Ukraine Survived the Winter. Here Comes the Counter-Offensive...
The relative lull in coverage of the war in Ukraine over recent months has been a product of the stalemate in the conflict that has more to do with the weather than anything else. Between October and April, Ukraine enters what the locals call “rasputitsa” or Mud Season. Heavy rain softens up the ground, followed by a month or two of snow, which melts, softening up the ground, followed by more heavy rain which… softens up the ground. The result looks like this:
As a consequence, for several months Russian and Ukrainian forces have been engaged in a stand-off that is reminiscent of the trench warfare on World War I. The two images on the left are from Verdun and Passchendaele, the ones on the right are from Bakhmut, more than a century later:
Bakhmut, incidentally, is the one place that has seen a small amount of territory change hands over the winter. Both Russian and Ukrainian sources concede that the town has little strategic value but for reasons that have more to do with politics than military strategy Russia has thrown Wagner’s mercenary army, reinforced more recently with paratroopers and other elite Russian troops, at this Ukrainian stronghold.
The result has been a meat grinder that the Ukrainians are hoping has been to their advantage. By wearing down Russia’s best infantry in the city, they have achieved two important objectives.
First, they have “traded” well. For us non-military types this is a horrible way to describe this tactic but they identified Bakhmut as a place where they could inflict maximum casualties while reducing their own. To be clear, Ukraine has lost a lot of soldiers and hardware in defending the city but they believe the losses they have inflicted on the enemy have been such that Russian forces are approaching culmination, i.e. a point at which they will no longer be able to keep pushing forward.
Second, the stalemate has bought Ukraine time without costing them territory. Whereas at the beginning of the conflict, Russia was close to overrunning most major Ukrainian cities, including Kyiv, Kharkhiv, Sumy, Dnipro and others, Russia has not only failed to capture them, it has been pushed back hundreds of miles and lost the only significant city it secured in the early days of the conflict in Kherson.
The battle for Bakhmut has now lasted longer than the Battle of Stalingrad and by forcing the Russians to commit their best resources to a small town of no strategic value for little territorial gain, the Ukrainians gave themselves breathing room. And they’ve used it well.
Over the last few months, tens of thousands of Ukrainians have been undergoing training away from the front in Ukraine itself and also abroad. The West has provided scores of modern tanks (Germany Leopard 2s, British Challenger 2s and American M1 Abrams) and hundreds of other armoured vehicles.
Ukraine needed the winter months to train up their soldiers in using, maintaining and resupplying these unfamiliar weapons systems. More tellingly, the West has provided mine-clearing, bridge-laying and fuel delivery systems which all point to what’s coming next: a Ukrainian counter-offensive.
If you’ve been paying attention to the conflict, so far you’ve likely not heard anything new. Everyone knows the counter-offensive is coming. The Ukrainians know it, their Western allies know it and Russians know it. Indeed, Russian military bloggers are rapidly reaching fever pitch in their gloomy warnings about the coming problems.
What is unusual is the extent to which Vladimir Putin and his regime are now being openly questioned because of what are now widely perceived as repeated military failures.
Watch, for example, this clip from one of the main Russian TV propaganda shows in which a participant openly states his belief that the Putin regime is coming to an end.
What is significant here is not that a well-known Putin critic and ally of his murdered opponent, Boris Nemtsov, thinks the Putin regime might be ending. It’s that he is allowed to say it on TV without being dragged off to prison or even shouted down.
Igor Girkin, a man heavily involved in Russia’s annexation of Crimea and instigating the conflict in the Donbass in 2014, has recently announced the launch of the “Angry Patriots Club” warning of Russia’s impending defeat in the war. On his Telegram channel, he routinely implies that President Putin is failing the nation, calls him “granpa” and is otherwise testing the limits of Russia’s oppressive war-time censorship regime.
What is more, the risk of nuclear escalation between Russia and the West that has, rightly, been of so much concern to all of us has never been lower since the outbreak of the war. Here’s why:
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