After Russia’s forced retreat from the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson last week, both sides are calculating their next moves — with military analysts predicting fighting will harden in the east and towards Sea of Azov cities in the south.
The next hotspots are expected to be near Donetsk in the eastern Donbas region, particularly near the cities of Bakhmut and Avdiivka — where combatants are already mired in fierce battles marked by intense artillery barrages and close-quarter combat — and in the south en route to the strategic cities of Melitopol and Mariupol.
But a western official cautioned that despite Ukrainian momentum, “as we go into 2023, we are still expecting a grind, we are still expecting it to be largely static, and we still expect neither side to particularly win or lose”.
Russia is likely to renew its focus on the east following its pullback in the south, analysts say. The shift would echo the Kremlin’s strategy after its forces retreated from Kyiv in the spring, when Moscow declared a new phase of the war aimed at “fully liberating” the Donbas region, where since 2014 Russia has fomented a war with the use of local proxy forces.
Konrad Muzyka, of Rochan Consulting, a Poland-based group that tracks the war, said that alongside its recent mobilisation of about 300,000 troops, Russia’s withdrawal from Kherson could play to the Kremlin’s advantage, allowing it to move resources away from the south and boost its forces along the eastern front line.
“In February, Russia entered Ukraine with a low density of forces and opened up too many operational directions, probably assuming that attacks from the north, south and east would force Kyiv into submission,” Muzyka wrote in an analysis. “As this plan did not materialise, Russian forces quickly became spread too thin.”
However, he added: “With fewer territories under control, Russian force density will increase and Moscow will have more soldiers per square kilometre than . . . since early March.”
Up to 50 per cent of the Russian forces withdrawn from Kherson could be moved to other fronts, mainly in the Donbas, where Moscow has built significant new defensive positions, a western official said.
Kyiv could also be forced to redirect troops from the south. “Logically Ukraine has to redeploy additional troops to [Donetsk province] to not let the Russians succeed,” said Oleksiy Melnyk, a former Ukraine air force lieutenant colonel and now co-director of the Razumkov Centre think-tank in Kyiv.
Ukraine is struggling to push Russian forces back in Donetsk. There is fierce fighting near Avdiivka, the site of a large coke plant, and Bakhmut, which sits on a key highway and is a gateway to larger cities held by Kyiv that serve as important military hubs.
A soldier fighting in a Ukrainian special forces unit near Bakhmut described the battle as “hell” with casualties mounting daily. “It looks like something from the second world war, like a staging ground for D-Day,” he said, describing the battlefield as a mess of trenches, bunkers, tank traps, razor wire and artillery craters.
The southern front was likely to be Kyiv’s main focus, said Melnyk. “For the Ukrainian side the eastern front is important . . . but the southern front toward Mariupol and Melitopol is operationally more important because this is where Ukraine . . . can cut off Russian supplies for its [troops] . . . and cut off the Crimean peninsula,” he said.
Ukrainian forces are unlikely to try to cross the Dnipro, on which Kherson sits, in significant numbers in the immediate future given the strength of Russian defences on the eastern bank, western officials and analysts predict. But Russia is expected to move its supply lines deeper into Kherson province on that side of the river because Ukrainian Himars can reach far into Russian-held territory.
Ukraine was expected to try to position its forces for a possible new land offensive between the eastern and southern fronts, analysts said. Retaking the southern cities of Melitopol, Berdyansk and Mariupol could help set up an approach to Crimea, although analysts and Ukrainian and western officials are divided over whether such a move would be possible.
Ukraine’s general staff last week said Russia was building up troops near Melitopol.
Ukrainian analysts said their forces’ ability to act with the element of surprise had been critical. “This is a very smart tactic . . . not to jump the gun, not to give heads up to your enemy, but rather to under promise and over deliver,” said Yuriy Sak, an adviser to Ukraine’s defence minister.
Meanwhile, Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a former Ukrainian defence minister, said Russia was likely to increase its missile attacks on the country’s energy infrastructure. Fresh strikes targeted Kyiv on Tuesday. “Failure of critical infrastructure in freezing weather is much harder than when the weather is warm, like now,” he said.
Although analysts and officials predict a relative stalemate in the coming months, some are concerned Putin might escalate the war if Ukraine makes larger gains than expected.
The US has repeatedly warned Russia against using nuclear weapons. On Monday it stepped up its efforts, with CIA director Bill Burns meeting his Russian intelligence counterpart Sergei Naryshkin in Ankara, the first known in-person contact between US and Russian officials since the war began.
“We have been very open about the fact that we have channels to communicate with Russia on managing risk, especially nuclear risk and risks to strategic stability,” a White House official said. “He is conveying a message on the consequences of the use of nuclear weapons by Russia, and the risks of escalation to strategic stability.”