As 2022 has wound down with the front lines in Ukraine more or less stabilized, it is clear that Putin’s invasion has not gone according to plan. Despite this, there doesn’t seem to be any indication that he has either modified or abandoned his goal of taking over most or all of Ukraine. Given that the Russians don’t seem to be imminently ready to deploy nuclear weapons, the only thing that would allow them to accomplish these goals would be another major offensive to regain the operational initiative and break the Ukrainian lines. As Russia continues to mobilize forces, the pure numbers of troops on paper will continue to grow. At the moment, it appears that many of the men who were caught up in the first waves of mobilization have already reached the front. However, there are indications of substantial casualties among these soldiers, and the combat effectiveness of these troops has not been decisive beyond stabilizing the line. The limited effectiveness, despite ongoing offensive operations in Donetsk, is because offensive operations are inherently more complicated than simple static defense operations, and require substantially more training which the Russians haven’t had time to supply. There also appears to be a problem with equipment shortages, which isn’t helping either Russian combat effectiveness nor morale.
However, the Russians are not the only ones that appear to be planning major offensive operation in 2023. The Ukrainians are also looking to try and retake territory. Although their offensives in the Kharkiv region in the east and the Kherson region in the south can be said to have been successful, they haven’t been the major turning point that some in the West had hoped for. If the front lines were to freeze in place now, the Russians would be a much more advantageous strategic position to launch a future attack on Ukraine. Some of the territory the Russia has taken in the south (such as the Kinburn Spit) enables it to exert some control over the waterways leading to the Ukrainian port of Mykolaiv (which could be closed in the event of a future conflict), and leaves their forces much closer to Odessa than would be if driven back to Crimea. While some are wondering when Russia will start to negotiate some sort of settlement, Ukraine can’t really afford to allow the current front lines to become permanent in a peace deal. Consequently, they are going to have to go on the offensive at some point, if they are to conclude the war under minimally acceptable conditions.
What is clear from how the Russians are generating replacement forces is that many of the newly mobilized troops are being thrown into the front lines without adequate resources and training. While this has been sufficient to stabilize the front lines, it is not going to be enough to launch a major offensive that will alter the course of the war and allow Putin to obtain his goal of conquering most or all of Ukraine. What Russia would need to make this a reality would be a large cadre of well-equipped, highly motivated, and well-trained troops to launch the offensive. It is possible that Russia is training these troops somewhere, and what we currently see on the front lines are simply bodies that are being thrown in to stabilize the front and launch local attacks to try and keep Ukrainian forces under pressure. But even if Russia is secretly training a cadre of forces to go on the offensive, there are several factors that don’t appear favorable to Russia.
1.) The fact that western satellites can see Russian military movements means that the offensive will be known far in advance, thereby allowing Ukrainians to concentrate their weaponry.
One of the factors that hampers Russia’s war efforts is that western satellites can detect large concentrations of men and materiel. Throughout recorded history, one of the major tactics that armies have employed is the surprise attack. While this can still be done at very small scale, the masses of materiel and manpower that will need to be concentrated and focused at one point for Russia to achieve a massive breakthrough means that the place and direction of the attack will be obvious far in advance, enabling Ukraine to concentrate forces and weaponry at this point.
2.) Continued shipments of weapons from the West, and the ability of Ukrainians to use them is likely to limit any breakthroughs.
Perhaps the major challenge to Russian long-term success is that West (i.e. the U.S.) has made it clear that Ukraine effectively has a blank check to continue to prosecute the war. Not only is the U.S. funding the war, but they are clearly able to deliver weapons to the front lines. Whatever else is happening, the Ukrainian logistics systems appear to be holding up. One of the major strategic imperatives in any war is that you cut off your enemy’s source of supply and sustenance. Failure to do this makes ultimately winning difficult to impossible, as long as the enemy retains the will to fight. The fact that Russia is concentrating its drone attacks on civilian infrastructure to break the will of the Ukrainian people, means that they are not focusing attacks on logistics routes, either due to poor strategic understanding of military imperatives, or because Russian forces lack the military capacity to significantly halt men, weapons, and food to the front lines. Russian forces are in a not dissimilar position as the Germans were on the Western Front in the spring of 1918, when Germans were compelled to try and break the stalemate with a series of offensives before American troops arrived in sufficient numbers to tip the military balance decidedly against Germany. The problem for Russia is that they needed to win, either before American weaponry arrived in sufficient mass to tip the balance, or failing that, to convince the West to stop supporting Ukraine. They have clearly failed on both counts, as nothing that Russia has done either through diplomatic pressure, nuclear threats, economic coercion, or attacking the supply lines appears to have substantially stopped the flow.
The result is that the continued supply of western weapons systems to Ukraine is likely limit any eventual Russian breakthrough.
3.) Russian lack of logistics will still hamper Russian offensive.
For all of the bodies that the Russians may be able to generate, there is still no indication that they have developed the logistical organizational capabilities to sustain a massive offensive that would culminate in achieving Putin’s stated goal of replacing the Ukrainian regime, which at this point would mean conquering all of Ukraine. This is what hampered the initial Russian offensive. Despite what future generations of Ukrainian kids will be taught, the Russian drive on Kiev was not stopped by “heroic Ukrainian defenders”. It was stopped due to Russian logistical and planning mismanagement. This aspect should not be understated, because the bulk of the troops that were launched towards Kiev were well-trained professionals; the best that the Russian army had to offer. And the result was a chaotic mess.
The bulk of the troops that will launch the presumed coming offensive of 2023 have had minimal time to be properly trained. It seems extremely unlikely that such troops will be able to master the logistical intricacies and be sufficiently flexible to effectively support an offensive breakthrough, should it come.
4.) Lack of training and coordination between Russian artillery, infantry, armor, and air assets will reduce the offensive to mass waves of armor and infantry attacks which will rely on weight of numbers to achieve a breakthrough; effectively the same tactics that they used in WWI and WWII. Any breakthrough will be at a frighting massive cost in Russian lives.
As alluded to earlier, Russian training of the newly mobilized forces appears to leave a lot to be desired. However, training isn’t the only factor. Rather, from the beginning of the war, Russia doesn’t appear to have ever possessed the ability to effectively coordinate between waves of mass armor, artillery, and air forces. The coordination that we saw from Germany in 1939-1941, Israel in 1967, the U.S. in 1991 and again in 2003, appears to be totally lacking in the Russian armed forces. One suspects that the coordination that we saw in past Russian training exercises was scripted showmanship for the benefit of the observers, rather than an unscripted result of capable Russian forces.
Due to this apparent lack of capability, it is likely that the Russian are going to engage in human/armor wave attacks with limited coordination beyond the small unit level. These tactics are the same as were used in WWI and WWII. And despite the ultimate success in WWII, they were far more costly in Russian lives than they needed to be. Given the overall lack of organizational ability of the Russian armed forces, these sorts of attacks seem to be the only types that could be conducted that might in theory result in some sort of measurable success. However, like in WWI and WWII, many Russian mothers will unfortunately be burying sons unnecessarily.
5.) Russians are likely to concentrate their large masses at one or (maximum) two single points and use the weight of numbers to breakthrough.
Given the mass wave tactics likely to be used, it would be wise for the Russians to concentrate the bulk of their forces at one or two single points to try and obtain massive, overwhelming local force superiority.
This will do a couple of things: Firstly, it will increase the odds of a break-through by increasing force levels locally to such a level that merely the force of numbers may be enough. That’s certainly what the Russian commanders are hoping, and frankly it appears to remain the only realistic plan with any chance of success. Secondly, by limiting the number of attack points, the Russians can simplify the logistics challenges. While they haven’t yet proven capable of managing the logistics associated with a major offensive, focusing the offensive on one or two points is less complex than 5 or 6 different points of attack, and this increases whatever chances for success exist.
6.) A breakthrough may be achieved, however logistical difficulties and the distances involved in Ukraine make it unlikely that these offensives will be strategically significant enough to allow Putin to achieve his goals.
Assuming that a breakthrough is achieved at one or two points, the vast distances that exist in Ukraine and the fact that is unlikely that the newly raised Russian forces have mastered the logistical intricacies needed to run an offensive several hundred miles means that any success that the offensive has is likely to be more local in nature. Some territory may be captured. And look for Putin hail any success, however minor, as a major turning point in the war. However, the coming offensive is unlikely to alter the strategic balance of the war. The mass wave attacks will be massively costly in in lives and equipment. While it is hard to say exactly how an offensive will play out as warfare is notoriously hard to predict in advance, it is not impossible that we could witness a Pyrrhic Russian victory; one that will be so costly as to leave it unable to launch another major offensive for 12 months or longer.
As for Ukraine, their offensive to retake territory will rely on the following factors to be successful.
1.) Ukrainian Manpower.
While the media in the West has made much of Russian losses and difficulties, not much has been said about Ukrainian losses and manpower levels. Whatever is happening, Ukrainian losses are likely as horrendous (or at least close to as horrendous) as Russian losses. Although the observed Ukrainian tactical flexibility likely means that their losses are not as heavy as the Russians on an absolute numerical basis, they aren’t insignificant either. In fact, as a percentage of male population, their losses are likely to be higher than the Russian losses due to the population differences between the two countries. At one level, this is perhaps a meaningless statistic as the entire Russian male population is not going to show up on the battlefield. And given that Ukraine is fighting for its life, it will likely be willing to throw a higher percentage of its male population into the fight, meaning that a strict numerical manpower advantage over the entire battlefield may not actually belong to Russia.
That being said, levels of trained Ukrainian manpower that is available for combat, as well as Ukrainian losses appear to be a closely guarded secret. Consequently, it is unclear whether Ukraine has the power to launch a major strategic offensive at this time, and also how long it will be before it has that capability. Although Ukraine clearly had the capacity in the south to push the Russians out from north of the Dnieper River, it was a grinding offensive preceded by use of artillery and other assets over weeks to damage/destroy supply lines to the Russian forces north of the river. There was nothing wrong with the plan, and was in fact exactly what military theory says should be done. But cutting off supply lines to forces north of a major river can be done by concentrating artillery and air assets on a few choke points (aka bridges). And even under these relatively favorable conditions, the offensive took several weeks and was not the type of mass maneuver blitzkrieg style offensive that will likely be needed if Ukraine is to regain large swaths of territory.
2.) Armored Forces.
If Ukraine is to regain large swaths of territory, it is going to have to employ significant armored formations, more than what has been seen to this point in the conflict. Assuming that Ukraine has (or will have) enough manpower that it can concentrate at specific points to launch a major offensive, any offensive is going to be grinding and reminiscent of what went on north of the Dnieper, if significant coordinated armored forces are not brought to bear. Reports are that Russian forces in the Kherson region (the most strategically important region for the long-term viability of the Ukrainian state) are digging in and developing prepared positions. Indications are that they are developing several defensive lines that Russian forces can fall back on to perform something like a fighting withdrawal to Crimea. Whatever shortcomings that Russia has shown in its offensive operations, static defense is something that it appears to do more or less competently, given its opponent. Having time to dig in to positions, means that it will take a lot to knock the Russians out of these positions. And once they are knocked out of one set, they will show up in another equally hardened set of positions and will have to be driven out of those in turn.
The only way to avoid this is to have a set of armored units, working in tandem with the infantry (and whatever air assets are available), to break through these defenses at one or two points and force the Russians to either withdraw or risk being cut off and annihilated. Right now, it isn’t clear that the Ukrainians have either manpower, materiel, or the training to coordinate this. More tanks and other armored equipment appear to be being sent to Ukraine. Whether there is some secret training area (perhaps in Poland??) that is training Ukrainian tank crews and unit commanders in the art of blitzkrieg style warfare is unknown. But unless something like this is happening, it is hard to see how Ukraine would be able to bring the war to a minimally acceptable conclusion in 2023.
3.) Air Power
Probably the biggest factor that has surprised most analysts (myself included) is the relatively poor performance of the Russian air force and its inability to dominate the skies over Ukraine. Ukraine no longer appears to have anything that can reputably call itself a traditional air force. Yet with anti-aircraft missile systems and drone units, it has managed to blunt Russian attempts to achieve arial dominance in the skies over Ukraine. This factor is key for the Ukrainians to be able to launch an offensive. Achieving arial dominance such a what the U.S. achieved over Iraq in 1991 and 2003, or NATO achieved over Libya in 2011 makes armored offensive warfare by opponents all but impossible. Russia has not achieved anything remotely close to this level of arial dominance over Ukraine. In addition, despite attacks on critical infrastructure that Russian drones achieved in recent weeks, Russia cannot be said to control the skies over Ukraine. Consequently, any Ukrainian offensive is likely to enjoy an airspace that, while not free of enemy air assets such the Allies enjoyed in Normandy in 1944, is at least contested enough that an offensive should have a reasonable chance of success, all else equal.
Whether Ukraine can launch a successful offensive and achieve strategic success will be entirely dependent on its manpower and ability to field competent armored units. Certain talking heads on certain western media are implying that perhaps Ukrainian forces will be in Crimea by the end of summer. Admittedly, they point to Russian defensive preparations that appear to indicate that the Russians believe that they will be fighting around, and perhaps in, Crimea. Perhaps these commentators know something the rest of us don’t. Ukrainian forces have shown western-style tactical flexibility in this war, unlike their Russian counterparts. If the Ukrainian forces had trained armored units that they could bring to bear in the Kherson region and had the logistical capability to cross the Dnieper in force, then I can see how it would be very possible for Ukrainian forces to blitz through Russian defenses and score a decisive strategic victory, perhaps even forcing Russia to the negotiating table.
The whole question that will go a long way to determining the outcome of the war is whether or not Ukraine is able to generate the level of armored forces needed to conduct a major strategic offensive. The year 2023 should answer that question.
It is pretty clear that 2023 is setting up to be a decisive one, not only for the war itself, but also for the shape of the relationship between Ukraine and Russia for decades. It appears that we will see a major offensive attempted by the Russians, and also likely a major one by the Ukrainians. While I expect the Russian one to take some territory, as has so often been the case in Russian history, I think that the victory will be a Pyrrhic one. If the Ukrainian one is started with sufficient armored forces, then I expect it to be a decisive victory; one that could put the end of the war in sight, if not actually bring it to a conclusion through negotiations. If it is not started with adequate armored forces, then I expect it to be a grinding offensive that will achieve some objectives, but at a high cost. And it will fall far short of being the decisive victory that Ukraine needs to put itself in an acceptable negotiating position to end the war.
Only time will tell.