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Thursday 21 September 2023 Dublin: 11°C
Alamy Stock Photo
Tom Clonan Zelenskyy's forces need to begin a push back against Russia in the coming days
The security analyst examines what shape any heave by Ukrainians against Putin’s troops might take.

AS WE ENTER the month of May, daytime temperatures in Eastern Donetsk will increase in the coming days – averaging in the mid twenties Centigrade as Summer approaches.

Ukraine has a temperate continental climate, and after a very wet Spring, the ground will dry out rapidly, lending itself to an armoured counteroffensive by Zelenskyy’s troops.

After a prolonged and bitterly contested Russian offensive on Bakhmut, Putin’s forces have failed to achieve a decisive victory here. They have failed to fully capture the town or to surround it. Bakhmut has been at the centre of gravity of Putin’s attempt to stage a break-out of Russian forces and Wagner mercenaries toward the Ukrainian strongholds of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk.

War of attrition

Putin’s offensive here has been a grinding onslaught of attrition – referred to by both sides to the conflict as a ‘meatgrinder’. Commenced in February, the Kremlin’s offensive has been a full frontal assault which has been extremely costly in terms of troops killed and wounded in very high numbers. It has also been a very static operation, with very little ground gained.

Simply put, Yevgheny Prigozhin’s Wagner group have failed to achieve the initiative or to gain meaningful momentum in Donetsk.

The costs have been very high. Whitehouse spokesperson on National Security, John Kirby has estimated Russian losses at 20,000 killed in action in and around Bakhmut, with up to 80,000 seriously wounded. At least half of the fatalities have been among the Wagner group – which is now a depleted force, and despite its heretofore notorious reputation, no longer considered a ‘game-changer’ on the battlefield.

Ukrainian losses have also been very high. President Zelenskyy’s spokespeople do not comment on battlefield casualties, but the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff has stated that he believes Ukrainian losses, as defenders, are probably slightly less than those of Putin’s forces – but broadly similar nonetheless.

The next push

With this high cost, Ukraine appears to have held the line along a front that stretches north-south through Luhansk and Donetsk, all the way through to Zaporizhzhia and Kherson Oblasts. Attention has now turned to what will happen next in the conflict – with many commentators and analysts predicting a major Ukrainian counterattack.

Preparation for the offensive is already underway with Ukrainian strikes on major fuel and ammunition depots behind Putin’s front-line troops – including an attack on a major fuel depot in the Crimea, at Volna, close to the strategically vital Kerch bridge.

The Ukrainian military has also been assembling the equipment and vehicles necessary for rapid, armoured penetration into Russian-held territory. Over the winter period, Zelenskyy’s forces have acquired almost 250 state-of-the-art main battle tanks (MBTs) – including German-manufactured Leopard tanks, UK Challenger tanks and other MBTs from contributing nations across Europe.

These tanks – unlike Putin’s deployed armour – are capable of cross-country speeds of up to 70 Km per hour with an operational range of up to 200 kms. They have sophisticated target acquisition systems and with 120 mm Rheinmetall main armament, are capable of operating at night. Russian forces are not capable of night fighting operations at the present time.

In addition to these MBTs, Ukraine has also built up a fleet of approximately 1,500 armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs). This would allow for significant mechanised infantry support – vital in a kinetic and dynamic assault – which would allow Ukraine to seize and hold significant ground in a short time frame.

In combination, Ukraine now possesses – in MBTs and AFVs – the equivalent of two NATO Armoured Brigades. Depending on how well trained, motivated and integrated Zelenskyy’s units are – such a force represents a very formidable threat to Putin’s largely static and ill-coordinated ground forces. Putin’s generals – having already lost ground to rapid and well-coordinated Ukrainian armoured advances in Luhansk and Kherson – are consolidating their defences. For most of Russia’s units – many of them, ‘scratch’ formations formed up during the recent partial mobilisation before Christmas – this will mean ‘digging in’ to fixed positions and awaiting the Ukrainian assault.

Where and when that assault will take place is a matter of some speculation. Many analysts – myself included – have been predicting an assault through Kherson and Zaporizhzhia on an axis of advance towards Berdyansk on the Sea of Azov. Such an assault would sever Putin’s recently acquired ‘land-corridor’ from the Crimean Peninsula to Russia proper. Another option would be to assault deep into Luhansk to drive a wedge behind Putin’s front lines – cutting off tens of thousands of Russian troops in the field.

To this end, Ukraine – with the assistance of NATO, EU and international allies – has been stockpiling 155mm artillery shells and other munitions in order to provide support for their armoured advance. This will allow them to target critical defences, command and control assets and logistics elements of Putin’s forces before Ukrainian forces cross their start lines.

Putting pressure on Putin

As the ground hardens, Ukraine will be hoping for a very fast-moving and decisive advance. Hoping for a collapse in Russian morale – and hoping to humiliate Putin with a dramatic reversal of fortune in the field. Putin has played his hand at Bakhmut – with very limited results and at a very high cost.

The initiative now appears to lie with Zelenskyy’s forces. The coming days and weeks will tell precisely where Zelenskyy projects his forces.

In the meantime, Putin’s generals have resorted to firing missiles and drones at civilian targets throughout Ukraine – hitting towns such as Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, destroying apartment blocks and shops. For now, the Kremlin does not appear to have the precision munitions to hit critical military or offensive infrastructure. Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s Defence Minister has claimed that he will double the production of ‘precision missiles’ in the coming weeks in order to ‘destroy’ Ukraine’s offensive capability. Such statements hinting at the imminent arrival of ‘wonder weapons’ – in the absence of any meaningful Russian intervention on the conventional battlefield – signal desperation.

Zelenskyy’s forces have gained significant battlefield experience in the last year, have acquired significant military assets and are possibly poised to inflict a serious reversal on Putin’s invasion force in the coming weeks.

This begs the question – ‘What will happen next?’ Will Putin call for a full mobilisation of Russian forces and make a formal declaration of war on Ukraine? Will Putin be tempted to use non-conventional weapons or so-called ‘mini-nukes’ or tactical nuclear weapons to bring Ukraine’s likely counter-offensive to a halt? Putin has used non-conventional weapons in Syria and may do so once more to avoid humiliation and the perception of ‘defeat’ in Ukraine. The principal victims of his ambition and ego are the people of Ukraine. If he somehow succeeds in Ukraine, he will turn his attention further west in due course.

At horrific cost to themselves, Ukrainians are fighting for their country’s survival and in doing so – in a tragedy brought about by Putin’s aggression – they are fighting for the community of values that characterises all of Europe.

Dr Tom Clonan is a retired Army Officer and former Lecturer at TU Dublin. He is currently an Independent Senator on the Trinity College Dublin Panel, Seanad Eireann.  


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