Military implications of Russia’s war against Ukraine
This is the first of Audere’s three-part series of strategic analysis on the war in Ukraine. This month we look at the tactical and operational military aspects of the conflict, the different objectives of Kyiv and Moscow, and the evolution of the war as winter starts to impact operations.
The war is engaged on several distinct operational fronts; in occupied Donbas, where Moscow is still seeking to advance, and in the southern oblasts of Kherson and Zaporizhia, where Ukraine is maintaining the initiative. A third strategic front is characterised by long-range attacks against civilian and critical infrastructure using both kinetic missile attacks and ‘soft’ effects such as cyber and information operations.
With the weather deteriorating, the approach to winter warfare differs with Moscow intent on solidifying its frontline and preparing for a war of attrition, and Kyiv wanting to maintain momentum pursuing various forms of counteroffensive operations. The onset of winter initially will see a transition from manoeuvre to static warfare until the point when the ground freezes. Once this occurs, we anticipate that firm ground will allow the overall pace of operations, including manoeuvre warfare, to increase throughout the country until the subsequent thaw in February/March 2023.
During this period the Kremlin will continue to pursue its psychological warfare campaign, in particular targeting critical national infrastructure to break Ukrainian resolve and drive the Ukrainian Government to the negotiating table. This strategy will bring significant challenges for Russia, specifically the depletion of its high-precision missile arsenal preventing it from conducting missile strikes at the current strike rate. As such, we assess that the Russian military will fail to achieve its goal of degrading the Ukrainian will to fight or to force them into peace talks.
Ukraine will remain reliant on the flow of weapon systems from the West, not only to counter Russian strategic weapon attacks, but also to support its counter-offensive operations. To date, Ukrainian forces have exceeded expectations with their ability to adopt and employ modern weapon systems and to integrate them into their defence and attack strategies. That said, the flow of weapon systems must continue at least at the same rate of delivery to give the flexibility of response and enable their forces to successfully adapt to changes in Russian tactics.
In terms of progress, months of adaptive command and control have given Ukraine a flexibility at war-fighting that Russia is not able to replicate. Ukraine has achieved significant advances in liberating territory, particularly through effective counteroffensives in the Kherson region and the right bank of the Dnipro River. However, it is unlikely further significant advances will be made in the short-term as the Dnipro River represents a natural barrier.
In Donbas, where Russian forces are highly concentrated, Ukraine remains on the defensive. We anticipate that Ukrainian troops will achieve limited tactical victories in the Zaporizhia oblast, where the strength of the Russian defensive line is poor. This will represent a stress test for Russia’s overstretched lines of communications and logistical supply lines. The key factors for Ukraine embarking on a major spring offensive will be the level of western equipment support, and its success or otherwise of military campaigns over the winter.
Figure 1: Ukraine Map Displaying Occupied Territory and Audere Operational Hubs; Red zone – Russian-controlled territory; Black zone – Russian-controlled territory since 2014; Light blue zone – Ukrainian counteroffensive; Pink – Significant fighting in the last 24 hours; Dark blue dots – Audere Ukraine Operational Hubs.
Russia has strengthened its defensive lines over recent months notably by forcing conscripts to dig trenches along the entirety of the frontline, as they seek to hold-ground. The recent liberation of parts of the Kherson oblast already has created a redistribution of Russian troops across the contested areas. These ongoing redistributions will largely determine future engagements and battles.
We predict that in the coming weeks, Russian forces will attempt a ‘final’ push from occupied Donbas to try and capture further territory, particularly around Bakhmut and Avdiivka, before attempting to consolidate its positions ahead of the onset of winter.
Moscow is less likely to adapt its military posture over this period or be able to significantly rethink its approach to operational warfighting. It will not be able to adapt its command structure quickly enough to threaten Kyiv. Forced conscripts will not be the answer to changing the course of the war. With their general-purpose troops overstretched and demoralised, Russia’s forces are underprepared and poorly equipped for defensive or offensive operations in winter. Furthermore, the Wagner Group, which has taken an increasingly important role in supporting the Russian armed forces, are less suited to prolonged periods of static trench warfare.
Instead, Moscow will probably use the winter period to refocus its effort on improving logistics, salvaging available military hardware, particularly from mainland Russia to Belarus, whilst strengthening and reorganising its defensive positions before spring. The winter months will be critical in shaping the future direction of the war. Strategic and operational errors will be seized upon and exploited by either side, and the ability to overcome the worst of the winter weather will be a key factor in determining events come spring. The one-year anniversary of Russia’s second invasion of Ukraine may prove to be a symbolic turning point, in which the forces that fare best during winter will reap the military reward.
Our next newsletter in January will address the strategic outlook for the war, most notably the prospects of a negotiated settlement in the next 3-4 months and the response of the international community through the winter.