Kira Kiseleva: What is the current situation on the front? What will be the strategy of both armies in winter?
Dara Massicot, expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center: The Russian military launched limited offensive operations in several areas. Several brigades and regiments were involved in the offensive on Avdiivka, and they will probably be stationed near Donetsk and Luhansk throughout the winter. This shows that Putin is no longer calculating the situation and is ready to spend large sums of money in the name of small territorial gains. Additionally, the Russian military has not been firing long-range missiles at a normal rate for the past two months. It can be assumed that Russia is stockpiling them for larger winter attacks that could put a strain on Ukrainian air defenses.
Ukraine continues to press against Russian forces in the south near Zaporizhia and has so far held them back near Avdiivka. If the counteroffensive stops completely, Ukraine and Russia may launch long-range attacks on important installations, logistics and command centers. Generally speaking, both armies can progress to such strikes in winter, regardless of whether they make progress on the ground.
First of all, it did not lead to a serious breakthrough. In the spring, I was concerned about the advanced defense system prepared by the Russian army. The Kremlin had almost a year to create multi-layered lines of fortifications, intensively mine the area and create a numerical advantage through mobilization. Against advancing Ukrainian units, the Russian military used aviation, electronic warfare systems, unmanned aerial vehicles and barrage munitions such as the Lancet. Ukrainians are fighting there in terrifying combat conditions that few can imagine.
Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, compared the current situation to the battles of World War I, when the sides were unable to conduct maneuver battles and plunged into many years of trench warfare. He is right?
What Russia most wants is for the war to be fought on its own terms. He wants to wear out Ukraine and the West in a war of attrition and therefore conducts regular artillery fire. The real question is: how do we get off this path? Załużny seeks new operational and technical solutions to be successful because the realities of the battlefield require it.
How do you evaluate Załużny as a military commander?
He is a realist, modest and willing to revise his plans, caring for his soldiers and providing his commanders with an accurate assessment of the situation on the battlefield. His Russian counterpart (Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov) does not display these characteristics.
What do you base this opinion on? There is no data on fatalities.
Neither Russia nor Ukraine reports their losses, that’s true. But leaders set the tone for their troops. I base my opinion of his leadership on his actions and words, for example on his decisions to quickly adapt his tactics to the circumstances, but above all on his honest statements about difficulties and how to overcome them. I see how he talks about his soldiers and how sincerely he expresses his grief for their losses.
What problems do both armies have?
Both Ukrainian and Russian troops have difficulty concentrating large forces sufficient to achieve success on the battlefield. Large groups of troops are quickly detected by drones and hit by artillery fire. Another problem is mine clearance – although it is old, it requires a new technical solution.
Could the faster provision of F-16 fighters or American ATACMS missiles to Ukraine have changed the fate of the counteroffensive?
Russian aviation, mines and artillery effectively blocked the attacking Ukrainian units. ATACMS missiles delivered to Kiev in October were used effectively against Russian helicopters on the ground. These helicopters from the Berdyansk airport participated in repelling the offensive in the Zaporozhye region. The Russian Air Force has changed tactics and now avoids flying too close to Ukrainian air defenses. It is logical to assume that they could use similar conservative tactics when confronting the F-16. Both armies are adapting to each other’s tactics and new weapons on the front much faster than at the beginning of the war. Western weapons work, but they need more of them to change the course of the war. Moreover, neither the F-16 nor ATACMS can clear minefields or shoot down drones.
Do you think the West is disappointed with the result of the offensive?
Since last fall, Russia has changed its tactics and is preparing for a long and devastating war. If there is frustration in the West, I would recommend that it be quickly channeled into productive channels: thinking about how the West can support Kiev’s military strategy and shape Ukraine’s future armed forces.
How is he supposed to do this?
Ukraine must be supported in defending its skies and I think the West knows this. Russia would like to draw Ukraine and the West into a protracted trench war in which the Russian army fires and strikes with long-range missiles, believing it has the advantage. Russia’s continuing weakness is its relatively small number of missile launchers with which to launch precision attacks. An effective strategy would therefore be to mass destroy ammunition in warehouses before it is sent to the front. Ukraine is already doing this.
Are European countries and the US now ready to support Ukraine as they once did?-
It was clear from the beginning that the war would be long. Over the last year, European countries and the USA have increased their support both qualitatively and quantitatively. The problem is that the war in Ukraine requires significant resources and strains the Western industrial base, which in 2022 was not ready for such demands. The situation is changing. In the US, production rates are already much higher this year and will increase further in 2024.
On the other hand, Russia, even with more limited funds, has nationalized part of its economy, increased defense spending and is ahead of the West in some sectors. In addition, the Russian army received large supplies of artillery ammunition from North Korea.
ANATOLII STEPANOV / AFP
Ukrainian soldiers on the front line near Bakhmut
Could the war in Israel dramatically affect support for Ukraine from allies?
President Zelensky publicly expressed concern that the war in the Middle East could distract attention from support for Ukraine. Politically, we are currently facing two crises that require Washington’s attention and support. Militarily, the two crises bear little resemblance to each other, with the exception of artillery ammunition. Unfortunately, supplies are already stretched thin.
Although the commands are different, the money to support Israel and Ukraine comes from the US federal budget. At the end of October, a bill was drafted to allocate over USD 105 billion. for foreign policy support stuck in Congress, sparking conflict between Trump supporters and Democrats. If there is no political decision on support, will US aid to Ukraine come to an end?
The White House recently announced that it would provide smaller defense aid packages to Ukraine through the Presidential Drawdown Authority, but the decision on the allocation of $61.4 billion for military and financial support for Ukraine (this is the amount of aid requested for Ukraine) has still not been decided.
You say that there are still funds left from the previous support program for Ukraine, but only about $5 billion remains by October. How long will it last?
This, of course, depends on the size and characteristics of each aid package and how quickly the money will be spent. The White House recently said it was giving Ukraine smaller aid packages to extend aid until it receives additional funding from Congress, but I don’t have data to tell me exactly how long that will last.
How is it that the entire military and industrial power of NATO is not enough to turn the tide of war in Ukraine’s favor?
It is obvious that the entire military and economic potential of NATO was not involved in this war. Russian security officials probably realize this, but it would be a mistake to think they can defeat NATO’s military or military-economic capabilities.
Ukraine’s lack of major achievements during the counteroffensive is seen in Russia as confirmation that it is winning the war.
Pessimistic opinions are not fashionable in Russia because the Kremlin closely monitors everything said about the war and the law provides penalties for critical remarks about the armed forces. Russians believe that Western support for Ukraine is waning and that Russia will be able to acquire or produce more weapons in the long term. I think it is premature to say that the advantage in the war is shifting to Russia.
How do you see this conflict ending?
There are too many unknowns at this point to say when, where and how this war will end. The outcome of the fighting will depend on several factors: the level and type of Western support, decisions made in Ukraine and Russia to mobilize additional forces and resources, and the timing of these decisions. Russia is allegedly increasing production of missiles, artillery systems and drones, and while these claims need to be fully investigated, it is clear that the Russian government is preparing for a prolonged war to the extent that this can be done without undermining domestic stability.