Military Affairs Strategy & Defence

Ukrainian spring offensive – Ukrainian special vol.2

Juraj Kvak

Several indications show that Ukraine is likely preparing to launch a new military offensive to liberate another part of its Russian-occupied territory. This text aims to analyze the military situation in Ukraine, the Ukrainian army’s ability to conduct an offensive, and to identify when this offensive might begin, where it might be heading, or what its chances of success might be.

How Kyiv is waging war and what it says about the shape of a possible offensive

The Ukrainian command is waging this war by slowly and systematically destroying Russian supply arteries, ammunition depots, or large gatherings of manpower and equipment, often exacerbating existing problems in the Russian Federation (RF) military to the point where they have no choice but to withdraw.

We have seen the application of this tactic since the beginning of the war – when Russian troops were forced to withdraw from Kyiv, from the whole Chernihiv and Sumy regions, subsequently from the Kharkiv region and Izyum, and then from Lyman or Kherson. In each of these examples, the Ukrainians destroyed or made it impossible for the Russians to resupply. They effectively destroyed depots and larger concentrations of troops until Russian morale and fighting power had fallen to such a level that a subsequent Ukrainian attack forced the opponent to abandon the occupied areas.

Ukraine is waging war in this way largely because the Ukrainian army does not possess a huge number of heavy or light combat equipment. By contrast, the Russian army has often thrown and continues to throw dozens of pieces of equipment into frontal attacks, as we saw in the summer attack on Bilohorivka or the Russian naval infantry’s attempt to capture Vuhledar this winter.

Ukrainian forces

In the last months, the Ukrainian army has been building up reserves to lead the “spring offensive”. Estimates of the strength of these groups vary. During the winter, there was talk of 30-40 thousand, while Prigozhin speaks of 200-400 thousand soldiers. The author of this text estimates this strength at 40-70 thousand. The Ukrainian army can conduct operations in multiple directions with such a large grouping. The new Ukrainian units are to be equipped mainly with equipment of Western provenance. Since March 2023, the first deliveries of Challenger 2 tanks, Leopard 2 tanks, and infantry fighting vehicles, along with Ukrainian soldiers trained in Western countries, are coming to Ukraine.

When to expect the start of the offensive

Probably as early as the end of April or during May. The Ukrainians have been gathering reserves, testing Russian defences, shelling Russian positions and doing intensive reconnaissance for several months. There is also information about the arrival of Ukrainian reinforcements on the Zaporizhzhia section of the front. However, the start of the spring offensive also depends largely on the weather, which is still unsuitable for conducting offensive operations in this part of Ukraine while the soil is soaked and muddy.

Potential directions and targets of the Ukrainian spring offensive

This information is, of course, classified. However, based on the information the author has received and seen and on the basis of public sources, it is possible to conclude that there are three new groupings of Ukrainian troops, namely near the towns of Bakhmut, Kupiansk and Zaporizhzhia. From this information, we can conclude that the probable spring offensive will occur near some of these locations.

Going back to the way Ukraine is waging war and the targets it is focusing on, we can reveal the potential targets of the offensive. As noted above, the Ukrainians primarily seek to destroy the enemy’s logistic lines. From this perspective, several directions and cities can be identified as possible targets of the Ukrainian offensive, which are crucial for Russia precisely in terms of supplying troops at the front. So what cities are they? In order from north to south:

Kupiansk. Svatove-Kreminna front

The towns of Svatove and Kreminna have been heavily fought over for several months. The key role for supply and logistical support of the Russian troops deployed in this area is played by the town of Troitske, which lies 25-40 km from the front line.
Most supplies from the Russian Belgorod and Voronezh regions go through the town to this part of the front. The only functioning railway line in the area passes through there, making Troitske one huge ammunition depot which, together with Starobilsk, is the main logistics centre for Russian troops in the area. However, Russian frontline defences in this direction are relatively weak, and it is common for military formations to have only 40-60% of their original strength. The more solid defensive lines are only beyond the P66 road leading from Kreminna via Svatove to Troitske. But Ukrainian troops on this front are no better off. The current stalemate may be changed by the aforementioned Ukrainian reinforcements, which are strong enough to break the Russian lines in the northeast of the Kharkiv region. Their aim would be to approach the town of Troitske within firing range of the artillery (10-20km), which would seriously threaten the Russian supply lines and perhaps even the collapse of the Russian front in that direction.

Bachmut. Siversk-Bachmut front.

Information is now coming in that the reserves that Ukraine has been concentrating near Bakhmut have meanwhile been deployed to repel a possible encirclement of the town itself by Russian troops. The secondary objective of the Ukrainian troops in this direction is to block the enemy troops and prevent their movement to other regions. Thus, some local counter-offensives may occur in the vicinity of Bakhmut, but they will not be of a significant scale.

Kreminna/Rubizhne/Lysychansk/Severodonetsk – this agglomeration of towns north of Bakhmut is significant in this sector. Russian combat formations here are in a disastrous state and are often made up only of volunteer units known by the acronym BARS (Combat Army Reserve of the Country). However, the Russians are trying to hold this location at all costs, as controlling it represents one of the most significant Russian gains since the offensive was launched in February 2022. The Ukrainian troops attached to the Bakhmut defences may have been initially tasked with supporting this particular part of the front and attempting a breakthrough here.

An offensive is unlikely on the front line stretching from Bakhmut south to below the city of Donetsk. The Donbas region has a high concentration of urban zones, which gives the defenders a great advantage. This was already demonstrated during the Second World War when a number of offensives failed here, and the Germans, as well as the Soviets, had to conduct offensives around the edges of the region. For the last eight years, both sides have been intensively building up deep lines of defence here, the effectiveness of which is demonstrated by the fact that Russia’s daily efforts to break through in this area have produced no results in the last year.

Zaporizhzhia. Southern Front (Vuhledar – Velyka Novosilka – Hulyaipole – Orikhiv – Kamyanske)

In this area, everyone is expecting an attack. This area is most talked about as the most probable direction of the expected offensive.

Russian troops have been building fortifications in this area for almost a year, but there are relatively few Russian formations for such a long frontline. It is 180 km long with just under 40 Russian BTGs (battalion tactical groups). The total area of this Russian-occupied territory is approximately 18 thousand km2. There are important cities such as Melitopol, Berdiansk and Mariupol. In the first two towns mentioned above, there is extensive guerrilla activity. Also, the main Ukrainian offensive may occur here because of these factors. All three of these major cities are located in the south of the region, are crossed by the important M14 supply route and are the main supply centres in the area. As they are located just over 80 kilometres from the front, they are immune to the Himars attacks that have proved so effective in destroying the enemy’s forward logistics depots.

The Ukrainians are likely to try to bring most of their reserves to this front to get closer within range of the three mentioned cities to cut the railway line running through the middle of the region and simultaneously occupy Russia’s secondary supply lines. Since the western part of this front is heavily fortified and there is a greater concentration of more elite Russian troops in the eastern part, Ukraine can choose to make its main attack through the centre, along a fairly wide line – between the towns of Orikhiv and Velyka Novosilka, possibly as far as Vuhledar. A pragmatic goal could be the conquest of the territory up to the northern part of the Berda River. An attack directed in this way should achieve the capture of the town of Polohy by encircling it on three sides and then advancing on the Basan; the capture of the settlement of Verchnii Tokmak, which is an important railway junction. It should also result in securing the eastern bank of the Berda River and occupying the area as far as Bilotserkivka, bringing the town of Bilymak under siege. Finally, the intention should also be to capture the important supply hub of Rozivka.

If the Ukrainians were to succeed in such a directed offensive, it would seriously complicate all Russian operations in the south of the country. It would involve the liberation of an area up to 3500 km in size2. By comparison, the liberation of the Kharkiv region involved 8500 km2, the liberation of the territory beyond the Oskil River – 3000 km2, and the liberation of the Kherson region on the right bank of the Dnieper River – 6300 km2.

Looking at past Ukrainian offensives, it is reasonable to conclude that the Ukrainian army would need at least two months to accomplish all of the objectives. If this operation succeeds, the Ukrainians can resume operations on this front in the summer – from the east to Melitopol itself or possibly south to Berdiansk or Mariupol.

In connection with the southern front, we can also expect a secondary offensive led by the Ukrainian army in the Kherson region across the Dnieper River. If the Ukrainians advance fast and deep enough on the Zaporizhzhia front, Russian troops from the Kherson region would have to come in to help stabilize the front. This would allow the Ukrainians to attempt a larger landing (by Ukrainian standards), build pontoons across the Dnieper River, and advance to its eastern bank. The Russian troops would come to heel, the whole front would probably collapse, and the Ukrainian army would push the enemy towards Crimea. However, the Kakhovka dam built on the Dnieper River, some 60 kilometres upstream from Kherson, plays an important role here. This dam can be mined, and if blown up, all Ukrainian efforts would fail, as its destruction would flood a large area as far as the city of Kherson. Any pontoon bridges placed across the Dnieper River would thus be destroyed, and a large area would be flooded, making it impossible for the Ukrainians to conduct offensive ground operations south of the dam. In turn, the Dnieper is wider and thus more difficult to cross north of the dam.

The importance of the offensive for the further course of the war

The last significant Ukrainian offensive took place in November 2022, when Ukrainian forces liberated the city of Kherson. Since then, the Ukrainian command has prioritized the defence of the liberated territories, particularly the defence of Bakhmut and the town of Avdiivka. During this almost six-month offensive pause, Ukraine has been trying to form new groupings that will be able to deal another hard blow to the occupying forces.

The author anticipates that the Ukrainian army will continue to lead the offensive in the direction of Troitske and prioritize the liberation of a significant part of the Zaporizhzhia region later in the spring. Almost all the groupings are ready and can be deployed to some of the aforementioned sections of the front in a short time. In contrast, the Russian army is considerably weakened after the failed winter offensives and is currently unable to conduct any significant countermeasures against a possible Ukrainian attack in these directions. The eventual success of the Ukrainian armed forces in the north near the town of Troitske may lead to a gradual withdrawal of Russian forces from most of the Luhansk region. The Zaporizhzhia offensive, however, is a much bigger problem for the Russians. For the Russian leadership, led by President Putin, the south of Ukraine is considerably more important. The territory most likely to be targeted by the Ukrainian offensive forms a land corridor to the annexed Crimea. Ukrainian advance in this direction would significantly complicate the administration and supply of the peninsula, as the only land link to Russia would be via the Kerch Bridge, which has already proved problematic in the past. At the same time, it would significantly worsen the supply options for Russian troops in the rest of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. If successful, it would expand the possibilities for the Ukrainian army to conduct further offensives on important regional cities such as Mariupol, Berdyansk and Melitopol.

The impact of the offensive on the willingness of both actors to negotiate is still impossible to assess at the moment, but its success could bring Ukraine substantially closer to its stated goal of liberating its territory from Russian occupation. It would also improve Kyiv’s position for possible negotiations in the future. At the moment, however, neither side is interested in negotiating, which is why both sides are trying to exhaust their adversary as much as possible and put it in a position where it will have to make possible concessions.

The Latest

Cybersecurity and the Defense Industry Should Become Priorities After NATO’s 2024 Summit

NATO’s 2024 summit is over and as always, it has brought forward multiple topics. Especially given the current turbulent geopolitical as well as geoeconomic global environment, one could arguably focus…

Usage of Drones in the War in Ukraine

Drones, or UAVs, were often considered weapons of the future. Before the two world wars in the 20th century, the Austrian forces used the predecessors of drones when the exploding…

Russian hackers have attacked several EU countries. Slovakia was also a victim

Russian hackers known as APT28 carried out a massive cyber-attack against multiple European countries with the aim of targeting political objectives and obtaining critical information. The main victims were the…