Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.
Visiting newly liberated Kherson back in November, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced, “this is the beginning of the end of the war.”
However, only in hindsight will it become clear whether the Russian retreat did indeed mark the beginning of the end, or whether it will be seen as a false dawn in a much longer war — particularly since all signs indicate Russia is readying for a lengthy fight.
For the past month, neither Ukrainian nor Russian forces have had much to show in terms of territorial gains made in the ferocious fight on the front lines of Donetsk and Luhansk — only high tallies of dead and wounded and the depletion of weapons, especially artillery shells and rockets.
Despite the modern additions of drones and electronic warfare, much of the fighting has been reminiscent of World War I. “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks / Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,” is how poet Wilfred Owen had depicted the stark realities of trench warfare. And soldiers in the Donbas are living those words today.
Once the ground freezes, Ukraine will seemingly have two tactical options: to launch an offensive in the south, aimed at severing Russia’s land bridge with Crimea, or to focus on Luhansk in the northeast. To be able to do either, however, will require a massive resupply from Western powers.
On a visit to Washington this week — Zelenskyy’s first trip outside Ukraine since Russia invaded — he pressed the case hard for more and better. Supplies are getting low in Western arsenals too, but urgency for Ukraine is mounting: Ordnance and materiel will be needed not only for Ukraine to launch offensives but likely for defense as well.
Meanwhile, there’s growing alarm that Russian forces in Ukraine under the command of General Sergei Surovikin — a commander who, as POLITICO predicted, has proven more tactically astute than his predecessors — are preparing a counteroffensive that will be boosted by more than 200,000 newly mobilized draftees.
In recent months, Russia hasn’t had the manpower to secure any breakthroughs. And while the new conscripts may not be the best trained or motivated, throwing such a number into battle could nonetheless have significant impact — particularly as Russian President Vladimir Putin is just as callous as Stalin in terms of overlooking the number of casualties among his forces. That’s the Russian way of war — seek to overwhelm with numbers, regardless of the human cost.
By contrast, Ukraine will only be feeding in 30,000 newly trained troops this winter, and the discrepancy is worrying military officials in Kyiv. “The enemy shouldn’t be discounted. They are not weak . . . and they have great potential,” General Oleksandr Syrsky, commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, said this week.
Russia is also in the throes of what Andrew Monaghan, an associate fellow at the NATO Defense College, has dubbed “a rethink” of strategy, as calls of “all for the front, all for victory” mount in Moscow. In comments to his military chiefs midweek, Putin seemingly responded to those calls, vowing not only to continue the so-called special military operation into 2023 but to ramp up, saying there was no limit to the amount of money Russia was willing to spend.
In other words, having already ordered its industry to retool to boost military supplies, the Kremlin is digging in for a long war. Yet, how Russia will escalate, what tactical goals it will pursue with its new troops and what lessons it’s learned from the conflict so far remain unclear. Also unclear is how it will amass the ordnance it needs.
Rumors of a shake-up in the higher echelons of Russia’s armed forces have been teeming in Moscow for weeks, with talk that Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov is likely to be replaced. Will Putin once again turn to younger men to get the results he wants, as he did when he broke with the pattern of seniority in October and appointed 44-year-old Colonel Oleg Gorshenin to command the powerful National Defense Management Center?
If a reshuffle does come, it “will provide some clarity, perhaps, on how Moscow understands the scale of the war going into 2023 and what any further escalation might look like, including intensified campaigning — or even a major offensive — later in the winter or in the spring,” according to Monaghan.
But no one in Kyiv doubts a renewed Russian offensive is coming. Although Putin avoided predicting any imminent successes or goals in his remarks this week, he made clear he expects results. “The country and government is giving everything that the army asks for — everything. I trust that there will be an appropriate response and the results will be achieved,” he said.
And the results Putin will likely want to see are in the regions he formally annexed earlier this year, only to see chunks of them subsequently liberated by Ukraine. But Western military analysts don’t expect Russia to mount a push along the whole snaking, elongated front — more likely a multi-pronged assault focusing on some key villages and towns around Donetsk, on towns between Kharkiv and Luhansk and in Zaporizhzhia, where there have been reports of increased movements of troops and equipment across the border in Russia.
Russia could throw in a wildcard too — like another attack from Belarus toward Kyiv and also west of the capital toward Vinnytsia, imperiling rail lines running from the West and the E40 highway linking Lviv with Kyiv.
There’s been a steady buildup of Russian forces in Belarus in recent weeks, with Ukrainian sources telling POLITICO that Russian warplanes have seemingly been testing Ukraine’s air defenses along the border. And the Institute for the Study of War said it was continuing to observe signs consistent with “a renewed Russian invasion of northern Ukraine from Belarus.”
It also said that independent Belarusian sources continue to report growing Russian mechanized forces in the country, with about 30 Russian T-80 tanks reportedly deployed around December 20. However, no strike groups appear to be forming as yet, suggesting an attack from Belarus “is not very likely imminent.”
Imminent or not, though, American military strategist Edward Luttwak has warned of “a scythe maneuver from Belarus down to Vinnytsia to cut off Kyiv from its westward supply lines.” And as Ukrainian General Valerii Zaluzhnyi said this week, he has “no doubt [Russia] will have another go at Kyiv.”