The conflict has been in a state of minimal advance, defence building in some areas and maybe continual reassessment from the Russian side whilst the Ukrainian focus has been on defence with minimal loss, both of territory and of personnel. In the South, hundreds of kilometres of trenches have been dug deep inside Russian territory like Belgorod and Kursk regions, as well as in occupied Ukrainian areas along the coast. Russia has made a particular effort to fortify the area north of and Crimea itself in anticipation of a potential Ukrainian counteroffensive. Layers of anti-tank ditches, obstacles, minefields and trenches have been built. These defensive lines run for hundreds of kilometres across the southern front – where Ukrainian forces are expected to concentrate their counter-offensive.
In the East, the “Battle for Bakhmut” has turned into a grind for the Russians and despite trying to use using large numbers of conscripts supported by Wagner personnel the advances have been minimal, the losses huge, for a target of no great strategic value. The Russians have continued missile attacks but appear to be trying to target areas/locations where they believe Ukraine may be building up forces (unfortunately striking primarily civilian infrastructure) as opposed to energy infrastructure as in the winter.
Bakhmut became a “principle” for Moscow and despite Wagner advances they have not been militarily significant; Russia has also sent in Airborne (VDV) troops to supplement Wagner troops but the results have not been as expected and the advance has been stalling. Now Wagner troops are possibly looking at the option of “defending” what they have taken and it seems that the Russians may be running out of impetus.
It is apparent that Russian forces in the Bakhmut area have been degraded after an extremely tough six months of fighting without an operational pause. Ukrainian forces are also, no doubt, battle weary but morale is potentially higher in light of the higher losses inflicted on “elite” Russian forces and the fact that their resupply line has remained open.
The Ukrainian defence of Bakhmut has, arguably, achieved its aim in terms of slowing any impetus the Russian forces could have built up and has severely damaged Russian aims and the capabilities of the Wagner forces and whilst it will not “force a retreat” may cause more than a temporary halt to offensive operations there without a significant reinforcement and logistics effort.
It is anticipated that Russia’s main goal is, at present, to fully control the four regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhia. This would put Russia in a favourable position and calm the Russian population. The success or failure of this scenario depends on the efficient use of Russia’s newly trained soldiers and the continued Western support for Ukraine. Russia has not been able to consolidate its control over these regions and has not achieved its current aims. Ukraine has re-taken large amounts of territory but its stated aim remains to liberate all occupied Ukrainian territory, this will take time… how much will depend on Western supplies of equipment, training and potentially Russian frailties and failures. At present, despite major manpower and equipment losses, Russia is not beaten and Ukraine does not have the military capability to re-take all its occupied territory.
The current situation is that the Russians are anticipating another Ukrainian counteroffensive… will it happen? The answer most certainly is yes.
There are complications, Russia has had time to prepare, there are more conscripts who have completed training and it has had the opportunity to build strong defensive positions plus there will be possibly a minimal element of surprise.
The personnel, weaponry and resources (logistic supply) for any Ukrainian counteroffensive needs to be sufficient to fully support the planned counteroffensive (there may also be a longer-term sustainability issue if the counteroffensive is too ambitious or multi-directional) and any build-up will probably be detected by Russian forces.
However, all indications are that the preparations for a counteroffensive are almost complete. Ukraine has received approximately 1,550 armoured vehicles, over 150 artillery pieces, surface to air missiles, engineering and mine clearance vehicles and other assorted specialist equipment along with some 230 western supplied tanks. Thousands of personnel have been trained outside Ukraine on the equipment provided and in combat techniques and tactics. Some sources state that Ukraine has potentially nine brigades prepared for the counteroffensive that include those equipped with weaponry that Ukraine had before the conflict started possibly increasing the numbers of armoured vehicles, tanks and artillery pieces.
There are options; one large counteroffensive, simultaneous offensives (one or two minor and maybe one major or even two mid-sized or a series of minor offensives). The Ukrainian military planners will no doubt have several options that could produce tangible results based on the intelligence they receive.
Where? The most logical axis for any counteroffensive would be the South (the Zaporizhzhia front line), possibly to advance as far as Melitopol and possibly Berdiansk. This would create a wedge between Russian forces in the Southwest and the South plus cut off crucial Russian supply lines towards Crimea, putting pressure on all the Russian forces in the South as HIMARS could potentially target all Russian supply lines and Crimea itself. However, Russia has already prepared defensive lines to counter such an offensive and such a counteroffensive would leave Ukrainian forces susceptible to attack from two sides (and particularly from the air).
There is also the option of smaller counteroffensives in the Kherson region, although this involves river crossing which is a high-risk action. But if Ukrainian elite forces could secure large enough bridge heads on the Southern bank of the Dnipro it would tie up large amounts of Russian forces possible “assisting” any counteroffensive towards Melitopol or Berdiansk.
It would not be a surprise if Ukraine decides to attack a different front in order possibly to force Russian troops to the South, in case of a further counteroffensive. Therefore, Ukraine could attack between Svatove and Kremina, possibly also to the South of Kremina, from Bakhmut (?), in order to take control of the Russian main supply line from Belgorod to the region. This would possibly force Russian troops around 40-50 kilometres back, on a smaller front, and liberate Ukrainian territory in the East which would be easier to defend.
Are the options feasible? It depends on the numbers to be committed and the objectives to be attained. Arguably, the larger the objectives attained the more the West is likely to boost its military support in “anticipation” of a “near term” Ukrainian victory, the smaller the objectives the longer the conflict is likely to take for resolution and more protracted, constant Western support would be needed.
When? When depends on the weather and developments on the ground. Armour is not suited to swift advances over muddy terrain and therefore it is logical that the weather will dictate, to a degree, when any major counteroffensive is launched, possibly mid-May. Ukraine will also need to target Russian supply lines and potentially “defensive hard points” before it can commit (this is happening now but needs to be somewhat more intense). With the NATO Summit in July, many see this as a date by which Ukraine must have “achieved” some significant success to ensure consolidated, continued Western support.