Russo-Ukraine War - April 2023
On 24 February 2022, Ukraine was suddenly and deliberately attacked by land, naval and air forces of Russia, igniting the largest European war since the Great Patriotic War. Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a "special military operation" (SVO - spetsialnaya voennaya operatsiya) in Ukraine in response to the appeal of the leaders of the "Donbass republics" for help. That attack is a blatant violation of the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine. Putin stressed that Moscow's goal is the demilitarization and denazification of the country. The military buildup in preceeding months makes it obvious that the unprovoked and dastardly Russian attack was deliberately planned long in advance. During the intervening time, the Russian government had deliberately sought to deceive the world by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace.
"To initiate a war of aggression... is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole." [Judgment of the International Military Tribunal]
The head of Russia's Wagner group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, urged Russia's defense minister to take all available measures to prevent his mercenary forces from being cut off from Russian troops in eastern Ukraine. In a 20 March 2023 letter to Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, Prigozhin said the Ukrainian army was planning a "large-scale attack" in late March or early April. He said the fresh offensive would seek to leave Wagner forces isolated. "I ask you to take all necessary measures to prevent the Wagner private military company being cut off from the main forces of the Russian army, which will lead to negative consequences for the special military operation," he said.
Ukraine has only one attempt to launch a counteroffensive this year, Czech President Petr Pavel said in an interview with the Polish Rzeczpospolita 20 March 2023. "I believe that Ukraine will have only one attempt to conduct a major counter-offensive. Therefore, if Ukraine decides to conduct a counter-offensive and it fails, then it will be incredibly difficult for it to find funds for the next (Offensive. - Approx. ed.)", - the president said.
Pavel also noted that, in his opinion, the counteroffensive of the Armed Forces of Ukraine should take place within a few months and that the "window of opportunity" is open only this year. Further, Pavel added, it will not be easy for Kiev to get help due to "war exhaustion." This, the Czech leader commented, means not only a lack of resources and the destruction of infrastructure, but also the "fatigue" of Western countries that support Ukraine.
The former general, who served as chair of the NATO Military Committee until 2018, argued that with elections approaching in the US in 2024, Washington is likely to reduce defense aid to Ukraine. Pavel said he expected European nations to follow suit.
Ukraine has been preparing to launch a spring counteroffensive to recapture territory seized by Russians and is hoping to repeat the success of its counterattacks last September. Despite the supply of Western arms, including battle tanks, Ukrainian forces may have to change their tactics if they hope to achieve a breakthrough.
Ukraine has made no secret of its plans to launch a counteroffensive in the spring and reclaim land occupied by Russian forces since Moscow launched its invasion in February 2022. The Ukrainian army has already successfully carried out similar attacks last September, driving back Russian forces in Kharkiv and Kherson provinces.
Kyiv must secure significant wins as soon as possible, in order to liberate as much territory as it can, while inflicting the heaviest damage possible on Russian forces. To accomplish this, the Ukrainian army will have to break through Russian lines and disrupt their set-up. They need victories like those in September in the provinces of Kharkiv and Kherson. Ukrainian forces need to advance up to Melitopol (in the southeastern Zaporizhzhia province) and Starobilsk (in the eastern Luhansk province) and inflict maximum damage on the enemy.
The tanks, armoured vehicles and mobile artillery [supplied by the West] will allow Kyiv to build up coherent and solid combat units, which could spearhead the offensive. But current supplies will only allow Ukrainian forces to build up at most three to four brigades, which is not enough to secure a decisive victory. Kyiv will need at least a dozen brigades for its offensive to be effective – as was the case last September. Moreover, Russian lines are now probably stronger than they were back then, which means the Ukrainians will need to double down. Aside from the number of troops, what also matters is their organisation; it is very complicated to coordinate different units that require specific know-how and competent leadership.
One could imagine a scenario in which Ukrainian forces achieve a breakthrough in Zaporizhzhia province that in turn triggers a broader collapse of Russian lines across the country. From that point on, everything would become easier for Ukraine, from a military point of view, and it might even win back the Donbas and Crimea.
The Ukrainian offensive would necessarily have to stop at some point. It’s impossible to advance continuously along the front line for hundreds of kilometres. They would need provisions, logistics and abundant manpower – enough to replace the soldiers exhausted by combat. When Ukrainian forces advanced in Kharkiv province in September, the Russians later managed to stop them in Luhansk province.
The results of the counter-offensive of the Ukrainian military will be modest, the United States doubts the ability of Kyiv to achieve its goals. This was reported by The Washington Post on 10 April 2023, citing US intelligence estimates contained in documents leaked to the internet. The publication cites data from a document marked "top secret", which was compiled in early February on the basis of information from agents and electronic intelligence. Probably, in its compilation, secret methods of the CIA and the National Security Agency were used. The document refers to "shortcomings in the formation of forces and support" of the Ukrainian military, as well as the likelihood that the Ukrainian operation will lead to only "modest territorial acquisitions."
According to the newspaper, the document notes that Ukraine's strategy is to return territories in the east under its control, as well as in an attempt to cut the "land bridge" to Crimea. However, US intelligence agencies believe that the increased Russian defenses, combined with "Ukraine's continuing shortcomings in training and supply of ammunition, are likely to hamper the advance and exacerbate losses during the offensive."
According to the publication, an unfavorable assessment of the future actions of the military of Ukraine for Kyiv is contained not only in a secret document. The newspaper refers to unnamed American officials and writes that the secret assessment of the US National Intelligence Council also characterizes the modest results of the future offensive of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Sources told the newspaper that this assessment was recently presented to a group of individuals in Congress. According to this forecast, Ukraine is unlikely to be able to recapture as much territory as in the fall of 2022.
The United States had serious concerns about Ukraine's ability to make significant gains in an upcoming counteroffensive, as well as Kiev's capacity to keep defending against Russian strikes, according to a report and documents reviewed by the AFP news agency. The documents are part of a trove of highly sensitive material that has been posted online, sparking a US criminal investigation into a breach the Pentagon says poses a "very serious" risk to national security. One top secret document said tough Russian defences and "enduring Ukrainian deficiencies in training and munitions supplies probably will strain progress and exacerbate casualties during the offensive," the Washington Post reported. A document reviewed by AFP — this one marked "secret" — details the dire state of Ukrainian air defences, which have been instrumental in protecting against Russian strikes and preventing Moscow's forces from gaining control of the skies.
Ukraine does not feel the pressure of the West on the timing of the counter-offensive, it can only begin if it is one hundred percent ready for it. This was stated by Prime Minister Denys Shmygal in an interview with The Hill newspaper , published on 11 April 2023. "We don't feel pressure from our friends and partners to start an offensive," he said. "All our friends and partners clearly understand that in order to go on the counteroffensive, you need to be 100 percent and even more ready for it." According to The Hill, Shmyhal said that the counteroffensive could begin in the summer. Shmygal stressed that Kyiv needs additional assistance to be ready. "In order to be ready for a counteroffensive, we need more artillery, more ammunition. We need more medium and long-range missiles, we need tanks, and we need fighter jets," the prime minister said.
Ukraine decided to postpone its planned spring counteroffensive due to weather conditions and lack of ammunition. This conclusion is contained in an article published on 12 April 2023 by The Washington Post. As noted by the newspaper's observers, the expected spring offensive was presented as a decisive opportunity for Kyiv, but the operation was postponed due to weather conditions, slow supplies of military equipment and lack of ammunition. As the newspaper notes, this increased fears of creating a stalemate in the conflict zone.
Some US officials believed that Russian troops are so entrenched in Ukraine that the counteroffensive of its armed forces (APU) will not be successful. This was reported by the newspaper Politico on 24 April 2023. "I don't think we're going to wake up one morning and see Ukraine advancing on large swaths of territory. Definitely not," a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the publication. At the same time, according to the newspaper, during the visit of Ukrainian officials to Washington last week, representatives of the administration of US President Joe Biden told them that the guarantees that the United States would be ready to provide Kiev during the July NATO summit would depend precisely "on How will the counteroffensive go?
If Kiev failed to turn it into a clear victory, then Ukraine risks losing the strong support of the United States and a sympathetic public, which openly expresses dissatisfaction with having to pay exorbitant prices for food and energy, Politico notes. According to the interlocutors of the publication, the United States hopes to ensure that China pushes Russia into negotiations.
Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called 28 April 2023 for the “complete dismantling” of the “Kiev regime,” as well as for inflicting “mass destruction” on the country’s military personnel and hardware. To successfully foil Kiev’s plans, Russia must inflict “mass destruction of personnel and military equipment” during the much-hyped Ukrainian counteroffensive and inflict a “maximum military defeat” on Kiev’s military, Medvedev said. Ultimately, the “Nazi regime in Kiev” must be “completely dismantled” and demilitarized throughout the entire territory of “former Ukraine,” he added. Apart from that, Russia must pursue those who manage to flee, and seek “retribution” against the “key figures of the Nazi regime, regardless of their location and without statute of limitations,” Medvedev stressed. Anything short of that would not suffice, the ex-president believes. “Otherwise, they will not calm down, and the drug-addled nonsense can turn into reality and the war will drag on for a long time. Our country does not need that,” Medvedev said.
The Ukrainian military will have a hard time breaching Russian defenses built in Zaporozhye Region over the past six months, CNN predicted 29 APril 2023. The media outlet cited satellite imagery apparently showing an extensive system of anti-tank ditches, obstacles, minefields and trenches. CNN described the Russian defenses as “elaborate” and spanning “hundreds of miles.” The media outlet claimed that they would likely “present a huge challenge” to Kiev’s forces in the event of a much-anticipated counteroffensive.
Citing images shared by Maxar Technologies and analysis by Reuters, the report found that “Russia’s positions are most concentrated near the front lines in the south-eastern Zaporozhye region, in the east and across the narrow strip of land connecting the Crimean Peninsula to the rest of Ukraine.” The Russian military had dug some 30 kilometers (19 miles) of anti-tank ditches near the town of Pology, with extra fortifications built around strategically important towns such as Tokmak, CNN noted.
The media outlet quoted a Maxar employee as saying that similar defensive structures have appeared over large swathes of Crimea and parts of Donetsk Region. The construction work began last November, soon after Russian troops retreated from the city of Kherson, according to CNN. To succeed in their counteroffensive, Ukrainian forces would have to break through these defenses swiftly, which may prove to be challenging, CNN claimed. Ukrainian officials quoted acknowledged that it would likely be more difficult to take the Russians by surprise this time around. Another factor which, according to CNN, could impede Kiev’s efforts to regain lost territory is Moscow’s continued air superiority.
The Russians still have several cards up their sleeves, including the threat of a nuclear escalation. There is still a risk of nuclear blackmail – and indeed of such weapons being used, though this would come at a huge political cost for Moscow.
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