Attack on the Ave Maria |  When and where the next major Russian offensive in Ukraine could arrive          ​​​​​​

Attack on the Ave Maria | When and where the next major Russian offensive in Ukraine could arrive ​​​​​​

When and where will the next Russian offensive in Ukraine take place? The question is topical and preoccupies both the intelligence services of the various countries involved and the various observers of the conflict, scattered between traditional and social media. The fear generated by the latter is particularly pernicious.

After the spectacular front shifts in the first year of the war, many became accustomed to a continuous trickle of offensives and counter-offensives, an expectation that was actually quite independent of local conditions. There is even who speculates a massive attack from Belarus to cut logistic and communication lines between Poland and Ukraine, or alternatively further east to attempt a new attack on Kyjiv.

Both options present major difficulties, not the least of which is the presence of the Pripyat Marshes along much of the border, making operations difficult and making the routes that Russian forces should take quite predictable. Also from a strategic point of view, the reopening of the Northern Front would again bring with it a large number of problems that the Russian leadership faced in the first weeks of the war. Despite the partial mobilization, this would still be an enormous extension of the front line, making it indeed impossible to defend as a unit and minimizing the possibility of concentrating enough units to launch targeted offensives.

Why is a new offensive expected?
Rumbling about a threat from the north is part of the strategic plan anyway. Kremlin propaganda has repeatedly emphasized the presence of new Russian units in Belarus, raising the specter of an attack that Kyiv forces, however unlikely, cannot ignore. Although many of the country’s Russian-trained units were transferred to the Donbass front, the Ukrainians still felt the need to reinforce the northern borders in the Kherson sector with the 47th Assault Brigade and create firm defenses to protect border units.

While much of the current attention is focused on the bloody attrition over Soledar and Bakhmut, both Ukrainian and Western analysts expect a full-scale offensive to take place in 2023.

In fact, the military activities carried out during these winter months (aside from more or less favorable weather conditions in different parts of the country) had the function of consolidating their own forces while at the same time wearing down the opposing troops with a view to the summer.

For Russia, this mainly meant inflicting heavy casualties on Ukrainian forces (Bakhmut’s sector) and wearing down their rear air defenses. For Ukraine, the main concern was to keep the pressure on the Russian troops (Lysychansk sector) and prevent their recruits from becoming firmly integrated into the Russian order of battle. The other goal is the continued elimination of armored personnel carriers and other weapons systems that Moscow is fighting to replace.

After the abrasion
It is clear that this policy of attrition serves to create opportunities for a more mobile handling of conflicts. Sooner or later, one of the two sides will be convinced that the attrition inflicted on the opponent will be enough to launch a more complex attack and try to achieve goals that are considered strategic. Where this will happen is an open question. However, the temptation could be particularly great for the Russian general staff, who will probably be put under pressure by Vladimir Putin to be able to politically sell a major offensive or more spectacular victories.

Obviously, it is not possible to predict with certainty where the next offensive will take place, especially for those without access to intelligence sources that penetrate the fog of war. To assess where such an attack might take place, a professional intelligence analysis would look at a number of indicators, such as the Wagner mercenary), the degree of exhaustion of the Ukrainian troops, or the number of ammunition, particularly artillery, likely stockpiled by the Russians .

Much of this data would be derived and contextualized in a more general framework: we know, for example, that the Russians are currently skimping on artillery shells compared to the peak of 40,000 rounds reached in the summer. It is unclear whether this is due to a lack of reserves or logistical difficulties, but the peak values ​​six months ago indicate that the Russian leadership has managed to solve the supply problems of the first few weeks. In this regard, sectors where artillery has been used less in recent weeks may indicate an intention to save precisely in preparation for a massive use in an offensive (as is happening north of Lysyhansk and in Zaporizhia).

Industrial production and political logic
Another global factor to consider is the difficulty of Russian manufacturing plants to maintain current consumption of armored vehicles and, most importantly, cruise missiles. According to Ukrainian intelligence and open-source analysis, the Russians have been producing more effectors lately, indicating a lack of stockpiles and suggesting that the intensity of the Russian air campaign is limited by the estimated forty missiles being produced monthly. This would be another element against the Belarus-based offensive, which would require many more depth charges in the Ukrainian rear, and would ignore the relative lack of artillery pieces in the sector.

Finally, there is a rather important political element to consider on the Russian side. It is not yet certain how much Putin himself still believes in total enslavement of Ukraine, even if the conquest of the annexed oblasts seems to be the immediate priority. But even within this more limited panorama, confusion reigns: a volatile and often shifting chain of command, marred by internal strife and the lumbering presence of Yevgeny Prigozhin and Wagner, makes it difficult to discern Russian operational priorities. The attack on Bakhmut and Soledar is a case in point: militarily it is not without logic, but it has proved far too expensive to justify the aggressors’ persistence.

It is likely that Russia’s insistence is largely due to Prigozhin’s desire to demonstrate the usefulness of his mercenaries in the field, as well as circular logic typical of Russian strategy: attacking a position because it is deemed politically important, and meaning is conveyed to him a heavy investment of means and men attached to its conquest. While the Department of Defense has a firm grip on large operations (and the use of artillery and aviation), this is no small annoyance.

Against this background, it is very difficult to predict where the next major operations could take place. While it is easy to rule out the Belarusian front, there are many plausible options that cannot be ruled out based on the available information.

Credible developments include a Russian attempt to exploit Ukrainian fatigue at Lysychansk; a Ukrainian attack in the Zaporizhzhia region, depleting its own local reserves, coupled with further pressure across the Dnipro; finally Russian maneuvers in the south to prevent a Ukrainian offensive. The problem is that in the current phase of the conflict, without inside information, anything that is made public falls into the realm of speculation.