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

Much of the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut has been left in ruins after months of bloody trench warfare. Tens of thousands of people died, and any residents who could escape did so. The Russian invaders have surrounded the city in three towns, and Western officials have urged Ukrainian defenders, who have so far been unsuccessful, to fall back to more easily defensible lines.

However, Kiev has no plans to leave Bakhmut. Ukrainian officials say the issue is not just what the loss would mean for public morale. The city’s defenses, they say, are tied to a planned spring offensive that could begin within weeks as the weather warms.

Ukrainian forces are hoping to build on the impressive success of the autumn sortie, which broke through a weak link in the Russian lines and pushed the invading forces out of almost all of the eastern Kraków region. After recapturing the city of Liman in Donetsk Oblast in October, Ukrainian forces faced stiffer Russian resistance and a winter counteroffensive by Russian troops and mercenaries centered on Bakhmut.

Both sides have been bloodied by the fighting for Bakhmut, but Ukrainian commanders say planning for a new spring offensive to retake land in the Donbass has not been affected.

Ukraine’s ground forces commander, Gen. Oleksandr Sirsky, said Ukrainian soldiers in the east, including Bakhmut, were fighting the Russians so that Kiev could build up enough troops and weapons for the future.

“It was necessary to gain time to accumulate reserves and launch a counterattack, which is not far away,” the general told Ukrainian journalists in Kiev 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 betting that his smaller adversary cannot long continue the war of attrition, and that popular support in the US and Europe will inevitably wane if the fighting leads to a stalemate.

And the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is desperate to restore the momentum and morale of the autumn fighting, even as Russia rushes new troops into the fray and has had months to shore up its defense lines.

“It’s easier to teach someone to stand in a trench and defend and shoot someone who comes at them, but it’s much more difficult to train them to take offensive actions,” a senior researcher at the Foreign Policy Research Institute told Kyiv recently. Rob Lee. Independent news website.

“It requires more courage and unit cohesion [and] it needs better leadership, command and control,” he added.

Although Ukrainian forces caught the Russians by surprise last fall, it’s much less of a guessing game now. Almost telegraphing its intentions, the Zelenskyi government even ordered the creation of a new “Offensive Guard” consisting of eight assault brigades to lead the coming battle.

Military analysts and Western military officials say Ukrainian commanders, now bolstered by dozens of new NATO-supplied tanks and Soviet-era jet fighters on the way, have effectively two options if they seek to push back Russian and separatist forces. the Dnieper River into Crimea, which Russia has held and militarized since seizing the peninsula in 2014, or further east and then south to cut Russia’s coveted “land bridge” along the Black Sea coast linking Crimea to Russia.

John Hardy, deputy director of the Russia program at the think tank Fund for Defense of Democracies, agreed that a Ukrainian counteroffensive is likely imminent.

Mr. Hardy said Ukraine’s advance would likely focus south toward the city of Melitopol in Zaporizhia Oblast or the city of Mariupol in Donetsk Oblast, on the northern shore of the Sea of ​​Azov.

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

Earlier this month, the Pentagon hosted Ukrainian generals at a US military base in Wiesbaden, Germany for several days of “tabletop” exercises to plan the upcoming spring offensive, although US officials say publicly that Kiev calls the firing a war strategy.

“No one is sitting there telling Ukrainians to go left or right or do this or that. It’s none of the business of the international community,” the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, told reporters earlier this month. “Everything we are doing is creating frameworks and mechanisms that will allow Ukrainians to learn on their own, to learn against the situation or different scenarios.”

Russian military commanders may have begun to ration artillery ammunition as shortages have emerged in several front-line sectors in recent weeks. That may have been the main reason no Russian combat formations have been able to carry out significant offensive operations against Ukraine, British military officials said last week.

“Russia has almost certainly already resorted to releasing old munitions that were previously classified as unfit for use,” British intelligence officials said in their daily. assessment battlefield.

Need supplies

The Ukrainian offensive likely won’t begin until after Kiev receives more of the military power promised by the U.S. and other NATO countries, with many predicting an early May launch date. The Department of Defense has stated that the US is committed to providing Kiev with enough firepower to fight the Russians.

“We continue to do everything possible to ensure that we meet Ukraine’s needs,” said Air Force Brig. General Patrick Ryder, the representative of the Pentagon, told reporters about it on Tuesday. “That will continue to be our focus. There’s still an uphill battle ahead, especially as we head into spring and summer.”

But Mr Hardy said it was not out of the question for Ukraine to launch an attack using the weapons it had.

“So far in this war, Ukraine hasn’t really had any successful large-scale maneuver operations, except where Russian forces were very thin,” he said. “But during this war, I learned not to bet against the Ukrainians. They have proven the pessimists wrong time and time again.”

Some Russian military analysts say Ukrainian forces may face minimal resistance as they move south, unlike elsewhere on the front line. Meanwhile, Russia’s State Duma, a member of Russia’s parliament, has called on military officials to develop anti-aircraft capabilities to protect critical lines of communication linking Crimea to mainland Russia, according to the Institute for the Study of War think tank.

Retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, the former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said the priority was not only to help Ukraine prepare for future offensive operations, but also to blunt Russia’s ability to launch further attacks on Ukraine. He estimated that Kiev could be ready to withdraw by May or early June and “hopefully” take the land bridge connecting Russia to Crimea.

Speaking to the Atlantic Council think tank in February, Mr. Petraeus said that President Vladimir Putin believed that Russia could weather adversity better than Ukraine, the rest of Europe or the United States.

“We have to prove him wrong about that. We must hurry the moment when Putin will be ready to engage in meaningful negotiations,” he said.

Zelensky’s government has continued to pour in requests for more weapons and aid from the United States and its allies, reflecting a calculation that the next few months could decide the fate of the war.

Despite the heavy losses, Mykhailo Podoliak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, called the battle for Bakhmut a “strategic success” and told Italian newspaper La Stampa that Ukraine’s counteroffensive was imminent.
“We will reduce the Russians, then we will focus elsewhere. We need long-range missiles,” said Mr. Podoliak.

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