Divining Russia's Main Effort in 2023
How Ukraine will seek out where Russia's next offensives might occur
The last few weeks have seen increased speculation about the timing and size of potential 2023 Russian offensives in Ukraine. That the Russians will attempt them is almost a given. They have been slowly assembling all the pieces for their 2023 offensives since late last year. They have provided the political rationale through Putin’s annexation declaration, the personnel and industrial resources with the mobilisation decree in September 2022, and the most recent changes in command that resulted in General Gerasimov being appointed as unified commander for all operations in Ukraine.
On top of this, Russian President Putin’s recent speech on the 80th anniversary of the battle of Stalingrad has provided additional political purpose for the offensives to come. He described in his speech how:
We are seeing that unfortunately, the ideology of Nazism – this time in its modern guise – is again creating direct threats to our national security, and we are, time and again, forced to resist the aggression of the collective West. However incredible, it is a fact – we are again being threatened with German Leopard tanks with crosses on board.
Putin has cast his special military operation in Ukraine as almost an existential challenge for Russia. As grotesque and deluded as this is, there will be many in Russia who will accept this rationale for the ongoing Russian presence in Ukraine.
Analysis of Potential Russian Offensives
The east is the most likely location for Russian attacks, although attacks in the south are also possible. Indeed, there have been some Russian small scale attacks, most likely probes or reconnaissance in force missions, across several locations in southern Ukraine in the past month. These are not indicative of a Russian main effort. However, Russian forces might use attacks in the south as feints or demonstrations to draw away Ukrainian forces in the east before launching their main effort in the Donbas. At the same time, if they have sufficient reserves, Russian might be able to reinforce attack in the south if it is sufficiently successful.
The Ukrainians have been telegraphing the potential for Russian offensives in 2023 for some time now.
Major General Kyrylo Budanov, head of Ukraine’s military intelligence , is widely respected and acknowledged as one of the few who accurately predicted the Russian invasion well in advance. Earlier this year, he was reported as predicting that the Russian focus in 2023 will be seizing more territory in the Donbas region of Ukraine.
This is a logical political and military objective for the Russians. Russia has been supporting separatists there since 2014, and deploying military personnel there over that time. Just before launching his 2022 invasion, Putin recognised the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk. And, since then, defending the people of the Donbas has featured prominently in Putin’s speeches including his 2022 May Day speech.
What will the Ukrainians be doing to confirm this or ascertain other Russian intentions, locations for attacks and numbers and types of forces to be used?
First, they would be seeking as much western intelligence as possible. This will not only include information on troop movements between Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. They would want to know production numbers, and stock holdings, of long range missiles, drones, and artillery ammunition. The visit to Ukraine by the CIA director in mid-January probably facilitated the provision of some of this intelligence but there are other nations in Europe which will also be providing intelligence to assist the Ukrainians for the coming offensives.
The Ukrainians will also have been conducting tactical reconnaissance in the south and east with ground and aerial reconnaissance elements. This would have been occurring for months now as they seek Russian strong and weak points in their defensive lines. These close reconnaissance missions would also be looking for locations of ammunition stockpiles and supplies, concentrations of reserve troops, and Russian army engineer equipment that is vital in the advance to get through obstacles and over rivers. All of these will be high value targets for systems such as HIMARs but also for the newer, longer range Ground Launched Small Diameter Bombs. They will also be watching traffic patterns across the south and eastern areas occupied by Russia.
But beyond targeting, the locations of Russian concentrations of ammunition, reserves and engineer equipment provide insights into what might be Russia’s main effort for the coming offensives. As a quick diversion, it is worth defining ‘main effort’. According to the most recent US Army doctrine - ADP 3-0 Operations - a main effort is as follows:
Commanders designate main and supporting efforts to establish clear priorities of support and resources among subordinate units. The main effort is a designated subordinate unit whose mission at a given point in time is most critical to overall mission success. It is usually weighted with the preponderance of combat power.
Understanding this is important. In ascertaining the most likely Russian main effort, the Ukrainians can ensure they have defensive forces in place and can plan pre-emotive strikes to weaken and spoil Russian attacks. And, it can assist the Ukrainians in deciding where and when to commit operational reserves. If Ukraine knows that a Russian attack is either a feint or a supporting activity for the Russian main effort, they are less likely to commit reserves to respond to these events.
Ukraine will continue to leverage open sources of intelligence like satellite images, blogs, social media for discussions on Russian troop movements etc. this has become a very important source of intelligence. The meshing of civil and military collection, analysis and dissemination of intelligence in this war has been one of its defining features. While perhaps not yet revolutionary, it is a significant evolution in the conduct of warfare. As it seeks to understand Russia’s most likely, and most dangerous, offensive courses of action in the coming weeks, this meshed intelligence collection and distribution will be vital.
Finally, the Ukrainians will probably be using human intelligence and their resistance networks in Russian-occupied areas to provide insights. This has been a useful source of information for deep strikes against Russian logistics, headquarters and troop accommodation locations since the introduction of HIMARS in June 2022. It will continue to provide meaningful intelligence, including information on Russian troops massing for offensive operations over the coming weeks. And with the United States about to provide the long range Ground Launched Small Diameter Bomb to Ukraine, the contribution of this network for targeting deep within Russian-held territory will only grow.
Russia is Desperate for a Victory
General Gerasimov was not appointed to defend current Russian-occupied territory in Ukraine. This was the strategy of his predecessor General Surovikin, and it clearly was not what President Putin was after in his Ukrainian invasion commander. Therefore, Gerasimov will be under pressure from Putin to deliver fast results in early 2023. Putin will definitely want something to talk about by the 1 year anniversary of his invasion.
However, as we have seen from the first day of this invasion, Putin wanting battlefield victories and Putin getting battlefield victories are two very different things. The courage, resilience and ingenuity of the Ukrainian Armed Forces (supported with western weapons and munitions) has seen to that. Despite the influx of tens of thousands of mobilised troops, it is highly likely that there will again be a gap between Putin’s expectations for the 2023 offensive operations of the Russian military in Ukraine, and their capacity to actually deliver their results.
In summary, it is almost certain that the Russian Army in Ukraine will undertake offensive operations to meet Putin’s political objectives of securing his annexed territory in the coming weeks and months. The Ukrainians will be doing everything humanly possible to estimate the most likely areas where these offensives will take place.
Because, if they can do this, they may be able to both blunt the Russian attacks while undertaking their own offensives to recapture Ukrainian territory. And that, as President Zelensky has forecast, is a critical humanitarian, political and military imperative for the coming year.
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