Russia begins winter counteroffensive in Ukraine

The long-feared Russian winter counteroffensive has finally begun in the eastern part of Ukraine.

Tens of thousands of new Russian conscripts are flowing into the war-torn country ahead of the war’s one-year mark, with Moscow looking to overwhelm Ukrainian troops and retake huge swaths of territory lost last autumn as spring warms the region, according to experts. 

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg this week said the “reality is we have seen the start” of the offensive already, and U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley called it “a critical moment,” in the conflict.  

But the little-trained and ill-equipped Kremlin troops are only likely to bring about another kind of stalemate in the region, experts say, warning that it’s not the full-scale offensive expected. 

“I don’t think this is the big thing that we’re all waiting for,” said John Spencer, a retired Army major and chairman of urban warfare studies at the Madison Policy Forum.  

He said the operation is in its early phase — similar to when Russia positioned its forces on the borders of Ukraine in January 2022 — with a massive mobilization not yet observed.  

“Although some units are advancing along the line or pushing forward … they haven’t shown the capability to conduct coordinated large-scale operations,” Spencer said.  

The West is closely watching the event unfold, with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Thursday saying officials are seeing Russia continue to pour large numbers of additional troops into the fight. 

“Those troops are ill-equipped and ill-trained, and because of that, they’re incurring a lot of casualties, and we expect that that will continue,” Austin told reporters in Estonia’s capital after meeting with the country’s defense minister.  

Austin added that Russia has also increased its shelling around Bakhmut — an area contested for some time. 

The Kremlin on Thursday also began a renewed rocket barrage on Ukraine, firing some 36 missiles that struck critical infrastructure in the country, according to Kyiv. Officials warned that a much larger missile attack was anticipated on Feb. 24, the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion.  

“They’re beginning to shape the battlefield,” said Jim Townsend, a former Pentagon official now also with the Center for a New American Security. “The offensive hasn’t started in terms of masses of troops, but they’re beginning to try to maneuver on the grounds and to get them position to begin that offensive.” 

The goal is to retake the land that Ukrainian forces started gaining throughout the summer and fall, a campaign that retook thousands of square kilometers of captured territory before the two sides reached a stalemate in the winter.  

Townsend said one thing that could have prompted the Russians to move in was equipment pledged from Western nations in the past month, including infantry fighting vehicles and tanks. 

The United States on Jan. 25 agreed to send Ukraine 31 M1 Abrams tanks, shoring up an agreement with Germany and other European nations to send the more widely available Leopard tanks into the conflict. In the same month, the Biden administration announced it would send M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles and Stryker armored vehicles to Ukraine for the first time. 

And Stoltenberg on Tuesday urged NATO members to ramp up ammunition production and other military aid for Ukraine as Russia continues its invasion, warning that Russian President Vladimir Putin is preparing for new offensives and attacks. 

“They don’t want to wait until all that stuff arrives — and it’s not going to arrive anytime soon — but at the same time, they’re not going to wait … they’re going to want to get the jump on it all,” Townsend said on the recent Russian movements.  

Speculation is now focusing on where the Russians will attempt to put most of their strength, with John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine now with the Atlantic Council, predicting Kremlin troops will likely be sent to wherever they have their best chance of victory.  

“It’s conceivable that we’re not going to see anything more than we’re seeing right now, which is the significant effort in the Bakhmut area,” Herbst said.  

Russia has spent more than six months attempting to take the city and the surrounding areas in the Donetsk region, but has been unable to do so despite constant shelling and veritable trench warfare with Ukrainian troops. 

The city — while strategically important to the war as its control would likely lay the groundwork for a push northwest — has taken outsized significance as Moscow looks to score a rare military victory, whatever the human cost as thousands of its troops have been killed in the fighting.  

George Barros, of the Institute for the Study of War, said it is likely the Russians will intensify their offensive in the east, even though they are sure to make limited progress.  

“The Russians are not going to be able to capture all of Luhansk and Donetsk” — Ukraine’s two easternmost regions — “by the end of the spring or even by the end of this year. That’s flatly not going to happen,” Barros said.  

Even Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Russian private military group Wagner, predicted this week that it would take up to two years for Moscow to take control of Donetsk and Luhansk.   

Ukrainians, however, will be in a good position to conduct their own counteroffensive in late spring or summer, exploiting an exhausted Russian force. 

“All the Russian units that are going to be fighting and that are currently fighting in this offensive, they are going to be burning combat power and resources,” Barros said.  

“They’re going to be exhausted when it ends. And after Ukraine manages to ingest more of these western tanks and armor systems that the West has pledged to Ukraine, Ukraine will be in a good position.” 

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