For much of the winter, the war in Ukraine settled into a slow-moving but exceedingly violent fight along a jagged 600-mile-long frontline in the southeast. Now, both Ukraine and Russia are poised to go on the offensive.
Russia, wary of the growing Ukrainian arsenal of Western-supplied weapons, is moving first.
Using tens of thousands of new conscripts in the hope of overwhelming Ukraine, its forces are attacking heavily fortified positions across bomb-scarred fields and through scorched forests in the East. They are looking for vulnerabilities, hoping to exploit gaps, and setting the stage for what Ukraine warns could be Moscow’s most ambitious campaign since the start of the war.
Ukraine must now defend against the Russian assault without exhausting the resources it needs to mount an offensive of its own.
Kyiv is training thousands of its own soldiers outside the country and scrambling to amass heavy weapons and ammunition, in advance of an assault meant to “break the bones” of Russia’s army, said Oleksandr Danylyuk, a former director of Ukraine’s national security council.
Military analysts say it is likely to try to split the enemy forces into two zones, hoping to smash through Russian lines in the south and put its supply lines running out of Crimea in jeopardy.
“There is little doubt that both sides want to go on the offensive,” said Mick Ryan, a retired Australian army major general who is a fellow at the Lowy Institute, a research institute, “but it really comes down to how much capacity both sides have to do that.”
Where Russia could attack
Maps of Ukraine showing possible Russian offensives in eastern Ukraine.
Aided by western intelligence, commercial satellites and a network of partisans working to undermine the Russian occupation, senior Ukrainian officials said that Moscow’s immediate intentions are coming into focus.
They are massing tens of thousands of soldiers, including conscripts from a mass mobilization last Fall, just outside the range of American made precision missiles. The formations suggest they could be preparing to encircle Ukrainian forces arrayed across the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a former Ukrainian minister of defense, said he expected the Russian army to attempt the capture of the Donbas and then “announce the completion of their special military operation” and call for negotiations.
But, he noted, it will be the third attempt by Russia to capture the Donbas since the war began; the first two both failed.
Britain’s defense intelligence agency said on Tuesday that Russia had been trying to launch “major offensive operations” since early last month, but it had “only managed to gain several hundred meters of territory per week,” because of a lack of munitions and maneuver units.
Ukraine can afford to make tactical retreats, according to military analysts, as long as it does not risk suffering a total collapse of its lines in a way that would result in its troops being encircled.
Any battle to score a major break through Ukrainian lines would begin with even more intense Russian artillery barrages, bombing by ground-attack jets and sorties by low-flying helicopters, said Serhiy Hrabsky a former colonel in the Ukrainian army and commentator on the war for Ukrainian media. That would likely be followed by tank and infantry ground assaults across the buffer zone between trench lines, he said.
“The main effort will be on the ground, where Russians will use their traditional tactics, a massive concentration of tanks, armored personnel carriers and very intensive artillery fire,” Mr. Hrabsky said.
Russia is viewed as wanting to move quickly, with President Vladimir V. Putin pressuring his newly appointed commander in Ukraine, General Valery Gerasimov, to capture territory and signal success to a domestic and international audience, after months of embarrassing setbacks.
Russia faces other time pressures. Western weaponry that can make the difference in battles, such as German-made Leopard tanks and American Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, have been promised but not yet arrived.
Moscow is watching the announcements of Western weapons supplies, said Mr. Danylyuk, the former national security adviser, and want to be “sure they will be able to act before we get what we want.”
Where Ukraine could attack
Maps of Ukraine showing possible Ukrainian counter offensives in the southern front.
Military analysts and former Ukrainian security officials point to Russia’s so-called land bridge – stretching across southern Ukraine from the Russian border to the Crimean Peninsula – as the most tempting target for a Ukrainian counter-offensive.
Russia also believes that will likely be the line of attack, said Nataliya Gumenyuk, the spokeswoman for Ukraine’s southern military command.
They are bringing in more soldiers to defend hastily erected defensive positions but she said that Ukraine has been able to limit their ability to bring in heavy equipment.
“We can see that they accumulate some equipment around Melitopol and in Crimea, but they can’t bring it closer,” she said in an interview. “They would like to, but our forces don’t give them a chance.”
Kyiv is hoping the West will quickly provide longer-range artillery that will allow its forces to once again disrupt Russian positions, the way they did when Ukraine recaptured swaths of the south, including Kherson city, in November.
That offensive was clearly telegraphed. This time, Ukraine wants to keep Russia guessing as to where and when it might strike.
“Russians are waiting for active moves from our side in the south,” Ms. Gumenyuk said. “We maintain this tension. This is how we demoralize the enemy.”
A successful assault over the open steppe between the current frontline and the Russian-occupied city of Melitopol, for example, would cut Russian held territory in Ukraine into two separate zones, greatly complicating Russia’s already strained logistics.
Ukraine, said Mr. Hrabsky, the Ukrainian military analyst, will combine a ground offensive with long-range strikes, first softening defenses by firing precision artillery shells and rockets at command bunkers, garrisons and ammunition depots.
It would then seek to break through Russian lines and maneuver quickly, though the Russians are firmly entrenched in the south and would likely put up stiff resistance.