Europe’s largest armed conflict since World War II is about to enter a new phase in the coming weeks.
Without any suggestion of a negotiated end to the 13-month-old fighting between Russia and Ukraine, Ukraine’s defense minister said last week that a spring counteroffensive could begin as early as April.
Kiev faces a key tactical question: How can the Ukrainian military drive Kremlin forces out of the land they occupy? Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is working hard to keep his troops and public motivated for a long fight.
Here’s a look at how the struggles have played out and how the spring campaign could play out:
How did the war get here?
Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, but its attacks failed to hit some major targets and lost momentum by July. Ukrainian counter-offensives occupied large areas from August to November.
Then the fighting became mired in grueling warfare during the bitter winter and the muddy early spring thaw.
Now Kiev can take advantage of better weather conditions to take the initiative on the battlefield with new batches of Western weapons, including a host of Western-trained tanks and troops.
But Russian forces are deeply entrenched, waiting behind minefields and along kilometer-long trenches.
How has Russia fared so far?
The war exposed embarrassing deficiencies in the Kremlin’s military strength.
Battlefield setbacks include Russia’s failure to reach Kiev in the early days of the invasion, its inability to hold some areas, and its failure to capture the devastated eastern city of Bakhmut despite seven months of fighting.
Attempts to break Ukraine’s will to fight, such as a relentless strike on the country’s power grid, have also failed.
Moscow’s intelligence services misjudged Ukraine’s resolve and the West’s response. The invasion also depleted Russia’s military resources, causing problems with ammunition supplies, morale and troop numbers.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, apparently concerned that the war could erode public support for his government, avoided an all-out attempt to win through mandatory mass mobilization.
“The Russians have no end of problems,” said James Nixey, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House, a think tank in London.
Realizing he can’t win the war anytime soon, Putin intends to cave in and drag out the fighting in the hope that Western support for Kiev will eventually wane, Nixey said.
Russia’s strategy is designed to “make the West fall apart,” he said.
What’s next for Ukrainians?
The Ukrainian army starts the season with an influx of powerful weapons.
Germany announced this week that it had delivered the promised 18 Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. Poland, Canada and Norway also delivered their promised Leopard tanks. British Challenger tanks also arrived.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said he hoped Western partners would deliver at least two battalions of German-made Leopard 2s by April. He also expects six or seven battalions of Leopard 1 tanks, with ammunition, from a coalition of countries.
American Abrams tanks and French light tanks have also been promised, along with Ukrainian soldiers recently trained to use them.
Western aid was crucial in strengthening Ukraine’s stubborn resistance and shaping the course of the war. Zelenskyy admits that without the help of the USA, his country has no chance to prevail.
The new supplies, including howitzers, anti-tank weapons and a million rounds of artillery ammunition, will strengthen the Ukrainian military and give it greater effectiveness.
“The sheer number of tanks can drive a deeper wedge into Russian positions,” Nixey said.
In their counter-offensive, Ukrainian forces will try to break through the land corridor between Russia and the annexed peninsula of Crimea, moving from Zaporozhye towards Melitopol and the Sea of Azov, according to Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov.
If they succeed, the Ukrainians will “separate the Russian troops into two halves and cut the supply lines to the units located further west, in the direction of Crimea,” Zhdanov said.
What could be the end game?
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, believes Ukraine will need to launch a series of counter-offensives, not just one, to gain the upper hand.
The operations would have the “double aim of persuading Putin to accept a negotiated compromise or of creating a military reality sufficiently favorable to Ukraine that Kiev and its Western allies can then effectively freeze the conflict on their own regardless of Putin’s decisions,” the institute said in an assessment released this week.
Nixey has no doubt that both sides will continue to “tear pieces off each other” in the coming months in hopes of gaining an upper hand at the negotiating table.
A make-or-break period could be upon us: If Kiev fails to advance on the battlefield with its Western-supplied weapons, allies may be reluctant to send it more expensive equipment.
The stakes are high. The defeat of Ukraine “would have global consequences and there will be no such thing as European security as we have [currently] get it,” said Nixey.