Military context: what to expect at the front?

By the end of May, it can be stated that the Russian command's plan for a winter attack failed due to the persistent resistance of Ukraine's defenders.

The course of hostilities has proven Russia's inability to restore its military offensive potential for a strategic attack in the near future. As a result, the Russian command focused its main efforts on tactical objectives, the overall goal of which was to form a defensible front configuration on the eve of a Ukrainian counterattack.
Volodymyr Solovyan

Interim Results of the Battle of Bakhmut and Prospects for a Ukrainian Counterattack

Today, it can be stated that the Russian command's plan for a winter-spring military attack failed due to the persistent resistance of Ukraine's defenders. Due to significant losses of equipment and personnel, the Russian command in recent months has focused its main efforts on achieving tactical goals, the overall objective of which was to form a front configuration convenient for defense on the eve of a Ukrainian counterattack.

The realization of this goal led to the concentration of Russia's attempts to capture key defense nodes of the Ukrainian Armed Forces in Donetsk region, namely the Siversk-Soledar-Bakhmut-Avdiivka-Maryinka-Vuhledar line. As a result, the occupiers managed to achieve partial success in the area of Soledar and Bakhmut. However, these advances depleted the Russian army and private military companies (mainly the Wagner PMC). As a result, Russia has lost the offensive potential to conduct a strategic operation in the upcoming months.
Meanwhile, Ukraine, likewise, has long been limited to strategic defense, which was aimed at gaining time to build up reserves for conducting attack operations. May was a turning point in the war. The Ukrainian command, acting in accordance with NATO doctrine, launched operations to prepare the battlefield (shaping operations) for future attacks. A direct indicator of this is the increase in the intensity of drone strikes on the occupiers' logistics in the tactical and operational rear. The Armed Forces also began using Storm Shadow air-launched missiles, which significantly expanded the area of destruction of Russian logistics.

Thus, against the backdrop of the degradation of the occupation troops, the Ukrainian Defense Forces (UDF) are consistently preparing conditions for a successful attack. In response, Russia has intensified missile and drone attacks against Ukrainian cities.
The "Verdun" of the Russian-Ukrainian war

As of the end of May, Russian units (mainly the Wagner PMC) pushed the Ukrainian Armed Forces out of Bakhmut (it should be noted that, according to a number of reports, the Ukrainian military retains positions on the western outskirts of the city). However, it is too early to declare the Bakhmut battle over, as the Ukrainian Armed Forces' counterattack in May on the flanks of the Russian group that tried to cut off the communications of the city's defenders allowed Ukraine to regain control of the dominant heights west of the city. As a result, staying in Bakhmut is steadily becoming a problem for the Russian High Command, as the Russians are unable to launch an attack to the west of the city, and their units are caught in a firebomb of Ukrainian artillery.
The importance of defending Bakhmut for a long period of time (9 months) for the Ukrainian side lies in the need to deplete Russia's offensive potential, which is effectively destroyed in urban battles. A similar strategy was used by the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine during the summer campaign of 2022, when the Russian aggressor was drawn into bloody battles on the streets of Sievierodonetsk. The seizure of the Lysychansk-Sievierodonetsk agglomeration was a "Pyrrhic victory" for Russia, as the occupiers lost their offensive potential for a long time and the Kremlin managed to stabilize the situation on the front only by mobilizing the Russian population. The situation was similar at the beginning of this summer.

The defense of Bakhmut accomplished a number of important tactical (holding the front in most of the attacked areas) and strategic (depletion of enemy resources) tasks.
The result of the tactical level is that Ukraine retains control over the eastern coast of the Siverskyi Donets-Donbas Channel, which Russia, in a negative scenario, could make a convenient line for its defense system in the Donetsk region. Also, Russian units are kept at a distance that does not allow them to strike the Kramatorsk-Sloviansk agglomeration with cannon artillery.

As for the strategic objective of depleting the Russian army, it should be noted that the political importance of Bakhmut for the Kremlin forced the Russian command to use the available resources irrationally. For example, some units of the occupiers' regular army, which had stormed other Ukrainian defense areas in March and April, including Avdiivka, Maryinka, and positions near Kreminna, were sent to storm Bakhmut. In the middle of May, the Russians in Bakhmut faced the threat of a flanking attack by a group that was storming the city's neighborhoods. In order to eliminate the unfavorable situation, the occupiers were forced to deploy additional reserves in the area, which weakened their capabilities in other parts of the front.
One of the evidence of the realization of the Ukrainian command's plan is the fact that during the Bakhmut operation, for the first time during the war, the enemy faced a systemic need to save ammunition (although it is premature to talk about a full-fledged shell famine in Russian troops). However, the statistics of military clashes are more telling. According to the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, in March there were an average of 282 combat engagements per day, in April - 161, and in May - 130. Thus, we see a downward trend in the intensity of Russian attacks, indicating that the occupation forces are switching to defense. Moreover, the Russian command did not reach the lines that were the goal of the winter-spring campaign, and Ukraine retained reserves that could be used for offensive operations.
Kremlin intensifies missile and drone attacks: hysteria or cold calculation?

In May, Russia used 205 missiles of various types against Ukraine (eight massive attacks were carried out), which is the second highest number after December (236 missiles, 4 massive attacks) and is several orders more than in April (27 missiles, 1 massive attack). The basis of massive launches, as before, are the Kalibr, X-101, and X-555 missiles. The main difference is the intensified use of ballistic missiles (Iskander and Daggers) during attacks on the Ukrainian capital.

The goal of the Russian command is comprehensive. First, in an effort to disrupt Ukraine's attack plans, the occupiers focused on identifying weaknesses and depleting Ukraine's missile and air defense (MAD). Russia realizes that its last conventional "trump card" on the battlefield - aviation - can be leveled by the supply of Western air defense systems, so it is not sparing its missile stockpile. Secondly, intensive raids on Kyiv have an informational value - feeding the enthusiasm of the Russian military and society in the absence of significant successes at the front and the inability to organize an effective defense of the Russian border regions.
However, despite the expenditure of missile resources, the effectiveness of the strikes remains minimal against the backdrop of painful reputational costs for the Kremlin - the destruction of pseudo-hypersonic Daggers and ballistic Iskanders by the US Patriot missile defense system. The fact that the enemy did not achieve most of the targets in the missile attacks may indicate the technological superiority of the Ukrainian air defense system (air defense efficiency increased to almost 90% in May). At the same time, the intensification of missile and drone attacks indicates that Russia retains the ability to produce missiles and, therefore, the low effectiveness of the sanctions regime. Also, the active use of Iranian-made UAVs is the result of increased military-technical cooperation between Moscow and Tehran.

Under these conditions, reducing risks for Ukraine is primarily associated with increasing the capabilities of the air defense system, in particular through accelerating the supply of relevant systems and ammunition, as well as combat aircraft.
Ukrainian Counteroffensive: Challenges Facing the Armed Forces of Ukraine

The expectation of an offensive operation (or series of operations) by Ukraine has become a prevailing motif in the national discourse and a top topic in the global media that follow the events of the war. New photos and videos of Ukrainian military pieces training are posted online every day, which creates high expectations among a large part of Ukrainian society regarding the results of the upcoming offensive. On the other side of the front, Ukraine's preparations are also being closely watched - Russia is conducting its own information campaign aimed at downplaying Ukraine's capabilities and mobilizing the Russian population.

In these circumstances, it is important to rationally evaluate the difficulties that the Ukrainian Armed Forces have to overcome in preparing for a counterattack. Among the factors that could hypothetically complicate Ukraine's offensive is the lack of aircraft platforms that could significantly strengthen the air defense of the ground units of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
In April, an obvious challenge for Ukraine was the use of KAB-500 guided bombs by Russian aviation, which cause significant damage to frontline military and civilian infrastructure. Unfortunately, the Ukrainian Armed Forces currently do not have effective means to shoot down air targets of this type. That is why Ukraine's priority remains to obtain at least several F-16 squadrons (40-50 units), which would allow it to push Russian tactical aviation out of Ukrainian airspace and surrounding Russian territories. The need to strengthen the aviation component of the Ukrainian Air Force is a constant not only in the context of offensive operations, but also air defense.
As for the offensive potential of Ukraine, the biggest challenge is not the lack of sufficient ammunition or modern nomenclature of Western weapons (the author does not underestimate the importance of these factors). The key to a successful military operation in the face of an imbalance in the number of artillery systems and ammunition can only be the mobility of breakthrough units and the coherence of command and control of various types of troops. The upcoming attack will be a historic test of the operational art of Ukrainian military commanders not only because of its crucial importance for the overall course of the war, but also because of Ukraine's lack of experience in conducting large-scale military operations that involve overcoming prepared echeloned enemy defenses.
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