Ukraine conflict: As spring approaches, what next for Ukraine and Russia?

by James Rands

One year on from Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the 1,076 km-long front line is static and neither side shows any inclination to back down. It is no longer credible for Russia to achieve its original goals of seizing Kyiv and dictating terms to Ukraine, but the Russian government has indicated that it wants to retain Crimea, Donbas, and Kherson Oblast. Statements issued by the Ukrainian government on the one-year anniversary of the conflict indicate they are not prepared to accept anything less than the complete removal of all Russian forces from their territory, including Crimea.

Neither side can afford to fight an attritional war indefinitely. Troop and vehicle losses, and the financial cost (and for Ukraine, the impact on the civilian population) cannot be borne indefinitely, and both sides are using artillery ammunition at a rate they cannot sustain.

Russia's next move

Much has been made of Russia's struggle to supply its conscripts with basic equipment and provide them with adequate training – there are credible reports that some units were put into the field with less than a week's training, for example.

However, the bigger issue is armour. Ukraine claims to have destroyed over 3,000 Russian tanks and more than 6,000 armoured personnel carriers (APCs). Even if these figures are inflated, Russia's ability to replace its losses is questionable, and while it may have significant stocks of vehicles in reserve, these are not of the latest types and they certainly are not all in a serviceable state.

With total victory out of their reach, Russia needs a favourable peace settlement. Their stated goals are simply unacceptable to Ukraine. It includes parts of Ukraine currently held by Ukrainian forces and Ukraine expects to retake more territory in 2023. If Russia is to bring the war to a favourable conclusion, its forces must radically change the situation on the ground such that Ukraine does not feel confident that it will be able to retake all its territory or even negotiate from a stronger position.

The attritional fight has slowly been yielding ground, but the casualty rate for each kilometre taken is unsustainable and the time taken is too great. Persisting in that campaign would only make sense if Russian leaders believed Ukrainian forces' will to fight would break first, and there is no indication that is the case. The alternative is to deliver a hammer blow that shocks and breaks Ukrainian forces. The best way to do this is to come from an unexpected direction and flank the opponent's defences. Since the sinking of the Moskva, an amphibious landing is clearly not viable. After the failure at Hostomel and Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) losses there and elsewhere, an air assault is similarly not viable. Finally, while Russia has troops in Belarus, it is not a huge force and it is not an unexpected direction.

If Russia were to deliver a hammer blow against Ukrainian forces, it would have to be an assault somewhere along that existing front line. The focus for a long time has been Bakhmut, but without any great success. An attack almost anywhere else would be less predictable and more likely to succeed. Troop buildups have been reported around Mariupol in the south and to the rear of Kremina in the east. Mariupol has been used as a hub for moving troops for months now, so that does not tell us a lot beyond something is likely to happen in the south. However, a breakout in Kremina makes sense. After the Kharkiv offensive, some of Russia's best troops were moved into the area to prevent a Ukrainian advance, and there are rumours that a portion of the 300,000 mobilised men held in the northeast have been receiving worthwhile training and are being integrated into a larger force.

Starting in early February, Russian forces began to up the tempo of attacks along the front line and used armoured columns to attempt breakthroughs in at least five places, including Kremina and Vuhledar in the south. None of these have made any significant ground and most have resulted in heavy losses of men and armour – on 23 February, Ukraine claimed 14 tanks and 24 APCs destroyed in the preceding 24 hours alone. These attacks are already losing steam or have been defeated. The question remains whether Russia has anything in reserve that can be used to deliver offensive operations. If they do, it is highly unlikely it is a big enough force to make a difference.

What we are now likely to see is Russia consolidating on its defensive line, relying on air and missile strikes to try and break the Ukrainian population's will. They have run out of other options.

Ukrainian goals

In the immediate future, Ukraine needs to continue to weather the storm and be prepared to tackle a potential Russian offensive. Ultimately, however, Ukraine will need to move onto the offensive, and there are four key battles its military needs to win.

Svatove-Kremina – If the Ukrainian Army can defeat the Russians in the area of Svatove-Kremina, they can clear out the northeast corner of the country relatively easily. This is an area that saw very little combat during the invasion due to its low population density and forested terrain that inhibits manoeuvre. Ukraine must break the line between the two towns to achieve its goal; doing so also severs some of the arterial routes into Donbas from Russia. Furthermore, it opens up the area around Sievierodonetsk.

Sievierodonetsk – This area saw a drawn and ferocious battle in 2022 before Ukraine ceded the city, withdrawing across the Siverskyi Donets river. Russia lost two battalions trying to cross the river and while Ukraine received some engineer bridging assets from NATO, assaulting the city via river crossing will be a significant challenge, albeit one that would be easier if the northeast has already been taken.

The southern axis – There is a large area in the south of Ukraine that is under Russian control and which forms the land bridge to Crimea. If Ukraine can punch through to the Black Sea anywhere in that area, they will isolate Crimea. This is not an easy task as they would have to protect two flanks. The expectation is that they would fight in or around Melitopol; however, Russian fortifications are significant and a less direct route may be a better option. (It is also worth noting the further west the breakthrough, the larger an area is left in the southeast of Ukraine, which may become a fifth and possibly final battle.)

Crimea – Crimea needs to be liberated, not least for Ukraine's future ambitions of joining NATO and the European Union (EU). Ukraine will likely be unable to join either institution if there is a territorial dispute over a significant portion of its land. At first sight, this is a huge challenge. There are limited, tightly constrained routes into the peninsula. However, there are marshes to the northeast that are passable to infantry and an assault cannot be ruled out. It is more likely that Ukraine attempts to isolate Crimea, strike military targets with artillery, and encourage Russian forces to withdraw – as happened at Kherson.

In every case, Ukrainian forces will have to break through a Russian defensive line with trenches, dragons' teeth and other tank traps, minefields, and in most cases, large flat plains to cross. Even against poorly trained and equipped defenders, this is a substantial challenge. They will need to identify the weaker spots along the lines and which points would allow a breakout in the rear – there is little point in punching a hole through the lines to advance into marshland, for example – and then ‘prep' the battlefield with artillery targeting command-and-control (C2) elements and attriting the defenders physically and mentally, before launching the attack. One would expect tanks to lead, but in close co-operation with armoured infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), which can deliver infantry into the enemy trenches. However, to get there, engineer vehicles will need to shift obstacles and breach minefields. These are usually slow, vulnerable, and few in number, so they must be protected. To do that, there will need to be a weight of supporting fire sufficient to suppress the defenders.

This is easier to do with NATO equipment than with the Soviet-designed vehicles both sides are currently using – although NATO equipment is heavier, which creates new issues, especially with bridges. It is better armoured and while Russian main battle tanks (MBTs) can probably defeat any NATO armoured fighting vehicle (AFV), other combat vehicles and weapon systems will not.

Currently, Ukraine has been promised a lot of additional military equipment, including Bradley IFVs set up for artillery observers, engineer vehicles, bridge layers, MBTs, and recovery vehicles. So far, some of that equipment has arrived but there is a lag between offers and arrival. For example, the French AMX-10 RC wheeled AFVs were promised about two months ago and may arrive next week. These will be useful, but the real advantage comes not from receiving a few tanks but building a true armoured capability. Crews can train on that equipment as soon as it arrives, but units will need to train on the whole range of equipment and capabilities to build a combined arms force. That is months, not weeks, of preparation.

Ukraine's existing mechanised and armoured brigades are equipped with legacy equipment and they have shown that they are capable of conducting combined arms operations, notably during the Kharkiv offensive. At present, the ground is muddy and not ideal for a new offensive, but shortly it will start to dry out. The question then is will Ukraine push through with what it has or wait to have a fully trained armoured force equipped with Western AFVs before it launches those attacks?

US Army proving out snowmobiles for resupply, manoeuvre

by Meredith Roaten

A US Army snow machine pulls a sled full of Meals, Ready-to-Eat during the Joint Pacific Multinational Readiness Center 24-02 training rotation in February 2024. (Janes/Meredith Roaten)

Soldiers supported brigades from the backs of snowmobiles for the US Army's first large-scale exercise with a significant number of machines, service officials told Janes during the Joint Pacific Multinational Readiness Center (JPMRC) 24-02 training rotation held from 12 to 22 February at Fort Greely, Alaska.

The exercise utilised more than 100 Polaris snow machines for resupply and medical evacuation, and to transport soldiers, Major General Brian Eifler told Janes

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US Army builds out new cold weather vehicle for command-and-control

by Meredith Roaten

The US Army's 11th Airborne Division Cold Weather All-Terrain Vehicle variants are outfitted with radios and Starshield to perform command-and-control functions. (Janes/Meredith Roaten)

The first – almost fully decked out – command-and-control (C2) variants of the Cold Weather All-Terrain Vehicle (CATV), complete with shifted seating arrangements and integrated communications equipment, have been used in the first large scale exercise, a US Army brigade combat team commander told Janes.

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US Army tests new cold-weather medical equipment

by Meredith Roaten

The US Army's medical evacuation sled includes an extra piece of plastic bolted on to provide cover for patients being pulled by snow machine. (Janes/Meredith Roaten)

As the US Army works to phase out Small Unit Support Vehicles (SUSVs) and replace them with Cold Weather All-Terrain Vehicles (CATVs), army medics are trying out a new sled for evacuation in the Arctic environment, medical officers said during the Joint Pacific Multinational Readiness Center (JPMRC) 24-02 training rotation.

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One year on from Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the 1,076 km-long front line is static and neither si...

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