By Can Kasapoğlu*
1. The Armed Forces of the Russian Federation are preparing for an early spring offensive, focusing primarily but not exclusively on the Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts. Although the Russian military is suffering from deep material losses, poor weaponry, low morale, and rising casualties, an offensive campaign is still highly likely. To compensate for the shortcomings of its armed forces, Moscow has poured manpower into the battleground. It has launched a partial mobilization, which overlapped with the regular fall 2022 conscription drive. In addition, the Wagner private military company has been organizing its own recruitment efforts, such as by drafting criminals in Russian prisons.
According to General Kyrylo Budanov, the chief of Ukraine’s Main Directorate of Intelligence (GUR), as of late January 2023, some 326,000 Russian personnel have been deployed to Ukraine for combat operations, while 150,000 mobilized servicemen were still in training grounds in Russia and Belarus. Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov made a more pessimistic estimate, stating that Russia has up to 500,000 personnel available for an offensive campaign.
The Russian military leadership will probably refrain from launching a multi-front or all-out offensive against Ukraine. Instead, it will likely prioritize a major advance aimed at seizing Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts. Present indicators suggest that Moscow is planning to launch the offensive between late February and mid-March.
2. Belarus is a wild card. From an operational standpoint, to seize territory on Ukraine’s eastern frontier, the Russian military leadership must disperse Ukrainian troop concentrations as much as possible. It will do so by forcing the Ukrainian General Staff to allocate combat formations from core eastern lines of defense to the north of the country. For some time, the Belarusian Armed Forces have been conducting intensive drills to boost the readiness of combat units. Recently, Russia and Belarus launched joint tactical aviation exercises.
A joint Belarusian-Russian military buildup in the vicinity of Kyiv, coupled with missile and loitering munitions salvos, would leave the Ukrainian high command with no choice but to augment the capital’s defenses.
3. “Stalemate” is misleading. The Euro-Atlantic strategic community tends to depict the present situation as a stalemate, but this assessment is misleading. Above all, the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ ability to carry on warfighting depends on Western military assistance, not its own defense technological and industrial base, and the conflict remains highly attritional. Under these circumstances, prolongation of the conflict puts additional stress on Western political cohesion and aggravates geopolitical divergences across NATO capitals. The war has come to a critical stage that demands decisive counter-offensives from the Ukrainian military.
4. Timing is a key element of battle planning. Overcautious political choices have either prevented the transfer of game-changing weapon systems (such as the Army Tactical Missile System, or ATACMS) or led to their belated supply (such as German-made Leopard-2 main battle tanks). Debates over these political-military issues ignored timing as a key element of battle planning. The Ukrainian Armed Forces missed critical opportunities to translate operational advances into major and permanent strategic gains. Since the Kharkiv and Kherson campaigns in fall 2022, Ukraine’s military has not conducted a single large-scale, successful counter-offensive.
5. The main battle tank transfers are promising but belated. If a large-scale Russian offensive materializes in the spring, Ukrainian counter-offensives will play a critical role in an effective defense. Main battle tanks, which combine heavy firepower, rapid mobility, and survivability, remain essential if the Ukrainian military is to maintain a capacity to mount lethal counter-offensives.
The decision to send main battle tanks was wise, but the dithering has been costly. Although tank crew training can be completed within three to six weeks, establishing armored brigades requires more than just graduating tank commanders, drivers, gunners, and loaders. Drilling the crews for maneuver warfare is a hard task with heavy doctrinal and logistical demands. Wartime conditions only amplify these difficulties. On top of all these challenges, the Ukrainian military lacks familiarity with Western main battle tanks, which have structurally different design philosophies compared to the Soviet-Russian armor. In the most optimistic scenario, Ukraine will have its first armored battalions (not full armored brigades) combat-ready in mid- or even late spring—long after the start of Russia’s offensive.
6. Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) are suffering from casualties and an intra-Ministry of Defense power play. Airborne troops, part of a privileged service, have suffered significant casualties, between 10 and 20 percent of the VDV’s pre-war manpower.
The numbers only tell part of the story. A significant proportion of the VDV’s casualties stemmed from the Russian General Staff using them in conventional warfighting roles, unrelated to the service’s raison d’etre. The hollowing out of the VDV occurred against the backdrop of tensions between the airborne troops and the Russian high command, which sacked prominent VDV commanders. In June 2022, Colonel-General Andrey Serdukyov was relieved of command and replaced by Colonel-General Mikhail Teplinsky. In late January 2023, influential Russian Telegram channels claimed that Moscow sacked General Teplinsky and replaced him with a lower-rank figure, Lieutenant Oleg Makarevich. Contrary to the VDV traditions, General Makarevich does not hail from the airborne ranks.
7. The West is set to augment the Ukrainian military’s air and missile defense capabilities. Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleg Reznikov signed a memorandum with his French counterpart, Sébastien Lecornu, and Thales Group, securing the delivery of Ground Master-200 radar systems. The GM-200 is an S-band, multi-mission radar designed to detect a broad array of threats, ranging from drones and manned aircraft to cruise and ballistic missiles. The radar’s tests were promising in detecting not just highly maneuverable threats but also slow-moving, low-altitude platforms.
The GM-200 radar is compatible with the European SAMP-T air and missile defense system, which Italy and France are delivering to Ukraine soon.
The Patriots (which will arrive from the United States, Germany, and the Netherlands) and the Franco-Italian SAMP-T will form the most advanced layer of Ukraine’s defensive strategic weapons deterrent against air-breathing and ballistic threats. These systems will gain additional importance in airbase protection roles, should Ukraine operate Western fighter aircraft in the coming months.
8. Ukraine still needs an offensive strategic deterrent. While the supply of Western air and missile defense systems is a promising development, it will not solve the problem sparked by Russia’s missile warfare and drone warfare threats. The Russian military is able to pound anywhere in Ukraine from multiple points of attack. Furthermore, should Iran transfer ballistic missiles to Russia, Ukraine will face an additional threat.
The ATACMS, with its 185-mile (300-kilometer) effective range, would be the ideal weapon of choice for the Ukrainian Armed Forces. However, according to a recent report from Reuters, Washington’s next, $2 billion weapons package will not include the ATACMS. Instead, Kyiv is set to receive the Ground Launch Small Diameters Bomb (GLSDB).
Nevertheless, the GLSDB is still an improvement. The GLSDB will allow Ukrainian missile forces to strike Russian targets up to 150 km away with 250-pound-class warheads, boosting the Ukrainian military’s precision-strike options to hit the Russian rear.
9. Russia’s top diplomat tacitly menaces Moldova, yet another effort to conduct intra-war deterrence. In a recent interview, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov depicted Moldova as the “next Ukraine,” highlighting the Moldovan government’s Western orientation and geopolitical tendency toward NATO. Since the outset of the invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has vocally used the tactical nuclear weapons card to build intra-war deterrence and escalation capacity. Lavrov’s words further this attempt at deterrence by hinting at the prospects of a regional spillover of the conflict. At present, however, the Russian military lacks the capability to regionalize the war and embark on another adventure.
This report first appeared as a part of Hudson’s Re: Ukraine newsletter series. To subscribe, click here.
*About the author: Can Kasapoğlu is a Hudson Institute Senior Fellow (Non-Resident)
Source: This article was published by the Hudson Institute