Both sides are preparing for Ukraine’s long-awaited spring offensive

Much of the small town of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine lies in ruins after months of bloody trench warfare. Tens of thousands are dead and every resident who had the opportunity to flee did so. Russian invaders have surrounded the city in three towns, and Western officials have urged Ukrainian defenders – so far without success – to fall back to more easily defended lines.

But Kiev has no plans to withdraw from Bakhmut. Ukrainian officials say it’s not just about what the loss would mean for public morale. The city’s defenses, they say, are linked to a planned spring offensive that could begin within weeks as the weather warms.

Ukrainian forces are hoping to build on the spectacular successes of a swoop that smashed through a weak link in Russian lines and pushed invading forces out of most of the Krakhiv Oblast to the east. After recapturing the town of Lyman in Donetsk Oblast in October, Ukrainian forces met stiffer Russian resistance and a winter counterattack by Russian troops and mercenaries, centered on Bakhmut.

Both sides have been bloodied in the fighting for Bakhmut, but Ukrainian commanders say planning for a renewed spring offensive to reclaim land in Donbass has not been hampered.

General Oleksandr Syrskyi, commander of Ukraine’s Ground Forces, said Ukrainian soldiers in the east – including Bakhmut – are fighting the Russians so Kiev can consolidate enough troops and weapons for what comes next.

“It was necessary to buy time to gather reserves and launch a counteroffensive, which is not far away,” the general told Ukrainian reporters in Kyiv on March 11.

High stakes

The stakes – political and military – could not be higher.

Despite a disastrous first year of fighting, Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be banking on his smaller opponent not being able to sustain a war of attrition for long and that popular support in the US and Europe will inevitably weaken if fighting descends to a stalemate.

And the government of Ukrainian President Voldymyr Zelenskyy is desperate to revive the momentum and morale-boosting success of the autumn’s fighting, even as Russia is sending new troops into the fray and has had months to bolster its defenses.

“It’s easier to train someone to stand in a ditch and defend and shoot someone who comes at them, but it’s much more difficult to train them to do offensive operations,” said Rob Lee, recent senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute told the Kyiv Independent News website.

“It takes a lot more courage and unity [and] it needs better leadership and command and control,” he added.

Though Ukrainian forces surprised the Russians last fall, it’s a lot less of a guessing game now. The Zelenskyi government has almost telegraphed its intentions, even assigning a new “Offensive Guard” of eight assault brigades to lead the forthcoming battle.

Military analysts and Western military officials say Ukrainian commanders, now on the move with dozens of new NATO-supplied tanks and Soviet-era jet fighters, have effectively two options when attempting to push back Russian and separatist forces: south across the River Dnipro towards Crimea, which Russia has held and militarized since conquering the peninsula in 2014, or advance further east and then south to cut off Russia’s coveted “land bridge” along the Black Sea coast connecting Crimea to Russia.

John Hardie, deputy director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Russia program, agreed that a Ukrainian counteroffensive was likely imminent.

Mr Hardie said Ukraine’s advance is likely to be concentrated southward towards the town of Melitopol in the Zaporizhia region or Mariupol in Donetsk Oblast on the north coast of the Sea of ​​Azov.

“But we don’t really know,” he said, adding that the southern region of Ukraine is very important both economically and strategicallyimportant for Kyiv.

The Pentagon hosted Ukrainian generals at the US military base in Wiesbaden, Germany, earlier this month for several days of “tabletop” exercises to plan the upcoming spring offensive, though US officials publicly say Kiev is in charge of war strategy.

“Nobody’s sitting there and telling Ukrainians go left or go right or do this or do that. That’s not the job of the international community,” US Chief of Staff General Mark Milley told reporters earlier this month. “All we do is set up the framework and mechanisms that allow Ukrainians to self-learn, to learn against a situation or different scenarios.”

Russian military commanders are likely to have started rationing artillery ammunition as shortages have emerged at several points along the front line in recent weeks. This was probably one of the main reasons why no Russian battle formation was able to mount significant offensive action against Ukraine, British military officials said last week.

“Russia has almost certainly already resorted to issuing old stockpiles of ammunition previously deemed unusable,” British intelligence officials said in their daily Evaluation of the battlefield.

need for supplies

A Ukrainian offensive would likely begin only after Kiev received more of the military firepower promised by the US and other NATO allies, with many predicting an early May launch date. The Defense Department said the US is determined to provide Kiev with enough firepower to fight the Russians.

“We continue to do everything we can to ensure we meet Ukraine’s needs,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters Tuesday. “That will continue to be our focus. There is still an uphill battle ahead of us, especially as we head into spring and summer.”

But Mr Hardie said it was not out of the question for Ukraine to launch an attack with the weapons it had at hand.

“So far in this war, Ukraine really has not conducted successful large-scale maneuvering operations, except where Russian forces have been very thin,” he said. “But I learned during this war not to bet against the Ukrainians. You have proven the pessimists wrong time and time again.”

Some Russian military analysts said Ukrainian forces could face minimal resistance to a southward push, unlike other areas of the front line. Meanwhile, a member of Russia’s parliament, the State Duma, has urged military officials to develop anti-drone capabilities to defend critical ground communications lines connecting occupied Crimea to mainland Russia, according to think tank Institute for the Study of War.

Retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, a former commander of US forces in Afghanistan, said the priority is not only to help Ukraine prepare for future offensive operations, but to weaken Russia’s ability to continue its own push into Ukraine start. He estimated that by May or early June Kiev could be ready to move out and “hopefully” take over the land bridge connecting Russia to Crimea.

Speaking to the Atlantic Council think-tank in February, Mr Petraeus said President Vladimir Putin believes Russia can take difficulties better than Ukraine, the rest of Europe or the US

“We have to prove him wrong in that regard. We need to accelerate the moment when Putin is ready to start meaningful negotiations,” he said.

The Zelenskyi government has maintained a steady stream of pleas for more weapons and aid from the US and its allies, reflecting calculations that the coming months could determine the fate of the war.

Despite the heavy casualties, Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, called the Bakhmut battle a “strategic success” and told Italian newspaper La Stampa that the Ukrainian counterattack was imminent.
“We will wear down the Russians and then focus elsewhere. We need long-range missiles,” Mr. Podolyak said.

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