Ukraine war: talk of Russian spring offensive raises fears that Kyiv is ill-prepared to face it
Analysis suggests that Russia may be in the early stages of a new offensive in Ukraine. On the ground, Moscow’s forces have intensified their attacks along major sections of the frontline. They have made small territorial gains over the past few weeks, taking new territory or reclaiming territory liberated by Kyiv’s forces during last year’s Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian troops have switched to “active defence”, according to the commander of the country’s ground forces, Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrskyi.
Does this imply that Ukrainian efforts to resist and ultimately defeat Russia’s aggression are in serious peril should the offensive begin? This will depend on an assessment of both Russian and Ukrainian capabilities and political will. Regarding the latter, neither side shows any signs of backing down.
Russian president, Vladimir Putin, was unequivocal at a forum with local government leaders on January 16 that he was unwilling to enter into any negotiations with Ukraine. Instead he predicted “a very serious blow” to Ukrainian statehood as a result of the war.
Putin’s Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, meanwhile, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos this week, left little doubt about his determination to continue fighting for the complete liberation of all of Ukraine’s currently Russian-occupied territories.
Men and materiel
But do Russia and Ukraine have the military capabilities to match their leaders’ rhetoric? This is an issue of both equipment and manpower. As is obvious from the repeated and increasingly successful Russian airstrikes against a wide range of targets across Ukraine, including Kyiv and the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, Russia has the arms and ammunition to continue its air campaign while Ukraine still lacks adequate air defence capabilities.
Similarly, Ukrainian ground efforts are hampered by increasingly serious ammunition shortages. Summarising several press reports, non-profit policy organisation the Institute for the Study of War reported on January 8 2024, that Ukrainian troops “are struggling to completely compensate for artillery ammunition shortages” while their use of small drones for combat purposes was hampered by “insufficient electronic warfare capabilities”.
When it comes to manpower, both sides are struggling. In his year-end press conference Putin ruled out any further mobilisation. And, according to Vadym Skibitskyi, the deputy head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, Moscow can rely on a steady stream of some 30,000 volunteers a month. As a consequence, however, the question facing the Kremlin is how the Russian economy will deal with manpower shortages as workers are diverted to the frontlines.
The planned mobilisation of around 500,000 additional troops in Ukraine is also likely to be difficult and divisive for very similar reasons.
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Friends and partners
Russia has benefited enormously from Iranian and North Korean military supplies. As is obvious from the recent visit of the North Korean foreign minister, Choe Son-hui, to Moscow, these links are likely to grow and further boost Russia’s war effort against Ukraine.
Ukraine is, in many ways, even more dependent on foreign aid to sustain its defence against Russia’s aggression – yet this aid has become much more precarious.
Ukraine war: stalemate on the battlefield and shaky international support putting pressure on Zelensky
With no clear pathway to unlocking further US military aid and uncertainty over future EU financial commitments, Ukraine has become dependent on a small number of donors, including Germany and the UK.
Ukraine’s predicament is exacerbated by the fact that its own defence sector is not yet fully on a war footing, which is partly why it has struggled to manufacture sufficient ammunition for its troops in the field. Even if this were to change soon, including with the help of western investment, Ukraine’s lack of strategic depth would remain an impediment. Russian drones and missiles have the reach to target military production facilities anywhere in Ukraine. Ukraine, for now, lacks the air defence systems to effectively counter such attacks.
This leaves the question of deterrence as potentially the last obstacle in the path of a Russian counteroffensive that could deliver Putin’s threatened serious blow to Ukraine’s statehood. First raised in a G7 joint declaration of support for Ukraine in July 2023, bilateral agreements between Ukraine and several of its western allies to strengthen defence and security cooperation are now beginning to take more concrete shape.
The UK-Ukraine agreement on security cooperation was signed on January 12 2024. French president, Emmanuel Macron, has announced that a similar deal between France and Ukraine will be finalised in February.
The UK-Ukraine agreement provides for “comprehensive assistance to Ukraine for the protection and the restoration of its territorial integrity within its internationally recognised borders”. It pledges “prevention and active deterrence of, and counter-measures against, any military escalation and/or a new aggression by the Russian Federation”. It also promises “support for Ukraine’s future integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions”.
Considered side-by-side, enthusiasm in the west for supporting a Ukrainian victory on the battlefield and for Nato membership is, at best lukewarm. However, if this is a model for similar deals in the future, if the US and other key Nato members reach similar agreements with Ukraine, and if these – as yet untested – commitments are followed through and don’t suffer the fate of the Budapest memorandum (a 1994 document that Ukraine agreed to remove all of its nuclear weapons in return for recognition from Russia and others of its statehood) whose security assurances proved useless, this would indicate a clear western determination to prevent a major Russian counteroffensive resulting in yet another illegal Russian land grab.
These are many and significant “ifs” and Nato’s goal of preventing Ukraine’s defeat is far more modest than Zelensky’s war aims. Yet, precisely because they are more modest, and therefore more credible, they could prevent a much more dangerous broader escalation between Russia and west without condemning Ukraine to a permanent defeat.
Stefan Wolff is a past recipient of grant funding from the Natural Environment Research Council of the UK, the United States Institute of Peace, the Economic and Social Research Council of the UK, the British Academy, the NATO Science for Peace Programme, the EU Framework Programmes 6 and 7 and Horizon 2020, as well as the EU's Jean Monnet Programme. He is a Trustee and Honorary Treasurer of the Political Studies Association of the UK and a Senior Research Fellow at the Foreign Policy Centre in London.
Tetyana Malyarenko does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.