As the snow melts in eastern Ukraine, a frozen war is about to heat up.
Or so we’ve been told. For several months now, the idea of an imminent make-or-break spring offensive has framed coverage of the war.
Yet so far, the promised push hasn’t materialised. Instead an eerie calm has remained along much of the front line, except in the devastated city of Bakhmut.
Volodymyr Zelensky said last week that the counter-offensive to retake Russian-occupied territory has been pushed back due to delays in Western weapons arriving on the front line.
He has every incentive to press allies to deliver on their promises of kit. Ukraine’s armed forces would have folded long ago without foreign military support, and the President is desperate for the billions of dollars flowing into the war effort not to dry up. He knows how much depends on this next chapter of the war being perceived as a success.
Ambiguity also helps Ukraine. Russian forces worn down by nervous exhaustion, not knowing where or when the assault will come, is exactly what Kyiv wants.
But behind the smoke and mirrors is a simple question: Is Ukraine ready?
What does Ukraine want?
Readiness depends on what Kyiv aims to achieve. The big prize – and the most obvious immediate goal – is recapturing the city of Melitopol, severing the land bridge Russia has created between Crimea and the Donbas.
A push south along the western bank of the Molochna River towards the city would pitch Ukrainian troops against Russia’s most heavily fortified positions, through terrain littered with mines, anti-tank defences and a warren of re-enforced trenches. A simultaneous feint east towards Luhansk and Donetsk to keep the Russians guessing is also a possibility.
Winning the war depends on splitting Russian forces in two. But other, smaller victories will help the cause. Pushing the Russians out of Bakhmut would send a defiant message. Vladimir Putin has staked a lot of political capital on conquering the now-symbolic stronghold. A conclusive Russian defeat there would amplify the sense among doubters in Moscow that Putin is a busted flush.
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What does Ukraine need?
All variations of Ukraine’s spring offensive will require advancing into territory bristling with heavy weaponry, and the 150,000 Russian troops stationed in occupied areas of the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions.
An army of combat drones has already been deployed to strike Russian oil and gas infrastructure in Crimea with the aim of disrupting supply lines.
Britain, meanwhile, has delivered an unknown number of Storm Shadow long-range cruise missiles, enhancing Ukraine’s ability to hit targets at distance. They are truly a potent weapon, supplied on the understanding that Zelensky will not attack Russian territory.
The Russians have 600 miles of frontline to defend, and Ukrainian generals have said that a strategy based on nimbly exploiting stretched defensive lines and poor Russian communications is most likely to get results.
However, US military aid is arriving in dribs and drabs. Pentagon officials admit that the promised Abrams battle tanks are months away from being delivered. Excitement over the German-made Leopard has been dented by the reality that the tanks are arriving from eight different European countries and fire five different rounds, preventing Kyiv from buying ammunition in bulk.
Ukraine is believed to have between 160,000 and 220,000 troops primed for the offensive. Zelensky’s determination to minimise casualties is motivating his pleas for American-built F16s to provide air support for the men on the ground. So far, Kyiv’s calls have been rebuffed.
Ukraine may never feel ready to launch into what is likely to be a defining moment in the war. But sooner or later, it will be forced to pull the trigger.
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