Will Russia launch a big winter offensive in Ukraine?

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President Volodymyr Zelensky visits Washington on Wednesday with the US announcing it will send Ukraine Patriot missiles. The announcement looks like a response to Ukrainian fears of a Russian winter offensive – fears that have surprised some observers, given the damage suffered by the Russian military. But analysts warn that Moscow could well take advantage of winter conditions to carry out localised attacks.

The US is expected to announce it will send Ukraine the world’s most sophisticated air defence technology as part of a fresh $2 billion arms package, days after repeated Ukrainian statements that Russia is preparing a vast winter offensive.

Russia is planning large-scale infantry attacks, Mykhailo Podoliak, a senior advisor to Zelensky, told The New York Times on Sunday. “Russia’s political leadership clearly refuses to acknowledge the tactical defeats that already took place and grasps at any, even the most illusory, chances to change the situation in its favour,” Podolyak said.

This came after the head of the Ukrainian army General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi told The Economist that Moscow plans a daring new offensive. “The Russians are preparing some 200,000 fresh troops,” he said. “I have no doubt they will have another go at Kyiv.”

Such statements are surprising in light of Ukraine’s military successes over recent months; observers like the Institute for the Study of War have been pointing out for weeks that the Russian army is in fact strengthening its defensive position.

Russia ‘lacks logistical means’

Not only have the Russians suffered setbacks like the loss of Kherson city in November, they are also afflicted by chronic equipment shortages. “They clearly don’t have the logistical means to conduct a major operation right now,” said Jeff Hawn, a specialist in the Russian military and non-resident fellow at US geopolitical research centre the New Lines Institute.

Hence the suspicion that Kyiv is giving unduly bleak predictions about the forthcoming winter to ensure that Western arms supplies keep flowing.

Ukraine certainly needs those supplies, said Huseyn Aliyev, an expert on the war in Ukraine at Glasgow University: “The West is currently sending mainly anti-aircraft devices to counter the wave of Russian bombardments, but Ukraine also needs ground equipment like tanks and ammunition, amid fierce fighting around the town of Bakhmut [in eastern Ukraine] and Moscow’s potential desire to launch a new offensive.”

But it doesn’t make sense to write off Ukrainian warnings of a Russian winter offensive as a mere ploy, said Sim Tack, a military analyst as conflict monitoring firm Force Analysis: “There is indeed an increase in the movement of troops and equipment to positions near the border in Russia.”

Tack himself has observed a recent build-up of new armoured vehicles and the construction of tents around military bases near the town of Rovenki between Kharkiv and Luhansk, a few kilometres from the Russian border.

“It’s possible that the same thing is happening in other military bases along the Russia-Ukraine border,” Tack put forward.

This stationing of equipment and fresh troops could well just be a warning sign – but it could also be “a matter of sending equipment and men to reinforce the lines of defence”, Tack went on.

The idea of a winter offensive also makes sense from a political perspective in Russia. “After the Russian army’s recent setbacks, the Kremlin is looking for scapegoats, and many generals will quickly want to achieve some kind of military success to prove they are still useful,” Hawn said.

According to some analysts, this will be all the more urgent as figures on the fringes of the official Russian military structure – such as Wagner mercenary group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov – appear to be trying to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin that they could do better than the current general staff.

General Winter

Hawn argued that these military figures would like to go on the offensive as soon as possible because “they know that the Ukrainian technological advantage provided by Western support will only increase as Russia’s supply of military equipment runs out”.

And all the analysts interviewed by FRANCE 24 agree that the Russian army will suffer more from the winter than Ukrainian forces will. “The Ukrainians have more modern and reliable equipment, while the Russians don’t have enough food to last long on the front line,” Tack noted.

This is a key reason, Tack argued, why Russia will likely launch a multi-pronged winter offensive to retake several towns and villages, as opposed to a big attack across the whole front. Russian troops would prefer to spend the winter in towns instead of makeshift camps set up in open country. In light of this, the fight for Bakhmut points to what we should expect, Tack concluded. “The city isn’t just a gateway to the more strategic targets of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk; it could also be useful as a rear base for Russian forces during the winter.”

© France Médias Monde graphic studio

This article was translated from the original in French.

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