Now that the Russian offensive has begun in full, what can we expect? As we’ve already seen, Russia has employed the broad use of artillery, missile strikes, and airstrikes to prepare the battlefield for a heavy armored advance. Russian doctrine aims to achieve breakthroughs that can be exploited as they seek the collapse of the Ukrainian defense and move rapidly across the Donbas region. Speed and mass remain key tenets of Russian military doctrine.
Can Russia generate sufficient forces to sustain this operation? Russia appears to have gathered 40 to 50 battalion tactical groups for the offensive and has added to the forces already arrayed in the Donbas. They have sustained significant casualties during the first seven weeks of this war that could total more than 10,000 killed in action. Consequently, Russia has sought to recruit from Syria and elsewhere to augment its forces.
Shifting Terrain…and Weather
Both terrain and weather changes will play a significant role in this offensive as Russian strategy shifts from the metropolitan areas. The Donbas region is flatter and more open than northern Ukraine and the area surrounding Kyiv. This may afford the Russians an opportunity to maneuver their armored forces to greater advantage. Still, it’s important to remember that this region has experienced significant combat since the 2014 Russian invasion.
Ukrainian forces know this terrain well, and there are many areas where the road networks have been destroyed, mines have been positioned, and bridges prepared for destruction. Spring weather could leave the ground soft, making a significant portion of the terrain marshy, which could impede the movement of Russian armored forces.
Brutally Bouncing Back?
Russia has also appointed a single commander, General Aleksandr Dvornikov, to oversee their operation. Their initial offensive, with multiple avenues of advance, was poorly coordinated and lacked sufficient logistical support to sustain the effort. It’s unclear whether these tactical problems have been solved or if they are systematic issues.
Dvornikov is known as the “butcher of Aleppo” due to his brutal leadership in the 2015 Syrian assaults that targeted the civilian population. Many believe this resulted in more than 50,000 civilian fatalities and that similar tactics may be used during this offensive.
Building (or Burning) Bridges
Russia has its sights set on capturing Mariupol and securing the land bridge connecting Russia with Crimea. This could occur in the next few days and would be a significant success for Russia after many setbacks (including the Russian retreat from around Kyiv and the loss of Russia’s Moskva warship). Should the ongoing offensive be successful, we could see the Russians renew their attack on Kyiv as well as attempt to capture Odessa and, consequently, turn Ukraine into a landlocked country.
Bracing for a Massive and Decisive Assault
Ukraine has expected this offensive to begin for some time and been preparing for it: They are seeking to control their airspace and leveraging enhanced air defense capabilities. We’ve witnessed a reduction in Russian air attacks, but it’s unclear if the reduction is temporary or a reflection of growing Russian concern over Ukrainian capabilities.
Additionally, Ukraine continues to create mobile reserves that can be used to combat attacks and potential breakthroughs. They’ve also been preparing defenses (mines and obstacles) to guide the Russian advance, so they can employ anti-tank weapon systems.
Seeking Western Support
Ukraine has sought out additional military support from the West, which has been forthcoming and includes over $800 million of military aid from the US. Whether or not this Western support will be sufficient remains to be seen.
President Joe Biden is set to announce an additional aid package this week as lawmakers return from a multi-week recess period. While there’s no final price tag on the package, White House officials along with the State Department and Pentagon are hard at work framing it out. The last Ukraine aid package was nearly $14 billion.