- Does the May 9 World War II Victory Day anniversary influence Russia or Ukrainian militarily?
I expect that the Kremlin is desperate for some sort of victory to celebrate and is likely pushing the General Staff and [Wagner mercenary leader] Prigozhin to deliver Bakhmut by that date. So hundreds more Russian soldiers will probably die for an empty gesture, although that won’t bother President Putin or his circle of supporters.
The Ukrainian General Staff, on the other hand, will move forward with their planning for a presumed counter-offensive, the timing and location, and the methodology of which are (very properly) known only to them. I don’t think they would waste the life of a single Ukrainian soldier to do something symbolic on that day Instead, they will act when they have determined that all conditions are set.
However, I would not be surprised if there were some sort of attack or perhaps information operations that would demonstrate the resolve and confidence of the Ukrainian people, its government, and its military.
- Is Ukraine under any other time pressure (much has been made of the “spring” offensive, but does that tell us anything)?
I would not refer to it as a spring offensive because I don’t think the dates are the key. What matters most is that conditions are established to ensure the best chance of success at the lowest possible cost in casualties. The Ukrainian General Staff has impressed me with their discipline, skill, and innovation. I expect that they’ve identified the conditions they need to launch their offensive, at a time and place of their choosing.
Those conditions would include the readiness of their forces (training, strength, logistics), the desired amount of disruption and confusion on the Russian side, the trafficability of the ground over which their attack(s) would proceed, and other preparations they deem essential for success.
I do expect that this counter-offensive will unfold in ways surprising to all of us but which will aim towards a decisive end; not just pushing back Russian forces in Donbas.
In fact, I would recommend, if asked, that this counter-offensive aims toward the isolation of the Crimean Peninsula, the decisive terrain of this war, and then its eventual liberation.
Killing every Russian soldier within 100km of Bakhmut changes nothing strategically. Liberating Crimea changes everything.
- Are the arrival of Western tanks and other armored vehicles crucial to the start date (i.e., does Ukraine have to wait for those)?
I expect that the Ukrainian General Staff has carefully studied the Russian defenses and identified vulnerabilities where they will want to focus. No need to attack along the entire 900km front; rather focusing combat power on a few narrow fronts will enable the Ukrainians to achieve penetration of these dense, linear Russian defenses.
So the forces that do this will be a combination of Ukrainian, captured-Russian, and Western-provided equipment. Getting units equipped with Leopards, Marders, Bradleys, and other Western-provided equipment will give a very strong component to the overall forces involved in the attack, assuming the crews and units with this Western equipment have had adequate time to train on their use, and on their tactical employment in combined-arms operations. The US said on April 21 that Western equipment had allowed the creation of more than nine new armored brigades. That’s enough to give Ukraine some good options.
- How will we know when the offensive begins?
We won’t, until after it’s started. I expect that the General Staff is conducting a wide range of so-called shaping operations that help set the conditions ahead of the main attack. These would include attacks by partisans and special forces to destroy/disrupt transportation networks, cause confusion in the Russian rear area, and gather intelligence.
They would also include drone strikes and long-range artillery/rocket strikes against critical Russian assets and logistics sites and attacks on air defense systems. All of these are intended to reduce Russian capabilities and flexibility ahead of the attack and to mislead the Russians as to the precise locations of where the main blow(s) will fall.
- Ukraine’s military has surprised in the past; have the Russians now got wise to its tactics?
I’m sure that the Russian General Staff will not make the mistake of underestimating Ukrainian planning, resolve, and combat power I would expect that they’re doing all they can to disrupt/pre-empt the attacks, to strengthen their defenses, and to build up their depth to absorb the attack.
But I don’t think that the Russians have the flexibility to react if/when the Ukrainians finally reveal their main effort, and I have not seen any evidence that Russian air power is effective against moving targets.
We’ll soon find out if they’ve made that adjustment.
Ben Hodges is Senior Advisor to Human Rights First, a non-profit, nonpartisan international human rights organization based in New York, Washington DC, and Los Angeles. Prior to joining Human Rights First, he held the Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.