The war in Ukraine may be entering a critical new phase with the launch of a major offensive by Vladimir Putin’s armies.
For weeks, reports from the ground have been spreading about an imminent Russian offensive, as Moscow shipped troops and materiel to Ukraine. And in the past few days, fighting has intensified, as Putin’s forces have launched a wave of attacks on the ground and in the air in the hope of breaking through Ukrainian lines.
What do we know about the offensive so far? What are Russia’s plans and goals? How strong are the countries’ respective militaries now? And what does this push from Russia mean as the war approaches its first anniversary?
To answer these questions and others, I spoke with Robert Hamilton, a research professor at the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute. Hamilton is a retired colonel and 30-year veteran of the US Army, and he now analyzes conflict and security issues in the former Soviet Union and the Balkans.
A transcript of our conversation follows, edited for length and clarity.
Where do things stand on the ground in Ukraine now?
We’ve been in a period of stalemate since early fall. There haven’t been dramatic territorial gains by either side.
Offensive maneuvers get more difficult in the late fall when the rains come, and things repeatedly freeze and thaw. The ground and the roads get hard to maneuver on.
The lines have moved hundreds of meters in one direction or another, mostly in the central Donbas region, which includes the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine.
There’s been very little movement in the north on the Kharkiv front or in the south around Kherson since the big Ukrainian territorial gains last fall in the north and smaller but significant gains in the south.
Does either side have the upper hand?
I don’t think either side has the upper hand. I’m not sure either side has the capacity to achieve a military victory in the near or medium term — months and maybe even a couple years. It’s unlikely that either side can achieve a conventional military victory and control all of Ukraine inside its internationally recognized borders.
Achieving military victory requires the other side to agree that you have achieved a military victory and stop fighting. In this war, both sides have ways to continue fighting, even if they’re defeated conventionally. If the Russians were able to win conventionally, for instance, you would see an insurgency break out that the Russians would struggle to handle. If the Ukrainians were able to win, then the Russians could undertake airstrikes and ballistic-missile strikes. They have nuclear capability.
We’ve entered a period where things are not frozen, but neither side is likely to have the kind of victory that would put the end of the war within sight.
What’s happening with the Russian offensive?
The big Russian winter offensive that Ukrainians have been warning about has been underway for about two weeks.
This is partially if not largely the Wagner Group doing this — the Russian mercenary organization that recruited extensively from Russian prisons last summer and fall. They’re using these former prisoners on the front lines in the central Donbas in human-wave attacks. They’re poorly trained, poorly armed, and poorly led — if they’re led at all — and they’re pushed forward to the Ukrainian lines. And the Ukrainians are mowing these guys down.
Wagner is using these human-wave attacks to find the stronger and weaker points in the Ukrainian lines. Then the Russian army — again, the Wagner group, mostly — is sending in better-trained, better-equipped, and better-led Wagner forces to exploit the weaker areas.
It’s working — but very slowly and at an incredibly high cost. Russian casualty figures are around 5,000 a week. Those casualty figures can’t be sustainable over the long term. It seems like these human-wave attacks are the first stage of the big Russian winter offensive.
The Russians are gaining tens to hundreds of meters a day along the front line in the central part of the Donbas region, but I don’t see that it could lead to a major breakthrough, and I don’t see that it’s sustainable over the long term.
Where exactly is the offensive taking place?
It looks like it’s confined to that central part of the Donbas. There was some talk very early in the winter that there would be another drive on Kyiv out of Belarus. I’ve seen nothing that points to that. It comes down to what the Russians are capable of.
#Ukraine likely still has a window of opportunity to initiate large-scale counteroffensives over the next few months. Its ability to do so likely rests heavily on the speed and scale at which the West provides it the necessary materiel, particularly tanks & armored vehicles. https://t.co/PEXljB8XXw— ISW (@TheStudyofWar) February 16, 2023
The Russians are gaining territory along the lines around the city of Bakhmut, which has been in the news a lot because it has become a focal point for both sides. Strategically, it’s neither negligible nor significant. It allows access to larger cities farther west in the Donbas, such as Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, which are more important.
Bakhmut has huge symbolic significance for both sides. The Russians have been unable to take it for several months, and both sides have pushed more and more forces into the area. Ukraine is determined to hold it, just to deny the Russians the PR victory of saying that they captured it.
What comes next?
I don’t know. The Russian Defense Ministry had a partial mobilization of 300,000 persons last summer. A lot of reports say the number of recruits was closer to 180,000 to 200,000. We don’t know how many of them have been sent to Ukraine.
For the follow-up attacks, you need mobile forces: tanks, armored personnel carriers, and mobile artillery. But they lack leadership. So many capable Russian military leaders have been killed that there are not a lot of capable people with combat experience who can lead these units.
I don’t know how Russia is going to follow up these gains with armored and mechanized maneuver forces. I don’t see the potential for the Russians to be able to do that on a large scale.
Ever since Russia performed so poorly at the start of the war, there has been a lot of reporting about the weak state of the Russian military. How would you evaluate its condition now?
That’s a great question. The Russian military has probably lost the capability to do a combined-arms, operational-maneuver offensive — that means armored and mechanized forces exploiting a breakthrough, supported by infantry, reconnaissance to the front and to the flanks, and long-range artillery fire to reduce enemy points of strength before the armored and mechanized forces hit.
They weren’t able to do that in the beginning of the war, but the Russian military is learning through this war. It has learned how to do certain things, but I don’t think a combined-arms offensive maneuver is one of them.
You have to have knowledge of how to fight, equipment, soldiers, leaders, and logistics. Logistics is a massive shortcoming of the Russians. It has been since the start of the war. They’re very tied to railroads. They’re heavily dependent on artillery, which requires a massive amount of cargo-carrying capacity because artillery shells take up a lot of room.
All this means that they don’t have the capacity to logistically support a big offensive breakthrough, even if they had the capability in knowledge, equipment, and leadership. They couldn’t logistically support a drive deep into Ukraine. It’s impossible.
At the beginning of the war, the West implemented stringent economic sanctions on Russia. Russia has still been able to sell oil and natural gas, though at lower volumes than before the war. How are the problems in Russia’s economy affecting its ability to fight the war?
The Russian economy has proven to be a little more sanctions-proof and resilient than a lot of people expected.
The sanctions impacted the military most on the very high-end semiconductor chips required for precision weapons. Before the sanctions, Russia had been able to get these chips. But those sanctions appear to be airtight. No one but Taiwan, the Netherlands, and the US can make those chips.
As the Russians draw down their stocks of precision long-range missiles, they’re not able to replenish them. They could use lower-end semiconductors, but then the weapon is not as precise. For months, the Russians have been using S300 surface-to-air missiles in surface-to-surface mode, which means they’re using missiles meant to knock down airplanes to attack ground targets because they’re running out of precision surface-to-surface ballistic missiles.
What are Putin’s goals for the offensive?
For his domestic population, I think Putin would consider victory to be Russian control of all four provinces that he annexed last summer. I don’t know if that ends the war for him. Given how poorly the Russian military has performed to this point, I think that would count as something Putin could go back to the Russian people with and call a victory.
Many reports say that Putin has ordered Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov to capture all of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces by the spring. What they’re doing on the ground implies that they have some objective of moving the lines to the administrative borders of those two regions. Then they can declare a success in the war, if not victory.
Are there other outcomes that Putin could sell as a win?
Capturing Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, in central Donbas. In 2014, those two cities were briefly under Russian separatist control. The Ukrainian military then came in and liberated them. Those two cities are important — they have a lot more military-strategic importance than Bakhmut. They’re bigger, and they’re more important symbolically.
What is the condition of the Ukrainian military?
One of the most interesting things about this war is we have a better understanding of the state of the Russian military now than we do of the state of the Ukrainian military. The Ukrainians have been very tight-lipped with their operational security. They tell us only what we need to know to help them. We don’t have a good understanding of their casualty rates.
The leadership style of Ukrainian armed forces surprised a lot of people. It was able to fight in a decentralized, less hierarchical model, where initiative is rewarded and small-unit leaders understand their commander’s intent and make decisions without asking for permission to take every step.
The Ukrainian military is battered, but its morale is unbroken, and its leadership is still mostly alive and very effective. They captured much Russian equipment early in the war; they don’t have a problem with the amount of equipment. Western equipment, then, has been important to Ukraine not in terms of numbers but in raising their capabilities.
Ukraine is in a better position with equipment than Russia — and will be in a better position as Western equipment continues to arrive.
What are Ukraine’s goals in the short term?
There’s no appetite for a diplomatic settlement. They believe that the deal they’ll get through fighting is better than the deal they’ll get through negotiation.
Ukrainians think — correctly, in my view — that they’re having success on the battlefield, and more Western aid and equipment is coming. What’s the point of giving Putin a diplomatic victory now when you’re more likely to have greater success later through military means?
There has been some public debate about Ukraine’s strategy for responding to Russia’s offensive. Some say Ukraine should be patient, try to let Russia wear itself out attacking, and then counter-attack. Others say Ukraine should push back the Russians now as strongly as they can. What do you think they will do, and what do you think they should do?
The former option is likelier and wiser. The Russians are expending a lot of manpower and resources on attacks that are gaining tens to hundreds of meters of front-line territory a day.
Russia is expending a lot of energy and resources — and losing a lot of capability in this grinding, attritional offensive underway now. I think they should let Russia continue to expend energy, capability, and resources in ways that don’t do the Ukrainian military a whole lot of damage in operational or strategic capability.
The Ukrainians may end up having to abandon Bakhmut. They’ll fall back to their defensive line around Kramatorsk and Sloviansk. They’re well dug in there. Their military headquarters were there before the war. They’ve been fighting there since 2014; they know the area very well.
It’s going to be months before the capabilities that the West is offering are integrated into the Ukrainian forces. Their moment of peak capability will come in the mid to late summer, which is a good time for an offensive. The Russians may expend so many resources that they’ll be incapable of further decisive offensive operations right when the Ukrainians reach the peak of their capability.
What do you see as the most likely outcomes of the Russian offensive?
The most likely scenario is the Russian offensive will continue in a similar fashion to these last two weeks. It may gain more ground, but I don’t see a massive breakthrough where Ukrainian lines dissolve and the Russians drive deep into central Ukraine. I don’t think they have the capacity to do it.
The attritional offensive will stall out, and then you’re likely to see a Ukrainian counter-offensive in the summer or early fall that won’t have the capability to end the war. Unless the Russian army dissolves and leaves the battlefield, I don’t think the Ukrainians have the capability to end the war by regaining all Ukrainian territory inside its internationally recognized borders.
Michael Bluhm is a senior editor at the Signal. He was previously the managing editor at the Open Markets Institute and a writer and editor for the Daily Star in Beirut.