February 22, 2023 - 10:00am

The eighteenth-century Russian general Alexander Suvorov mused that “what is difficult in training becomes easy in battle”. Perhaps Vladimir Putin regards all that has occurred thus far in Ukraine as merely a training programme, albeit a bloody and costly one, with the war now beginning in earnest. 

Certainly the Russian President understands the crucial importance of this moment, using yesterday’s Presidential Address to describe it as “a difficult, watershed period for our country…. a time of radical, irreversible change in the entire world, of crucial historical events that will determine the future of our country and our people, a time when every one of us bears a colossal responsibility”.

Russia’s military is about to engage more intensely than it did over winter. The colder months brought a brittle stalemate, characterised by Russia’s attritional ‘human wave’ attacks. With spring heralding warmer temperatures and solid ground, Putin is, according to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, “preparing for more war, for new offensives and new attacks”. On Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told the BBC that Russia’s  ‘Spring Offensive’ had begun and that “Russian attacks are already happening from several directions”.

Russia has embarked upon its offensive slowly, probing for areas of weakness. According to UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, this month, 3,000 Russian soldiers died during a three-day attack on the Donbas town of Vuhledar, a key logistics hub. As drafted soldiers replace Wagner mercenary forces in Russia’s ranks, the Ukrainian military has reported attacks on Bakhmut, Kharkiv, Luhansk, Kreminna and Zaporizhzhia. 

However, this is not the limit to Putin’s ambition. Ukrainian intelligence claims that Russia seeks to gain control over the entire contested Donbas region of Donetsk and Luhansk by March, further suggesting this would be achieved through a three-pronged attack from the north, east and south. Ukrainian Ambassador to Australia Vasyl Myroshnychenko said on 16th February that 300,000 Russians across multiple battlefields were already “moving in” for a large campaign from several directions.  

Russia is additionally expected to make greater use of its air capabilities. Western intelligence reports Russia massing aircraft within striking distance of Ukraine, while Ukrainian ex-colonel Serhiy Hrabsky told the New York Times that the acceleration of the offensive will involve Russian artillery barrages, bombing campaigns from ground-attack jets and sorties by helicopters, followed by tank and infantry ground assaults. 

However, the UK Ministry of Defence notes that “Russia lacks the munitions and manoeuvre units required for successful offensives”, meaning commanders make plans “requiring undermanned, inexperienced units to achieve unrealistic objectives due to political and professional pressure”. 

Russian Defence Ministry plans to add twelve new manoeuvre divisions will not be achieved until at least 2026, and Ben Wallace last week noted that an overstretched Putin has committed 97% of his soldiers to Ukraine. Putin can therefore expect a prolonged battle. Wagner mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin estimates that capturing the Donbas could take “about one and a half to two more years”, while occupying all territory east of the Dnipro would “take about three years”. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) predicts that, even with “higher levels of combat power”, securing the Donbas “would take six to twelve months, if possible at all”.

Russian forces must also contend with Ukrainian counter-attacks. A likely target would be Melitopol, under Russian occupation and at the intersection of two highways and a railway line, which would help Ukraine cut Russian supply routes to Crimea. Putin’s forces have been fortifying defences along the land bridge connecting Crimea to Russia, in anticipation of attacks. 

A Ukrainian counter-offensive is not without risk. Tanks from Western countries are weeks away from arriving and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko last week threatened to wage war alongside Russia. Yet the ISW has assessed that Russia, though “likely to make tactically and possibly even operationally significant gains”, is “very unlikely to achieve operationally decisive successes”, thus putting Ukraine “in a good position from which to conduct successful counteroffensive operations following the culmination of Russian offensives before or during the spring rainy season”.

Suvorov also remarked that “when the enemy is driven back, we have failed.  When he is cut off, encircled and dispersed, we have succeeded”. While Putin may hold similar ambitions, a lengthy battle lies ahead.