Fighting in Ukraine is often compared to the first world war: massed troops, artillery barrages, and grinding trench warfare that seeks to wear down the enemy.
But when Russia’s long expected spring offensive begins, there will be no proverbial whistle to mark the moment Russian troops attack and go “over the top”.
It will arrive unheralded, from multiple directions and probably using tactics unlike those Russia has employed so far — including a greater role for its air force, military officials warned.
“The Russian offensive is not going to be like the Somme . . . It will happen in different ways, on different parts of the front line and at different times,” a senior western defence official said. “We have to be careful about thinking the offensive will be a single thing.”
In some parts of Ukraine, the offensive has already begun. “It’s been a week since the Russian attack started,” said Taras Berezovets, a Ukrainian special forces officer. “We expect more Russian troops to become engaged in offensives.”
Russian forces have mounted probing attacks in the north around Kreminna, and the south around Vuhledar. Russian artillery strikes are also running at their highest rate since last summer, with as many as 100 strikes a day.
For now, there is no sign that Russia has yet deployed all the pieces of equipment needed for a concerted assault across Ukraine, which would be the first since the Kremlin launched the full-scale invasion in February last year.
But there are ominous signs on the ground. According to western intelligence, Russia is positioning fighter jets, bombers and helicopters to potentially provide air support for a land offensive.
Moscow has also established new army field camps at Voronezh and Kursk, near Ukraine’s northeastern border, exactly where it positioned troops a year ago prior to the invasion.
“We believe that these camps house reservist [soldiers], and it is the first evidence confirming their deployment closer to the frontline,” said Konrad Muzyka, director of Rochan consulting and a defence analyst who tracks the war. “It suggests that they could soon be moved to Ukraine. Hence the tempo of attacks will increase.”
Russian president Vladimir Putin’s eventual goal, analysts said, is to have tens of thousands of these conscripts drop down from the north, join up with Russian forces pressing up from the south and seize the entire Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.
“It is the task that Putin has set General Gerasimov [the commander-in-chief of Russia’s forces in Ukraine],” said Serhii Kuzan, chair of the Ukrainian Security and Cooperation Centre think-tank in Kyiv. “Our task is to hold our defensive lines and exhaust the offensive potential of the enemy.”
So far, Ukraine is successfully holding the line — most spectacularly around Vuhledar, a key logistics hub that Moscow wants to capture because it would help secure the territory that links Crimea to Russia.
Over the past several days, elite Russian troops were defeated and repulsed after they attempted an attack. Ukrainian forces are also holding on at Bakhmut, inflicting huge losses on the enemy, although taking heavy losses themselves.
“Putin is impatient. He wants a minimum amount of holdings. And some of his loyalists will say, ‘Yes, sir, we’ll do that,’” said Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at the Rand think-tank. “He’s using brute force methods to try to do it, just human waves and artillery fire . . . It’s very costly.”
To put those losses in perspective, the US estimates 200,000 Russian troops have been wounded or killed over the past year. That is equivalent to almost 4,000 soldiers a week, or 17,000 a month.
At that rate, the 300,000 fresh reservists that Russia has mobilised will last 17 months. But as Mike Martin, a visiting war studies fellow at King’s College London, said combat units are usually considered ineffective when casualties hit 30 per cent — so those reservists would last far less.
Russia “isn’t going to [be able to] take over Ukraine with these tactics”, Martin said.
Furthermore, the recently mobilised Russian troops are less well prepared and equipped than those involved in last year’s attack. “Their level is much, much lower,” Kuzan said.
That is partly why western officials expect Russia to change its “meat grinder” approach when the spring offensive gets under way. “The Russian army won’t continue to be as bad as it has been,” said the first official. “It was inevitable they would get better and learn some lessons.”
One change may be an increased role for Russia’s air force. As much as 80 per cent is thought to still be in good condition and western intelligence believes Russia is preparing to throw these jets and helicopters into the war.
“The Russian air force has not so far been employed at the tempo you’d expect . . . and I expect we will see more air force use in coming months,” a senior US defence department official said.
For now, the weather in eastern Ukraine is not ripe for a full-scale offensive. Freezing temperatures that firm the ground and enable ground offensives are expected this week but are then forecast to rise above zero, turning fields to mud.
When the weather does turn to spring and Russia launches a full attack, both sides are bracing for hard and bloody fighting. Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the notorious Wagner paramilitary group, last week said it would take “a year and a half to two years” for Russia to take the Donbas.
“There will be some very tough weeks and sometimes Ukraine will go backwards and other times go forward,” the first official said. “This could be a long and very difficult year for the Ukrainians.”
Additional reporting by Henry Foy in Brussels