Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 16 May 2024

Opinion | Russia Has Opened Up a New Front. What Comes Next?

An antitank obstacle is reflected on a window above a woman carrying a yellow bag.
Credit... Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

By Michael Kofman and Rob Lee

Mr. Kofman is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Lee is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Both are experts on the Russian military and modern warfare.

Last week, the Russian military opened a new front in its invasion of Ukraine.

Launching an offensive into the Kharkiv region, Russian forces quickly advanced several kilometers, managing to reoccupy several villages that were liberated during Ukraine’s successful offensive in September 2022. They have not yet reached the main line of defenses east of the city, which are held by brigades better equipped and more experienced than those closer to the border. But the situation is serious.

By threatening Ukraine’s second most populous city, Russia hopes to pin Ukrainian resources in the region, exposing the front elsewhere. Ukraine’s immediate priority is to stabilize the front line and prevent a major Russian breakthrough, which it may be able to do. But it is dealing with a series of challenges that have accumulated since last year and will not be quick to resolve. Despite the recent passing of the aid bill in Congress, which freed up billions in assistance for Kyiv, things are likely to get worse before they get better.

Russia’s aim is not to take Kharkiv, but to menace it by advancing toward the city and threatening it with artillery. While Russia lacks the forces to assault the city itself, the operation is designed to create a dilemma. Ukrainian forces are already stretched relatively thin; by drawing Ukraine’s reserves and better units to the defense of Kharkiv, the Russian attack weakens other parts of the front line. Russia remains focused on occupying the remainder of the Donetsk region in the east, looking to seize key transit hubs and population centers.

In recent days, some Ukrainian units have already been redeployed from Donetsk to Kharkiv, and it appears that Ukraine is deploying individual battalions to reinforce other parts of the front. This risks leaving Ukrainian forces in Donetsk even more vulnerable if Russia commits its reserves in that direction. Russian forces are also applying pressure near Kupiansk, to Kharkiv’s east, and in the southern region of Zaporizhzhia. Incursions along the border in the Sumy and Chernihiv regions may be to come.

The Russian offensive comes at a time of vulnerability for Ukraine. Since last fall, the country has faced three interrelated problems: lack of ammunition, manpower and fortifications. Ukraine has made progress improving its fortifications over the spring, and the aid package from the United States should alleviate its ammunition shortages. But Ukraine’s manpower has continued to deteriorate especially where it counts: in its infantry.

Ukraine’s counteroffensive last summer culminated primarily because of attrition among its infantry, and it has struggled to replace those losses ever since. In practice, this means there are often too few soldiers manning trenches and not enough infantry to develop a sustainable rotation, risking exhaustion over time. This also creates a pernicious effect of discouraging others to volunteer. Many Ukrainian brigades are understrength, and many soldiers are over the age of 40.

To be clear, Ukraine is not out of men. The situation is the consequence of policy choices, a rickety mobilization system and many months of political intransigence before the recent passing of a series of mobilization laws. These laws aim to widen the pool of soldiers by lowering the draft eligibility age, punishing those who try to evade service, allowing some convicts to serve and providing incentives for volunteers. They hold the promise to address Ukraine’s manpower problem, but much will depend on how they are carried out. The situation, in any case, will take months to improve.

Lacking sufficient forces and with a deficit of ammunition, Ukraine’s military responds to Russian breakthroughs by moving its best brigades and elite units around the front. This firefighting approach, which happened during the battles of Bakhmut and Avdiika, means that the best units do not have enough time to rest and regenerate. Ukraine also resorts to deploying individual battalions piecemeal to reinforce parts of the front without the rest of their brigade. These are short-term solutions that come with longer-term consequences, as these units degrade over time.

In contrast, Russia managed to address its manpower problems last year and now recruits approximately 30,000 contract servicemen a month. Many of these recruits are hardly ideal soldiers and are also in their 40s. But this physical advantage — combined with artillery, drones and glide bomb strikes — has given Russia a quantitative edge.

Yet Russia’s advantages are not necessarily decisive. The quality of its forces, together with leadership losses, have limited Russia’s ability to conduct larger-scale operations — it’s why Russian forces struggle to turn advances into breakthroughs and have not been able to make more significant gains. Russia is also burning through equipment, most of which comes from storage, and will face equipment shortages in 2025.

Even with the passage of the U.S. aid bill, Ukraine faces a difficult year. American assistance has bought Ukraine time and gives certainty about the resources that will be available. The funding could be sufficient for Ukraine to hold and, in the best case, restore the offensive potential of its military. It offers an opportunity. But the future hinges on what the West — which plays a significant role in training, intelligence and other forms of support — and Ukraine can make of it.

If Ukraine can limit Russia to modest gains this year, then Moscow’s window of opportunity is likely to close and its relative advantage may begin to diminish in 2025. This is not just a matter of Ukraine getting ammunition or weapons from the West, but also of effectively managing forces, addressing the long-running deficit of manpower and establishing proper defenses. Ukraine will have to defend itself while at the same time working to reconstitute its military. In the coming months, much hangs in the balance.

More on the war in Ukraine

 

No comments:

Post a Comment