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12 Apr, 2024 18:32

Sergey Poletaev: Here’s Russia’s plan for Ukraine for this summer

The cost to the West of supporting Kiev continues to rise, meaning Moscow’s best option is to wait
Sergey Poletaev: Here’s Russia’s plan for Ukraine for this summer

From time to time, people ask why Russia is not acting more decisively in Ukraine, and why it appears to be dragging its feet. Some say it’s out of weakness, others suspect some secret agreements with the West, and it seems there are theories to suit all tastes.

In reality, the answer is clear and transparent. This year and the next, Russia has budgeted about 5-6% of GDP on the Ukraine conflict, and the Kremlin’s task is to use these comparatively small resources as efficiently as possible. Their intention is to achieve the goals of the military operation without a new mobilization, and to preserve not only a calm and functioning economy but also stability inside the country.

Although the front line has remained largely static since autumn 2022, the political situation and the circumstances in which the conflict will likely end are changing radically – in Russia’s favor. With little risk and at relatively small financial expense, President Vladimir Putin is slowly but surely getting his way. 

Not waiting, but preparing

There is increasing talk of an imminent Russian offensive. As with the Ukrainian ‘counteroffensive’ a year ago, commentators claim to know exactly where it will take place (towards Kharkov or Sumy), when it will happen (in May or June), and are sure in advance that it will be decisive for the whole conflict, and so on.

But it seems to us that the Kremlin does not want a big march on Ukraine’s second city this summer, and here is why.

Firstly, there is a lack of experience. We are talking about an operation on the scale of the Eastern Front in the Second World War, and such endeavors have never been carried out during the current campaign. (February 22, 2022 doesn’t count, because the enemy wasn’t fully mobilized, and the front line didn’t really exist so there was no need to break through anything.)

In any conflict, the scale required for offensive battles increases steadily, and the appropriate tools, strategic and tactical techniques, officer and staff corps need to be formed. The leap required to go from a five-month operation to take Avdeevka to a rapid and successful occupation of Kharkov or Sumy seems unfathomable.

Also, the forces and means required are not yet in place. Yes, we have reserves of about 150,000-170,000 people. Yes, more people are signing up for military service every month than Ukraine is catching in taverns and on the streets, which means that the numbers are still growing. But a mass of soldiers is not an army. They need to be armed, equipped, trained, provided with experienced officers, staff capacity, equipment, shells, aircraft, and other things.

Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu has said that the formation of two new general armies will be completed by the end of 2024. So the Russian Armed Forces will only reach their peak form in eight to nine months, and then the conditions for opening a second front should be apparent.

But what about this summer? Unless the Ukrainian front suddenly collapses, we are likely to see a slow and measured advance, with a fight for every field and village, combined with simultaneous air strikes deep inside the front and on the Ukrainian rear.

Despite increasingly sophisticated Ukrainian counterattacks, such a scenario will exhaust the enemy much faster than it exhausts us, which means that by the end of the year, or into next summer, the balance of forces will have shifted even more in our favor. In any case, this is the calculation of our general staff.

Meanwhile, if Ukraine’s forces suddenly falter in Donbass, Kharkov Region, or Zaporozhye, the reserves we already have in the zone will be sufficient to develop success.

At the same time, Russian offensive operations of operational (medium) scale are possible in the spring and summer, especially if Kiev’s army begins to bend more than it is now. This is not only a rehearsal and a way of gaining experience, but also, if successful, a demonstration to the enemy that we know how to launch an offensive, that we know exactly what to do, and that we will do it again if necessary.

Already the general opinion in the West is that Ukraine can’t win. Thus, the new debate is about whether to negotiate or directly join the fight (the latter seems unrealistic, but more on that below). And all this is mixed with a simultaneous general opinion that Putin cannot attack, that the Russian army is exhausted, and so on. 

When the formation of the new armies described above is completed and it’s decided to move them to the Ukrainian border, the second front will be suddenly trumpeted in Ukraine and in the West, and this in itself could be a decisive factor. Putin will thus offer the enemy a choice – either accept our terms (the disarmament and neutrality of Ukraine, as well as other control mechanisms) or prepare for a new round, for which we are much better prepared than you.

In other words, if you won’t do it nicely, we will take what we want by force.

When aspirations don’t match opportunities

Of course, the West does not want to sit idly by and wait for Russia to get its way without making any moves. But after the failure of last year’s Ukrainian counteroffensive, no clear ideas have emerged about how to defeat Moscow.

Worse, from the perspective of Russia’s opponents, the political divide in Western countries has reached such proportions that it is time to talk not about the strategy of the bloc as a whole, but about the solidarity of the globalist elites, who are facing growing opposition both in their own countries and in the Global South. As a result, their aspirations are struggling to be realized.

What are we talking about? Last autumn it was decided that Ukraine’s task for 2024 is to hold, construct, and strike – that is, to maintain the front, build defenses, and bombard Russia as painfully as possible – while rebuilding the army and preparing for decisive victorious battles in 2025, after which an exhausted Putin will surely have to make peace.

The first part is still holding up (especially in view of the fact that Russia is not advancing anywhere), but the second is more difficult – due to political squabbling and a general shortage of weapons, supplies are insufficient even for the current needs of Kiev’s armed forces, and although the situation in Ukraine is not as catastrophic as the professional mourners in the Western press are claiming every day, it is slowly but surely deteriorating. In other words, so far, everything is going according to Putin’s plan rather than the West’s – gradually the Ukrainian army is getting weaker, not stronger.

In addition to the problems with Western weapons, there is another: Ukraine is running out of soldiers. According to various estimates, up to one and a half million people have passed through the Ukrainian armed forces during the conflict. Initially it was made up of those who wanted to fight, or at least were not against it.

However, now it’s not so easy. Attempts to increase enlistment in the Ukrainian army are being met with total sabotage, both by worried men who are running away en masse from military recruiters, and by MPs who dithered over a bill on extending mobilization since the autumn.

So the West, traumatized by Ukraine’s failures last year, is now reluctant to provide scarce weapons – and at the same time sees no motivation to provide more as long as the Ukrainians themselves are unwilling to fight. A vicious circle.

Against this background, the second part of the grandiose plan, the turning point next year, looks more like ‘I’ll start a new life on Monday’ style complacency. There is no talk of increasing Western supplies to Ukraine in 2025, and even maintaining current volumes and budget funding (around $40 billion a year) is in serious doubt.

The Kremlin is well aware of all this and is raising the costs for the West. As a result of strikes on the energy sector, Ukraine has gone from being a donor country to one that needs electricity supplies from the European Union and large investments to rebuild destroyed power plants – all at the West’s expense, of course. The strikes on gas storage facilities in western Ukraine increase the risk of disruption to the heating season next winter, and so on.

As we have said many times, the West is at a fork in the road – withdraw from the conflict and negotiate with Russia, or up the ante and go to war itself. Macron has floated a trial balloon, and the reaction both within France itself and among NATO members with at least some kind of functioning armies has shown that no, there will be no Western troops in Ukraine in any significant numbers for the foreseeable future.

Faced with a fork in the road, the West has been unable to choose one way or the other and has instead stood by and watched Ukraine slowly lose. It is now worth waiting to see whether any fundamental decisions will be taken at the NATO summit in July; whether the US Congress will be able to give Ukraine any money and, more importantly, whether this cash will actually help the country and not just prolong its agony. Not to mention whether Kiev can finally solve the problem of mobilization without causing riots in the rear. And above all, let’s see if the West can come up with a coherent plan that will force the Kremlin to take risks.

If not, if things continue as they are now, Russia can continue to sit back and wait for Ukraine to fall into its hands like an overripe fruit.

Moscow has at least a couple of years to do so. How long does Kiev have?