"Surprises are always possible": The war is entering a new phase

The situation in Ukraine is currently difficult, especially in Bakhmut.

"Surprises are always possible": The war is entering a new phase

The situation in Ukraine is currently difficult, especially in Bakhmut. Ukraine's goal there is "to withstand enemy attacks while waiting for new Western weapons," says a military expert. Larger offensive actions by Ukraine can be expected from April.

In almost a year of the great Russian invasion of Ukraine, the initiative in the war has changed hands several times. After Ukraine successfully repelled the Russian attack on Kiev, Russia focused on the Donbass. There, after long battles, the Russians were able to conquer the important cities of Lysychansk and Sievjerodonetsk. After that, Ukraine surprised with a successful counter-offensive in the Kharkiv district and was also able to liberate the western bank of the Dnipro River in the southern Kherson region.

In the last few weeks, Russia has again stepped up the offensive. In the Donbass, the Russian army is not only trying to advance in the direction of the city of Bakhmut, which has been fought over for more than six months, but also in other places - there, however, unlike around Bakhmut, with little success. "The war is entering a new phase," said Ukrainian military expert Oleksiy Melnyk, former lieutenant colonel and co-director of international security programs at the Kiev think tank Razumkova. "Ukraine had the strategic initiative until mid-January. In the last month, Russia managed to regain the initiative in some areas of the front," Melnyk told ntv.de. "We are now witnessing the culmination of the war of positions, while both sides are preparing their offensives, some of which are already underway on the Russian side. Only then will we see how the war is developing on a strategic level."

Ukraine is currently busy repelling isolated Russian attacks, says Oleksandr Mussiyenko, director of the Center for Military Law Studies in Kiev. "In terms of territorial advances, the war remains essentially on stand-by on both sides." The Russians had tactical successes at Soledar near Bakhmut. "But you shouldn't look too panicked at them, they're extremely small in an overall comparison." Russia is using enormous resources to occupy the entire Donetsk region, but cannot achieve this and is suffering heavy losses. Mussiyenko compares the fighting for Bakhmut with that for the twin cities of Lysychansk and Sieverodonetsk in May and June, which are about 50 kilometers to the northeast.

The situation in Bakhmut is difficult "because Russia doesn't care about the losses," says Mussiyenko ntv.de. "Ukraine's task in Bakhmut is to withstand enemy attacks, exhaust the enemy and slow down the overall pace of the attack while waiting for new Western weapons," emphasizes the military expert. "Lysychansk and Sievjerodonetsk also had to be abandoned in a similar situation at some point, but the Russians made no progress after that, and Ukraine began successful counterattacks."

Mussiyenko rejects the criticism occasionally voiced in the West about the sense of this strategy. "Of course there are also major losses on the Ukrainian side there, but if the danger of encirclement becomes too great, the forces will of course be withdrawn." Oleksiy Melnyk is a little more reserved with regard to Bakhmut. "The problem is that you can hardly assess the situation at all levels. There are only a few people in Ukraine, especially Commander-in-Chief Valeriy Zalushny and his inner circle, who know both the situation on the ground and the strategic situation by heart know," he says. "My acquaintances in Bakhmut sometimes ask themselves whether defending the city still makes sense. These are local people who risk their lives every day and see their comrades die. But do they know the strategic plan of the military leadership? The answer is, at best, only a small part of it."

Where Melnyk and Mussiyenko agree: Larger offensive actions by the Ukrainians are more likely to be expected from mid-April, which has to do with the weather on the one hand and western arms deliveries and the training of Ukrainian soldiers abroad on the other. Oleksiy Melnyk from the Razumkova Center sees the West's renewed confidence that Ukraine can win on the battlefield at the turning point in the tank issue.

Russia has changed both its strategy and tactics. "They are switching to an enormously long war of attrition with the ulterior motive that Ukraine cannot endure this marathon. At the same time, even the Russian goal of occupying the entire Donetsk Oblast seems unrealistic, despite all the tactical successes," emphasizes Melnyk. "This is an incentive for the West to increase support for Ukraine, to break this scenario and to shorten the war with more arms deliveries and not the other way around."

According to the two experts, a delivery of longer-range missiles and combat aircraft would be of great importance. Melnyk emphasizes that Western-style aircraft are particularly important. "The example of tanks has shown that nothing is impossible anymore. I am convinced that the decision will come to combat aircraft. Whether it will be an F-16 or Typhoon or, similar to tanks, several different types of aircraft does not matter that much. It is important the political decision that will open new doors," says Melnyk, who has been training Ukrainian pilots for more than ten years.

It is impossible that planes - unlike tanks - will already be used in the possible Ukrainian offensive in the spring. But Melnyk doesn't see the training periods for Ukrainian pilots as critically as in the West. "Ideally, it's about six months. When it's talked about that a Typhoon takes three years, for example, it's about pilots with only a very elementary basic preparation," he explains. "A pilot who has already flown 300 to 500 hours needs three months for individual preparation. Then there are a few more months for group preparation. But it is much, much less than the three years that British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak spoke."

Melnyk compares western aircraft and longer-range missiles to the effect of the delivery of HIMARS multiple rocket launchers. "None of these are silver bullets. But even ten HIMARS with a range of 70 to 80 kilometers changed the situation at the front enormously and meant that the Russians had to completely redesign their logistics," he says. However, they are not mobile enough: "If you have to move your forces from one direction to another, the speed of HIMARS on a good road is between 50 and 60 km/h. The deployment of such a multiple rocket launcher can take days. In addition, they are then easier for the opponent to attack."

An aircraft equipped with a missile with a similar range would be significantly more flexible. Another important function of Western aircraft would be to strengthen anti-aircraft defenses. Russian MiG-31 interceptors, which can carry Kinzhal ("Dagger")-class hypersonic missiles, are constantly flying in Belarus. A few weeks ago, such a rocket hit Kiev, although it was probably not launched from Belarus. Anti-aircraft defense on the ground is powerless against such missiles. But it would certainly be possible to intercept them from western aircraft.

From Oleksandr Mussiyenko's point of view, the delivery of GLSDB-type ammunition with a range of up to 150 kilometers for multiple rocket launchers and aircraft would be a "game changer": "You can see from Russian statements that Russia is afraid of this. I am absolutely convinced that that the planes will come. Whether that will be the MiG-31s ​​from Poland first or F-16s, we'll see, but they're coming."

Looking ahead to the coming months, Mussiyenko says it is simply important for Ukraine to gather weapons and resources. "There are two factors for offensives. On the one hand, unlike Russia, Ukraine plans offensive operations in such a way that as few soldiers as possible die. Secondly, it's all about the weather: Russia relies heavily on infantry, which Ukrainians want to avoid, and the condition of the ground more independent. The Leopard and Challenger tanks are also heavier than those currently deployed by Ukraine."

Oleksiy Melnyk sees it similarly: "In terms of the weather, the offensive could either come in the next two weeks, which is unlikely for other reasons, or when the earth dries. You also have to make sure that the official or semi-official statements are often are part of the information war." Last year Ukraine announced a counter-offensive in the south, but then carried out the operation in the Kharkiv district first: "Surprises are always possible. Because one of the goals of the Ukrainian officials is to confuse the enemy."