It’s been just over a year since Russia launched its “Special Military Operation” against Ukraine, and what a year it has been. Both sides have made many mistakes, and if NATO had not stepped in to supply Ukraine with weapons and, more importantly, money, this war would have been over in three months at the most. In particular, shoulder-fired anti-tank weapons paralyzed the Russian advance, which due to the time of year, was reduced to being funneled along roads that became kill zones. The Russians, having lost the initiative for a quick hit-and-run attack, were left overloaded and in a vulnerable position. The Ukrainians took advantage of that by launching their offensive in the Lugansk, Kharkov and Kherson oblasts. So the Russians had no choice but to take a defensive stance that their army could defend. That pretty much sums up the first year of the war.
The big question is what are the next moves on the battlefield. Ukraine faces some difficult decisions in this regard. Although Ukrainian and Western propaganda have done much for the successful Ukrainian “counteroffensive” (which is the political term for counterattack) to push back Russian troops, this is a bit of an exaggeration. The truth is that when Russia failed to capture Mykolaiv, and thus open the gate to Odessa, the only real defensive position they could take was the city of Kherson and the Dnieper River. US exports of Hymars rocket systems to Ukraine, which consistently damaged Russian Dnieper crossings, forced Russia to abandon the city of Kherson and set up defensive lines on the opposite side of the Dnieper. Until then, the Ukrainian troops suffered defeat after defeat in the fields north of Kherson, so it was not the Ukrainian offensive tactics of the day, but rather strategic tactics.
In the Kharkov/Lugansk oblasts it was a similar story. It wasn’t so much a feat of arms that drove the Russians out of this area, it was overrun because the Russian forces were spread out and they had to withdraw to defensible lines. That brings us to today. The Russian army is no longer in an overload position. It has had time to reinforce the defensive lines along the front and increase the size of its forces involved in the conflict by 300,000 (not including Wagner units). Importantly, the Russians have rapidly improved their acquisition and use of drones. This leaves Ukraine with the stark choice of where to carry out an offensive (the much-touted “spring counteroffensive”) as demanded by its Western allies.
The most talked about, and perhaps obvious, option is an attack along the southern front from Zaporizhzhia, which would aim to capture Melitopol and Mariupol, effectively ending the Russian land route to Crimea. However, that option is also an obvious one for the Russians, and the area has been heavily fortified and reinforced. The Russians also have the advantage of almost immediate air and naval support from the Crimea and the area and Rostov-On-Don. While the Ukrainians may attempt this in one act to appease their backers, if they use massive resources to do so and lose, their war could be over. Therefore, from a Ukrainian perspective, a major assault in the south should be out of the question. The same to attack the Crimea in force. That leaves the Donetsk City Front, the Bakmut Front, or the Russian Front as options.
Both the Donetsk and Bakmut fronts are fortified areas that would gobble up Ukrainian troops. While a significant attack on Bakhmut, when the ground is dry, may cause the Russians to withdraw, the Ukrainians would face the Severodonetsk area. Built area after built area, mostly in ruins. As World War II demonstrated, rubble-strewn cities make the defense job much easier for defenders. That leaves the last option: the Russian front.
In the last year Ukraine has shown two traits: embarrassing Russia; and try to provoke a major war in the region. The ideal way to do this would be an invasion of Russia itself, that is, Belgorod. Belgorod is a Russian city very close to the Ukrainian border. Not far from Belgorod is Kharkov, which remains firmly in Ukrainian hands. The Ukrainians can use Kharkov as a strategic supply point for their troops entering Russia and a battle for Belgorod. Undoubtedly, the Russian military would see such a buildup in Kharkov with its satellites, but what if they decide that it also serves their strategic purposes for Ukraine to make such a move? Since all other fronts will cost Ukraine massive casualties and equipment losses, it makes sense to kill a few birds with one stone. No doubt its allies would say “Ukraine cannot be expected to fight on its own soil only when it was invaded by a hostile act…”
On the other side of the fence, Russian military planners have to decide their next move. While intelligence on the dispositions of the Russian forces is limited to us, we do know that they called up 300,000 reservists. Around 80,000 of them were sufficiently up to date in their training to join the conflict immediately. Where the other 200,000 more are is a mystery. Many channels suggest that these troops have been training thoroughly with war veterans. If that is the case, and they have not yet committed to fighting, Russia has a powerful force for its own spring offensive. However, I doubt this is the case.
Russia, unlike Ukraine, has no pressure from its allies to carry out a mass offensive. He seems quite content to engage, pin down and destroy Ukrainian units, i.e. in Bakhmut and Avdiivka. He mainly uses recruits in Bakhmut and thus destroys the Ukrainian units and leaves his regular army in one piece. This is how the Russians do military strategy and have done it in every major war they have been involved in. Fewer people at home complain about the losses when they are people who were in prison. The same mentality exists in the West, but it is rarely acted as in this case. Russia has also learned, one would think, that big offenses that overstretch its troops bring drastic consequences.
To avoid these consequences, I believe that Russia will stand firm until the Ukrainians use their troops in an offensive. Once the Russians have defeated the Ukrainian offensive, they will move on to the counterattack. That’s probably the time the 200,000 soldiers in training will commit, but where?
Since the Russian army is currently trying to take Bakhmut, many speculate that Kramatorsk and Slavyansk will be next. However, both cities are heavily fortified and would fare worse than Bakhmut in terms of manpower/equipment required, time, and casualties. It makes more sense for the Russians to head south from Bakhmut, through Kostyantynivka and towards Pokrovsk. Pokrovsk is a central city like Bakhmut, and capturing it would isolate the Ukrainian troops entrenched around the city of Donetsk. The Russians are currently fighting and have captured most of Marinka. Once Marinka is captured, the Russians could move up the road to Kurakove. Once Kurakove is captured, the Ukrainian army in the Donetsk city area will be completely surrounded by what the Russians like to call a “cauldron.” Cut off from resupply and unable to withdraw, the engulfed Ukrainians will have no choice but to surrender. This seems like a logical path for a Russian offensive.
Whatever the case in the coming months, expect the Ukrainian military to make the first move and for Russia to take the upper hand in response.