A destroyed tank on the outskirts of the village of Kamyanka near Izyum, in the Kharkiv region. The freezing winter temperatures may give the Ukrainians a new chance for counter-offensives. SERGEY BOBOK/AFP via Getty Images
Freezing mud and snow have helped slow Ukrainian counter-offensives, as beleaguered Russian troops look to stabilize their front lines in the south and east of the country.
Russian units, led by the notorious mercenaries of the Wagner Group, are still pressing a frenzied attack on the devastated eastern city of Bakhmut, where Ukrainian forces are reportedly being forced to give ground.
At the strategic level, though, operations have slowed to a crawl after significant Ukrainian victories. The fighting has largely settled back into the artillery duels that have characterized the lulls of the almost 10-month-old war, while commanders wait for deep winter temperatures to freeze the ground so it’s hard enough to support new mechanized offensives.
Ukrainian counter-attacks have liberated some 63 percent of territory occupied by Russian invaders since February 24. Now, artillery and special forces teams are preparing the ground for the next major offensive.
“I think the Ukrainians are in a great position to advance,” Mark Voyger, a former special adviser on Russian and Eurasian affairs to the commanding general of the U.S. Army in Europe, told Newsweek.
“Ukraine seems to be poised to continue the offensive for as long as possible,” Voyger explained. “Based on the statements by U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and other officials, it seems that all the Western allies have accepted the fact that the Ukrainians won’t stop. I don’t see any desire or any attempt to put pressure on Ukraine to stop and negotiate at this point.”
Where the hammer will fall remains to be seen. Kyiv closely guards its plans, and used deception to great effect earlier this year when the publicly announced and long-awaited offensive towards Kherson was preceded by a surprise offensive liberating all of the northeastern Kharkiv Oblast.
“The Ukrainians have been brilliantly deceiving everyone, most of all the Russians,” Voyger said.
There are good reasons for attacks on both fronts. In the south, Ukrainian troops could push down from Ukrainian-held Zaporizhzhia towards Melitopol, occupied in the first days of the invasion.
Such a drive would potentially allow Ukrainian forces to cut vital railway and road links stretching westwards from Russia’s borders, through occupied Mariupol, and into the Crimean peninsula. A successful push to the Sea of Azov coast in the south could pocket a large number of Russians holding the east bank of the Dnieper River and imperil Crimea.
In the east, Ukraine’s counter-offensive has slowed on the borders of the Kharkiv and Luhansk oblasts. But the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts are important political goals and have been partially occupied by Russian forces since the 2014 invasion.
Seizing one, or both, regions would be a serious political blow to the Kremlin, and would put Ukrainian troops within striking distance of multiple Russian settlements across the border.
Eyes on the South
Roman Kostenko—one of the famous “cyborg” Ukrainian troops who defended Donetsk airport in 2014, a veteran of the yearslong fight against Russian-directed forces in the Donbas and now a member of Ukraine’s parliament—told Newsweek from the southern front that the broad, fast-flowing Dnieper poses a problem for Kyiv.
“It is very hard to cross in any weather,” Kostenko—who took part in the liberation of his home city of Kherson—said of the river which now separates the Ukrainian and Russian positions.
“Will we try to get across the river to liberate [territories on the other bank] just now? I highly doubt it,” Kostenko said. “In terms of returning territories, we have more promising directions—Zaporizhzhia, Melitopol, Berdyansk,” he added, describing a potential southern drive to the port cities of the Azov Sea coast.
“If we can break the Russian lines there, then we have a good chance of circling back to the southern bank of Dnipro [the Ukrainian name for the Dnieper] to liberate the rest of Kherson.”
“If we can achieve that, those parts of Kherson still under Russian control will be largely cut off, and all of their logistics will have to be rerouted via Crimea. But that is a very narrow corridor: Crimea is a peninsula for us, but for the Russians it’s an island.”
“All they have is the Kerch Bridge, and we’ve seen recently that it isn’t the safest and well-defended structure. They still have their transport and carrier ships, of course, but those offer only a fraction of what you can deliver by land and rail.”
“If we can cut it off, those remaining Russian troops could be cut off the same way the ones on the right bank were a few months back.”
The southern axis looks more beneficial than in the east, Voyger concurred. “I would rather advance as quickly as possible towards Melitopol in trying to encircle and cut off Crimea,” he explained. “Otherwise the Russians will use the time to pepper the ground with all sorts of defensive devices in that whole area.”
“I would logically advance to the extent possible and try to take Melitopol with its communication nodes and transportation nodes. That’s really critical to control. And then, of course, the effort would come to relieve further pressure on Bakhmut and then probably retake portions of, and liberate, Donetsk.”
Russians ‘Without a Win’
Moscow appears to have few good options to seize back the momentum in the conflict.
The Kremlin, Voyger said, is likely to spend the winter trying to stabilize its front lines “through military means, through diplomatic means, through attacking infrastructure, through bringing additional reinforcements,” as well as building up forces along the Ukrainian-Belarusian border to distract Kyiv and fix defensive troops there. “I don’t think they’ll succeed,” Voyger said.
Kostenko said Putin appears obsessed with achieving some kind of victory, even at great cost. “The enemy has been without a win for a while. They haven’t achieved the stated goals of ‘demilitarization,’ ‘denazification,’ taking Kyiv and whatever else they initially promised,” he said.
“They have been constantly on the back foot, retreating in at least five areas. So they need some sort of victory, even if hollow; something Putin can show his people.”
“So they are going for a final push to secure all of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, even though—in my view—they had more prospects in Zaporizhzhia. Not because we aren’t defending there, but because it would be more attractive from the strategic perspective, while the Donbass is purely a political target.”
“They are looking for a political win to tout, while for us the key is to reinforce our defenses in those parts while mobilizing our forces for the coming counter-offensive in Zaporizhzhia.”