Sunday, 14 April 2024 04:44

What to know after Day 780 of Russia-Ukraine war

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WESTERN PERSPECTIVE

Ukraine could face defeat in 2024. Here's how that might look

The former commander of the UK's Joint Forces Command has warned that Ukraine could face defeat by Russia in 2024.

Richard Barrons has told the BBC there is "a serious risk" of Ukraine losing the war this year.

The reason, he says, is "because Ukraine may come to feel it can't win".

"And when it gets to that point, why will people want to fight and die any longer, just to defend the indefensible?"

Ukraine is not yet at that point.

But its forces are running critically low on ammunition, troops and air defences. Its much-heralded counter-offensive last year failed to dislodge the Russians from ground they had seized and now Moscow is gearing up for a summer offensive.

So what will that look like and what are its likely strategic objectives?

"The shape of the Russian offensive that's going to come is pretty clear," says Gen Barrons.

"We are seeing Russia batter away at the front line, employing a five-to-one advantage in artillery, ammunition, and a surplus of people reinforced by the use of newish weapons."

These include the FAB glide bomb, an adapted Soviet-era "dumb bomb" fitted with fins, GPS guidance and 1500kg of high explosive, that is wreaking havoc on Ukrainian defences.

"At some point this summer," says Gen Barrons, "we expect to see a major Russian offensive, with the intent of doing more than smash forward with small gains to perhaps try and break through the Ukrainian lines.

"And if that happens we would run the risk of Russian forces breaking through and then exploiting into areas of Ukraine where the Ukrainian armed forces cannot stop them."

But where?

Last year the Russians knew exactly where Ukraine was likely to attack - from the direction of Zaporizhzhia south towards the Sea of Azov. They planned accordingly and successfully blunted Ukraine's advance.

Now the boot is on the other foot as Russia masses its troops and keeps Kyiv guessing where it is going to attack next.

"One of the challenges the Ukrainians have," says Dr Jack Watling, senior research fellow in land warfare at the Whitehall thinktank the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), "is that the Russians can choose where they commit their forces.

"It's a very long front line and the Ukrainians need to be able to defend all of it."

Which, of course, they cannot.

"The Ukrainian military will lose ground," says Dr Watling. "The question is: how much and which population centres are going to be affected?"

It is quite possible that Russia's General Staff have yet to go firm on which direction to designate as their main effort. But it is possible to broadly break down their various options into three broad locations.

Kharkiv

"Kharkiv," says Dr Watling, "is certainly vulnerable."

As Ukraine's second city, situated perilously close to the Russian border, Kharkiv is a tempting goal for Moscow.

It is currently being pummelled daily with Russian missile strikes, with Ukraine unable to field sufficient air defences to ward off the lethal mix of drones, cruise and ballistic missiles aimed in its direction.

"I think the offensive this year will have breaking out of the Donbas as its first objective," adds Gen Barrons, "and their eye will be on Kharkiv which is 29km [18 miles] or so from the Russian border, a major prize."

Could Ukraine still function as a viable entity if Kharkiv were to fall? Yes, say analysts, but it would be a catastrophic blow to both its morale and its economy.

The Donbas

The area of eastern Ukraine known collectively as the Donbas has been at war since 2014, when Moscow-backed separatists declared themselves "people's republics".

In 2022 Russia illegally annexed the two Donbas oblasts, or provinces, of Donetsk and Luhansk. This is where most of the fighting on land has been taking place over the past 18 months.

Ukraine has, controversially, expended enormous efforts, in both manpower and resources, in trying to hold on to first the town of Bakhmut, and then Avdiivka.

It has lost both, as well as some of its best fighting troops, in the attempt.

Kyiv has countered that its resistance has inflicted disproportionately high casualties on the Russians.

That is true, with the battlefield in these places being dubbed "the meat grinder".

But Moscow has plenty more troops to throw into the fight - and Ukraine does not.

The Commander of US Forces in Europe, General Christopher Cavoli, has warned that unless the US rushes significantly more weapons and ammunition to Ukraine then its forces will be outgunned on the battlefield by ten to one.

Mass matters. The Russian army's tactics, leadership and equipment may be inferior to Ukraine's, but it has such superiority in numbers, especially artillery, that if it does nothing else this year, its default option will be to keep pushing Ukraine's forces back in a westward direction, taking village after village.

Zaporizhzhia

This, too, is a tempting prize for Moscow.

The southern Ukrainian city of more than 700,000 (in peacetime) sits dangerously close to the Russian front lines.

It is also something of a thorn in Russia's side given that it is the capital of an oblast of the same name that Russia has illegally annexed, and yet the city is still living freely in Ukrainian hands.

But the formidable defences that Russia built south of Zaporizhzhia last year, in the correct expectation of a Ukrainian attack, would now complicate a Russian advance from there.

The so-called Surovikin Line, consisting of triple layers of defences, is laced with the largest, most densely packed minefield in the world. Russia could partially dismantle this but its preparations would probably be detected.

Russia's strategic objective this year may not even be territorial. It could simply be to crush Ukraine's fighting spirit and convince its Western backers that this war is a lost cause.

Dr Jack Watling believes the Russian objective is "to try to generate a sense of hopelessness".

"This [Russian] offensive will not decisively end the conflict, irrespective of how it goes for either side," he says.

Gen Barrons is also sceptical that, despite the dire situation Ukraine now finds itself in, Russia will automatically drive home its advantage with a decisive advance.

"I think the most likely outcome is that Russia will have made gains, but will not have managed to break through.

"It will not have forces that are big enough or good enough to punch all the way through to the river [Dnipro]... but the war will have turned in Russia's favour."

One thing is certain: Russia's President Vladimir Putin has no intention of giving up on his assault on Ukraine.

He is like a poker player gambling all his chips on a win. He is counting on the West failing to supply Ukraine with the sufficient means to defend itself.

Despite all the Nato summits, all the conferences and all the stirring speeches, there is a chance he may be right.

** Ukraine's army chief says eastern front under intense Russian assault

Summary

Russia trying to advance on Ukraine's town of Chasiv Yar

Army chief says Russia has stepped up armoured assaults

Kyiv denies losing eastern village, reports heavy fighting

Ukraine hopes stalled U.S. military aid comes through soon

Ukraine's army chief said on Saturday the situation on the eastern front had worsened in recent days as Russia has intensified its armoured assaults and battles rage for control of a village west of the devastated city of Bakhmut.

The statement by Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi more than two years since Russia's invasion reflected the grim mood in Kyiv as vital U.S. military aid that Kyiv expected to receive months ago remains stuck in Congress.

Syrskyi said he travelled to the area to stabilise the front as Russian assault groups using tanks and armoured personnel carriers took advantage of dry, warm weather that has made it easier to manoeuvre.

"The situation on the eastern front in recent days has grown considerably more tense. This is linked primarily to the significant activisation of offensive action by the enemy after the presidential elections in Russia," he wrote on the Telegram app.

Since President Vladimir Putin won a new term in a mid-March election, Russia has stepped up its attacks on Ukraine and unleashed three massive aerial strikes on its energy system, pounding power plants and substations.

The slowdown in military assistance from the West has left Ukraine more exposed to aerial attacks and heavily outgunned on the battlefield. Kyiv has made increasingly desperate appeals for supplies of air defence missiles in recent weeks.

Moscow's forces, Syrskyi said, were taking significant losses during their attacks in the east, but were also making tactical gains.

Social media channels reported the fall of Ukraine's eastern village of Bohdanivka to the west of the occupied city of Bakhmut, prompting Kyiv's defence ministry to deny them.

But it acknowledged fierce fighting in the area and said Russian assault groups had reached the village's northern outskirts overnight. "Bohdanivka is now under the control of the defence forces," it said.

The settlement lies a few kilometres northeast of the town of Chasiv Yar, a Kyiv-controlled stronghold that Russia has been trying to reach after seizing the town of Avdiivka in February to the south.

SEIZE THE STRATEGIC INITIATIVE

Russia's defence ministry said on Saturday its forces had captured Pervomaiske, a village to the south also located in Ukraine's Donetsk region where Moscow has focused its offensive operations for months.

Moscow said its troops had improved their tactical position on the front line there after capturing the village 8 kilometres (4.97 miles) southwest of occupied Avdiivka. Kyiv did not immediately comment on the status of Pervomaiske.

Syrskyi said Russian armoured assault groups were attacking on the fronts of Lyman as well as Bakhmut and using dozens of tanks and armoured personnel carriers to try to break through lines on the Pokrovsk front.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who has warned Russia may be preparing a big offensive push in late May or in June, inspected domestically-produced weapons at an event outside Kyiv where he presented state awards to Ukrainian arms producers.

At the event, Ukraine's military drone forces chief said supplies of drones to the front lines this year were already three times higher than the volume supplied over the course of the whole of last year, the Interfax-Ukraine news agency reported.

He also said Ukraine had strike drones capable of flying 1,200 km.

In his statement, Syrskyi said only a technological edge over Russia in sophisticated weapons would allow Kyiv "to seize the strategic initiative" from a better equipped and larger foe.

He called for better training for soldiers and in particular infantry, a clear reference to Ukraine's manpower challenges.

Ukraine's parliament passed a bill on Thursday to overhaul how the armed forces draft civilians into the ranks. Zelenskiy also signed legislation last week lowering the draft age from 27 to 25.

 

RUSSIAN PERSPECTIVE

Ukrainian paratroopers surrender in Avdeyevka area — Russian Defense Ministry

Soldiers serving in the Ukrainian armed forces’ 25th separate airborne brigade have surrendered as a unit to the Russian military in the Avdeyevka area, the Russian Defense Ministry said.

"Servicemen of the 25th separate airborne brigade of the Ukrainian armed forces have surrendered as a unit to Russian troops from Battlegroup Tsentr (Center) in the Avdeyevka area. Nine Ukrainian paratroopers of the airborne platoon of the elite brigade of the Ukrainian armed forces seized the opportunity to surrender near Vodyanoye, turned to Russian soldiers and laid down their arms," the ministry said.

According to the Russian Defense Ministry, the POWs said that there was no professional military training and long-awaited reinforcements when such were needed. In addition, they praised good treatment of the POWs by Russian soldiers, urging their fellow servicemen to lay down arms and stay away from fighting, the Defense Ministry added.

The Russian Defense Ministry recalled that Russian servicemen had provided a special communication channel for those Ukrainian soldiers who want to stay alive. The 149.200 frequency, which can be accessed on any digital radio, is specially designated to be used by Ukrainian servicemen as a channel for communicating their intention to surrender to the Russian military, which can then locate them and take them captive safely, thus saving the Ukrainian servicemen from risking their lives crossing minefields to reach the Russian lines.

** Russian forces strike Ukrainian manpower, equipment in 112 areas in past day

Russian forces struck Ukrainian manpower and equipment across 112 areas over the past day, the Russian Defense Ministry reported.

"Operational-tactical aircraft, missile troops and artillery of the Russian Armed Forces hit manpower and equipment of the Ukrainian army in 112 areas," the ministry said.

 

BBC/Reuters/Tass

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