Explainer: new front, same challenges to Russian offensive

Russia is preparing a massive, new offensive in eastern Ukraine, hoping to reverse its fate on the battlefield after a disastrous seven-week start to the war.

A long convoy of combat vehicles has jammed highways in northeastern Ukraine in preparation for an attack that could begin within days, and the Kremlin has taken on a generic name to oversee Moscow’s campaign in Syria. .

A look at Russia’s military objectives and the challenges it faces.

a failed attack

A failed Russian attempt to attack Kyiv and other large cities took a heavy toll in personnel and equipment, boosting morale in Ukraine and allowing it to rally broad international support.

Ukrainian military expert Ole Zhdanov told the Associated Press, “The myth about the invincibility of the Russian army as the second most powerful in the world has taken the Ukrainians themselves by great surprise.”

The influx of Western weapons into Ukraine and increasing popular resistance to Russian aggression would further increase the cost of the war for Moscow.

President Vladimir Putin desperately needs a quick battlefield victory to get out of what looks like a disastrous quagmire.

Russia’s attention is turning to Ukraine’s industrial region known as the Donbass, where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian government forces as conflict began soon after the Kremlin’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014. happened.

“In the first round, Russia has lost its face, both politically and militarily,” Zhdanov said. “It has done every foolish thing possible, in a blazing hope … but it will make the Russian attack even more fierce in the next round.”

reconsideration and redeployment

After retreating from Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy, the Russian army pulled back into the territory of Belarus, the allies of Moscow, as well as the areas of Western Russia, and re-supplied for the new offensive.

Retired British general Sir Richard Barrons estimated that the Russians “may have lost about 25% of ground forces, in the sense that they are units that have become non-combatant effective.”

“So they’re amalgamating them, they’re refining them, they’re consolidating them and then moving them around,” Barons told the AP.

Barron, co-chair of the consulting group Universal Defense and Security Solutions, said Russia was also trying to mobilize reservists from elsewhere in a desperate attempt to move additional equipment and create a substantial attack force.

“He has been beaten, and he will only have a few weeks to get better,” he said.

Recently, Russian troops have been seen rolling in to move into attack positions in eastern Ukraine. The convoy stretched for about 13 kilometers (8 mi) on a highway east of Kharkiv, heading south towards Ukrainian lines near Izyum, a strategic road junction.

At the same time, Russian forces rushed to crush the remainder of the Ukrainian resistance at Mariupol after besieging the vital Sea of ​​Azov port for nearly 1 months.

Once Mariupol is fully under Russian control, and troops drawn from the areas near Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy have completed their redeployment, the offensive is expected to begin.

Will a new commander make a difference?

General Alexander Dvornikov was appointed the new military commander for the campaign in Ukraine. The 60-year-old soldier, one of Russia’s most experienced officers, is credited with leading Moscow’s forces in a ruthless campaign to sideline President Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria into a civil war in which entire cities were flattened and destroyed. Millions were displaced.

In 2016, Putin awarded Dvornikov the Hero of Russia Medal, one of the country’s highest awards, and named him head of the Southern Military District, commanding units in southwestern Russia.

Dvornikov’s appointment is seen as reflecting the Kremlin’s awareness of rapidly improving the poor coordination between the various forces that hindered previous military efforts. However, skeptics point out that in contrast to the large-scale operation in Ukraine, the Syrian campaign involved a relatively small number of soldiers.

Trying New Battlefield Tactics

Ukrainian and Western experts expect Russia to encircle Ukrainian forces in the Donbass with a pincer movement advancing from Izium in the north and Mariupol in the south.

Some speculate that Russia may also try to use its forces north of Crimea to try to capture the industrial centers of Zaporizhzhya and Dniepro on the Dnieper River, effectively halving Ukraine. .

Barons said the Russians are focusing on the former “instead of trying to do three or four big things at once and trying to spread air power and logistics.”

“The main conundrum is whether the Russians can muster enough force … enough to destroy a very good Ukrainian defensive position with a heavy load of brutality,” he said. By shelling and concentrating troops at a few key locations, he said.

Will Russia’s logistical problems persist?

Despite a new commander, the offensive would face the same military challenges that Russian troops faced early in the campaign.

During an unsuccessful attempt to attack Kyiv, Russian convoys spread along highways leading to the capital, becoming easy prey for Ukrainian artillery, drones and scouts.

As difficult as it may be to support operations in the east, Russian supply lines are likely to face hit-and-run raids, helped by the arrival of spring as the foliage provides natural cover for Ukrainian scouts and guerrillas.

Control over the skies has also been a problem, with Ukraine’s air defense assets continuing to shoot down Russian warplanes, making it difficult for ground troops to advance. In recent days, Russia has launched attacks on Ukrainian long-range air defense systems in apparent preparation for the offensive.

“If the Russians have learned the lessons of their failure by now and can concentrate more forces and better connect their air forces to ground forces and sort out logistics, they will eventually begin to dominate Ukrainian positions.” Although I still think it will be a battle of heavy fighting,” Barons told the AP.

Territories more favorable for Russia?

During eight years of fighting separatists in the past, the Ukrainian military has built up a multi-layered defense, which Russian forces have failed to break, despite repeated attacks since the offensive began on 24 February.

“They have been fighting in these current positions in the Donbass for almost eight years, so they are very experienced and they are very well prepared,” Barons said of the Ukrainian forces.

He added, however, that “it will be different because Russian attacks will potentially be much greater” and the flat terrain in the east could give the Russians an edge.

“The kind of ambush tactics that the Ukrainians were highly successful in may not be applicable in the Donbass around Kyiv,” Barones said. “And if the Russians were able to move their armor at the speed of tanks, armored infantry, and armored artillery, they could have fallen behind the Ukrainian position. This is going to be a much tougher, bigger battle than we have seen so far. has been.”

Ukraine has requested the West for warplanes, long-range air defense systems, heavy artillery and armor to counter the massive Russian advance in firepower.

“It’s a battle of time and space between the Russians and the Ukrainians so that the Russians can get enough forces and the Ukrainians can get the weapons they need and rehearse themselves for what will be a bigger and slightly different battle, and I think that it’s subtly balanced,” Barons said.

For Putin, the race against time

After failures on the first battlefield, Putin is in dire need of a quick breakthrough in the East.

Russia, stricken by Western sanctions, lacks the financial resources for a protracted conflict. If fighting continues, it will inevitably wreck the economy and could bring social tensions, eroding the Kremlin’s support base.

The military has already put its most capable combat units into campaign, and continued fighting will likely force it to summon more reservists and throw new troops into battle – moves that may be extremely unpopular.

Putin may hope to rapidly expand territory formerly under separatist control, then try to wrap up the campaign and spin it as a victory to force Ukraine into negotiated concessions.

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Associated Press writers Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Ukraine, and Danica Kirka in London contributed.

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