Security & defence

Ukraine – Lull Before the Storm?

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Written by Adrian Hill

Poland’s prime minister lately raised concerns about France and Germany’s lack of a wholehearted commitment to helping Ukraine win the war against Russia and how it affects Warsaw’s ability to back Ukraine.

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Poland’s prime minister lately raised concerns about France and Germany’s lack of a wholehearted commitment to helping Ukraine win the war against Russia and how it affects Warsaw’s ability to back Ukraine.

“All the allies in NATO want Ukraine to win but not necessarily to the same extent,” said Mateusz Morawiecki, speaking at the Atlantic Council. Germany and France “want a quick cease-fire … almost at any price.” He attributed that desire for a cease-fire to “more and more war fatigue” in those nations and to some extent in the United States.

Germany’s and other Western Europe nations’ continued dependence on energy from Russia, and French President Emanuel Macron’s recent visit to China where he called upon Europe to establish “strategic autonomy” in its economic and military dealings with Beijing blunts opposition to the conflict, he added.

Chinese mirrors

After pow wows with Putin – who wants to make Russia look a strategic equal of China – President Xi Jinping of China spent an hour on the telephone with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. The length of their conversation may reflect translators at work although Xi once gave an interview in English to the Wall Street Journal. He also speaks some German. I wonder who else he called?

One suspects that Xi has made Putin very clear about what he does not want – wild nuclear threats that risk a conventional clash getting out of control – and now he gradually negotiates what might allow Putin to escape military defeat. Xi probably won’t telephone Biden or Rishi but calls to his new chums Scholtz and Ursula VD L seem more likely. After all, he’s buying a chunk of Hamburg’s docks. An obvious sweetener is to offer Chinese money – and building firms – for Ukraine’s reconstruction.

An important gap needs bridging. Despite a vote at the UN last week China still has not really condemned Russia’s invasion. Zelensky wants the Russians out of Ukraine but won’t trade land for that result. Putin has broken too many promises and treaties to deserve trust, starting with the dismantling of Ukraine’s nuclear arsenal in exchange for peaceful co-existance. While the war continues Putin gains legitimacy though desperately needs a ceasefire to repair his army and restock ammunition, particularly smart missiles. Putin wants a breather, not lasting peace. He dare not withdraw from the Crimea, nor from southern and eastern parts of Ukraine. And if he lost both, don’t expect political hari kari, nor an election.

Working out The Military Balance

The Russian Army has more troops than ever inside Ukraine, most largely switched over to a defensive posture. During winter and spring the Russians were busy, building strong anti-tank defences across open country where they expect the Ukrainians to launch attacks – attacks they hope to channel onto their new defences. Tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians are being forcibly removed and transported to Russia from occupied south-eastern Ukraine. Last time they carried mass abductions was before Kherson was liberated

During April the Institute for the Study of War ( ISW ) in Washington DC published a special campaign assessment. This report outlines the current Russian order of battle (ORBAT) in Ukraine, assesses the offensive and defensive capabilities of Russian force groupings along the various fronts, and discusses major factors that may complicate Russian defensive operations in the event of a Ukrainian counteroffensive.

In ISW’s own words….their report is based on a number of assumptions about Ukrainian capabilities that ISW does not, as a matter of policy, attempt to assess or report on. The report assumes in particular, that Ukraine will be able to conduct a coordinated multi-brigade mechanized offensive operation making full use of the reported nine brigades ( possibly a dozen according to Catherine Philp of The Times who is on the spot ) being prepared for that operation. That task is daunting and larger than any offensive effort Ukraine has hitherto attempted (four Ukrainian brigades were reportedly used in the Kharkiv counter-offensive, for example). It also assumes that Ukraine will have integrated enough tanks and armoured personnel carriers of various sorts into its units to support extended mechanized manoeuvre, that Ukrainian mechanized units will have sufficient ammunition of all sorts including artillery, and that Ukraine will be able to conduct long-range precision strikes with HIMARS and other similar systems integrated with and supporting manoeuvre operations as it has done before. It further assumes that Ukrainian forces will have the mine-clearing and bridging capabilities needed ( plenty of competent sappers ) to move relatively rapidly through hostile prepared defensive positions.

ISW sees no reason to question any of these assumptions given the intensity with which Ukraine has reportedly been preparing for this operation and the time it has taken to do so, as well as the equipment reportedly delivered to Ukrainian forces by Western countries. Should a significant number of these assumptions prove invalid, however, then some assessments and observations will also be invalid, and the Russians’ prospects for holding their lines will be better than presented in the remarkably detailed report – link below – based on public sources. Quite an amazing piece of work even in the age of the World Wide Web.

ISW offers no assessment of or evidence for these assumptions, and thus offers no specific forecast for the nature, scale, location, duration, or outcome of the upcoming Ukrainian counter-offensive. Ukraine has attractive options for offensive operations all along the line, and ISW does not assess that the information presented in this report or any observations ISW has made lead obviously to the conclusion that Ukrainian forces will attack in one area or another.

I would simply add that the Ukrainians have little room for manoeuvre when it comes to whether and when they launch a counter-offensive. They have set up the conditions by fighting the Russians to a costly standstill around Bakhmut. Some pressure is on them because the American public want to avoid a long proxy war. Success on the battlefield is the bottom line for American tax payers. Although the USA is not at war with Russia, the danger of a draining long term threat from Russia is clearly recognized by the present Biden Administration, equally concerned about China. The danger of abandonment by an isolationist Trump 2 Administration is as blindingly obvious to Zelensky and his cabinet. Equally, Putin has a slim chance of snatching a ceasefire before Ukraine attacks but obviously still tries desperately.

More than A Cat in Hell’s Chance?

As regards hardware NATO is confident that all tanks, armoured personnel carriers, other armoured vehicles and artillery requested have been delivered. This involved about 200 tanks and 1500 various armoured vehicles. The Poles and Baltic States have given Ukraine three dozen Mig fighters recently modified with up to date electronics. Some are for spares. This clever idea solved the F 16 dilemma. Ukrainians know how to fly and maintain modern Migs. Smart electronics provide the latest technology for dog fighting and ground attack. The alternative, three squadrons of F 16s, would require five-hundred people to spend a year at schools before anyone flew a single fighter in combat.

A Turkish company has given Ukraine drones plus the means to carry out accurate reconnaissance. There are shortages of ammunition but Russia suffers similar shortages. Missile and air strikes have taken off from Murmansk beside the White Sea and launched their attacks over the Caspian Sea.

When it comes to manpower, Ukraine may not be at such a huge disadvantage as one might expect. NATO countries have been helping Ukraine with training. Britain set up training programmes for Ukrainians starting with a recruit training programme last year that brought 10,000 Ukrainian troops to battle readiness on Salisbury Plain. The programme will train a further 20,000 Ukrainian soldiers this year. There are other programmes for tank crews, pilots, marines and various specialists. The UK continues to work with the Ukrainian Armed Forces and our allies to improve the programmes.

The Americans calculate that over the winter Russia has lost 20,000 killed and 100,000 wounded during their attempts to capture Bakhmut. Many were former convicts fighting for the Wagner Group. An idea of the difficulties when seeking replacements was revealed when Wagner’s commander arranged a local and ‘private’ on the spot exchange of 97 prisoners with the Ukrainians. He even shook the Ukrainians hands and wished them good luck. Clearly he was glad to recover 97 Russians!

That was April. Over the 4 and 5 May the Wagner Group financier, Yevgeny Prigozhin, released a series of expletive rich videos, showing his soldiers killed that day, while he denounced the Russian defence ministry and announced Wagner Group’s withdrawal from the fighting on the Bakhmut front – threatening he will hand over to the Chechens on 10 May. Over the 6/7 May artillery ammunition supplies resumed to Wagner Group.

Such incidents reveal the unpopularity of the war with its threat of conscription to raise more soldiers for Putin to squander at best for a stalemate. To avoid conscription Putin opted to license more private armies. One result is a command structure that includes factions who reflect these private armies. More below.

Putin may have no choice over more conscription, given the casualties. The recent drone attack on the Kremlin quite likely was staged to make the population aware of the threat from Ukraine. (Zelensky has denied any Ukrainian involvement. ) The intention probably to make measures – such as another round of conscription – a touch easier for the public to swallow. Two unidentified figures were climbing the dome of the Kremlin Senate Palace at the time of the attack. Why kill your best general, Putin, if you’re Zelensky? Likewise, the retaliation attacks on civilians and loud mouthing from Medvedev who blamed Zelensky for an attempt to kill Putin, who wasn’t there anyway but at The International Court in the Hague. Either the attack was staged or Moscow’s highly sophisticated air defences, only recently put in place, don’t work.

Russian forces on the ground

ISW assess that Russian forces in Ukraine are operating in decentralized and largely degraded formations throughout the theatre, and the current pattern of deployment suggests that most available units are already on the line of contact and engaged in either offensive or defensive operations. Russian forces are currently operating along seven axes: Kupyansk; Luhansk Oblast; Bakhmut; Avdiivka-Donetsk City; western Donetsk/eastern Zaporizhia; western Zaporizhia; and Kherson Oblast. Russian forces are pursuing active offensive operations on at least five of these axes (Kupyansk, Luhansk, Bakhmut, Avdiivka-Donetsk City, and western Donetsk/eastern Zaporizhia) and predominantly pursuing defensive operations on the western Zaporizhia Oblast and Kherson Oblast axes. The forces currently committed to both offensive and defensive operations in Ukraine are both regular (doctrinally consistent based on Russian pre-war units) and irregular (non-standard and non-doctrinal) forces, and it is highly likely that the majority of Russian elements throughout Ukraine are substantially below full strength due to losses taken during previous phases of the war. This report will discuss “elements” of certain units and formations deployed to certain areas, but it should not be assumed that any of these units or formations are operating at full strength.

For greater detail see previous link above.

Coherent command

ISW assess the Russian military command appears to be increasingly delegating responsibilities for different sectors of the front in Ukraine to various Russian commanders while the power of the theatre commander, Gerasimov, continues to wane. Gerasimov’s degraded abilities to control his commanders will likely further limit the Russian military’s ability to conduct coherent operations involving different areas of responsibility. ISW has previously assessed that factional dynamics within the Russian military are shaping decision making to an unusual degree, and the increasing erosion of the Russian chain of command is likely caught in a self-reinforcing feedback loop with the Russian military’s growing factionalism. ISW assesses that Putin is unlikely to remove Gerasimov as overall theatre commander for reputational reasons, and therefore Prigozhin’s and Kadyrov’s public undermining of Gerasimov may have lasting impacts on the power of the overall theatre commander’s position. Putin may seek to reward commanders he favours with responsibility beyond their official positions instead of simply appointing them to a higher position. The Russian military is highly unlikely to solve these chain of command issues in the near term, and these problems will likely influence how Russian forces on different axes respond to potential Ukrainian counteroffensive operations.


My own view is that this key observation sets the chess board. Put another way, if commanding a combined arms attack (tanks, mechanized infantry, self-propelled artillery, maybe jet fighters and helicopters plus drones) is tricky, commanding in a combined arms defence is infinitely harder. Your attackers pick both the place and moment. Defenders react to the decisions of the attackers, sometimes in several places at once. That requires a very slick chain of command, staff who are mentally quick on their feet, not to mention well trained and experienced battlefield leaders and troops able to carry out their orders. ISW’s message is cautious but clear – the Russian Army occupying southern Ukraine lacks all of the above and if pushed hard, might crumble, opening the path to defeat in detail. When an army falls apart its scattered small units often are destroyed almost at leisure. The last time we saw that in Europe was the Great Bug Out from Normandy following the sealing of Falaise Gap when the Allied fighter bombers had a shooting gallery until 250,000 Germans were captured – one of Hitler’s three great defeats.


When depends on readiness, the weather and the deception plan. Read ISW’s detailed report for a snapshot of Russian readiness but all Russian formations are run down, some have been in combat since last autumn. As for weather, the bezdorizhzia, muddy season, has gone on much longer than usual this year. Both sides are busy on the art of deception. The Ukrainians are tight lipped apart from carefully timed leaks and even more calculated fake leaks. Anything the Russians say should be swallowed with a pinch of salt. Just like the show in Red Square this morning – 9 May – to reassure the growing number of Russians suffering jitters that Putin is there, busy saving them from the Americans and NATO.

The most tantalising prize is Crimea and the logical first step towards its liberation is freeing the whole Black Sea coastal countryside thereby cutting off Crimea from Russia. I’m sure the Ukrainians want to recover control of the nuclear power station in Zaporizhzhia Oblast. That’s crucial for the whole continent and the greatest danger is Russian incompetence. The Russians claim to have repelled attacks that were reconnaissance in strength south-east of Zaporizhzhia – when you attack in enough strength to test the enemy’s defences, not capture ground – but please reach for that pinch of salt. Zelensky’s generals may pull off something completely different, somewhere else – and with surprising ingenuity.

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About the author

Adrian Hill