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Ukraine’s Second Winter of War Will Not Be the Last
Spring holds only the promise of another Russian offensive with more to come until Ukraine cracks or Putin is left empty-handed
By Michal Fiszer, Jerzy Gruszczyński and Michael Puttré
Russia’s mobilization of reservists and conscripts beginning in the fall of 2022 has yielded about 300,000 new troops for the Ukraine front. These so-called mobiks have been joined by increasing numbers of more capable mercenary soldiers from the private Wagner Group. Together with existing forces, the reinforcements have enabled the invaders to more or less stabilize their positions for the remainder of the winter. With spring coming and a renewed offensive all but assured, is Russia finally in a position to overcome Ukraine’s staunch defense?
Overall, Russia finds itself roughly where it was a year ago in terms of numbers and strategic position. While it has made gains since launching the invasion in February 2022, these have fallen way short of its apparent initial war aims. Moreover, they have come at tremendous cost: The U.S. military estimates Russia has taken over 100,000 casualties (including dead, wounded, captured and missing) in the last year. Ukrainian sources insist these reported numbers are lower than Russia’s actual losses. The defenders are estimated to have suffered as much, with a significant number of civilian casualties as well, not to mention widespread national destruction. Russia does not have much to show for its adventure, but it seems bent on doubling down nonetheless.
Bracing for the Next Round
For both Russia and Ukraine, the winter has been a time of reinforcement, replenishment and reevaluation. In the south, Russian forces have succeeded in creating a land bridge to President Vladimir Putin’s Crimean conquest of 2014. However, Ukrainian counterattacks have managed to push the Russians back to the left bank of the Dnieper River. In the center-north, around the towns of Soledar and Bakhmut, some fierce fighting has persisted during the winter where professional Wagner forces have attacked in earnest. But Wagner troops are nothing more than a stop-gap measure and cannot carry out large operations of war-winning significance.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been energetic in canvassing the West for advanced arms for his country’s forces. While recent allocations of main battle tanks and other armored vehicles have garnered a lot of attention, the real cornerstone of Ukraine’s war effort is its air-defense network for countering fighter-bomber and missile strikes. Thomas Karako of the Center for Strategic and International Studies recently wrote, “Air defense cannot win a war, but its absence can lose one rather quickly.”
Echoing this sentiment, Justin Bronk of the U.K.-based Royal United Services Institute explained in a November 2022 report that NATO-supplied air-defense systems and missiles are essentially the only thing keeping the Russian air force at a distance from the front lines. If Ukraine’s air-defense network were to collapse, he warned, the country would face a real prospect of losing the war.
Right now, Ukraine is in the business of not losing the war. Russia’s initial strategy in Ukraine was a failure, but it managed to reorient itself to make some progress at high cost. Yet Putin can’t keep this up forever, and the coming campaigning season may make or break one side or the other. Or the war may go on for a few more years.
The Russian forces available in the spring will be similar in size to those that attacked Ukraine a year ago, but can be expected to be less effective. On paper, the reinforcements are numerous enough to cover all of the losses suffered during the last year of fighting. They have undergone more or less adequate training in military specialties, in accordance with needs. The mobiks fill the vacuum in existing units. However, they do not confer an advantage in attacking, which requires intensive training and excellent officers.
Russia has lost thousands of its front-line officers and noncommissioned officers, who are the backbone of any military force. Such leaders cannot be simply called up and trained in a season. You can conduct a quick officer training, but nothing substitutes for multiyear experience in commanding and leading troops, even during exercises. Officers must master a vast array of military disciplines and specialties that most civilian college graduates would find overwhelming. Moreover, battlefield leaders must possess a leadership mentality—the most difficult aspect of the military craft to confer on an individual. Armed forces must be managed by leaders, not led by managers, and finding good leaders is more art than science.
At the same time, replacing huge equipment losses is also challenging. Russia had stored incredible numbers of tanks, infantry combat vehicles, artillery pieces, multiple-rocket launchers, air-defense systems, trucks and other equipment. It was found, however, that much of the stored equipment is in a dilapidated state, lacking many essential parts, while much of the rest is broken and unusable. Many vehicles and equipment were routinely cannibalized for parts to repair front-line equipment, while others were simply stolen and sold for scrap. Such corruption is endemic among Russian forces and widely reported.
In response, Russia has organized two new armament repair factories, one near Moscow and the other near Rostov-on-Don. Both facilities disassemble wrecked equipment from the battlefield and use them to refurbish equipment from storage or the reverse, whichever is more expedient. In this way, relatively usable armament is produced to replace the large material losses suffered so far. Throughout last summer, Russia had been holding the line with obsolete equipment returned to battle after being retired decades ago.
Russia’s largest challenge has been replacing its most advanced equipment and high-technology precision weapons that it has expended in vast quantities. Russia cannot produce microprocessors and many electro-optical devices. It also has limited precision-machining capabilities, since most of the digitally controlled machines came from the West. Now they are cut off from support and calibration, while some new machinery has been withheld. Thus, Russia has difficulties manufacturing key precision equipment, such as aircraft engine parts.
Ukraine Improves Its Hand
Meanwhile, Ukraine has been continuously replacing losses with newly trained mobilized personnel and equipment received from allied countries. The latter has been demonstrably superior to Russian-source equipment in nearly every area. As for readying replacements for the battlefield, Ukraine’s allies have hosted many of them at their extensive training facilities, conferring not only basic training but advanced familiarization on Western weapon systems. The training covers the use of modern networked command-and-control systems, which will greatly enhance the performance of Ukrainian forces on the battlefield. Nothing similar exists on the Russian side, so smaller and more agile Ukrainian units can more effectively oppose a stronger enemy.
The recent promised armor packages will enable Ukraine to equip five brigades. Furthermore, the delivery of ex-Soviet equipment from former Warsaw Pact nations now in NATO, including moderately obsolete but well-serviced tanks and infantry-fighting vehicle types, have enabled Ukraine’s army to replace its losses.
It seems on paper that Ukrainian forces will be better prepared for the renewed offensive in comparison to its capabilities in February 2022, while Russia is struggling to replenish its forces to pre-invasion levels and standards. However, everything depends on external military aid for Ukraine, since Ukraine has little capacity to produce armament and only limited ability to produce even basic ammunition. As discussed earlier, it is absolutely dependent on Western high-technology weapons, missiles and especially air-defense systems.
Avenues of Attack
Leading military think tanks, including the Institute for the Study of War, which has produced an indispensable day-by-day update of Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine, more or less agree that the new campaign season is likely to unfold along one of four possible scenarios:
The first is an ambitious attempt to cut off Western supplies to Ukraine by attacking from Western Belarus south toward the border of Moldova. Benefits: This would cut off most of Ukraine behind a Russian-held curtain, blocking ground access from Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. Drawbacks: The terrain on the Belarus-Ukraine border is dominated by marshy and forest areas with very few good roads. It is also highly risky because it almost guarantees friction with nearby NATO forces.
The second is a renewed offensive against Kyiv conducted more or less in the same way as previously, along the three main axes: from Belarus due south along the western bank of the Dnieper River; from western Russia to the south along the eastern bank of the Dnieper River; and from Russia to the west, through Sumy toward Kyiv. Benefits: Russia has trod this ground before and knows the dangers. If Kyiv falls, then Ukraine could very well fall too, with the Zelenskyy government deposed or in exile. Drawbacks: It didn’t work for Russia last time against ill-prepared Ukrainian forces that will be better equipped and organized this time around.
The third is a less risky renewal of the offensive against Kharkiv and from occupied Donbas to gain full control of the east and northeastern part of Ukraine, and then drive on against remaining opposition east of the Dnieper in a second phase. Benefits: This offensive could result in an effective partition of Ukraine, which would satisfy many of Putin’s scaled-back war aims. The rest of Ukraine could be reckoned with in a future round. Drawbacks: The terrain north of Kharkiv is not well suited for offensive operations. Also, the city is Ukraine’s second largest and itself represents a significant barrier to progress. A siege would bring everything to a halt.
The fourth is a much less ambitious multipronged offensive south of Kharkiv to extend Russian control over the southeast of Ukraine to the Dnieper River, essentially leaving the northeastern section for a subsequent phase. Benefits: It secures the Donbas region and widens the land link with Crimea. It would also keep most of the operations near Russia’s logistical sources near Rostov-on-Don and the Black Sea region—and it would be a good start for farther conquering eastern Ukraine. Drawbacks: It gives Putin just the bare minimum of what he wants. Also, Ukrainian forces in the north would be free to maneuver and possibly counterattack.
The first two scenarios require the extensive cooperation of Belarus, which is not assured. Any of these scenarios is possible, but given the perilous state of Russia’s armed forces, in our estimation, the last is the least risky and therefore most likely.
Springtime for ... You Know Who?
The sputtering of fighting in the Donbas region that has continued through the winter may be seen as reconnaissance efforts prior to the main event. The Wagner mercenaries have played their role and now will be put away. The real effort will come from Putin’s refurbished forces, probably in the same area. Thus, the earliest phases of the spring offensive may already be under way.
We expect that a Russian offensive will stall after some territorial gains. Russia simply is not in a better position overall in relation to Ukraine than it was last year. The spring campaign will turn into a bloody war of attrition. Russia will send assault after assault, in the Russian way, with its new model army, every day eroding Ukrainian defenses that experience shows will suffer casualties as well. At the same time, a new mobilization wave—part of the last batch of 300,000 mobiks plus new conscripts—will be stood up to continue the effort in a summer offensive.
The only chance Ukraine has is to pick the proper moment when one Russian push is spent and another is gathering strength to launch its own well-organized, Western-style counteroffensive. The aim of the counteroffensive will be to recapture another significant piece of territory and to inflict as much damage on Russian forces as possible. And then again, Ukraine will have to be ready to repulse another major Russian offensive in the summer, when a new wave of mobilized forces will be ready.
While Russia is hamstrung by sanctions and dependence on suppliers such as China, Iran and others (more or less surreptitiously, since many are evading sanctions or under sanction themselves), it has a vast industrial infrastructure that, with a few reorganization and equipment renovation cycles, may be able to sustain a mortally threatening war effort from Ukraine’s point of view. If it is able to assemble and launch forces of a similar size every half year for the next three to four years, then Ukraine will be ground down through manpower losses alone.
To avoid being bled to death, Ukraine needs to definitively reassert control over all areas it has lost to Russia—including Crimea and Donbas, taken in 2014—to negate all possible Russian gains. Otherwise, Russia will not give up before the whole of Ukraine is conquered. Only when Putin is thoroughly discredited with no territorial gains in hand will a political solution be imposed on him or his successor.
But this may be the work of many years. It is clear that Ukraine must be prepared to ward off successive waves of Russian offensives to survive as a nation. This will only be possible if Western support continues at a rate superior to Putin’s avarice.