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Russian Spring offensive 2023: Kyiv Take Two

Russian T-80U tanks stuck and abandoned in Ukraine in spring 2022

 The spectacular Ukrainian victories during the 2022 forced the Russian army to the defensive. With the Russian retreat from Kharkiv and the areas north of the river Dnipro in Kherson, the focus of the fighting has returned to the Donbass. The Russian forces, with Wagner mercenaries and penal battalions doing the bulk of the fighting and dying, are trying to take Bakhmut in a battle that invokes parallels to the meat grinders of the Great war. The Ukrainian armed forces on the other hand are slowly making progress towards Kreminna.

Despite the continuous rumors about a new massive round of mobilizations, the Russian army cannot sustain the present level of attrition indefinitely. By throwing enough men and material against the prepared Ukrainian positions manned by experienced and highly motivated defenders, Russians may be able to gain some localized breakthroughs. But
even if the Russian mechanized forces are able to capitalize the holes punched into the defenses, can they change the course of the war?

In 1943 the Red Army, riding on a high after encircling Stalingrad, committed over 300 000 men into Operation Gallop, a deep offensive in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. After initial success the attack got bogged down with overextended supply lines and the force was eventually pushed back by a German flanking attack through Kharkiv. Any Russian offensive launched west from Donbass in 2023 would suffer a similar fate.

It’s not unheard of that the Russian army recreates their World War 2 mistakes, just compare the fate of the Mobile Group Popov and the 2022 Battle of Izyum, but it’s unlikely that they will seek to end the war in their favor through that axis.

The southern front has stabilized along the Dnipro and it’s unlikely that the Russian army will be able to cross that river again. The Ukrainian forces in Kherson are much stronger compared to the poorly equipped formations in the spring of 2022.

If the Russian army is seriously seeking to deliver a knock-out blow against Ukraine, their only real option is to recreate the february offensive from the north with the goals of cutting Ukrainian forces on the front from western support and taking Kyiv.

There are several indicators that point towards this possibility. Belarusian army, that has so far stayed out of the war, has begun calling in reserves and its state of readiness has been increased significantly. Several Russian formations have been moved to Southern Belarus, where they are currently being replenished with fresh equipment and manpower. These units have had adequate time to give their mobiks training and integrate them into what was left of their combat strength after the mauling ukrainians gave them during the summer and fall.

Units that are currently in Belarus, include elements from the 1st Guards Tank Army, like the 4th Guards Tank Division and elements of the chronically understrength 47th Division. The other main division of the army, the 2nd Motorized Rifle Division is still largely intact along the Ukrainian border. North of Belarus in Pskov is the 76th Guards Air Assault division, which has been rebuilt during the fall and acts as a rapid reaction reserve for the Russian army.

With a somewhat intact breakthrough army and the Belarusian armed forces, the Russian high command has enough manpower to launch an offensive south. But where exactly?

There are four possible routes towards Kyiv. The most eastern one between Chernihiv and Dnipro requires the Russian forces to take Kyiv before being able to influence the reinforcements and supplies flowing in from the west. The second push in 2022 came through the Pripyat marchest and Chernobyl. This route proved to be harder to traverse and easier to defend than the Russian high command had assumed. 

Two of the most western routes towards Lviv and Zythomyr offer reasonably passable terrain. The Lviv axis can also secure its right flank to the Polish border. By taking Zythomyr the Russian army could cut off Kyiv, without overcommitting to a single vulnerable route, while also mounting a credible threat against the city itself.

Possible Russian attack axis.

The performance of the Russian army has been underwhelming all through the war and the Ukrainian army has improved in size, training, equipment and experience, so this scenario isn’t likely to cause a catastrophic collapse of the Ukrainian defenses, even if it’s able to push through the forces protecting Ukrainian - Belarusian border.

Ukrainians need more western support, in the form of tanks, artillery, aircraft and ammunition to be ready for the renewed Russian attacks. Those attacks are inevitable.

Petri Mäkelä 07/01/2023


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