Russia continues its slow, grinding push in the eastern city of Bakhmut. The Wagner paramilitary group has led the charge, supported by some Airborne elements and other Russian units. The intensity of Russia’s assault seems to have declined recently, perhaps because Moscow rotated forces in the area. Advances around the city’s northern and southern flanks have stalled. Ukrainian counterattacks may have given Kyiv’s troops a little breathing room around their main supply routes, which Russia had sought to seize to encircle Ukrainian troops in Bakhmut.
The Russians have, however, ground out slow but steady progress in street-by-street fighting near the Bakhmut city center, indicating they may have shifted focus from the flanks to pressing deeper within Bakhmut itself. The risk of encirclement lingers, though. Russian forces remain close to Ukraine’s vital supply routes, and Moscow could allocate additional forces to reignite the push on Bakhmut’s flanks. The area northwest of Bakhmut is also important to watch, as further Russian advances there could give Moscow favorable positions on the heights north of Chasiv Yar. This would threaten Ukraine’s defensive line running north to Kramatorsk and Slovyansk, the biggest Ukrainian-controlled cities in the Donbas region. But Russia has made no discernable progress in that area over the last few weeks.
Elsewhere, Moscow’s winter offensive seems to have fizzled out. To the north, Russian efforts to push back toward Kupyansk and Lyman, which Ukraine retook last fall, made scant progress. Russia had recently gained some ground near the southeastern city of Avdiivka, which is also threatened by encirclement. But Russian advances in the area have stalled over the last couple of weeks. To the southwest, Russian forces took a beating at Vuhledar, reportedly leading Moscow to dismiss its commander in the area.
Moscow was probably premature in launching its offensive. General Valery Gerasimov, appointed as Russia’s top commander in Ukraine in January, may have rushed the offensive to please an impatient Vladimir Putin. That mistake may end up costing Moscow in the long run if the losses Russia suffered during its offensive leave it too weak to repulse Ukraine’s looming counterpunch. By the same token, Kyiv’s insistence on holding Bakhmut, where both Russian and Ukrainian forces are taking heavy casualties, could sap resources better spent on Ukraine’s counteroffensive later this spring.
Kyiv Gears Up for Spring Counteroffensive
The buzz surrounding Ukraine’s much-anticipated counteroffensive continues to build as Western materiel flows into the country and Ukrainian troops return from training abroad. Over the last week, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov released a series of videos touting the arrival of various armored vehicles donated by the United States and other NATO allies. In preparation for its offensive, Kyiv is forming three new army corps, each comprising six maneuver brigades plus supporting units, staffed largely by mobilized troops. Ukraine aims to equip these formations mainly with Western-provided equipment, although it hasn’t received nearly enough tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and armored personnel carriers for 18 maneuver brigades.
Kyiv’s counteroffensive has a good chance at success but will face challenges. In addition to a shortage of armor, Ukraine is running low on artillery ammunition. It will likely be unable to achieve more than temporary, localized artillery superiority. Ukraine will have to overcome a dug-in Russian force roughly doubled in size last fall, albeit staffed largely by poorly trained mobilized troops with low morale. The Ukrainian military also increasingly relies on green forces as it loses its more experienced soldiers to attrition.
Washington could bolster Ukraine’s chances by sending it ATACMS missiles, which would allow Ukraine to strike key Russian logistics nodes, command-and-control posts, and other high-value targets far beyond the range of its current Western-supplied rocket artillery. The Biden administration could also give Kyiv artillery-fired cluster munitions to ease its shortage of artillery ammunition. Finally, the West could send Ukraine more armored fighting vehicles to support its spring counteroffensive and to ensure Kyiv’s military is prepared for whatever comes next. Making these investments now would maximize Ukraine’s ability to win this conflict and avoid a more protracted conflict that could play to Russia’s advantages.