Approaching a Year of War—Russia’s Winter Catastrophe

Meeting of the President of Ukraine with the President of the United States in Kyiv (image via Ukrainian Presidential Office)

President Biden visited Kyiv on the eve of the war on Ukraine’s one-year anniversary. It is widely believed by Ukrainians and Western observers alike that Russia will mark the anniversary with an escalation, whether a large missile attack or a possible offensive.

However, the underperformance of the Russian military, combined with a powerful array of military aid packages crossing previous ‘red-lines’ concerning heavy weapon donations has preemptively blunted what may come from the Russian Federation. As many of the new weapon systems available to Ukraine will be properly available in the late spring and summer, it is primarily the failure of the Russian military in the winter phase of the war to secure lasting gains that will see the crippling of any long-term offensive goals.

Effectively, the fate of Russia’s military defeat in Ukraine has been sealed.

A Mediocre Winter

According to British intelligence, 98% of Russia’s forces are currently operating in and around Ukraine. Coupled with the recent announcement by the Russian MoD for the more broad use of the Russian Air Force, there seems to be a level of desperation to declare at least some tactical victories in the Donbas. Victories there, exploited by Russian propaganda, would then serve to cripple the West’s commitment to Ukraine.

However, the feared ‘General Winter’ of the Russian army seemed to be notably absent. Europe experienced unusually warm temperatures, which coincidentally, seemed to end right along the Russian border. With that, Putin’s ‘gas’ chokehold over Europe came to an embarrassing end, and with March on the horizon, all talks of ‘freezing’ Europe have, effectively, cooled down.

Political Instability

Over the tail-end of 2022, Putin shifted focus away from the Russian army, given their incompetence throughout the war. Seeking a breakthrough, he briefly empowered Russia’s warlords–Yevgeny Prigozhin of the Wagner Group being the most notable example. Together with Ramzan Kadyrov and Sergey Surovikin, Prigozhin is widely considered to have attempted a propaganda coup on the Russian MoD.

However, the utter failure to secure Bakhmut after disproportionate losses and limited success saw Prigozhin’s star wane. Now being censured by the media, it is considered reasonably likely that Prigozhin will not survive to see the end of the war. The effect he has had, however, has been overwhelming. Handpicking Russian prisoners to be slaughtered in the Donbas, he effectively eliminated one of the last recruitment sources the Russian MoD has before being forced to announce another wave of mobilization. Unlike the last, Western Russian cities are likely to be affected more severely.

It is far too early to speak of a Russian Civil War as a result of the ongoing battle between hardliners and the Russian MoD, but no conclusions should be drawn as Wagner forces begin to take aim at conventional Russian forces, with what little manpower and ammunition they have.

“Offensive” after “Offensive”

Recent suicidal wave attacks along the Zaporizhzhia front, along with the constant assaults in the Bakhmut direction indicate that Russia’s long-feared ‘offensive’ is currently in play. Such was the position of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who noted that Russia’s offensive had begun. The result? Human waves of conscripts ran across open fields, being gunned down by Ukrainian forces. Though brief breakthroughs did occur in which Russian forces were able to clear Ukrainian trenches, there are far more instances of Ukrainian forces repelling Russian assaults, even when vastly outnumbered. Equipment and experience, both crucial to any war effort, are lacking in the Russian army.

Military analysts have described the current frontline as too dispersed for Russia’s costly offensives to generate any success, and that rather than concentrate forces in a particular area for an advance, the frontline is stagnant. The window of opportunity for Russia is closing remarkably fast–European tanks are already rolling to Ukraine, and American Strykers and Bradley IFVs have already been unloaded in Eastern Europe.

Belarusian Offensive

Though a recent build-up of Russian forces in Belarus was noted, their numbers alone do not constitute enough for a realistic offensive. Rather, if an offensive does emerge from Belarus in the coming days and weeks, it would almost certainly include a direct Belarusian military intervention in the war. Though Lukashenko has repeatedly refused to do so in the past, his recent statements indicate any possible Ukrainian incursion or attack on Belarus would be met with invasion. The possibility exists that Belarus, or more likely Russia, will stage a false flag to draw Belarus into the war.

But Belarus’ forces, even with Russian support, are unlikely to do well in the event of a Ukrainian invasion. Rather, a Ukrainian counteroffensive on Belarus would likely spell the end of the Lukashenko regime, with many Belarusian volunteers in Ukraine likely immediately turning north to liberate Minsk.

While both Putin and Lukashenko should both understand the catastrophic result of a Belarusian offensive, desperation on part of the former could force an attack. With the Belarusian–Ukrainian border turning into a wetland during the spring, such an assault would be complicated by external factors as well.

What to Expect

A Ukrainian counteroffensive is all but certain, and the timing will likely come when Russia has been properly bled sufficiently. While Ukrainian losses have not been insignificant, the combination of high morale from a successful winter resistance and previously taboo Western heavy weapons will ensure a resounding success. Perhaps Ukraine decides to cut through Zaporizhzhia Oblast to Melitopol, thereby isolating Crimea. Or perhaps they will push the Donbas, building on the successful Izyum offensive of the late autumn and entering pre-2022 occupied territory. Or perhaps they will do both, in the same way, that they made offensives in Kharkiv and Kherson.

Whatever the decision may be, it is more important than ever not to underestimate Ukraine’s forces. Had heavy weapons been delivered sooner, or at the very least, training begun earlier, the transition time to employing those forces upon the battlefield would have come far faster. Now more than ever, Westerners must turn away from the defeatist mentality of a Russia too dangerous to be allowed defeat.


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