When he visited the newly liberated Kherson in November, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced: “This is the beginning of the end of the war.” However, only in hindsight will it become clear whether the Russian withdrawal really marked the beginning of the end or whether it will be seen as a mere pause in a much longer war – especially since all signs point to Russia preparing for a long battle, writes POLITICO.
Ukrainian tank in the center of Bakhmut on December 24, 2022. Photo Getty Images
Over the past month, neither Ukrainian nor Russian forces have had much to show for territorial gains in the fierce fighting on the front lines of Donetsk and Luhansk – only a high number of dead and wounded and the depletion of ammunition, especially artillery shells and rockets.
Despite the modern additions of drones and electronic warfare, much of the fighting in Ukraine was reminiscent of the First World War.
Once the ground freezes, Ukraine will apparently have two tactical options: launch an offensive in the south with the goal of severing Russia’s land bridge with Crimea, or focus on the northeastern city of Luhansk. To be able to do either, however, will require a massive resupply from the Western powers.
On a visit to Washington this week – Zelenskiy’s first trip outside Ukraine since the Russian invasion – he pushed hard for more and better. Reserves are also dwindling in Western arsenals, but the urgency for Ukraine is ever greater: Ammunition and weaponry will be needed not only for Ukraine to launch offensives, but probably also for defense.
Meanwhile, there is growing concern that Russian forces in Ukraine, under General Sergei Surovikin — a commander who, as POLITICO predicted, has proven more tactically adept than his predecessors — are preparing a counteroffensive that will be reinforced by over 200,000 newly mobilized recruits.
In recent months, Russia has not had the manpower to secure every inch of conquered land. And while the new recruits may not be the most well-trained or motivated, throwing such numbers into battle could still have a significant impact — especially since Russian President Vladimir Putin is as insensitive as Stalin when it comes to concerns the overlooking of the number of casualties among his forces. This is the Russian way of waging war – seek to overwhelm through numbers, regardless of the human cost.
Instead, Ukraine will send only 30,000 newly trained troops to the front this winter, and the discrepancy worries military officials in Kyiv. “The enemy should not be disregarded. They are not weak… and they have great potential,” General Oleksandr Sîrski, commander of the Ukrainian ground forces, said this week.
Moscow: “all for the front, all for victory”
Russia is also in the midst of what Andrew Monaghan, a research associate at NATO’s Defense College, called “a rethinking” of strategy, while there are calls in Moscow for “all for the front, all for victory “. In comments to his military chiefs in the middle of last week, Putin apparently responded to those calls, pledging not only to continue the so-called special military operation until 2023, but also to intensify it, saying there was no limit to the amount of money that Russia is willing to spend.
In other words, having already ordered its industry to retool to boost military supplies, the Kremlin is preparing for a long war. However, how Russia will escalate, what tactical goals it will pursue with its new troops, and what lessons it has learned from the conflict so far remain unclear. It’s also unclear how he’ll accumulate the ammo he needs.
Rumors of a reshuffle in the upper echelons of the Russian armed forces have been swirling in Moscow for several weeks, with talk that Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov could be replaced. Putin will again turn to younger people to get the results he wants, as he did when he broke the mold of seniority in October and appointed 44-year-old Colonel Oleg Gorsenin to command the powerful National Center of Defense Management?
If a reshuffle takes place, it “will likely provide some clarity on how Moscow understands the scale of the war by 2023 and what any subsequent escalation, including an intensification of the campaign – or even a major offensive – might look like late winter or spring,” according to Monaghan.
Kiev has no doubts that a new Russian offensive is coming
While Putin avoided predicting imminent successes or goals in his remarks this week, he hinted that he expects results. “The country and the government provide everything the military requires – everything. I trust that there will be an adequate response and that results will be achieved,” he said.
And the results Putin will likely want to see are in the regions he formally annexed this year, only to see pieces of them later vacated by Ukraine. But Western military analysts do not expect Russia to mount an offensive along the entire winding, elongated front — rather a multi-pronged assault, focusing on key villages and towns around Donetsk, the cities between Kharkiv and Luhansk and in Zaporozhye, where increased movements of troops and equipment across the border from Russia were reported.
Russia could also throw a wildcard – such as another attack from Belarus towards Kyiv and also west of the capital towards Vinitiya, endangering the railway lines coming from the west and the E40 highway connecting Lviv to Kyiv .
In recent weeks, Russian forces have steadily increased in Belarus, and Ukrainian sources told POLITICO that Russian warplanes have apparently tested Ukraine’s air defenses along the border. And the Institute for the Study of War said it continued to see signs consistent with “a new Russian invasion of northern Ukraine from Belarus.”
The Institute also said independent sources in Belarus continue to report an increase in Russian mechanized forces in the country, with around 30 Russian T-80 tanks reportedly deployed around 20 December. However, no attack group appears to have formed yet, suggesting that an attack from Belarus is “not very likely imminent”.
However, imminent or not, US military strategist Edward Luttwak has warned of “a scythe maneuver from Belarus to Vinitiya to cut off Kiev from its supply lines to the west.” And as Ukrainian General Valerii said this week Zalujnîi, he has “no doubt that [Rusia] will attack Kiev again”.