WASHINGTON – The intelligence sector of the United States believe that the Ukraine has a window of opportunity in the war against Russia for the next six weeks, before winter sets in and the armies are forced to stop and regroup. The breach, officials say, could allow counter-offensives to continue in the south and northeast of the country.
US officials say there is little chance of a widespread collapse in Russian forces that would allow Ukraine to seize another huge swath of territory, similar to the one it regained last month. However, in the authorities’ assessment, specific Russian units could lose battles in the face of sustained Ukrainian pressure – which would allow the Kiev army to continue retaking cities in Donbas and potentially retake Kherson.
While cautious in forecasting, US and Ukrainian officials say fighting is likely to continue for months despite Ukraine’s recent gains. In addition, a number of variables may become relevant in changing the trajectory of the conflict: more difficult combat conditions in December; Russian President Vladimir Putin’s limits in the conflict; European bloc support during the Northern Hemisphere winter as energy prices rise; and the potentially changing political environment in the US, which could result in reduced support for Ukraine.
One of the issues that make predictions difficult is the fact that the current war has gone through different phases, sometimes with Russia in the lead, sometimes with Ukraine. At first, Ukrainians defeated the Russians in the battle for Kiev, but then suffered brutal reverses in the Donbas.
The fighting has become intense again in recent days. However, military analysts say Ukraine has an advantage that provides a chance to determine where to focus efforts to regain territory. “There is a Ukrainian window of opportunity here,” said Mason Clark, a Russian military analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “Ukrainians have the freedom to choose where they attack.”
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US officials privately say Ukraine is likely to maintain pressure over the next few weeks where it has the upper hand, but not to the point of softening military supply lines or giving Russia a chance to exploit weaknesses in defensive lines.
Publicly, senior Ukrainian officials spoke optimistically about the prospects of significant battlefield victories. Field officials agree they are making gains, but at a high cost. “We are advancing, but not as quickly as in Kharkiv province,” said Major Iaroslav Galas, commander of the 128th Assault Brigade on Separate Mountain, which is fighting in the Kherson region. “And there are many losses.”
Pressure in Kherson and the Northeast
American officials believe the Ukrainian advance could soon force Russian forces in Kherson to retreat from the Dnipro River, returning most of the city to Ukrainian control. Russian commanders recommended pulling back troops, but Putin rejected the order. In return, he ordered more than 60,000 people from Kherson out of the city, which is beginning to prepare for conflict.
After the September offensive, Ukrainian forces had to slow down and strengthen supply lines in the northeast. As Russia moved to reinforce these positions, the lightning counteroffensive once again turned into a fierce battle.
Still, some US officials said the Ukrainians appeared ready to move forward and break the stalemate in Luhansk, where it may be possible to encircle or break Russian defensive lines. According to these officials, if Ukrainian forces take control of one of Luhansk’s highways in the coming weeks, a key route used by Russia to resupply troops in occupied areas will be cut.
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The Russian military is still dealing with challenges that have existed since the beginning of the war. Problems with logistics prevented Moscow from keeping soldiers adequately supplied. Communication between Russian units remains difficult, forcing them to send senior officers close to the front lines and making coordinated movements difficult. The reservists who are now forced onto the battlefields are poorly trained and poorly equipped.
Even though it is losing steam now, Russia, according to US officials and military analysts, has not yet lost the war. And, they emphasize, it is essential never to underestimate an opponent.
Moscow’s military can still carry out large-scale artillery operations, and Russia has two potential strengths: a troop injection from the forced mobilization Putin carried out at the insistence of key commanders, and an ability to absorb heavy battlefield losses. .
The Russian military suffered a loss of equipment and soldiers that would have broken most armies in Europe. A US government report released last week indicates that the Russians have lost 6,000 pieces of equipment. Estimates of Russian casualties run into thousands. But a key strength in the Russian army is getting more equipment and more soldiers at crucial moments. Despite the losses, US officials say Russia and Putin appear ready to keep fighting – but there are limits.
“Clearly, Russia is facing some significant logistical and support challenges right now,” Brigadier General Patrick Ryder, a spokesman for the Pentagon, said Tuesday. “Those are only going to get tougher as the winter months settle in. And so time is certainly of the essence when it comes to capitalizing on this from an operational standpoint.”
Ukraine, on the other hand, was supported by tens of billions in American aid, weaponry and financing that kept the economy moving and allowed the army to first manage to slow the Russian advance and now regain territory.
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Given the dynamics of the battlefield, US officials don’t think there will be a long pause in combat. The winter snow won’t slow the fighting, but the mud that usually erupts in the region in late October, called ‘rasputitsa’ by the Russians, will. Once the ground becomes solid again in February, around the first anniversary of the invasion, armies can once again move quickly.
Russia could use the next four or five months to regroup, possibly giving some training to the newly deployed soldiers. But what happens next, US officials said, is an open question: The country could either try to recover the area lost since September or order an escalation in the conflict – potentially to the point of using nuclear weapons – to change the army’s danger. Furthermore, Russia may look to make do with the gains made and try to negotiate with the Ukrainians, counting on European capitals fearful of a winter fuel shortage to pressure Kiev to agree to a ceasefire.
US officials warn that there are important caveats to their assessment of the war. Ukrainian authorities still do not share most of their operational plans. And while the United States has better intelligence on Russian planning, Putin’s intentions for the next phase of the war are difficult to discern. There are currently few regular contacts between US officials and Russian counterparts.
Even if Ukraine prevents Russia from achieving strategic goals of overthrowing the government in Kiev and forcing the country away from Europe, that doesn’t mean Putin stops fighting. The reality of modern warfare is that the victor does not have a say when the fighting stops. According to officials, Putin is unlikely to accept defeat in the coming months.
“Often it is up to the loser to decide when the war really ends,” said Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at CNA, an American research institute. “There is a divergence in people’s expectations of when the fighting might end versus the war that is actually ending. The fight may end, but that doesn’t mean the war itself will end.”