21.03 War Review

Window of Defeat: The Russian army is advancing its offensive by exploiting the advantage in manpower, innovation and the lack of weaponry on the Ukrainian side

The capture of Avdiivka marked the beginning of a new phase of Russia's war in Ukraine. While the topic of conversation among commentators and analysts in the autumn of 2023 was 'military stalemate', by the spring of 2024 the assessments had shifted dramatically. Moscow is developing an offensive on several fronts at once, using its advantage in manpower as well as glide bombs, which are dropped from a distance safe for Russian aircraft. The objectives of Russia's military campaign this year remain the capture of the entire territory of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and reaching the boundary of the Oskil River. In addition, if successful, both Odesa and Kharkiv could become targets. Moscow intends to maximise the window of opportunity opened by the US Congress blocking military aid to Kyiv. However, the high casualty rate may force the Kremlin to launch another mobilisation, experts say: after successfully orchestrating his own re-election, Putin has a greater margin of safety for such a move. Ukraine's ability to resist on the battlefield will also depend not only on the regularity of Western ammunition supplies but also on Kyiv's readiness to mobilise. At this stage, the war has largely become a confrontation of mobilisation resources — economic, military and human. At the same time, as the example of glide bombs shows, innovations play a significant role, temporarily compensating for the parties’ lack of weapons and equipment.

While back in the autumn of 2023 the main topic of commentary and analysis was the issue of a 'stalemate' in military operations in southern Ukraine, now the tone has shifted dramatically. The Russian army, taking advantage of the weakness of the Ukrainian armed forces and the Ukrainian crisis with the supply of Western weapons, has seized the initiative on the battlefield and is trying to build on its success in order to maximise its control over Ukrainian territory. According to an expert from the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the capture of Avdiivka and the further advance of the Russian army demonstrate the seriousness of Moscow's ambitions to take full control of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. To achieve this goal, Russia is likely to launch a series of large-scale attacks on Ukrainian positions in the spring and summer. Aleksandr Syrskyy, the commander of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, agrees with these assessments and believes that, by summer, there may be a critical situation on the front if supplies of Western ammunition are not restored.

The Russian army's recent successes on the battlefield are due to the fact that it has become less constrained in terms of manpower and continues its offensive tactics with disregard for the number of casualties ('meat grinder assaults'), now reinforced by the widespread use of FAB-500 glide bombs. As noted in a podcast on the War on the Rocks platform by renowned military analyst Michael Kofman, who has just returned from a trip to the front lines, the use of these bombs played a crucial role in the capture of Avdiivka. Guided aerial bombs of immense destructive power have given Russia back the air superiority it lost at the start of the invasion, writes The Times. They are able to be dropped from long distances from the front line when the aircraft are out of range of Ukrainian air defences, while the bombs themselves are virtually impossible to shoot down. Kofman explains that the bombs compensate for the weak points in the Russian advance. Due to a shortage of modern armoured vehicles, Russian units have to use outdated vehicles from Soviet stockpiles, while the terrain prevents large-scale battalion-level operations and forces them to operate in small assault groups. However, massive FAB strikes demoralise the enemy and destroy their fortified positions, as was the case in Avdiivka.

In addition, after the success in Avdiivka, the Russian army has changed its offensive strategy for the first time during the combat operations, notes the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). While previously it concentrated large groups of troops to conquer single targets (this was the case in Bakhmut and Avdiivka), the current Russian offensive on the Kharkiv-Luhansk section of the front consists of attacks along four parallel axes on the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, which mutually support each other and may eventually bring Moscow operationally significant successes. The ultimate goal of this operation, ISW believes, is to push Ukrainian forces to the western bank of the Oskil River in the Kharkiv region, allowing Russia to significantly expand the size of the territory it occupies in Ukraine.

Michael Kofman notes that although the Russian group is making slow progress, it has managed to get closer to the town of Pokrovsk in Donetsk region, which is a strategically important transport hub for the Ukrainian armed forces. The town of Chasiv Yar, located on the high ground near Bakhmut, could be another target: its capture would open the way for an attack on Slovyansk and Kramatorsk. The success of these operations would be an important step towards establishing full control over the Donetsk region.

As Bloomberg points out, Putin would ideally like to capture at least one of Ukraine's major cities, such as Odesa, which would allow the Kremlin to cut off Ukraine's most important grain export routes across the Black Sea, as well as create a land corridor to pro-Russian separatist-controlled Transnistria. RUSI adds that, in addition to Odesa, Russia is also interested in taking control of Kharkiv, which would strengthen its position in the negotiations on Ukraine's post-war arrangement. In this instance, Moscow would insist not only that the occupied territories remain under its control, but also that Kyiv abandon its NATO membership.

According to RUSI, the number of Russian military personnel in Ukraine is constantly increasing: from 360,000 servicemen at the beginning of 2023, it has risen to 470,000, which will sustain a stable pace of advancement throughout 2024. However, Russian troops suffer high losses (→ Re: Russia: Calculating Losses). According to experts interviewed by Novaya Gazeta Europe, Moscow will have to start a new mobilisation as early as this year if it is indeed planning a large-scale offensive in late spring or summer. In order to storm the town of Chasiv Yar and advance in the Kharkiv direction, Russia needs to create a group of 300,000-400,000 servicemen, while the resource for recruiting contract soldiers has been practically exhausted, they believe. After successfully organising his own re-election, Putin has significantly more political capital and may decide to take such a step in order to make the most of the window of opportunity created by the blocking of US aid and expand his gains on the eve of the US presidential election (→ Re: Russia: Putin-Trump Plan). 

The prospects of the Russian army's offensive will also depend on Kyiv's decisions, adds Kofman. An increasingly serious issue is the manpower shortage in the Ukrainian army, which Kofman describes as a 'one-way ticket', is becoming an increasingly serious problem. The personnel shortage is especially acute in the infantry, which accounts for 70% of Ukrainian casualties. Earlier this year, the commander of the Ukrainian armed forces, Valeriy Zaluzhny, called for the mobilisation of 500,000 new recruits, but the request was rejected and Zaluzhny himself resigned shortly thereafter. During a visit to Kyiv in mid-March, US Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said that it was necessary to pass a mobilisation law that would allow men under 27 to be drafted to the front. 

The war in Ukraine, which has been compared to World War I in terms of the intensity of the fighting, after two years of battles has largely boiled down to a confrontation of mobilisation resources: not only economic and military, but also human. In the coming months, both Moscow and Kyiv will have to make difficult and unpopular decisions to bring the army up to the required level. How effective both of these mobilisation campaigns will be will largely determine the outcome of this year's military confrontation. At the same time, both sides continue to compensate for shortcomings in equipment and armaments with innovations, and the Russian side is very active in this regard. Such innovations, as demonstrated by the use of glide bombs, can give one side a significant advantage for a while, until the other side adapts and finds a way to counter them or obtains new weapons.