February is over. The large-scale winter offensive, which was announced both in Moscow and in Kyiv, did not happen. On most of the Russian-Ukrainian front, positional battles went on all winter, and only in certain sectors did Russian troops try to conduct active offensive operations. What did the fighting armies manage to achieve and what was the situation in the battle zone on the eve of the spring thaw?
Opportunities and prerequisites for a major offensive this winter had both sides. Ukraine, having victoriously completed the autumn campaign, could try to develop success in the north and west of the Luhansk region or attack in any of the southern directions – and possibly in several at once.
Russia, having received large reinforcements due to the mobilization carried out, could seize the initiative in the north of Donbass, try to recapture the lost territories in the Liman region and in the east of the Kharkiv region, as well as advance in Zaporozhye and in the south of the Donetsk region.
“General Frost” hinders and helps both warring parties – the actions of infantry units are difficult, but the frozen ground favors the movement of armored vehicles. In winter, bad with camouflage and good with target designation. If there was a supply problem in the summer, it will be even worse in the winter.
The Armed Forces of Ukraine preferred to take up strategic defense, limiting themselves to local attacks in the Kremennaya area northwest of the Severodonetsk-Lisichansk agglomeration. The Russian Armed Forces, although they showed activity on different sectors of the front, concentrated their main efforts in the Donetsk region – near Bakhmut in the northeast and in the Donetsk region, where the ledges controlled by the Ukrainian army threaten the regional center and the supply routes of the Russian group in the south of the Zaporozhye region.
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Now both sides are accumulating reserves. Ukraine puts into operation military equipment received from Western countries, masters its own production, trains assault units, forms new units and develops plans for a spring-summer offensive. Russia is intensively engaged in inventorying the Soviet military depots that it has inherited, is conducting an examination of the ammunition stored there, is looking for additional sources of arms supplies, is training the mobilized, and is also making plans for the warm season.
Brief overview of the situation on the fronts
After withdrawing from the right bank of the Dnieper, Russian troops took most of the units deep into the territory, away from Ukrainian artillery fire. Small dispersed groups remained near the line of contact, on the islands and the Kinburn Spit. Their main task is to prevent the landing of Ukrainian troops on the left bank and to conduct disturbing fire.
At the moment, the front line there has stabilized along the Dnieper. Military experts assess the possibility of the Armed Forces of Ukraine going on the offensive on this front as unlikely. First, it is necessary to cross a large river – and this is a very difficult operation. Secondly, after forcing the Dnieper, it is necessary to provide the advancing connections with uninterrupted supply, and how to do this is a big question. Bridges across the Dnieper are broken, pontoon and ferry crossings are unreliable, there is not enough aviation.
And thirdly, the Russian units in the Kherson region were not defeated, but made an organized withdrawal and are in a combat-ready state. They had enough time to complete and equip defensive positions.
For the Russian army, an attempt to land on the opposite bank does not make sense at all – such an operation, unless it is part of a grander plan, is doomed to failure for the same reasons as indicated above. At the same time, the Russian command still has to reckon with the possibility of a Ukrainian landing on the left bank, including from the sea, and keep vast territories under constant control, and this requires a lot of troops.
Ukrainian intelligence estimates the size of the Russian group in the Zaporozhye direction at 30 battalion tactical groups, which is about 25 thousand people. With such numbers, it is theoretically possible to attack along the entire front line with a length of over 100 km, but it is very risky. In the event that the enemy switches to a counteroffensive, there will be no reserves to repulse him, and the flat treeless terrain facilitates the rapid advance of breakthrough groups.
But for defense and local operations in narrow sectors of the front, these forces are sufficient. In mid-January, Russian troops tried to move north, in the direction of Orekhov and Gulyaipol, it was reported that they had captured several villages, but only one was confirmed.
Soon the battles in Zaporozhye took on a positional character, at the present time separate skirmishes and artillery duels continue there, but in general this sector of the front remains relatively calm.
Nevertheless, military analysts consider the south of Zaporozhye the most promising direction for the Ukrainian offensive – if successful, the Armed Forces of Ukraine can cut the land corridor to the Crimea, and the position of the Kherson group of Russian troops will become unenviable. But to carry out such a large-scale operation, Ukraine needs many well-trained and equipped soldiers.
Russia’s unsuccessful attack on Ugledar revealed the conceptual problems of its army, which largely operates according to old patterns, but, unlike the Soviet armed forces, does not have a multi-million strength.
In an attempt to realize the task set, the Russian command created a high concentration of forces and means in one narrow section about three kilometers wide. And in this situation, the advantage of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in high-precision mobile artillery and effective means of target designation and communication was fully manifested. It was also noticeable that the Russian units were stubbornly following unsuccessful tactics, when armored vehicles tried to make a breakthrough along the same route, were blown up by mines and fell under the blows of Ukrainian guns.
As a result, the losses of the advancing troops turned out to be enormous, and the task of taking Ugledar was not completed.
Avdiivka is called an outpost of Ukrainian troops in the Donetsk region. This suburb of Donetsk hangs over its northern part and serves as a springboard for a possible ground attack of the Armed Forces of Ukraine on the regional center.
Attempts by Russian troops to cut off this unpleasant ledge were made even before the start of a full-scale war. The problems lie in the fact that, firstly, Avdiivka is well fortified, and secondly, it is difficult to approach it: the area around is well shot through and therefore belongs to the so-called gray zone – neither side can occupy it.
In winter, the Russian army again became more active in the Avdeevka direction. It was reported about the transfer of mercenaries from PMC “Wagner” there, who use the tactics of mobile assault groups, for the most part formed from recruited Russian prisoners.
The essence of this tactic is incessant targeted attacks by small units in order to open enemy firing points and immediately suppress them with artillery fire. If this succeeds, the surviving attack aircraft should take up positions and hold them until the reserves arrive.
In the Donbass, the tactics of the Wagnerites are bearing fruit – the Russian troops manage to slowly move forward, albeit at the cost of huge losses. In the case of Avdiivka, they managed to advance several hundred meters along the entire line of clashes, although there are no obvious breakthroughs anywhere yet.
The city is located in a semicircle, in the north there are battles for Krasnogorovka, in the south – for Experienced. But such a situation was there before, and the resources of mercenaries are not unlimited.
North and west of Luhansk region
Since last fall, Ukrainian troops have been advancing on Kremennaya, a city said to be the key to the Russian-controlled Severodonetsk-Lysichansk agglomeration. In winter, the attacks of the Armed Forces of Ukraine continued, but without much success. The head of the Lugansk military administration, Sergei Gaidai, called the widespread mining of the territory by Russian troops a key problem in this area.
By the middle of winter, the Russian army received reinforcements from the mobilized and tried to launch a counteroffensive near Kremennaya itself, but did not achieve success either. Now the front line there is practically static.
Another direction of the Russian counterattack was the north of the Luhansk region. In early February, Russian formations suddenly became more active in the Kupyansk direction. At some point, it even seemed that this was the very, previously announced, major Russian offensive.
Kupyansk is a city in the Kharkiv region on the banks of the Oskol reservoir. In autumn, as a result of its loss, the Russian grouping near Izyum was cut off from the north and was forced to hastily retreat, and the Armed Forces of Ukraine began to quickly move to the north of the Lugansk region. The attempt of the Russian army to regain control over Kupyansk, move the Armed Forces of Ukraine away from its large stronghold Svatovo and rehabilitate for the autumn failures looked logical.
But the Russian offensive was limited to a small advance to the west and the occupation of several villages of little strategic importance. The threat of a breakthrough by Ukrainian troops to Svatovo still remains.
The most fierce battles are now going on for Bakhmut in the north of the Donetsk region. It seems that the Russian units, whose striking force in this direction are the militants of the Wagner PMC, set out to take the city at any cost.
The assault on Bakhmut and the attacks on its surroundings come from different directions. Using the same tactics of mobile assault groups as near Avdiivka, the fighters of the PMC “Wagner” gnaw through the Ukrainian defenses from the flanks and have already created a threat to encircle the city.
“They drew something for themselves again, they want to quickly encircle us … There is no encirclement, a very difficult situation on the far northern flank, the enemy’s assault actions are coming from there,” the commander of the Armed Forces of Ukraine with the call sign Madyar says about the situation in Bakhmut.
The Armed Forces of Ukraine can leave Bakhmut if necessary, Alexander Rodnyansky, adviser to the President of Ukraine, told CNN. “Our military is obviously going to weigh all the options. While they hold the city, but if necessary, they will retreat strategically – because we are not going to sacrifice all our people just like that,” he said.
The Bakhmut direction does not pose a strategic danger to the Ukrainian command. If the city is taken, the advancing Russian troops will run into new lines of defense and will not be able to develop operational success – they will have to storm the next settlement using the same method of slowly pushing through the defensive orders.
However, as the commander of the Wagner detachment operating north of Bakhmut told the Russian media , so far there are no signs of a loss of control, an impending retreat, and problems with the supply of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
“The Ukrainian command effectively uses and commits reserves to battle, uses field roads only at night, it is almost impossible to detect any kind of supply or export,” he says.
“Competent control – artillery works closely, constantly changes positions, plus this is foreign-made artillery, which is more mobile than our Russian-Soviet complexes. It uses both conventional and high-precision ammunition. “High-precision” is mainly used at control points, along fortified dugouts, if they manage to spot us,” said the commander of the Wagnerites.
Results of the winter campaign
In general, the line of the Russian-Ukrainian front did not undergo significant changes over the past winter.
The Russian army has exhausted the possibilities for conducting major offensive operations and can now only achieve success with the support of the Wagner PMC, the New York Times writes , citing Konrad Muzyka, a military analyst at Rochan Consulting.
As Muzyka notes, more or less the same thing is happening at the front every week: the Russian army is attacking almost the entire line of contact, but not making any serious progress. All she has managed to achieve in recent weeks is to take a few villages north of Bakhmut.
At the same time, the analyst cautions against underestimating the Russian army: Moscow still has thousands of tanks, artillery pieces and a numerical advantage, while generals can keep troops in reserve for a spring offensive.
Russian troops are adopting a new offensive tactic to compensate for current combat limitations in light of continued setbacks by throwing smaller and more agile combined-arms formations into battle than those used at the start of the invasion, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) points out .