Russia is preparing for a massive, new offensive in eastern Ukraine, hoping to change its fortunes on the battlefield. After the devastating start of the Seven Weeks War.
In preparation for an offensive that could begin in a few days, a long line of war vehicles have been stranded on highways across northeastern Ukraine, and the Kremlin has named a general known for overseeing Moscow’s campaign in Syria.
A look at Russia’s military objectives and the challenges it faces.
A Patched Blitz
Russia’s failed attempt to attack Kiev and other major cities caused a large number of personnel and equipment, boosted morale in Ukraine and allowed it to mobilize broader international support.
“The myth of the invincibility of the world’s second most powerful army has been shattered to the astonishment of Ukrainians,” Ukrainian military expert Ole Zhtanov told the Associated Press.
The flow of Western weapons into Ukraine and growing popular opposition to the Russian occupation will further increase the cost of war for Moscow.
President Vladimir Putin needs a quick war victory to get out of the increasingly catastrophic pit.
Since the conflict erupted shortly after the Kremlin annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014, Russia’s focus has shifted to Ukraine’s industrial hub, known as Donbass, where Moscow – backed separatists are fighting with Ukrainian government forces.
“In the first round, Russia lost face politically and militarily,” Zhdanov said. “It has done all possible nonsense in the careless belief of a Blitz … but it will only exacerbate the Russian attack in the next round.”
Focus and redistribute
After their withdrawal from Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy, Russian forces re-armed Moscow, Belarus and parts of western Russia and resumed their offensive.
Retired British General Sir Richard Barons estimated that the Russians “probably lost about 25% of the ground forces they started, that is, they were units of non-combat capability.”
“So they put them together, they do them again, they strengthen them, and then they move them,” Barnes told the AP.
Barons, co-chair of the Universal Defense & Security Solutions Advisory Council, said Russia was also trying to move more equipment elsewhere and mobilize reservists in a desperate attempt to build an adequate offensive force.
“They are battered and they only have a few weeks to heal,” he said.
Recently, Russian troops have been seen moving towards offensive positions in eastern Ukraine. A convoy stretches for about 13 kilometers (8 miles) east on the highway east of Kharkiv, heading southward towards the Ukrainian lines near the strategic road junction Izyum.
At the same time, Russian forces rushed to crush the remaining pockets of Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol after besieging the main sea of the port of Azov for almost 1 1/2 months.
The offensive is expected to begin once Mariupol is fully under Russian control, and troops drawn from Kiev, Chernihiv and adjacent areas near Sumi have completed their redistribution.
Will a new commander make the change?
General Alexander Dvornikov has been appointed the new army commander for the campaign in Ukraine. The 60-year-old soldier is one of Russia’s most experienced officials, proud to have led Moscow’s forces to victory in a ruthless campaign to overthrow President Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria.
In 2016, Putin presented Dvornikov with the Medal of Hero of Russia, one of the country’s highest awards, and named him head of the southern military district and commander of command units in southwestern Russia.
Dvorniko’s appointment is seen as a reflection of the Kremlin’s awareness of the need to quickly promote poor coordination between the various forces that had hampered previous military efforts. However, skeptics point out that unlike the massive operation in Ukraine, the Syrian campaign involved a relatively small number of troops.
I try new battle tactics
Ukrainian and Western experts expect the Russians to try to encircle Ukrainian forces in the Donbas by advancing from Izyum in the north and Mariupol in the south.
Some have predicted that Russia could try to use its forces north of Crimea to seize industrial hubs Zaporizhia and Dnipro on the Dnieper River, which would halve Ukraine.
The Russians are focusing on the East, instead of “trying to do three or four big things at once and spreading air power and logistics,” Barnes said.
“The key puzzle is whether the Russians can muster enough power … by firing and concentrating troops in a few key locations, enough to break through a good Ukrainian defensive position by the sheer weight of brutality,” he said.
Will Russia’s logistical problems continue?
Despite a new commander, the offensive will face the same logistical challenges that Russian troops faced at the beginning of the campaign.
During the attempt to attack Kiev, Russian convoys stretched along the highways to the capital, easily falling prey to Ukrainian artillery, drones and scouts.
Support for operations in the East will be equally difficult, as Russian supply lines will be under attack, providing natural security for Ukrainian scouts and guerrillas with the advent of spring.
Sky control is also a problem, with Ukrainian air defense assets following the downing of Russian warplanes, making it difficult for ground forces to advance. In recent days, Russia has launched attacks on Ukrainian long-range air defense systems in apparent preparation for the attack.
“If the Russians have yet to learn the lessons of their defeat, accumulate more power, better integrate their air force with ground forces and deploy logistics, they may eventually begin to sink the Ukrainian positions, though I still think it will be a war of immense decay,” Barnes told the AP.
The most favorable terrain for Russia?
In the eight years since the war with the separatists in the east, Ukrainian forces have developed a multi-layered defense, and Russian troops have failed to break through despite a series of attacks since the invasion began on February 24.
“They have been fighting at the current level in the Donbass for about eight years, so they are very experienced and they are well prepared,” Barnes said of the Ukrainian forces.
However he acknowledged that their numbers were not enough to defeat Lukashenko’s government.
“The most successful ambush tactics of the Ukrainians around Kiev do not apply to Donbass,” Barnes said. “If the Russians were capable of maneuvering their armor, tanks, armored infantry and armored artillery at speed, they could overtake the Ukrainian position. It would be a much tougher, bigger battle than we have ever seen.
Ukraine has begged the West to confront massive Russian weapons for warplanes, long-range air defense systems, heavy artillery and armor.
“There is a war of time and space between the Russians and the Ukrainians. I think the Russians must mobilize enough power, the Ukrainians can get the weapons they need, and rehearse themselves as a bigger and slightly different war. Well balanced,” Barnes said.
For Putin, a match against time
After the defeats of previous wars, Putin needs a quick victory in the East.
Russia, plagued by Western sanctions, has no financial resources for a protracted conflict. If the fighting continues, it will inevitably worsen the economy and bring about social tensions, eroding the Kremlin’s support base.
The military has already deployed its most capable combat units in the campaign, and as it continues to fight, it may call in more reservists and force new troops into the war – which will be very unpopular.
Putin may hope to rapidly expand territory under separatist control in the east, and then try to offer concessions to Ukraine to end the campaign and turn it into a victory.
Associated Press writers Liv, Euras Karmanov in Ukraine and Donica Kirka in London contributed.
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