Kyiv, Ukraine – As spring get under way in Ukraine, an ominous lull in hostilities has fallen over the battlefields in the war Russia began last year.
Moscow’s winter offensive never quite materialised despite the mobilisation of hundreds of thousands of mostly untrained men. Many were shipped straight to the front line only to be killed in what survivors called “cannon fodder storms”.
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With the jailing of critics and an American journalist, the Kremlin seems to have scored more victories against dissent and the fractured domestic opposition than in Ukraine as Russian forces barely inched forward in the besieged eastern city of Bakhmut.
At the same time, Ukraine has not regained any ground in the southern region of Kherson or the eastern region of Kharkiv in the months after Russia retreated from key areas there.
As spring rains turn soil into mud impassable for troops and heavy weaponry, Ukraine is amassing fresh forces trained to use new Western arms, and its long promised counteroffensive seems imminent.
“We are confident the counteroffensive is taking place in the nearest future,” Prime Minister Denys Shmygal said last week. “The US absolutely supports us.”
But where and how will it begin?
A Western military analyst said he thinks Ukraine has enough manpower and gear to call the shots.
“Whenever they choose to begin their counteroffensive, they’re going to have sufficient trained and equipped manpower,” retired US army Major General Gordon Skip Davis told Al Jazeera
Kyiv’s only major drawback, a dire shortage of air forces, can be compensated by improved air defence capability, he said, and US-made Patriot air defence systems arrived in Ukraine on Wednesday.
‘The counteroffensive will be a boost’
What’s far more important is that Kyiv can exploit the low morale of Russian forces and their shortages of arms and ammunition.
“They have a pretty good read on Russian concerns, and they will likely seed their fears to their advantage,” said Davis, who frequently visited Ukraine from 2014 to 2019 and met with its leaders and top brass.
Ukraine also needs a triumph or two to secure the continued supply of Western military and financial aid as Western public support for its cause is dwindling.
“The counteroffensive will be a boost for all the political leaders that are supporting Ukraine and saying this is the sacrifice we must make to keep Ukraine free,” Davis said.
The current, crescent-shaped front line stretching from Ukraine’s east to south is hundreds of kilometres long, so Kyiv will need to carefully choose where to counterattack first.
“I don’t think they will do two lines of attack,” Davis said. “They’ll just use one major concentrated area.”
One of the most feasible options for Ukraine is to dissect the land bridge that Russia created to the Crimean Peninsula when it captured large parts of southeastern Ukraine at the beginning of the war. This land bridge runs across separatist-controlled parts of the eastern region of Donbas as well as Mariupol and Berdiansk, both cities on the Sea of Azov.
But a threat to Crimea may lead to further escalation because Putin considers the annexed peninsula a jewel in his crown.
Another option is an attack on separatist-held areas in the east that are “least prepared in terms of defence and depth”, Davis said.
However, many of the people who remain there have been staunchly opposed to Kyiv since 2014, largely thanks to the prevalence of Russia’s state-controlled media and the economic isolation that has made the poor separatist statelets fully dependent on Moscow, he said.
According to another analyst, the most publicly anticipated strike is a southwards one towards the Russia-occupied cities of Mariupol and Berdiansk and the Crimean isthmus. It could begin in early May.
“It seems like the shortest and surest way to a successful offensive operation,” Nikolay Mitrokhin of Germany’s Bremen University told Al Jazeera.
To divert Moscow’s attention and disperse Russian reserves, Kyiv has signalled its readiness to attack in other directions.
One of these signals is Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s decision in mid-April to appoint new heads of administration in Russia-occupied towns of the Luhansk region.
However, the map is full of hot spots where counterstrikes are widely expected, Mitrokhin said.
They include the eastern towns of Svatovo and Kreminna, any location in the southern Zaporizhia region and the delta of the Dnipro River (called the Dnieper River in Russia) south of the city of Kherson.
“But of all of them, strategic objectives will only be met by seizing the [eastern] Lysychansk-Severodonetsk agglomeration, a strike on the Zaporizhia front towards Mariupol and the crossing of the Dnieper as a supporting blow,” Mitrokhin said.
‘Ukraine needs to break Russia’s southern positions apart’
Ukraine’s leading war analyst says an attack between the eastern towns of Severodonetsk and Kreminna could be crucial to reverse Russia’s push to seize the entire Donbas region.
“If we act there, the enemy would have to leave Bakhmut,” Lieutenant General Ihor Romanenko, former deputy chief of the Ukrainian military’s General Staff, told Al Jazeera.
A push southwards may prove harder – but may herald the gradual liberation of Crimea, he said.
Russia’s positions in the south “have been strengthened, and Ukraine needs to break them apart in order to reach the Crimean Peninsula and turn it into an island in terms of logistical supply,” Romanenko said.
In recent months, Kyiv has intensified its drone and artillery strikes on Russia’s western regions adjacent to Ukraine.
An invasion of these regions, especially Bryansk, may distract a large part of Russian forces and sow panic among average Russians, Romanenko said.
But the West objects to such a daring move.
“It would be rational, but there is a military-political aspect,” Romanenko said.
Western allies do not want Kyiv to enter Russia proper to avoid further escalation and prevent Moscow’s use of nuclear weapons.
Ukraine is too dependent on Western supplies to ignore these fears, he said.
Meanwhile, Moscow’s current goals are radically different from its initial calculations.
The Kremlin failed to achieve its plans to seize Kyiv and topple Zelenskyy’s government within days of the invasion’s launch.
It learned the hard way how poor was its decision-making based on obsolete Soviet-era stratagems, logistical supply and battlefield coordination.
These days, the Kremlin wants to win nothing but time.
“For Russia, it’s important to freeze the conflict, get a better grip of occupied territories, rebuild the economy” the way Iran modified its economy under Western sanctions, Kyiv-based analyst Aleksey Kushch told Al Jazeera.
Moscow wants “to bleed Ukraine dry through the risk of the war’s renewal that would scare off investors and prompt people to flee. And then to attack again,” he said.