Russia’s February assault has not produced the results Moscow envisaged in the face of fierce Ukrainian resistance. Now, they could be recalibrating.
The ongoing conflict between Kiev and Moscow has entered a new phase after the Russian withdrawal from northern Ukraine in an effort to focus on eastern part of the country, which has seen on and off clashes since 2014.
Experts believe that this new phase, which Russians call the second phase of their “special military operations” and Westerners call it the second offensive, marks a radical shift in the Russian military strategy in Ukraine.
The Russians have now appointed a new single military leader to oversee their second attack.
“The important thing is not necessarily that a particular general has been picked to command. The important thing is that the Russians now appear to have a single commander with the authority to coordinate an operational level offensive campaign (involving several field armies),” says Edward Erickson, a former US army officer and a retired professor of Military History from the Department of War Studies at the Marine Corps University.
“This is bad news for Ukraine because it means that the Russians will focus massive combat power (soldiers, equipment, air power, etc.) on one or two avenues of attack (rather than the 6-9 previous avenues of attack),” Erickson tells TRT World, indicating Russia’s shifting focus to eastern Ukraine in a centralised and more forceful approach.
According to Erickson, the new strategy’s “massive firepower” component might be conducted in a way that “the world has not seen since 1945,” referring to the Allied attack on Nazi Germany during World War II. “This means that the war will become larger and more costly in casualties and losses,” he says.
“The Russians have made a significant strategic investment in this war and, so far, they have had a ‘bloody nose’ as a result. Putin cannot afford (politically, militarily, and economically) to fail a second time,” he argues.
But Putin believes that the Russian military engagement is going according to its own plan, denying any serious strategic change. Prior to Moscow's offensive on February 24, the Kremlin also said that Russia would not attack Ukraine.
Despite the Russian leader’s denial of any changes, Putin’s language has changed significantly from its initial rhetoric, which demanded the total surrender of Ukrainian armed forces, whose resistance might put “the future of Ukrainian statehood” in danger.
On Tuesday, Putin appeared to diminish his objectives to securing eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region rather than taking over the entire Ukraine, signalling Moscow’s new approach.
“Our goal is to help the people who live in the Donbass, who feel their unbreakable bond with Russia,” he said. Russia claims that Russian-speaking people in the Donbass region suffer under Ukrainian rule, but Kiev denies the charge.
Ioannis Koskinas, a former American officer and a senior fellow at the international security program of New America, believes that Russians are changing their military strategy after their failure in the first offensive — due to its decentralised approach — which compromised the world’s second biggest army’s logistic lines.
“Operationally, at the start of the war, the Russians launched a multi-pronged attack, that included a push to capture Kiev, that left the Russian forces with extended logistics lines, and very vulnerable to attacks,” Koskinas tells TRT World.
“They appear to have learned from their mistakes, and now the Russians are using logistics lines that are inside Russian territory to reposition troops and equipment for introduction to the Eastern Ukraine front,” says the military analyst.
In terms of logistic lines, Moscow is better situated in eastern Ukraine, which borders Russia, rather than Kiev or the western part of the country, which borders NATO states like Poland.
“Russian Forces have short supply lines from Russia and Ukraine has to transport the material it’s receiving from Europe and US equipment all the way from the Polish border to Eastern Ukraine - complicating matters for the Ukrainians,” Koskinas says.
He also says the Russian Air Force has a better command of the airspace and freedom to operate in eastern Ukraine compared to the western regions, whose closeness to NATO states creates a risk of confrontation between Moscow and the Western alliance.
According to Koskinas, eastern Ukraine’s open space terrain with its less urbanised character might also work in favour of the new approach. Ukrainians used US and UK anti-tank systems effectively against Russian forces in cities like Kiev and Kharkiv, inflicting heavy losses over their troops and equipment.
“I would imagine that the new equipment that is coming from NATO countries may be tailored for the new fight in Eastern Ukraine. However, it is unlikely that the equipment will come in time to be used by Ukrainians against Russian forces,” he says.
Koskinas believes the Russians might rush to accelerate their second offensive, to ensure that the new NATO equipment is not introduced ahead of the start of the next phase.
Will Russia succeed this time?
In the second phase of the Ukraine conflict, Erickson predicts a massive use of Russian air force, rockets and artillery unlike the first assault. “Such fire power will devastate the point of attack and I think that the Russian offensive will be overwhelming and it will succeed,” he says.
Koskinas believes success is a “relative” term due to the conflict’s complicated character. But like Erickson, he thinks that the Russians are willing to inflict massive damage to Ukrainian cities. “Forcing Ukrainian capitulation through the overwhelming cost for staying in the fight is likely a key component of Moscow's game plan,” he says.
He also warns the Western alliance not to underestimate Russian military capabilities based on Moscow’s faltering first offensive as it wrongly projected a quick Russian victory over Kiev in the initial military engagement.
Koskinas also thinks that Western analysts are probably “miscalculating President Putin’s time table”, asserting that he is desperate to achieve some sort of “win” by the 9 May Victory Parade, which commemorates Russia's WWII victory over Nazi Germany.
“To me, this is just a guess, and while perhaps Putin wants to achieve some success by then, his propaganda machine will spin a narrative that suits him, whether there’s progress on the ground or not. Ultimately, I don’t anticipate that this is going to be a phase that will be resolved quickly. And sadly, I think the carnage will get even more severe.”