Ukraine can still badly bleed the Russian army through the winter even if its forces can't break through enemy lines, land warfare expert says

  • Ukraine is heading toward another winter of fighting, where battlefield progress may be limited.

  • A land warfare expert said even if Kyiv can't break enemy lines, it can still cause pain for Russian forces.

  • To do so, it will need to exploit a wider front line and force Russia to spread itself thin.

Russia's war in Ukraine is heading into another winter, and if last year's cold season is any indication of what the future battlefield could look like, there may be limited territorial movement in the months ahead.

But even if Kyiv's forces aren't necessarily able to break through the enemy lines, they could still inflict significant damage on Moscow's army throughout the winter, a land warfare expert says. The key could be drawing out Russian forces into the cold by pushing into opportunities rather than attempting to batter their defenses.

Last winter saw both militaries clash along a largely static front line that stretched — and continues to stretch — across hundreds of miles in eastern and southern Ukraine. The fighting centered around the war-torn city of Bakhmut, in the Donetsk region, and was characterized by its brutality and large number of casualties. Over the cold season, Russia also managed to build a network of complex defensive lines and fortifications, which have so far blunted Ukraine's summer counteroffensive, preventing its forces from making more progress.

Jack Watling, a senior research fellow for land warfare at the UK-based Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think tank, wrote in a recent analysis on Ukraine's winter fighting preparations that if Kyiv doesn't keep pressure on the Russia's forces, there's a risk its defenses could become an even more troubling problem, as it could further fortify its positions along the front.

"Kyiv must balance reconstitution with a need to keep up pressure on Russian forces," he said.

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Ukrainian forces fire near Bakhmut on September 16, 2023.Libkos/Getty Images

Ukraine faces several different concerns heading into the winter, Watling wrote, among them being a need to keep its ammunition stockpiles high to punish enemy forces and maintain its air-defense systems to prevent devastating Russian strikes.

Over the past few months, Kyiv has expended a great quantities of ammunition, straining not only its own stockpiles but those of its Western military backers. The US has, in turn, boosted artillery shell production, but it has also been forced to seek alternative solutions to allow Ukraine to inflict the same amount of damage with less ammo. One alternative was the decision to outfit Ukraine with highly effective but controversial cluster munitions. And air-defense capabilities continue to be prioritized in NATO security assistance packages.

Russia has also increased its supply of ammunition, seeking support not only from its defense industry but also international partners like North Korea. It has also increased domestic production and supply of missiles and drones, which experts say could be used to launch bigger attacks on Ukraine's civil infrastructure and attempt to overwhelm its air-defense network in the coming months. This cruel tactic would be a repeat of what Moscow's forces did last winter, when they relied heavily on Iranian-made explosive one-way attack drones to terrorize Ukrainian cities and civilians.

One area where Ukrainian forces have found recent success is with long-range strikes. Toward the end of the summer, Kyiv employed Storm Shadow/SCALP-EG cruise missiles from Britain and France to wreak havoc around the occupied Crimean peninsula and Russia's Black Sea Fleet, inflicting damage on high-profile buildings, shipyards, and naval assets.

More recently, Kyiv unveiled its new arsenal of MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile Systems, or ATACMS, that it secretly obtained from the US in devastating strikes on Russian airfields, reportedly taking out a collection of helicopters and other military hardware.

Experts have long suggested that ATACMS could allow Ukraine to strike deep behind enemy lines without expending its limited supply of Western cruise missiles or requiring Kyiv's forces to make significant territorial gains. Longer-range strike capabilities can be used to create vulnerabilities.

Ukraine counteroffensive
Members of the SPG-9 anti tank recoilless gun crew fire the gun onto Russian positions near the occupied Ukrainian city of Bakhmut on August 14, 2023.Roman Chop/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images

Watling said that even if Ukraine is unable to pull of a massed breakthrough, which may be difficult given the current battlefield conditions, it can shift away from trying to push through heavily defended sectors and exploit gaps along a wider front line to draw the enemy into fights of opportunity and force Russian soldiers to stay out in the bad weather and bleed the army through combat and climactic casualties.

"Recent attacks across the Dnipro, for example, expand the frontage that Russian troops must defend, reducing the number of forces that can be pulled back and trained or reconstituted," Watling wrote. "Actions that make progress where the Russians have left themselves vulnerable can be rapidly exploited. Russian commanders cannot, therefore, simply trade space on their flanks."

"The winter once again poses an opportunity to maximize Russian losses," he said. "If Russian troops are drawn into the defence along a wide front, with Ukrainian troops pushing into opportunities rather than trying to break through defended areas, then Russian forces will be outside, getting wet and cold."

Indeed, Moscow's forces suffered heavy casualties last winter, especially during its months-long campaign to take Bakhmut — led by the Wagner Group mercenaries. According to a recent intelligence update from the British defense ministry, as many as nearly 300,000 Russian soldiers, not including Wagner, have been killed, permanently wounded, or temporarily wounded while fighting for Russia since its full-scale invasion began last year.

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