The recent successes of Ukrainian forces in the Kharkiv and Kherson offensive operations has given rise to countless speculations about the future course of Ukrainian actions. It is becoming more obvious that Ukraine will do its best to exploit to the fullest extent possible this window of opportunity that has been opened by the combination of Ukraine’s skillful defense, Western aid and Russian miscalculations. The Ukrainian top brass hope to make significant progress before Russia completes the process of integrating recently mobilized recruits into the fighting force and creates defense-in-depth along the major operational directions.
In their grand strategy, the Ukrainian authorities have made clear that Kyiv will not agree to any temporary ceasefire or truce (Svoboda, November 15). Such a stance reflects bitter lessons from the Minsk-1 and Minsk-2 agreements, which not only did not guarantee the return of the occupied parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions to Ukraine but also ended with the initiation of Russia’s large-scale aggression on February 24. Moreover, unlike 2014 and 2015, when the Minsk agreements were forced onto Ukraine due to Russian successes on the battlefield and were treated as a means to alleviate Russia’s preponderance in firepower, today, the battlefield dynamics do not favor Russia, as Ukraine possesses Western-supplied long-range precision firepower.
Any speculation on future Ukrainian actions should proceed from analysis of the present operating environment and existing constraints. But first, it is necessary to recall the recent developments that have led to the current state of play. Ukraine’s military leadership skillfully exploited the fact that, even after withdrawal from northern Ukraine, the Russian side tried to do too much with too little—not only in attempting to hold a lengthy frontline (approximately 1,100 kilometers) but also in hoping to advance in eastern Ukraine with a grouping of forces numbering only 330,000 troops (Lb.ua, June 12; Liga.net June 16). Thus, Russian forces reached the culmination point of its military strategy in August 2022 without any major accomplishments. Then, Ukrainian actions further destabilized the front by baiting Russian formations toward the western part of Kherson region. This opened a window for the Balakliya-Kupyansk offensive operation (see EDM, September 13). Next, Russians were forced to withdraw from the western part of Kherson region due to a successful combination of Western-supplied long-range firepower targeting command-and-control nodes and vulnerable logistics links over the Dnipro River, complemented with frontal advances. In sum, Ukraine was successful in its operations at the extreme fringes of the Russian frontline.
As a result of these successful Ukrainian actions, the length of the Russian frontline decreased from 1,100 to 880 kilometers (km), of which 380 km constitute solid river barriers (Zaborona.com, November 25). Furthermore, the front-line configuration resembles a curved semicircle with a depth from 70 to 130 km on dry land. This brings three key developments. First, the Russian grouping must now maintain almost half the frontage it did in the summer, with forces that include a withdrawn contingent from Dnipro’s right bank plus recently mobilized units to create the proper density of troops for proportioning along the front. Second, this smaller frontage makes it easier for Russia to anticipate the directions of future Ukrainian offensive operations while making it harder for Ukraine to execute successful strategic deception in the direction of the real advance. At the moment, there are two possible directions for such an advance—Melitipol-Berdyansk and Svatove-Kreminna. Third, the current configuration of the front makes it impossible to achieve strategic effects with just one major flanking strike, which was the case in the First Gulf War and Second Karabakh War. In other words, a sequence of operations is still necessary to liberate the remaining occupied territories. And these operations will need to be conducted under different conditions compared to those in the Kherson or Kharkiv offensives. The Kherson offensive was based on exploitation of a unique geographical feature—vulnerable to precision-guided missile links over the Dnipro. The Kharkiv offensive was made possible by successful strategic deception resulting in a weakened Russian frontline with no reserves and true defense-in-depth. Moving into 2023, Ukraine must be prepared for more taxing offensive operations, as the price for both penetrating Russia’s tactical depth and exploiting its weaknesses will be much higher than in the Kharkiv and Kherson offensives.
All this leads to a simple but still important conclusion: Ukraine must improve both its capabilities and capacity in preparation of major offensives in 2023 through increased aid from Western partners. On this, in an article published on September 7, Ukrainian Armed Forces Commander-in-Chief Valeriy Zaluzhniy and former Air Assault Forces Chief Mykhailo Zabrodsky stated that, for successful offensives in 2023, Ukraine needs to create 10–20 new combined arms (presumably mechanized) brigades (Ukrinform, September 7). One such brigade by pre-2022 Ukrainian standards would consist of approximately 44 main battle tanks (MBTs), 132 infantry fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers (IFV/APC), 24 self-propelled artillery and 12 Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS). Furthermore, recently, adviser to the Ukrainian Presidential Office, Mykhailo Podolyak, pointed out that Ukraine needs approximately 150–200 MBTs, 300 IFV/APC, 100 howitzers and 50–70 MLRSs (Pravda.com.ua, November 20).
In particular, Ukraine’s fire-power capabilities and capacity need to be strengthened. Despite the positive effect of Guided MLRS (GMLRS) shipments and utilization, Russia still fires four or five times more shells than Ukraine on a daily basis—approximately 20,000 on the Russian side compared to about 4,500 on the Ukrainian side (5.ua, November 6). While the rate of 20,000 shells a day is a massive decrease from the 40,000–60,000 rate of consumption by Russia, it is still a rather large amount, which could impede a possible large-scale Ukrainian offensive. To gain fire-power parity, Ukrainian forces need more howitzers and GMLRSs, along with the proper intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance equipment.
Overall, this is the general environment Ukrainian forces will operate in during the 2023 campaign. Currently, large-scale Ukrainian offensive operations are highly unlikely due to two major factors: the strain on forces following the successful 2022 campaign coupled with an off-season coming before a major freezing of the ground along the frontlines in January and February of next year. But even such a pause will not prevent Ukraine from leveraging its GMLRS capabilities to target Russian logistics and to impact the resolve and morale of Russian forces. A minimalist Ukrainian goal during the coming winter is to ensure that Russian units move past the point of no return in terms of morale and resolve.
At any rate, it is obvious, at the moment, that the next stage of fighting in the Ukrainian-Russian all-out war will require more investments in terms of capability and capacity from Western partners to continue the streak of Ukrainian successes on the battlefield in the fall of 2022—a period when Ukraine exploited major Russian miscalculations at the operational level.