A spring offensive in Ukraine - or more of the same?
Feb 14, 2023
This is a follow up column to “War of attrition - Russian external perspectives” published on November 10, 2022. The headline from then still seems to hold. Particularly, since Ukraine - just as last spring - is moving into the muddy season making it difficult for the aggressor to move forward. Ukrainians have dug in. Ukrainian forces are reported to maintain high morale, but the winter season has, naturally, been exhausting.
Information campaigns on both sides
Insistent speculations about a Russian major offensive, expected to be launched towards late February this year, have circulated widely. Observers have learned to analyse such forecasts critically as part of information campaigns launched on both sides. Institute for the Study of War notes on February 12:
“Russia has partially regained the ability to conduct successful information campaigns in support of strategic objectives and even discrete operational aims. Russian hybrid warfare theory has long called for the integration of information campaigns and military operations, with information operations sometimes taking precedence over kinetic activity.”
The talk about the use of nuclear weapons in Russian propaganda could indicate that it is increasingly difficult for Moscow to find other ways to deter the West. Caution is still advised when it comes to drawing definite conclusions about the prospect of actual use of such weapons.
In the West - including in Sweden - governments are, however, preparing the population for the possibility of devastating terror attacks and other attacks on critical infrastructure.
Still, if such open or covert attacks take place it is difficult to believe that this would lower Western morale. The effect could be the opposite.
From the perspective of Ukraine, it is of course important through information campaigns on its side to maintain and if possible, increase the sense of urgency in the West to speed up deliveries of advanced weapons and equipment to the battlefield. For some time, Germany and the Leopard II tank was a focus objective. Now it is very much an issue of fighter aircraft for instance from the UK.
Modern tanks and other equipment will be delivered during the coming months although the debate is still on when it comes to fighter aircraft. The West is carefully calibrating its posture in order not to legitimise a further escalation on the Russian side.
The courage and determination on the Ukraine side has this week been convincingly demonstrated by the fact that President Zelensky has been able to swiftly move through several European capitals, appearing among large groups of politicians and journalists, seemingly without fear.
He may be worried about continued corruption in Ukraine The defence minister and other senior officials are being held accountable for corruption in their services. But he does not seem to be worried about loyalty from his own when it comes to the war. The way the EU leadership was greeted in Kyiv recently is far from the image of a government under attack receiving visitors in heavily fortified bunkers. The visitors are being seen walking in open daylight even if air defence sirens are heard at a distance.
And a forthcoming visit of the American president to Poland may further project the seriousness of the American security guarantees to its NATO allies.
Indicators of war
It is notoriously difficult to objectively estimate casualties. But it has been reported that recruitment of the Wagner group from prisons in Russia has been discontinued due to high losses. And although the absolute levels of casualties always are difficult to certify during a conflict, the trend upwards in terms of Russian casualties is reported to be dramatic, going back to levels at the start of the war, when the number of Russian killed in action even were reported to exceed one thousand per day.
And as regards the possibilities for Russia to mobilise it is still argued by many military experts that delivered equipment needs to be used effectively. For this a long period of training is required - on the level of battalion commanders many years. And such experience cannot be instantly mobilised through Putin decrees.
Russia still clearly holds large stocks of missiles and artillery pieces. But its capabilities to carry out major surprise attacks on a large scale against large cities across Ukraine are most likely seriously depleted.
Proliferation of the conflict?
On a sidenote, the issue of possible attacks against Moldova has also come up, including preparations for a coup according to the President of the country, Maia Sandu. What would be gained by trying to broaden the war to Moldova? It is one thing to launch robot attacks over Moldovan airspace from the Black Sea to Ukraine as happened early February. It is quite another to prepare for war which would involve the thin land strip of Transnistria, squeezed as it is from both Ukraine and the rest of Moldova. There is no depth in terms of defence and the supply lines from Russia would be extremely long. It would have been another matter would adjacent Odessa by now be in the hands of Russia. Instead, developments over the winter have rather solidified defence on the southern front pushing back earlier Russian forces at Kherson across the Dnieper River.
External factors of importance for the evolution of the conflict
Turkey, while still holding out when it comes to ratification of Finnish and Swedish NATO membership, is increasingly dependent upon major support efforts from the West due to the devastating earthquake along the border to Syria.
The level of solidarity with Turkey is high and is going to have to be kept high for Erdogan to manage the upcoming elections. BBC reports credible evidence that newly constructed buildings have not been following advertised security guidelines. In addition, more than 75,000 buildings across the affected regions are reported to have been given amnesties when it comes to meeting updated construction requirements.
Further packages of sanctions against Russia are being implemented. In January, major economies imposed a price cap on the country’s seaborne exports of oil to be followed by a 5% reduction of Russian oil production in March. Diversification of dependence on Russian deliveries to Western companies is proceeding.
Again, time is not on the Russian side, even if cooperation between Russia, China, and Iran may increase.
Scrapping the no-Covid policy in China means dealing with devastating short-term consequences in maintaining the Chinese economy running. But the Chinese economy may quickly pick up. China is helping Russia militarily. China’s state-owned defence companies have shipped navigation equipment and parts to fighter jets and other military technology equipment to Russian defence companies, according to Russian customs data. In addition, large quantities of dual use deliveries have been reported, i.e., goods for either military or civilian use. A question now is whether the controversy over the Chinese balloons will further stimulate Russian-Chinese cooperation.
The Iran faces internal resistance which dwarfs anything else seen after the Shah was deposed in the late 70s which may force the leadership to seek closer ties to external actors, notably China and Russia, despite major differences in terms of religious values.
The reports coming out of Central Asia, further substantiates earlier reports about strained ties between Moscow and the Central Asian leaders. Remittances from Russia to Central Asia have, however, so far not decreased. Remittances are reported to amount to 1/3 of the GDP of several Central Asian countries. Russia successfully attracts many workers from the region by offering citizenship. But worries about forced conscription remain high, partly for the fact that media coverage of the war is more open in Central Asia than in Russia itself.
Conflict resolution prospects
The eminent strategy expert professor Lawrence Friedmans notes in a recent column:
“There is no obvious compromise. Ukraine wants its occupied territory back; Russia wants to take more of it.”
“Russian forces are relying increasingly on sheer weight of numbers while Ukraine’s are relying more on the quality that comes with advanced Western systems.”
“As I have cautioned before, we need to be careful when it comes to predicting the course of war, not only because of the inherent uncertainties that come with armies and battles, but also because of strategic choices that have yet to be made. During its latest stage the war has taken on the appearance of a long attritional struggle so it is natural to assume that is what it will continue to be, but neither side can sustain it at current levels of intensity indefinitely.”
Even if Russia by now may have been able to mobilise several hundred thousands of troops for the front the question is whether this only will mean more casualties. Or will it also mean the capacity to sustain a major and successful offensive in the east? Even the most prominent experts do not seem to be willing to make firm forecasts on this matter.