While Russia can choose its time and place for its offensive/counteroffensive, Ukraine is under pressure to launch its overhyped Spring Offensive.
Despite Russian accusation of Ukraine launching a drone attack on Kremlin as an assassination attempt on President Putin, which Ukraine denies, both sides seem to be making escalatory gestures with not much of ground action in the recent past. Bakhmut continues to face one of the most intense battles. Russian claims of its siege and control and Ukraine asserts of pockets holding out. The war in Ukraine has seen more of standoff attacks by missiles, drones and artillery shelling, with hardly any major ground offensive in recent past. Russian cruise missile barrage and Ukrainian drone attack on Crimean oil depot are part of this design. Both Russia and the US-led NATO fighting a proxy war through Ukraine, are feeling the fatigue of war, but don’t find negotiation as an attractive enough option, due to unfinished agendas.
While the kinetic, contact, hybrid war between Russia and Ukraine was heading towards stalemate with sporadic standoff strikes, offensive actions are happening in the US-led NATO’s undeclared, non-kinetic, non-contact war against Russia in the economic, information, diplomatic, and political spheres, such as renewed push of G7 for more sanctions (hypocritically keeping nuclear fuel, fertilisers, critical minerals out of it), the threat to extend Black Sea grain deal beyond 18 May 2023. Efforts are on to keep NATO together amidst signs of internal frictions and mitigating impact of the Pentagon intelligence leaks, which took some steam away from much publicised propaganda by the West lauding Ukraine’s capability to launch a spring offensive to recapture the entire lost territory, exposing some of its glaring weaknesses. Under such circumstances it remains to be seen which side could launch next major ground offensive.
LIMITS OF WAR IN UKRAINE
Certain stark realities decide the maximum limits of the war, which both sides are hesitating to accept. Firstly, Russia with its largest arsenal of nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles under Putin will not get annihilated/decisively defeated without using any of these major weapons. Secondly, the US will not risk the annihilation of Washington/New York to save Zelenskyy/Poland. Thirdly, Russia will not be able to annihilate a Ukraine supported by NATO, without a serious breakdown internally. Fourthly, Europe will have to follow the American diktat, as it knowingly fell prey to the American design of cutting its dependency on Russia and ignored its own security and Russian security concerns for too long. Fifthly, Ukraine can’t recapture its entire lost territory without NATO getting fully involved, meaning a third World War and a nuclear Armageddon risk, which both sides will like to avoid. The war is therefore likely to be pursued within these maximal limits.
POSSIBILITIES OF UKRAINE’S SPRING OFFENSIVE
While the Russians are downplaying the drone attack in Crimea having put oil depot on fire, by announcing no casualties, Ukrainians without owning it publicly, have hailed long lasting punishments on Russians for cruise missile strikes claiming 25 lives, going ahead advising civilians in Crimea to remain away from military installations, indicating an offensive design.
NATO claims to have met 98% of Ukraine’s need to launch a counteroffensive, provided 1,550 armoured vehicles and 230 tanks to form units, trained and equipped more than nine new Ukrainian armoured brigades. Some aircraft, anti-aircraft weapons and systems, and ammunition have been given by NATO allies. NATO’s Secretary General asserted that it will put Ukraine in a strong position to continue to retake occupied territory, thereby encouraging it to launch an offensive, although Zelenskyy’s wish list demands better air defence and aircraft.
Notwithstanding the boost in military arsenal, professionals know that hardware doesn’t necessarily mean a battle winning force. During Ukraine Defense Contact Group Meeting at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, General Mark Milley’s remarks indicate that additional weapons issued by NATO can help Ukraine defend itself longer, but it’s not a silver bullet to defeat Russia..
President Zelenskyy has been primed to believe in the mission’s (counteroffensive’s) success. With the cumulative aid over $100 billion pouredin to Ukraine, Zelenskyy has no choice but to continue fighting, as any compromise will jeopardize his survival.
WILL RUSSIA LAUNCH MAJOR OFFENSIVE?
Russia still finds itself well short of achieving its overall strategic aim of annexing the entire Donbass region, capturing the entire southern corridor to link it to Crimea and extend it to Transnistria to ultimately land lock Ukraine to secure the Black Sea for its maritime movements. With the heavy burden of economic cost and casualties, Russia is struggling. Currently, Russia’s residual combat capability is quite limited to make significant gains in any ground offensive. It has adopted to standoff attack options to minimise casualties of men and materiel. It needs time to build its combat power to regain the initiative.
It makes strategic sense for Russia to consolidate the occupied territories, create a viable defence line and rebuild its economy and hardware to add to its overall combat capability. Russia has already built up multiple layers of defence as seen in many satellite imageries, in parts of Donbass and southern Ukraine like layers of anti-tank ditches, obstacles, minefields and trenches. The superiority in air assets with Russia is also a significant factor.
The option to use nuclear weapons, in case of an existential threat, will continue to be a powerful tool to prevent NATO entering into a contact war with Russia in future.
While Russia can choose its time and place for its offensive/counteroffensive, Ukraine is under pressure to launch its overhyped Spring Offensive. NATO will like to see Zelenskyy delivering, having met his 98% requirements of military hardware, and shaping the battlefield accordingly.
Pentagon knows that ultimately Ukraine will have to make some compromises to its territorial integrity, as it’s not possible to fully evict Russians from there. However, Russia winning an additional 15% of Ukraine after Crimea, is an unpalatable pill for NATO, which can encourage Russia to grab more in future; hence it would like to give offensive a chance. President Zelenskyy has no choice but to continue the war.
Ukraine may be pushed into an offensive soon and Russia and Ukraine will see some more destruction before coming to terms with the reality of changed territorial alignments.
Major General S.B. Asthana, SM, VSM, Ph.D. is a former Indian Army officer.