“With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end. The safety of our homes and the freedom of mankind alike depend upon the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment.”
– General Sir Douglas Haig, Special Order of the Day, 11 April 1918
The coming weeks and months are expected to see some of the toughest battles yet in the Russo-Ukraine War. As the war moves into its second year neither side seems willing to accept that they are doomed to continue the fighting indefinitely. Neither wishes to give any hint of tiring of the struggle and doubting its cause. They both appear ready to persevere through this year and into the next. Neither is showing any enthusiasm for negotiations to agree on a compromise solution. Even those pushing hardest for diplomatic compromises are stumped when asked to come up with a formula that has a reasonable chance of being accepted by both parties. There is no obvious compromise. Ukraine wants its occupied territory back; Russia wants to take more of it.
At the same time the societies and economies of both are, in quite different ways, severely stressed. Both are aware of potential capacity constraints down the line. After a period in which the front lines have moved only by a few kilometres here and there, inevitably encouraging talk of stalemate, both, therefore, are preparing offensives to see if they can achieve a military breakthrough. As they do so, however, the two sets of forces and the associated operational concepts are looking very different. Russian forces are relying increasingly on sheer weight of numbers while Ukraine’s are relying more on the quality that comes with advanced Western systems.
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We need to be careful when it comes to predicting the course of war, not only because of the inherent uncertainties that come with armies and battles, but also because of strategic choices that have yet to be made. During its latest stage the war has taken on the appearance of a long attritional struggle so it is natural to assume that is what it will continue to be, but neither side can sustain it at current levels of intensity indefinitely. The scenes of the fighting, with bodies of dead soldiers metres away from the trenches they were trying to take, recall images of the Western Front during the First World War. There was, of course, also an Eastern Front. Moscow does not talk much about the great defeats in the First World War, preferring to celebrate the great victories of the Second, but we can recall that the Eastern Front from 1914-17 saw a massive Russian army full of ill-equipped conscripts let down by chaotic command structures and inadequate logistics.
On the Western Front the trench warfare for which it is now remembered eventually gave way to large-scale offensives. After the Bolshevik revolution Russia negotiated a separate and disadvantageous peace, perhaps another precedent Putin wishes to forget. As a result, Germany was able to boost its numbers in the West to move quickly against the tired and depleted French and British, seeking to gain a victory before the American contribution was fully felt. The German’s spring offensive of March 1918 began with a massive artillery bombardment, then pushed rapidly through allied lines. It made progress but was hampered by inadequate preparation and supply lines unable to keep up with the advancing troops. By the summer the allies had blunted the offensive and began to push the exhausted German forces onto the defensive. Soon the German army was retreating and its troops surrendering en masse.
The size of those offensives dwarfs anything being planned now. The German attack opened with 10,000 guns firing over a million shells in a matter of hours, and led, by the time it was over, to British losses of 178,000 men, French of 77,000 and German of 240,000. In August 1918 the British put 13 divisions into their counterattack, supported by 2,000 guns, 450 tanks and 1,900 aircraft (this was one of the first examples of modern combined arms warfare). Despite the differences of scale these battles illustrated important features of offensives: why their timing may be influenced more by the prospect of worse conditions in the future rather than good conditions now; the extent to which they test the morale, motivation and cohesion of an army when being pushed back; how much a failed offensive can leave an army exposed to counterattacks.
Will this coming stage in the Russo-Ukraine war, with both sides gearing up to mount their own offensives and blunt those of their enemy, bring the war to a decisive conclusion as in 1918? Will it be a period of rapid movement or yet more slow grind? Russia’s offensives at the start of the war, especially in the south, made quick progress, as did Ukraine’s last autumn, when they faced thin and ill-prepared defences in Kharkiv. Elsewhere they were characterised by heavy losses and slow advances. If that pattern is repeated then the prospect is more of the same, with neither side able to prevail.
A successful offensive, however, changes all calculations. The side that loses ground is left with more hard choices about its military options and whether it needs to consider a diplomatic solution. Even if negotiations take place and reach a conclusion, that does not necessarily mean that peace and a welcome calm will follow. It could mean a pause in the fighting to allow time for forces to recover and stocks replenished before the next round begins. A notional ceasefire might turn the fighting down but not off, with probes and skirmishes along the new line of contact, as was the case in the Donbas after 2014. Nonetheless, when the dust settles from the coming storm there will be greater clarity about the possibilities for the future, about who has the military initiative and whether there is a route to a durable truce if not quite a full political settlement.
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Ukraine is optimistic about the potential of a future offensive because for the first time in this war it will be properly prepared. Now the West realises that Putin will not agree to any settlement that carries a whiff of defeat, the only alternative is to help Ukraine win some battles – at best to force a Russian withdrawal from occupied territory; at least to shock the Kremlin into accepting that its position is untenable. Although main battle tanks attracted the most attention in the deliberations before and after the donors meeting at Ramstein air base in Germany on 21 January, the other elements in the package are as, if not more, important – more infantry fighting vehicles, improved air defences, including Patriots, and more artillery.
All are vital to an offensive – the artillery to weaken Russian positions and disrupt their supply lines, the manoeuvre forces to encircle their positions and exploit any gaps, and the air defences to protect forces on the move from Russian aircraft. Last year about a sixth of Ukraine’s equipment came from outside suppliers. The external contribution is being doubled. The total pledged at Ramstein is at least a Nato division of kit. The systems being delivered are among the best available, making it possible for Ukraine to put together three Ukraine Corps (or three Nato divisions equivalent in total), and potentially at least a division suitable for serious offensive operations.
The commitment of Nato countries to a Ukrainian victory has its limits, set by anxieties about nuclear escalation. These countries are not sending their own forces to fight and do not wish to be associated with Ukrainian strikes deep into Russian territory. This is why they are holding back on providing aircraft. Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, has not been deterred from asking, however. Having nagged persistently and successfully to get tanks, aircraft are next on his list. He made this clear in his speech to the UK Parliament on 8 February – “wings for freedom” is the new slogan. Zelensky is relying on the incremental accession to his wishes continuing, that Washington will eventually relent, albeit not in time to influence the anticipated offensives. The UK agreed to start training pilots, although without any commitments on the aircraft for which they will be training. Russia provided the customary warning about dark though unspecified consequences should aircraft be provided.
It will take some time before the promised equipment will have an impact, because of the time it will take to reach Ukraine and be integrated into its forces. Some valuable systems are already on their way – the first tranche of US Bradley fighting vehicles and French AMX-10 combat reconnaissance vehicles are arriving now – but there are logistical issues. Transporting these heavy systems and all the kit that goes with them, including ammunition, is a major undertaking. In some cases, as with the small diameter bombs, which can be fired by Himars launchers, manufacturing has yet to begin. These will enable the Ukrainians to hit targets at 140km, instead of the current range of 80km, creating more problems for Russian logistics. Until they arrive the UK is considering sending “longer-range capabilities”, notably Storm Shadow air-to-surface cruise missiles, to “disrupt Russia’s ability to continually target Ukraine’s civilian and critical national infrastructure.”
It should not take too long to get the first of the promised tanks to Ukraine, but they require potentially lengthy training programmes to ensure that they are used properly. The Ukrainians are highly motivated and have shown themselves to be quick learners, so they are seeking to do in weeks what might normally take months, but nor do they want to be so rushed that they waste these new systems. Ukrainian soldiers are starting to train for the Leopard tanks in Germany and Poland, and the first have arrived in the UK to learn how to use the Challengers. In a parliamentary answer Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, said that it could take until Easter before the training is complete and the units are ready to fight in formation.
For the Ukrainians this is frustrating. They have been waiting for Western governments to catch up with the logic of the military situation and of their political commitments. In current battles they are usually outgunned, coping with old and often worn-out equipment, and taking casualties even if they inflict far more on the Russians. The need to make the most of their new capabilities argues for postponing action until their offensive units are fully kitted out and ready to go. That means, however, leaving the initiative to the enemy, and Russian forces are massing for attacks.
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The Russians can work out the Ukrainian timetable as well as anyone else. Moscow’s timetable is different. The country is on a war footing. The systems for mobilisation are in place and no longer suffer from the organisational chaos of the first weeks. They can replenish manpower losses, and are doing so continually, even if not with well trained and motivated troops. Defence production has been ramped up to ensure new supplies of equipment and ammunition, even if not quite making up for what has been lost. They are getting ready for a long war.
Putin does not know how to end this war without its costs and futility being laid bare, though he lacks an obvious route to victory. Part of his long war strategy was based on the hope that Russia’s enemies would tire first. The attacks on Ukrainian critical infrastructure, which required large numbers of available missiles and drones, might have had a punitive and retributive purpose, but there was also a strategic intent. By making life as difficult as possible for the population over the winter months he hoped to coerce Kyiv into acknowledging defeat. The attacks certainly succeeded in making life miserable but failed as a form of political pressure. Equally the impact of the energy crunch caused by the disruption to oil and gas supplies is now easing off, again having failed to subdue the readiness of Western governments to support Ukraine. (This is another reason why the January announcements from Ukraine’s backers were important, not only in the specifics of its new capabilities but as reaffirmation of their commitment to Ukraine’s cause.)
Moreover, after coping well with the first year of Western sanctions and the revenue demands of the war, Russia is starting to take an economic hit. Last month revenue from oil and gas was almost halved from a year earlier, with its oil now trading at $49.48 per barrel. Other revenue is down by some 28 per cent, while expenditure has gone up by almost 60 per cent. Putin may still feel he can win a test of endurance but he can no longer be so sure.
Nor is he content with the current state of the land war. He has not yet achieved his minimal objective, which is control of the Donbas. He also wants Kherson and Zaporizhzhia recognised as forever part of Russia. Either way he needs his forces to thwart prospective Ukrainian offensives and carry on with Russia’s own.
This is the best explanation for putting his loyal chief of the general staff, Valery Gerasimov, in overall charge; he took over on 11 January from the demoted General Sergei Surovikin. While this move probably had something to do with the struggles for influence in the Kremlin, the main reason appears to be Putin’s frustration with a lack of offensive effort. Surovikin sorted out Russian defences, including by evacuating Kherson city to ensure more manageable defensive lines, something Putin accepted only reluctantly because of the symbolism of abandoning a city which had just been proclaimed as part of Russia. He has now had enough of defence.
There are reports that 320,000 troops, many newly mobilised, are now in Ukraine, and that equipment has been taken out of storage for their use. Ukrainian intelligence claims that the movement of assault groups to the east reflects an order given by Putin “to seize the Donetsk and Luhansk regions by March”. From the Russian side we have Sergei Shoigu, the defence minister, warning that Western deliveries of armaments to Ukraine could eventually lead to “an unpredictable escalation”, while promising that Russian forces were “grinding down” these armaments “both along the routes of their deliveries and at the front line”. He claimed that the current operations were “developing successfully”.
The only reason that Putin and Gerasimov might be confident that new offensive operations will be any more successful than those of the past year is that they now have large numbers of troops to spare. Since April Russian offensives have consisted of long, costly, relentless battles to take villages, towns and cities that, by the time they are taken, have been reduced to rubble by artillery barrages and from which the population had fled. The battle to take Severodonetsk over the summer left their land forces exhausted to the point that they could only stay in the game through the mass mobilisation announced in late September.
The extra troops have shown their value in defence. Along with the weather they have made it harder for the Ukrainians to advance. There is, however, no evidence that they have made offensives any easier. While Russia may have gained the upper hand in the battles for Soledar and Bakhmut, spoken of as a key objective since the summer, even this fight is not yet over.
In all these battles the Ukrainians have taken horrendous casualties, but they have served a purpose. In some excellent reporting from Bakhmut, David Patrikarakos quotes a local Ukrainian commander engaged in the defence of the city, on the strategic importance of the city. “Since February 24, the Russians have had few victories and many defeats. They need this victory; the city is close to the border and to their logistics. They cannot attack Kherson [in the south] because of the river, and in other territories on the front lines they have supply problems. Bakhmut is the only spot where theoretically they can win. But if we were to lose Bakhmut, then speaking without emotion, it would not be a strategic defeat, we’d just lose a town. But in the meantime, we tie up a large force of Russians so they cannot proceed in other areas. We buy time for other Ukrainian forces.”
Part of the Russian military tradition is to acknowledge weaknesses and then develop workarounds, making do with what is available, and persevering despite heavy losses. There is evidence of unhappiness in the ranks, low morale, fratricide, poor co-ordination and unimaginative tactics, but the army has not fallen apart. Dara Massicot points to a number of areas in which the Russian forces have shown an ability to learn and adapt: changing their logistic systems so that key assets were kept out of the range of Himars; developing the ability to jam Ukrainian communications without jamming their own; the precision of the attacks on Ukraine’s electircity grid; air defence missiles repurposed to attack land targets.
Most of all they have developed tactics to use their soldiers as a cheap resource. These are more sophisticated than pure “human waves”. Instead they involve using the expendable troops to move against Ukrainian lines, drugged on some accounts or with a gun at their back on others, with scant chance of survival. Their sacrifice helps reveal the location of Ukrainian lines so that they can be better targeted by artillery, as well as exhausting the defenders so that they are less able to cope when the expendables are replaced by more professional and better equipped units.
How far can these tactics take Russia? One interesting commentary on their impact comes from a post translated by the invaluable wartranslated.com. This discusses the fate of the People’s Militias of the Russia-supporting Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics. These have been used as expendable troops from the start, notably in the battle for Severodonetsk. One of their number describes how now all that remains are “the commands of battalions, regiments and brigades and artillery men”. The infantry has had to be replaced at least twice over the past year, and in some units a fourth time. Despite their casualties they have been kept in the field, and not withdrawn, as was the case with regular Russian units, “for normal replenishment and retraining”. While not directly participating in the battle for Bakhmut they have been used in assaults on Ukrainian units to prevent them reinforcing Bakhmut or mounting their own counterattacks. This has led the People’s Militia to suffer “absolutely monstrous losses, which lowered the combat value of our infantry below the floor”.
“They have no armour, no normal artillery support, and they die. And they are ordered to go forward. And they die. Without significant results in their area.”
The Wagner Group’s supplies of ex-convicts have also begun to dry up. Word has got back to the prisons that of those who volunteered to fight for their freedom, barely 20 per cent have survived intact. The flow of new recruits from this source has turned into a trickle. Despite their boss’s wish to have the glory of taking Bakhmut for his mercenaries they now needed to be assisted by Russian regulars. All this raises the question of whether the “mobiks” (mobilised troops) will be as ready to play this role in the coming offensives. There have been reports that as they arrive at the front they are being kept separate from the veterans present lest they hear too much about the conditions in which they will have to fight and what that means for life expectancy. There are some suggestions that Russian tactics may already be changing because of the difficulty of persuading the mobiks to play their miserable part.
All this leaves us with a puzzle. Everything points to the Russians pushing forward with urgency to take more territory over the coming weeks. Yet they have shown no recent ability to manoeuvre in large formations but have advanced if at all only slowly at a high cost. Even where they have mobility they often must traverse boggy ground. Cold weather may freeze the ground but it can also affect the performance of men and equipment. It is still too early in the year. The reasons why offensives tend to be associated with the spring is because as the ground hardens and the trees fill out it is easier to move quickly with a degree of cover. Russia’s equipment losses have been huge, so that in many instances they depend on veteran systems that are suffering from wear and tear. The air force is occasionally active but inhibited by Ukrainian air defences. There are still issues with army cohesion and unity of command, for in addition to the regular units of the army, which have had an influx of mobiks, there are the People’s Militias, Chechens and Cossacks, and the mercenaries of Wagner and other private military companies.
They face Ukrainian forces that still appear highly motivated and capable, even while they wait for better equipment. Ukrainian intelligence is good, their communications network functions effectively, and they have shown how they can use drones and other forms of intelligence to identify concentrations of Russian troops and call in accurate artillery fire. This becomes easier against units on the move.
This is why the prospective Russian offensive is being viewed with scepticism. The UK Ministry of Defence observed on 7 February that the Russian leadership was demanding of its senior commanders “sweeping advances”, with the goal of occupying all the Donetsk Oblast, and that this would involve making “plans requiring undermanned, inexperienced units to achieve unrealistic objectives”. Noting that Russian forces have thus far “only managed to gain several hundred metres of territory per week”, largely because of a lack of the “munitions and manoeuvre units required for successful offensives”, the MoD concluded that it “remains unlikely that Russia can build up the forces needed to substantially affect the outcome of the war within the coming weeks”.
Other military analysts also suggest that the coming Russian offensives will be underwhelming. Should Ukrainian forces evacuate Bakhmut, which could happen quite soon, Michael Kofman finds it unlikely that Russia will make much progress in the direction of Slovyansk/Kramatorsk, where Ukrainian forces are in a position to meet them, and suspects that they would be more likely to move towards Kreminna and on to Lyman. They have been attacking Vuhledar, in southern Donetsk, with direct Russian assaults leading to severe losses of men and equipment. Igor Girkin/Strelkov, the Russian nationalist commentator, commented that “only cretins can be attacking head-on for many months in the same place, heavily fortified and extremely inconvenient for the attackers”.
The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War observes that: “Russian military command may be rushing to launch a large-scale offensive operation to conquer Donetsk Oblast in an unrealistic timeframe and likely without sufficient combat power.” The Centre for Defence Studies, a think tank based in Kyiv, observes that: “The enemy does not have enough infantry units to quickly advance deep into the defence of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.”Nor has it “the force and resources to simultaneously conduct more than two offensive operations”. One of the reasons why the offensives of a year ago went wrong was because the Russians attempted to advance on too many axes at once, but if all their effort is concentrated in one or two directions then Ukraine’s defensive task is simplified. On past performance it is hard to see how they can manage swift and effective movements to catch Ukrainian defenders unawares and smash through their lines.
Yet the sheer numbers being deployed and Russia’s readiness to take heavy losses, even if this does reflect wishful thinking on Moscow’s part, means that Ukrainians cannot but face this prospective onslaught with some trepidation, wondering if this will be their “backs to the wall” moment. The aim may be to engage in a series of time- and soldier-consuming attacks to show Putin that they still have the initiative, or to keep Ukrainian forces busy fending off a series of limited attacks to deny them the space to prepare their own offensives. The challenge now will be for Ukraine to absorb these attacks, without conceding too much ground. They still need to avoid getting rushed into action before their new offensive formations are ready. Eventually it will be their turn.
[See also: The backlash against Vladimir Putin’s war strategy begins]