In anticipation – perhaps fear – of Western support for Ukraine’s much anticipated “spring offensive”, Russia has spent the past few weeks throwing wave after wave of attacks against a heroic and determined Ukrainian frontline.
Progress has been limited, and despite seven months of intense fighting, cities like Bakhmut have not fallen.
Now, Russia appears closer to culminating – the tempo of attacks has fallen by over 80%.
The Wagner Group of mercenaries is still making painfully slow progress in the north of Bakhmut, but the Russian army is struggling to replace losses and is running short of ammunition and ideas.
Momentum has been lost, and the Russian military desperately needs an operational pause.
Reports also suggest that many Russian military forces are redeploying, leaving the mercenaries to their fate in Bakhmut.
If true, Russia recognises that its attention must now shift from offence to defence in preparation for the anticipated Ukraine counter-offensive.
Ukraine too has sustained huge casualties. However, if Ukraine is to liberate its territory, any offensive must be swift and decisive to exploit the evident exhaustion of the Russian army.
But – and a big but – many military analysts believe that Ukraine will struggle to evict Russia from Donbas and Crimea, so what will the Ukrainian offensive seek to achieve? Move the frontline east? Sever the land bridge between Crimea and the Donbas?
Any offensive – even if successful – will ultimately run out of steam, and certainly before liberating the whole of Ukraine.
However, Western military support is fragile. There are already growing signs that the supply of smart weapons is at best limited, and at worst coming to an end.
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Furthermore, China has a growing influence over Russia, and will not want to see the war drag on with the growing risk of unintended consequences.
There is also limited Western appetite to extend a war that most believe Ukraine cannot win, and Russia cannot lose. And, the West will not want China claiming credit as a peacemaker.
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Ukraine will start its offensive with an impressive arsenal of Western high-tech weapons, but what will be achieved on the battlefield?
Both sides will likely end the year exhausted, perhaps with a revised frontline, but in a virtual stalemate as neither side will have the resources – men or material – to make a decisive move.
At that stage, the West will face a choice – continue supporting a prolonged conflict with diminishing resources, which risks favouring Russia’s long-game strategy – or bring pressure to bear (on both sides) to secure an end to the bloodshed and focus on rebuilding Ukraine.
The stakes could not be higher for Ukraine – the stage is set for what could be the final chapter of this conflict.