launch counteroffensive operations in late spring and summer. This has left a brief window for Russia to make territorial gains and degrade Ukraine’s battlefield capabilities.
Despite the Kremlin’s intent for a renewed offensive, it is not necessarily matched by the military’s capability of achieving success. Russia has significantly more personnel inside Ukraine’s borders than during the initial invasion in February 2022. Reports indicate that the number of Russian soldiers in Ukraine has increased to 300,000 compared to the 190,000 a year ago, despite US estimates that Russia has suffered 200,000 casualties. Russia now controls more territory than before the conflict started; hence the need for more troops, and the Kremlin’s mobilisation of 300,000 personnel since September 2022 has largely stabilised Russian defensive lines. However, improved defence does not necessarily translate into better offense. There are indications that Russia may try to increase the role of its air force in the coming months to support ground forces, but the problems the army has faced throughout the conflict remain and, in some cases, are much worse. Many of Russia’s elite military units have encountered severe losses over the past 12 months, while being restaffed by poorly trained and ill-equipped mobilised soldiers, degrading their potency and ability to carry out operations. The Russian private military company, Wagner, has also committed significant personnel to the Russian war effort, with Wagner mercenaries primarily focusing on offensive operations around Bakhmut in Donetsk Oblast. Wagner has made slow, grinding progress and has achieved incremental gains in the area, but at the expense of 30,000 casualties, many of which were recruited prisoners. Additionally, the losses of Russian tanks and personnel carriers suggest sophisticated, combined arms manoeuvrers by Russian forces are unlikely, severely limiting their chances of significant battlefield success.
It is clear that Russia is under pressure to succeed while facing myriad challenges; however, Ukraine is by no means in a perfect position. Like Russia, Ukraine has lost thousands of personnel and vast amounts of equipment in the past 12 months and the war has turned into an attritional grind that neither Ukraine nor its NATO allies can afford in the long term. There are concerns that western, and particularly US, aid has its limit and could end abruptly, especially if a Republican such as Donald Trump were to win the 2024 US elections. This has created a sense of urgency for Ukraine to break the shackles and dictate the fight on its terms.
To win the war, Ukraine will need to drive Russia out of its territory, and the introduction of tanks, including the Abrams, Leopard and Challenger, as well as infantry fighting vehicles, such as the Bradley and Marder, will improve Ukraine’s ability to achieve this. Ukraine has displayed excellent operational security throughout the conflict, making the exact location of its counteroffensive difficult to predict. However, the most likely point of attack would be in the Zaporizhzhia Oblast, where, if successful, Ukrainian forces could cut Russia’s supply lines to the occupied territories in Kherson and Crimea. This would thwart Putin’s plans to establish a land bridge to Odesa and Transnistria in Moldova. But Russian forces have bolstered their defensive positions in the region in 2023, particularly between the front-line towns of Orikiv and Vasilyvka, suggesting the dramatic Ukrainian counteroffensives of 2022 in Kharkiv and Kherson oblasts will be much harder to replicate in Zaporizhzhia.
While tanks and infantry vehicles are crucial for Ukraine’s offensive potential, sustained military support is required across the board to bolster Ukraine’s efforts. This comes amid calls from Ukraine for a significant increase in ammunition supplies. Ukraine is running out of artillery shells, but crucially, so are its military donors. Western ammunition stocks, such as 155 mm artillery shells, are running low, and the US and European defence industries are struggling to meet Ukrainian demand. There is no guarantee that production levels will drastically increase over the coming months amid supply chains issues and challenges in developing manufacturing facilities to match demand, highlighting the expectation for Ukraine to achieve decisive gains in 2023 before ammunition and weapons shortages take their toll.
While tanks and infantry vehicles are crucial for Ukraine’s offensive potential, sustained military support is required across the board to bolster Ukraine’s efforts.
Facing political pressure from the Kremlin, Russian forces are likely being thrown into an offensive they are ill-prepared for. The UK Ministry of Defence recently suggested that the Russian army has lost 40 percent of its combat effectiveness in the past 12 months. Russia’s ‘win at all costs’ approach could be supplemented by further rounds of mobilisation to sustain their efforts to overwhelm the Ukrainian defenders. However, increases in mobilised personnel will struggle to compensate for the loss of Russian mechanised combat power, suggesting significant Russian strategic gains are unlikely. Ukraine will still have to absorb the waves of artillery and infantry attacks in the coming months and avoid being drawn into costly battles that will exhaust and deplete their forces and ammunition supplies. If Ukraine can hold the line and limit Russia's advances before the new deliveries of western military aid arrive, the stage will be set for their attempt at breaking the deadlock and shifting the attritional status quo.