With Moscow’s attrition offensive in the east seemingly nearing completion, attention is once again focused on Ukraine’s planned spring counteroffensive, which Kyiv and its foreign partners hope will break down the Russian lines and release another major part of the occupied territory.

Intensive Russian attacks in the Bakhmut area of ​​Donetsk province, and in the past week also in the area around the city of Avdiivka, have had limited success at great cost.

 Western officials believe tens of thousands of Russian troops have been killed in recent fighting in the area. Wagner Group mercenaries and regular units nearly surrounded but failed to seize Bakhmut, despite reportedly inflicting heavy losses. 

“Russian forces may or may not be able to push Ukrainian troops out of Avdiivka or Bakhmut, but they will not gain any significant operational advantage by doing so because they cannot exploit such advances,” the Institute for the Study of Defense said on Sunday. 

“The Russian mil blogger space and the Russian, Ukrainian, and Western media are abuzz with discussions about the upcoming Ukrainian counteroffensive, about which the only real questions seem to be when and where it will happen,” the ISW update adds.

The Russian media have recently reported that nerves are running high. The state news agency TASS quoted Vladimir Rogov, chairman of the collaborationist movement “We stand together with Russia” in the occupied southern regions of Ukraine on Monday as saying that Kyiv had amassed some 75,000 troops on the Zaporizhzhia front in southern Ukraine. Country.

And last week, another Tass report suggested a growing concentration of Ukrainian artillery in Donbas’s eastern front. After months of fending off Russian attacks, Ukraine could also try to launch its counterattack.

Wagner’s and Russian forces have nearly reached a standstill at Bakhmut, and Russian oligarch-turned-warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin has warned that Ukrainian forces may be planning to counterattack in the area.

Ukrainian recruits during a live fire training session with British and New Zealand soldiers at a training base in the UK on March 27, 2023

information war

Oleg Ignatov, Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Russia, said that Moscow’s apparent lack of knowledge of Ukrainian planning had cast doubt on all military and national security spheres.

“They are very worried,” Ignatov said. “They have always had bad information about Ukraine. I think they don’t have a clear idea of ​​how many resources the Ukrainians have right now,” he added, noting that Ukrainian troops have been training all over Europe, away from Russian eyes.

“I don’t think military intelligence is really his strong point,” Ignatov said.

The lack of success on the battlefield and a new round of mobilization orders suggest that something is not going according to plan, Ignatov added. “They understand that the winter military operation failed,” he said.

“They are in the exhaustion phase, and they understand that if the work continues, they will constantly need more and more soldiers on the ground.”

Mark Voyger – former special adviser on Russian and Eurasian affairs to the US Army Europe commander General Ben Hodges – told Newsweek that the Kremlin might already be preparing the Russians for the bad news.

“My impression is that they are preparing the population for some kind of defensive operation with the intention, probably, of trying to freeze the conflict on their side, and until they can gather those hundreds of thousands of new recruits and reconstitute, probably around the end of summer,” he said.

Ukrainian leaders are keeping their intentions secret, although they have clarified that a counteroffensive is in the works in the spring, probably supported by the new onslaught of Western main battle tanks and other armored vehicles pouring into the country.

The Ukrainian military command has proven adept at masking its intentions. Last September, the long-awaited and vaunted Ukrainian offensive towards Kherson – finally liberated in November – in the south was overshadowed by a surprise offensive in the northeastern Kharkiv region, which collapsed the Russian lines and forced the troops to flee unsuspecting Moscow units.

“I hope they replicate a similar disinformation operation,” said Voyger, now a non-resident principal investigator at the Center for European Analysis and a professor at the American University of Kyiv. “They will have to replicate what they did in the fall successfully; this is fundamental.”

But so much hype and debate about the planned offensive means this will be difficult. “Today, it’s hard to get people to shut up,” Voyger added. “At the same time, perhaps this saturation of this information space with so much commentary, conjecture, and analysis also creates ‘white noise,'” which can help Kyiv hide its plans and mislead the Russians.

south or east

For months, Russian forces have been slowly fortifying the captured territory and attempting to incorporate some of Moscow’s hundreds of thousands of mobilized reserves in preparation for the next Ukrainian offensive.

In Donbas, Russian units and their locally sourced collaborators have been fortifying parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts for eight years after their seizure in fighting in 2014.

There are forts on the nearby hills and rows of defensive lines on both sides of the front line.

It would be risky for the Ukrainians to launch an offensive here, but the situation could have been improved if the fighting in key locations like Bakhmut, Kreminna, Avdiivka, and Svatove had weakened the Russian forces in the area.

“If the Ukrainians tried to launch a big offensive in that area, I imagine the defensive lines are stronger than the ones in the south,” Voyger said.

“I hope they replicate a similar disinformation operation,” said Voyger, now a non-resident principal investigator at the Center for European Analysis and a professor at the American University of Kyiv. “They will have to replicate what they did in the fall successfully; this is fundamental.”

But so much hype and debate about the planned offensive means this will be difficult. “Today, it’s hard to get people to shut up,” Voyger added. “At the same time, perhaps this saturation of this information space with so much commentary, conjecture, and analysis also creates ‘white noise,'” which can help Kyiv hide its plans and mislead the Russians.

In the south, successful attacks from Kherson or Zaporizhzhia – or both – would endanger Crimea, threatening the land bridge between the occupied peninsula and the Russian western border through occupied and devastated Mariupol. Melitopol, located to the south of the Zaporizhzhian front line, would be a key target for any Ukrainian offensive in the area.

The flatter territory of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia provinces would be more suitable for Ukrainian tanks, which have played a relatively limited role in the battles around Bakhmut, dominated by artillery and various types of infantry. Western infantry fighting vehicles and tanks are likely to be added to these.

Although the Russian units in the area have been preparing defenses, they have had little time to do so compared to their compatriots to the east.

David Brennan