ISW: Russia may focus its forecasted offensive in one operational direction in upcoming months

The Russian command may focus their forecasted late spring/summer 2024 offensive operation on western Donetsk Oblast and will likely only be able to launch a concerted large-scale offensive operation in one operational direction at a time due to the country’s own personnel and planning limitations, according to a new report by the Institute for the Study of War.

In a March interview with CBS News in eastern Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy voiced concerns about a potential major Russian offensive, which he expected around the end of May or June.

Emphasizing the situation’s urgency, the president called for immediate assistance from Ukraine’s partners, particularly the US, to prepare for the anticipated escalation.

Zelenskyy also underscored the critical need for American Patriot missile defense systems and additional artillery to bolster Ukraine’s defenses. While expressing gratitude for the substantial support received from the US, Zelenskyy pointed out that a significant portion of the allocated funds remains within the American economy, with the production of military supplies taking place in the US.

In the interview, Zelenskyy warned that Putin’s ambitions extend beyond Ukraine, aiming to restore the former Soviet Union’s imperial glory. He cautioned that Russian aggression could quickly spread to Europe and potentially involve NATO, including US forces, in the conflict.

Recent warnings from Ukrainian officials indicate that Russian forces are amassing personnel along the Kharkiv-Luhansk axis, near Bakhmut and Avdiivka, and in western Zaporizhzhia Oblast. Nevertheless, assessments from a US-based think tank suggest that Russia’s capacity to execute a coordinated large-scale offensive operation will limit it to one operational direction at a time.

The report said that Ukrainian forces repelled a Russian battalion-sized mechanized assault near Avdiivka in Donetsk Oblast on 30 March, the assault of this kind since Russian troops began the campaign to seize the city in 2023.

The ISW notes Ukraine’s ability to defend against this assault, where Ukrainian forces have been forced to quickly withdraw to new, defensive positions following the loss of the settlement, is a positive indicator of Ukraine’s ability to defend against future large-scale Russian assaults and the expected summer 2024 Russian operation.

“Ukrainian forces may have had to expend a significant amount of material to defend against the Russian assault near Tonenke, highlighting Russia’s ability to conduct assaults that force Ukraine to expend outsized portions of its already limited material and personnel reserves to defend against.

Ukraine’s demonstrated ability to skillfully defend against a large-scale Russian assault in a particularly critical part of the front despite Ukraine’s challenges suggests that Ukrainian forces can achieve significant battlefield effects if they are properly equipped,” says the report.

In March 2014, Russia began its brutal war against Ukraine, resulting in a massive number of civilian casualties, with the annexation of Crimea and violation of international law. A month later, Russian soldiers invaded Donetsk and Lunansk oblasts but did not fully occupy them.

On the evening of 21 February 2022, during a televised address, Russian leader Vladimir Putin announced that the Russian government would recognize the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic, illegal entities set by Russia in eastern Ukraine, as independent. A few days later, the all-out war against Ukraine commenced.

Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, Russia still has not established complete control over the two regions. However, in February 2022, Ukraine retreated from Avdiivka in Donetsk Oblast due to the enemy’s significant advantage in forces and means of assault units. The commander of the operational and strategic grouping of troops, “Tavria,” Oleksandr Tarnavskyi, said that Russian forces lost almost 50,000 soldiers and 1,300 units of military equipment in four months of fighting for Avdiivka.

According to experts, the city’s fall opened the Russians the route for Pokrovsk, the next major Ukrainian rear city where citizens try to live their lives as best as possible. For Ukraine, Avdiivka was important as a major railroad junction and industrial center.

In recent weeks, reports on a Russian offensive operation in a new direction have begun to circulate in the media after Vladimir Putin’s claims on the creation of a “sanitary zone” to stop the regular assaults on Belgorod Oblast, which borders Ukraine’s Kharkiv Oblast, 

“Creating a safety zone, overcoming which will be quite difficult, using the means that the enemy employs, primarily, of course, those of foreign production,” said Putin.

The Head of the Office of the President, Mykhailo Podoliak, called the Russian leader’s claims evidence that Russia planned to continue its war in Ukraine, TSN reported

“It … is a direct statement that the war will only escalate,” said Podoliak.

Oleksandr Syrskyi, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, has said that the Ukrainian forces are carrying out large-scale work on fortifying territories where the Russians may launch a new offensive, according to UkrInform. He also believes that a possible attack on Kharkiv can become fatal for Russia.

“We cannot ignore any information about the enemy’s preparations for offensive actions, so we are taking all measures to respond to such a possibility appropriately… Our past operations in the Kharkiv region have provided us with valuable experience.

We successfully anticipated the enemy’s actions and liberated a significant portion of Kharkiv Oblast. During this period, we witnessed a substantial collapse of the Russian front. If the Russians move there again, Kharkiv will become a fatal city for them,” noted Syrskyi.

Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov, in an interview with LIGA.net, said that the authorities and military see no grounds for evacuating the residents from the city amid the reports on the possible Russian offensive.

The mayor also called such news a part of Russia’s psychological warfare strategy to intimidate the population. However, he noted that Russian invaders have destroyed all critical energy infrastructure in Kharkiv and damaged houses of 150,000 residents in the city. Rebuilding the objects that Russia has destroyed in Kharkiv alone will require over $10 billion, a figure that increases daily, according to Terekhov.

Kharkiv’s authorities have taken measures to ensure the safety of civilians, such as building an underground school to accommodate 450 students per shift and designing a city-wide alert system integrated into the overall network, which would warn residents of drones and missiles launched by Russian occupiers on the city.

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