Russia and Ukraine continue to attrit each other in the suburbs and streets of Bakhmut. A counter-offensive by Ukraine, armed with recent tranche of military aid from US and NATO allies is expected any time. In 2022, three events that turned the tables in favour of Ukraine were Russian forces’ retreat from Kyiv in April; Ukraine’s successful counter-offensive through the Kharkiv oblast in September-November and Russian withdrawal to the east of River Dnieper in Kherson oblast in November. Apart from forcing Russians to cede large swathes of territory in eastern and southern Ukraine, these victories came as a morale booster for the war-torn nation and ensured generous flow of military aid.
With Ukrainian forces threatening to strike deeper eastwards in the Donbas region, the Russian forces had a difficult task at hand, to stablise the ground situation; maintain the integrity of freshly congealed frontiers and recapture the lost territories, if possible. By the time winter had set in Ukraine, both forces were locked in numerous tactical engagements along approximately 1200-km-long line stretching from Lyman Druhyi in Kharkiv oblast to Dnieper delta in the Black Sea.
While the battle of Bakhmut still raging, both sides can take solace from causing attrition to each other.
Russian forces’have assiduously defended the front throughout the winters. Hundreds of skirmishes, attacks and artillery duels were fought along the line on a regular basis. In the Donbas region, Russians managed to recapture some of the lost territories. Currently, the Russian and Ukrainian forces are strung out along the line Lyman Druhyi and Kupyansk (Kharkiv oblast) – Svatove and Kreminna (Luhansk oblast) – Bakhmut, Avdiivka, Marinka and Vuhledar (Donetsk oblast) – Hulyaipole and Vasylivka (Zaporizhzhia oblast) –Nova Kakhovka and Kherson (Kherson oblast) – Kinburn Spit (Mykolaiv oblast).
Ground Situation: Donbas
In the north, the Russian forces have been attacking the settlements around Kupyansk to wrest control of a bridgehead on the River Oskil from the Ukrainian forces .If successful, it will enable Russians to interpose themselves between the rivers Oskil and Siverskyi Donets to block any counter-offensive from the direction of Kharkiv. Fifty km southeast from Kupyansk, the ground situation in Svatove remains unsteady. Ukrainian forces have been attacking the settlements around Svatove in order to penetrate eastwards.
Further 40 km south, lies another flashpoint, Kreminna which has witnessed numerous attacks on the settlements surrounding it. Ukrainian forces have tried hard to breach the line Svatove – Kreminna to threaten the line of communications in the depth areas of Luhansk. Unstable situation at Kreminna also threatens the security of the twin cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk over River Siverskyi Donets, located just 20 km southeast.
Fifty-five km southwest from Kreminnalies Bakhmut, the epicenter of Russia-Ukraine war. This small mining town of 70,000 inhabitants has witnessed the most violent engagements in the war resulting into its complete obliteration. Russians forces have been trying to capture it since November 2022. They had achieved some success by capturing Soledar, another mining town in the vicinity in January this year but Bakhmut is being stubbornly contested by Ukraine, which still holds some 15 percent of the town along a road in the southwest. Battle of Bakhmut accounts for the maximum casualties in the war on the both sides. It has consumed enormous quantities of military hardware and ammunitions, which does not commensurate with whatever strategic advantage it has.
After Bakhmut, Vuhledar has witnessed most violent battles for its control.
The US and other NATO countries have been nudging Ukraine to concede the town and concentrate its efforts elsewhere which will yield better dividends. Russia, for instance could have invested either of the twin cities of Kramatorsk and Slovyansk, a rail and road hub with the same resources. While the battle of Bakhmut still raging, both sides can take solace from causing attrition to each other.
Fifty km down south another critical situation presents itself to the Russian forces. Heavy fighting is taking place in Avdiivka and Marinka, the suburbs of the capital city Donetsk. Of the four oblasts of Ukraine that were annexed by Russia through a referendum and presidential decree, Russia holds only two capital cities – Luhansk and Donetsk and one of these is precariously placed in the show window. Thirty km southwest of Marinka is Vuhledar, a small town located on a salient. After Bakhmut, Vuhledar has witnessed most violent battles for its control.
Russians forces are said to have lost at least 130 tanks and armoured vehicles in Vuhledar in February this year. In terms of criticality, the line Avdiivka, Donetsk, Marinka and Vuhledar is unstable and presents a suitable launch pad for a thrust by the mechanised forces of Ukraine.
Ground Situation: Zaporizhzhia and Kherson
From Vuhledar the plains of Zaporizhzhia start, which are favourable for mechanized forces’ operations. Russian and Ukrainian forces are engaged in skirmishes and artillery duels along a 150-km line Vuhledar, Hulyaipole and Vasylivka. Thereafter, the Kakhovka Reservoir and River Dnieper due to their sheer dimension separate both the forces. Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant – Europe’s largest is located at Enerhodar and is controlled by Russians. Both the forces have been accusing each other for being reckless with the plant’s safety. International Atomic Energy Agency has been voicing its concern about the plant’s safety.
Depending up on the progress of operations in Zaporizhzhia or Donetsk oblasts, Ukraine can launch attacks to seize more territory along the eastern bank of Dnieper.
In Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine has certain terrain and positional advantages. Between Dnipro and Zaporizhzhia the River Dnieper flows north to south. Ukrainian forces are in control of the eastern bank of the river and the crossings over it. They retain the flexibility of launching additional crossings, in case required. Line of communications passing through Dniproand Zaporizhzhia cities can support the operations. Operationally, any thrust by mechanized forces in this sector threatens the line of communications from Donetsk and Rostov (Russia) to Zaporizhzhia, Kherson and Crimea. Melitopol, Russian forces’ operational logistics hub for south Ukraine is located 80 km south.
River Dnieper separates the warring armies in the Kherson oblast. A status quo, except for the artillery duels and sneak raids has been maintained here since November. Ukrainian forces have been attempting to establish footholds on the Dnieper’s eastern bank and capture the riverine islands and those in the Dnieper delta. Depending up on the progress of operations in Zaporizhzhia or Donetsk oblasts, Ukraine can launch attacks to seize more territory along the eastern bank of Dnieper. Control over Dnieper delta is important for Ukraine for mounting surprise attacks on Crimea.
The Bear Hug
On many occasions Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has reiterated his resolve to retake Crimea. Ukrainian counter-offensive depending upon its size and momentum would aim to break through the Russian defences; disrupt line of communications; capture depth areas and ultimately threaten the Crimean peninsula from north. When and where will Ukraine show its hand? It is anybody’s guess. The counter-offensive was said to be slated for 30 April but a leak of Pentagon documents have forced a last minute change in the plan. Ukraine cannot afford to delay its spring offensive as all military hardware including 230 tanks and more than 1500 armoured vehicles and ammunitions pledged by donor nations have been provided and 30,000 fresh troops organized into nine combat brigades have been trained and integrated.
For the spring offensive, Ukraine will bring in an assortment of main battle tanks and armoured fighting vehicles in its tank and mechanized brigades. Main thrust of the offensive will be led by the Leopard 1 and 2 and Challenger tanks. The Abram tanks have still not arrived. There is a generous complement of infantry combat vehicles and armoured personnel carriers for infantry to keep pace with the tanks. Surprisingly, Ukraine has also received some 800 T-72 tanks from the NATO nations and it has been able to refurbish a good number of T-72s captured from Russians. In all Ukraine can field up to 1500 tanks for the spring offensive. That Ukraine can muster trained crew to man the entire compliment of 1500 tanks is a moot point!!
Anticipating a counter-offensive from Ukraine, Russians have opted for a defensive posture.
On how many axes Ukraine would launch its offensive to flummox Russians? Where would be their main thrust spear headed by mint fresh 60-ton monsters be heading for? Over a 1000-km front Ukraine will have to plan it intelligently for breaking the integrity of Russian defences and tying down their reserves. Zaporizhzhia appears to be unanimous choice among the Ukrainian generals but Donbas cannot be left unaddressed. The battle indicators are still very sparse to hazard a guess about Ukraine’s intent, place and timing.
Anticipating a counter-offensive from Ukraine, Russians have opted for a defensive posture. The Russian courtesy of letting Ukrainians strike first is with an aim to discern, contest, absorb and break the Ukraine’s spring offensive, before they launch their riposte. It is a good strategy, as Russians still need time to make up the deficiencies in the rank and file and of weapons and ammunitions.
Throughout the winters Russians have dug an extensive network of anti-tank ditches and defences and laid minefields along the entire frontage and in the depth areas. The Crimean peninsula has also been fortified against possible land and amphibious assaults. They have incorporated the rivers and rivulets that abound the Donbas region in their defensive network. Russia has also undertaken a large-scale evacuation of civilian population from Zaporizhzhia and Kherson oblasts that may come in harm’s way, in case of a spring offensive.
Russians seem to revel in protracted conflicts. Their past record of World War 2, Afghanistan and Syria affirms it. As the war drags on, Russia, as a nation will emerge united and stronger. If resilience is a war winning factor, Russians are likely to tip the scales in their favour.
Soldiers of Fortune
In all previous wars, the mercenaries have been employed, but the soldiers of fortune have never hogged such limelight as in the present conflict. Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin and Ramzan Kadyrov leading the Chechen fighters represent the new face of conventional war, where the soldiers of fortune have gained acceptance, professional respect and a place in the military operations room. Kadyrov’s Chechen fighters fought viciously through the labyrinth of tunnels and dugouts in Mariupol. Prigozhin’s Wagner fighters have flushed out Ukrainian forces from most of the Bakhmut by clearing buildings and streets. Both the warlords have immense clout in Kremlin.
Turning a blind eye to the military ethics and existing conventions on war, the soldiers of fortune have become a means to an end.
Prigozhin on many occasions has openly criticized the Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD), its generals and field commanders over operational shortcoming and failures.He has been demanding increased allotment of ammunition for the battle of Bakhmut and has threatened the MoD to withdraw his fighters from the front, if the demand is not met.
Turning a blind eye to the military ethics and existing conventions on war, the soldiers of fortune have become a means to an end. Future wars will perhaps be outsourced to the soldiers of fortune enlisted from penal colonies, prisons and asylums throwing the scruples of war to the winds.
Ukraine war has raised the bar for contemporary modern warfare. There are best of weapons, ammunitions and platforms deployed in this conflict.It has also traversed in the realm of cyber, space and information. Drones have emerged as a cost-effective, accurate lethal platform for executing tactical and strategic tasks. Proliferation of anti-tank missiles and man portable surface to air missiles has made mighty tanks, agile helicopters and airborne forcesare wary in the tactical battle area.
As more and more guided missiles and rockets make entry into the battle area, the air defence can no longer be wished away. Precision strikes have replaced prophylactic bombardments. Most of the weaponry and platforms owe their origin to dual-use technology, available off the shelf. It is no longer a ‘poor man’s war’. War preparedness would need pragmatic threat perception, concerted efforts and resource allotment to stay ahead of the curve.
Ground holding role of infantry, despite the weapons and ammunitions brought against it has not diminished. Stubborn defenders at Mariupol, Soledar, Bakhmut, and Vuhledar only prove the point that the ‘queen of battle’ is still relevant.
A lot of hype and hope has been pinned on the Ukraine’s spring offensive, but the stated objective of evicting Russia from Ukraine is not something that can be achieved in one campaigning season.
This war has seen nuclear sabre-rattling more often than not. What has really restrained the US and NATO from physical intervention in the conflict is perhaps the nuclear stockpile and triad that Russian Federation holds. Russian submarines are already prowling the waters of the Baltic Sea and North Atlantic.
The End State
Russia embarked on this war to stop NATO’s eastward expansion. It has not worked. Finland has joined NATO. For Sweden, it is a matter of time. Ukraine and Georgia are the next hopefuls.
How would this prolonged conflict terminate? Though the battle fatigue is discernable on both sides, but neither of them is prepared to sue for peace. Ukraine has vowed to evict Russia from its lands, which is a tall order. It does not have the wherewithal to accomplish the objective. Fighting an endless war on the NATO’s largesse and a bust economy cannot be an open-ended option for Ukraine. The NATO nations too are weary of continuing with support that strains their inflation afflicted economy.
A lot of hype and hope has been pinned on the Ukraine’s spring offensive, but the stated objective of evicting Russia from Ukraine is not something that can be achieved in one campaigning season. Ukraine under Zelensky is likely to fight as long as the US and NATO support lasts or accepts a truncated Ukraine on NATO’s nudging.
Russia finds itself in no better position either. It is pitted against the combined might of NATO. Hit by economic sanctions and global isolation it cannot possibly carry on indefinitely with this conflict. Internally, there is growing dissension against the war. There is an acute shortage of manpower. With depleted war reserves of weapons, ammunition, missiles and drones Russia is scouting for overt and covert supplies. Shortage of battle tanks can be gauged from the fact that the mothballed T-54, T-55 and T-62s tanks are being sent to the frontline. If Russia can withstand Ukraine’s spring offensive and hold its ground, it will be in a better position to advance beyond Bakhmut and consolidate its gains.