The storm is coming. What it does and does not blow away will shape the war between Russia and Ukraine for the rest of the year and possibly lead to the end of the conflict.

Ukraine’s long-awaited spring counter-offensive is imminent. The front lines are seeing movement, special forces have conducted small-scale river crossings, and drone attacks are targeting Russian supply depots as Kyiv attempts to “shape the battlefield” ahead of the assault. Twelve combat brigades have been readied, each comprising 4,000 troops. Many of the American-made Bradley Fighting Vehicles and European tanks promised months ago are in place, along with US-supplied armoured vehicle-launched bridges which will go forward with the first units. Some of the key troops have been trained at American bases in Germany, and the Ukrainians have inserted less experienced personnel into units with plenty of experienced fighters.

Naturally the battle plans are secret, but it’s expected the main thrusts will be in the south of Ukraine in a bid to cut the land corridor along the Azov Sea which links the Donbas region with Crimea. The Ukrainians have surprised us several times over the past 14 months and may do again, but the most likely plan of attack will be to rapidly punch through the Russian lines, head for supply depots, and command and control centres. They hope to both paralyse the Russians’ decision-making capabilities and sow panic in the rank and file, causing a contagious flight from the front lines. 

Assumptions of Russian ineptitude should be put on hold. The “collapse” scenario is plausible, especially if the litany of Russian military logistical failures has continued, and this week the deputy defence minister responsible for logistics, Mikhail Mizintsev, appears to have been fired. However, Russia has had several months to prepare for what they know is coming. 

The high command appears to have learned from some of their catastrophic failures of last year. A multi-layered system of defences has been built along several hundred kilometres of mostly rural land. Mines have been laid, anti-tank ditches dug, and a network of trenches re-enforced. Numerous concrete “dragons’ teeth” tank obstacles have been built and positioned. The commander in the south, General Sergey Surovikin, may have been demoted from overall command in favour of General Gerasimov but he is a formidable (and brutal) military man with both experience and knowledge. 

Among the things he knows is that Russia maintains a serious advantage in air power, long range artillery, and numbers of troops. He knows that mass-scale river crossings are among the most difficult and bloody military manoeuvres to pull off. If the Ukrainians get their assessments wrong of where the Russians are weakest, and where they should strike the hardest, they will suffer badly. Even if they do break through, unless they succeed in sparking a rout, a renewed stalemate may ensue, and that only suits the Kremlin. 

President Putin is prepared to send as many Russian troops to their deaths as it takes to wear down Ukraine’s ability to continue the fight. The Ukrainians are firing artillery shells and anti-aircraft missiles at a faster rate than Western powers can supply them. If the offensive fails, the Western countries will not put their factories onto a war footing and continue to watch their own stocks dwindle. So, another offensive, later in the year is unlikely and at this point several countries will begin to openly waver in their support for Kyiv.

Pressure will grow to do a deal. From the beginning it has been parroted that it will be the Ukrainians who decide when and how to sue for peace and not outside players. It’s never been true. 

If, by the autumn it’s clear Ukraine must continue to suffer indefinitely what has turned into Russia’s war of attrition, the French, Germans, Hungarians, and Italians may all begin calling for a negotiated ceasefire. Once ranks have been openly broken other countries may follow suit. If enough powers begin to reduce their diplomatic, financial, and military support, the Ukrainians may be forced to swallow the bitterest of pills amid a sense of betrayal. 

The outlines of a “deal” have been apparent since the early days of the war when it became clear the Russians could not take the whole country. “Russia keeps the Crimea, takes part of the Donbas, a demilitarised zone is imposed along the front lines, and NATO gives “assurances” to Ukraine about its sovereignty. Putin declares victory, the Western countries declare democracy has been saved, and only the Ukrainians call it what it is – a victory for aggression.”

A significant Ukrainian victory this spring/summer can prevent that, or at least put Kyiv in a much stronger position if or when talks begin. Failure does the opposite. 

This is what is behind President Macron’s call for President Xi to whisper into Putin’s ear. This is what is behind Xi’s phone call to President Zelensky last week. This is what is behind Xi’s “12-point peace plan”, wrongly dismissed out of hand by some commentators. Its lack of a call for Russian troops to leave Ukraine is not the “non-starter” described by many, it’s the starting position which will be changed if China fulfils the role it has been positioning itself for – “peacemaker”. China does not want to see its junior partner humiliated as that undermines Beijing’s narrative that the US is in decline and that the future has Chinese characteristics. 

However, nor does it want to overtly support Putin’s criminal actions as that undermines its claim not to interfere in other countries’ affairs and, after all, Ukraine has done nothing to provoke China. Beijing also knows that although its relationship with Washington will be poor for the foreseeable future, it does not want to lose its most important market, Europe, by entering the war on Russia’s side and suffering sanctions.

That’s why there’s only one global leader talking to both sides, and it’s not President Biden. There’s a lot riding on the next few weeks along the front lines in Ukraine. 

Write to us with your comments to be considered for publication at