Ukraine’s spring offensive has for months been spoken of with a mixture of anticipation and apprehension. The Ukrainians are naturally impatient to get on with pushing the Russians out of their country. But now spring has come, there are doubts about whether Ukraine is truly ready for a big push against its Russian occupiers. This war has shown that offensive operations are hard, especially against entrenched and determined defenders. If this offensive falters then it may be difficult to put together another operation with comparable capabilities. Weary international backers, with little more to invest in Ukraine’s fight, might start to press for an unsatisfactory compromise.
The messages from Kyiv are mixed. Some insist that the offensive is imminent; others warn that it might be delayed, and perhaps become more of a summer offensive.
The Pentagon leaks
The numerous slides from the Pentagon briefings discovered in a gamer’s chat room earlier in April provide one source of uncertainty. This episode is embarrassing for the US Department of Defense. It suggests that too many people – in this case a 21-year-old air force reservist – have access to highly sensitive information they really don’t need. Unlike other countries, the US discourages compartmentalisation in intelligence assessments. This is to help analysts join dots that might otherwise have been missed. Unfortunately this also means that when individuals decide to leak material there is plenty to hand.
Leaks like this always make friendly countries nervous about sharing their secrets with the Americans. Though another conclusion might be that the American spy agencies are so efficient that they’ll find out anyway: the leaks demonstrate how much the Americans know, and the detail with which they know it. In this respect, the Russians should be especially alarmed about the degree of American insight into their deliberations.
Even while deploring the breach of security, commentators still can’t help themselves as they look for insights into the state of the war – in particular, how the coming Ukrainian offensive might fare. There are warnings from everyone who has reason to be irritated by the disclosures that they may include disinformation but, with one crude exception where casualty numbers were doctored by a Russian sympathiser, the documents do not appear to be fake. It is always important, however, to keep in mind that just because an analysis has been designated “top secret” does not make it correct. The classification normally refers to the sources of the information rather than the quality of the conclusions. More importantly, the analyses are at least a month and a half old – or even older. The decisions they were intended to shape have since been taken, and in some cases will have addressed the problems identified.
That said, the overall picture for Ukraine was not encouraging, largely because of problems with ammunition stocks and air defences, and also because of the challenges of introducing promised Western equipment into the Ukrainian forces. One assessment from early February warned of significant “force generation and sustainment shortfalls”, and the likelihood that the Ukrainian offensive will result in only “modest territorial gains”. Another from 23 February warned of a “grinding campaign of attrition” that “is likely heading toward a stalemate”.
It is no doubt irritating for Ukrainians to learn that the American military is not particularly optimistic for them. On the other hand, it can help explain to their impatient population why rushing into an offensive before everything is in place might be unwise. It also reinforces the urgency with which they need help filling their capability gaps. And it keeps the Russians guessing: is this material really so enlightening, or an elaborate ruse to confuse them about Ukrainian plans?
The problems with ammunition stocks has been spoken of frequently, including by the Ukrainian government and certainly by troops on the ground who have found themselves outgunned as they have to ration stocks of ammunition for old Soviet-era artillery that have been worked intensively over the past six months protecting cities and critical infrastructure from Russian missiles – the Ukrainians have also been publicly worrying about air defences for some time. One document shows that those systems account for almost 90 per cent of Ukraine’s high-level air defences, and were being depleted at rates that mean they would be running out.
There is good news and bad news on the Russian campaign against civilian facilities. The good news is that it seems to have abated, largely because it achieved nothing of strategic value. The bad news is that this will allow the Russians to make Ukrainian military assets their top priority for missiles, drones and aircraft. This will pose problems for any concentrations of Ukrainian forces, especially when they’re on the move. Russia has also been working on electronic warfare to jam Ukrainian radars to keep their air defences blind. Against this, far more capable air defences are being delivered to Ukraine, such as US Patriot missiles, and there have been quiet moves apace to scour the world for stocks of old Soviet air defence missiles, as well as ammunition.
Since the leaked assessments were completed there has been a new US assistance package worth $2.6bn, including ammunition for Patriot and Himars missile batteries, gun trucks and anti-drone laser systems, air surveillance radars and anti-aircraft ammunition. But the shortages are still a worry. As the Kyiv-based Centre for Defence Strategies observed, they need more “EW [electronic warfare] systems, anti-aircraft defense systems, artillery shells, heavy infantry weapons (mortars, automatic grenade launchers, large-calibre machine guns)”.
The Russian offensive
The other thing that has happened since the leaked assessments were filled out is the failure of the Russian offensive. While the Ukrainians waited for the spring, the Russian commanders showed no interest in a winter break. Boggy fields did not preclude fighting in and around the battered urban landscapes of the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine – over derelict industrial complexes, shell-marked roads, abandoned apartment blocks and even rooms within broken houses. These battles have been intense and brutal even though the front line has barely shifted.
I have previously written about the weaknesses of the Russian offensive. To recap: last September, following the successful Ukrainian offensive through the Kharkiv Oblast, Vladimir Putin raised the stakes. He claimed a larger chunk of territory than was occupied at the time, sought to meet manpower shortages through mass mobilisation, and gave General Sergei Surovikin overall command of the Russian forces. Surovikin’s strategy was to stabilise the front by improving defences while concentrating offensive efforts on Ukrainian infrastructure using missiles and drones. With winter over and the Ukrainian electricity grid still functioning, this effort has clearly failed, and means that capable systems were wasted on targets that hurt Ukraine’s people and economy but did little to impede its military operations.
Meanwhile Surovikin’s success in strengthening Russian defensive positions, including managing the evacuation from the city of Kherson last November, left Putin unimpressed. His territorial objectives, which remain substantial, were left unmet. Surovikin was demoted in January. The chief of the general staff, Valery Gerasimov, was put back in charge with a view to getting a Russian offensive under way before the Ukrainians could mount one of their own.
So far there is precious little to show for the huge effort that has gone into this offensive. The main effort still concentrates on Bakhmut, a battle that began almost a year ago and which has been the centrepiece of Russian operations since July. Perhaps a quarter of the city is still in Ukrainian hands, which is too much for the Russians. The mercenary Wagner Group, which took the main responsibility for Bakhmut, has been severely depleted by the effort. It is now concentrating on pushing its way through the centre of the city, while regular forces work the flanks. The most important issue for the Ukrainians is whether they can maintain the security of the main supply route. So long as they can use that they will be content to keep the Russians occupied in a futile and costly quest.
Even if Russian flags eventually fly over the ruins of Bakhmut this would not make for a successful offensive. Dozens of Bakhmuts had to have been taken by now, including cities such as Kramatorsk and Lyman, if Putin’s minimum objective of controlling all of Donbas was to have been achieved. (For more details about how little the Russian armed forces have progressed, read this excellent analysis, with accompanying maps, by the New York Times.) The other battles that have taken place, have, as with the others, involved targeted cities being pounded and left barely habitable, but at an enormous cost in manpower and, one presumes, morale.
I am wary about the reliability of casualty counts in this war, as in any other. Obvious biases intrude when units from one side claim how much damage they have done to the other. Casualties in wars such as this are often out of sight of the enemy – such as the results of illness and accidents, possibly aggravated by poor medical care and poor morale leading to self-inflicted wounds and suicides. It is by casualties that we measure the human cost of war but they do not always provide a good guide to who is winning or losing, as if the cumulative losses can be weighed against each other. After the September mobilisation, Russian tactics, after all, assumed sufficient reserves of manpower to enable it to throw relatively untrained and ill-equipped men at Ukrainian positions, propelled forward more by fear of those prodding them from behind as much as those facing them in front.
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The real issue is the combat effectiveness of individual units. The Wagner Group has lost thousands of soldiers in Bakhmut and has run out of convicts to throw against Ukrainian lines. Russian regular forces have been drawn into this battle and are suffering accordingly. The effect of the fighting elsewhere is that some units no longer exist.
Consider, for example, the battle for Vuhledar which began on the night of 24 January when Ukrainian defences were caught out by a Russian attack involving troops fighting under the banner of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the marines of the 155th naval infantry brigade. These marines have not had a good war. They were involved in the early battles for Bucha and Irpin near Kyiv, after which they had to be restaffed. Then they were engaged in early November in what members of the brigade described as a “baffling” assault on the Ukrainian garrison in Pavlivka, south-west of Donetsk, where again they endured massive losses. The losses were denied by the Russian Ministry of Defence and the survivors who had complained were reprimanded. Nonetheless, the brigade had to be restaffed again.
At Vuhledar it was destroyed once more. As the Ukrainians stabilised their position they inflicted heavy losses on the Russians, helped by the ineptitude of the latter’s tactics. This was especially significant because of the role played by tanks. Tank battles play an important role in Russian military mythology but their ability to use them effectively has been undermined by heavy losses since the early days of the war. This was seen as an opportunity for a rare tank assault. On 6 February, 30 tanks and other heavy weapons were destroyed by Ukrainian artillery. Forbes reported on one account of the battle: “The Ukrainian army’s elite 72nd Mechanized Brigade is entrenched around Vuhledar. It has laid minefields along the main approaches from Pavlivka. Its drones surveil the front. Its artillery is dialed in. The Russians know this. And the assault force took rudimentary precautions. Tank crews injected fuel into their exhausts to produce smokescreens. At least one T-80 carried a mine-plough.
“But leadership and intelligence failures – and Ukraine’s superior artillery fire-control – neutralised these measures. The Russian formation rolled into dense minefields. Destroyed tanks and BMPs blocked the advance. Vehicles attempting to skirt the ruined hulks themselves ran into mines.
“Panicky vehicle commanders crowded so tightly behind the smoke-generating tanks that Ukrainian artillery, cued by drones, could score hits by firing at the head of the smoke. The Russians’ daylong attack ended in heavy losses and retreat. The survivors left behind around 30 wrecked tanks and BMPs [an infantry-carrying vehicle].”
Days days later there was another move forward, with similar results. With the 155th Brigade effectively eliminated and the survivors unwilling to engage in any more assaults, other troops were brought in. In a video appeal to Putin, published on 25 March, around 20 members of a unit identified as the Storm Squad from the fifth brigade in the Russian eighth army, complained about “anti-retreat troops” forcing them to advance, leading to the deaths of 304 of its members, including the company commander, and another 22 wounded. After these costly defeats General Rustam Muradov was demoted in late March from his position as commander of the eastern military district.
Another example of the costs of the war, revealed by a reporter for the Washington Post after scouring the leaked documents, concerns Russia’s clandestine spetsnaz – special forces tasked with high-risk missions that rely on stealth as much as brute force. Of five spetsnaz brigades returning from Ukraine, all but one had suffered significant losses, with one reported to have “lost nearly the entire brigade with only 125 personnel active out of 900 deployed”. Rob Lee, a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, is quoted in the piece observing how Russian commanders had used these troops, some of the most capable in the army, to compensate for the weaknesses of the rest of the infantry. As a result, “Russia lost all these key capabilities up front that they couldn’t easily replace – both equipment-wise and talent-wise.” The supposed death of a spetsnaz brigade commander in Vuhledar illustrated the problem. As Lee noted, a senior leader that far forward suggests that “either losses are too heavy in that unit, or they’re being used in a way they’re not supposed to be used”.
The Ukrainian offensive
The predicament for Russian commanders is in prioritising where to use available troops to continue with their offensive, and how much they keep back for defensive duties, in anticipation of the Ukrainian offensive. Thus while the current Russian efforts concentrate on Avdiivka and Marinka along with Bakhmut, a Ukrainian general recently observed how the need to somehow finish off Bakhmut has led to Russian troops being moved there from Avdiivka, which is another operation that remains incomplete.
The past few months have taken a heavy toll on the Ukrainians, with the loss of some of their most experienced troops. They have been seeking to build up new units for offensive operations separately from those taking the brunt of the current fighting, but the effort to prevent the Russians taking Bakhmut is likely to have required some of those reserves. It has been known for some time that Ukraine is assembling 12 combat brigades (each with 4,000 to 5,000 soldiers), of which nine are being trained and supplied by the US and other Nato allies. According to the leaked documents, six were to be ready by 31 March and the rest by the end of April. Readiness depended on deliveries. The equipment required for the Nato-supported brigades was more than 250 tanks and 350 mechanised vehicles.
If this is correct we are getting close to the start of the Ukrainian offensive. To work out what to expect we probably need to free ourselves from some natural assumptions about what offensives look like.
The term conjures up images of heroic soldiers charging enemy positions, whether as cavalry with drawn swords, or columns of tanks moving purposefully over churned-up fields. Or hapless soldiers scrambling out of their trenches when the whistle blows to dash across no man’s land. But instead of frontal assaults, which normally end badly, this campaign might be more subtle, using opportunistic probes to find weak spots in the enemy lines, moving slowly and stealthily, creeping up on unsuspecting defenders. They will want to avoid the kind of urban warfare grind favoured by the Russians, who do not care about the devastation caused, but will instead seek to cut off enemy units from their supplies, encircling them until their troops have little choice but to withdraw in a hurry or surrender. The more robust Russian redoubts may require a preparatory stage of artillery strikes that goes on for days, so that by the time Ukrainian troops move forward they are taking on an exhausted enemy caught among shattered fortifications. Or it might be something else again.
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Because we cannot be sure what the offensive will look like we might not know when it has started. After all, there was much talk in February of the coming Russian offensive, only for it to become apparent that it had begun in January. And we should not assume that we know where it will start. We can stare at maps, draw imaginary lines that split Russian forces in two, and work out clever routes to Crimea. There have been reports of Ukrainian troops preparing to attack east of the Dnieper River in the Zaporizhzhia region of southern Ukraine, and even some recent reports of activity in that area. Others wonder if there may be more opportunities in Donbas, especially if Russian forces in the region have exhausted themselves. But this is the aspect of the offensive about which it is most important to keep the Russians guessing.
The Russians appear to be most worried about the threat to Crimea. We know of the enhanced Russian defences, involving complex sets of fortifications, with so-called dragon’s teeth, mines and ditches all designed to catch armoured vehicles before they can even reach the defending troops waiting in their trenches. They also seem to be worried about possible incursions into adjacent Russian territory, which would certainly be embarrassing for Moscow, though are unlikely to be a high priority for Ukraine.
As the government in Kyiv points out regularly, very few people know the actual plans, and these plans might change. So there is little point speculating too much about the when, where and how. We can be sure only that the Ukrainians are intending to seize the initiative away from the Russians, with a number of possibilities opening up once it has been seized. Whatever form the offensive takes the underlying strategic question will remain as before: can these operations change the course of the war?
Part of the narrative encouraged by the Pentagon leaks is that Ukrainian commanders may not get another chance to win this war. If their offensive achieves as little as Russia’s has done then those who assume that this war is doomed to a continual stalemate will feel vindicated, and the clamour for an early settlement based on the current division of territory will grow. In this respect the first objective of the Ukrainian offensive is to demonstrate to their international backers that they are worth a continuing investment. That requires liberating a significant chunk of territory. The second, and ultimate objective, is to persuade the Russians to leave.
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The standard narrative assumes that the Russians can continue with this war indefinitely because Putin remains firmly in charge and he cannot countenance defeat. Yet Russian strategy has been through a number of shifts and turns through the war and may do so again. Nobody would suggest that Moscow is indifferent to the outcome of these battles. If they were, fewer resources would have been devoted to victory, and the fixation with Bakhmut would have been less. One can see the need to prioritise the impact on Russian force dispositions, with a growing sense that they must keep something in reserve to defend their gains. The strategic argument, as far as one can tell, has been won by those who believe that Crimea, and the approaches to it, must be retained at all costs. But does that mean anyone in the Kremlin can contemplate losing ground in Donbas when they have spent the past few months trying to occupy even more of this territory? As Mick Ryan discusses in his Substack, as Gerasimov’s capabilities become stretched he will have some hard decisions to make.
A curious essay by the Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin published on 14 April was designed to shore up the hard-line faction should Ukraine be successful in its counteroffensive, an event that he seems to think is quite likely. In this essay he argued that should this happen the Russian “deep state” (defined as “a community of near-state elites that operate independently of the political leadership of the state and have close ties and their own agenda”) would push the Kremlin to make concessions to end the war quickly, though these would “betray” Russian interests. (Some reported versions of this essay make it sound as if he was calling for the end of the campaign but those quotes refer to arguments he was seeking to counter.)
Prigozhin sees this deep state as having already sabotaged the Russian war effort because its members miss their lives of comfort. He warns that there can be no surrender, in part because a Ukrainian victory is unacceptable, as this state is now so hostile to Russia, but also because he expects that should Russia lose “radical national feelings” would be intensified sufficiently to galvanise the nation to defeat Ukraine. This is desperate stuff, confirming that elite opinion is not of one mind on what to do with the war.
Putin and his commanders cannot afford to get many more of the big strategic decisions wrong. If they do they will face the prospect of not only a futile stalemate but of humiliating withdrawals. I am less convinced than others that they can continue brushing off one setback after another simply because that is what autocratic police states can do, pretending to their people that nothing seriously has gone wrong. Insouciance and misinformation can take you only so far.
Lawrence Freedman is a regular contributor to The New Statesman. A version of this piece originally ran on his Substack “Comment is Freed”.
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