Ukrainian military experts see the country's army at an advantage over the Russian occupiers: Russia has only suffered defeats since the fall - and could soon have to suffer more. While fierce fighting is currently going on, especially in the east, the military decision will probably be made in the south of Ukraine.
For the most part, Ukraine has successfully defended itself against Russian aggression for more than nine months. After the Russians withdrew from the northern districts of Kiev, Sumy and Chernihiv at the end of March, the Ukrainians carried out a surprisingly successful counter-offensive in the Kharkiv district in September and also made minor gains in Donetsk and Luhansk regions. In November, the Russians were forced to surrender Kherson, the only regional capital occupied since February 24.
"Basically, the autumn consisted of Ukrainian victories and Russian defeats," says Oleksandr Mussiyenko, summarizing the 2022 military campaign. "Russia has lost Cherson, the Kharkiv district and some places in the Donbass," the director of the Ukrainian Center for Military Law Studies told ntv.de. "At the same time, the Russians are not achieving much in the area around the town of Bakhmut, where they are still attacking. Otherwise, they switched to defense everywhere." The initiative remains in Ukrainian hands.
"It was a successful year for the Ukrainian army," agrees Oleksiy Melnyk, a former lieutenant colonel and co-director of international security programs at the Kiev think tank Razumkova Center. Melnyk emphasizes that the Ukrainians' will to resist, the experience of the Donbass war and Western support for it were all important factors.
"The Russians certainly wanted a blitzkrieg, but then they opted for a war of attrition," said the expert. "Your calculation wasn't completely stupid, because the Ukrainians' mostly Soviet ammunition could have run out in May. But Ukraine was supported militarily by around 50 countries. And now it's unclear who will benefit more from this war of attrition in the end."
In recent weeks, combat operations on the front lines have slowed due to the thaw. While the Russians have been attacking in the direction of Bakhmut for months without any particular success, the Ukrainians are trying to advance near the logistically important road between the towns of Swatove and Kreminna in the Luhansk district. That being said, one might have thought that the military year of 2022 would have strategically ended, and that major combat operations on other fronts would not resume until the ground freezes.
In the case of Bachmut, the Ukrainians are primarily concerned with defence. At Svatowe and Kreminna, where Russia deployed some of the mobilized soldiers, the Ukrainians, like the Russians at Bakhmut, are having their difficulties. In general, however, Oleksandr Mussiyenko sees a good chance of liberating this area, from which the Ukrainians could advance towards the cities of Lysychansk and Severodonetsk, which were occupied in the summer. These are important for supplying the Russian troops near Bakhmut. "Through successful actions here, the Ukrainians can significantly reduce the pressure on their own group around Bakhmut," says Oleksandr Mussiyenko.
The Russian activities at Bakhmut compare Melnyk and Mussiyenko with the long struggles for Severodonetsk and Lysychansk. "In terms of military strategy, I don't see much sense in what the Russians are doing there," says Melnyk. "In Lysychansk, the Russians literally burned the ground. The city was occupied, but there were huge casualties and they could no longer attack from that direction," explains Mussienko. "Bachmut is logistically important, but the Russians are really sacrificing so much for this city because it's the only place on the front where they're still on the offensive. Otherwise they'd be on the defensive along the entire front line." That would be a symbolic and political problem for the Kremlin.
However, the number one strategic goal for the Ukrainians next year is not the east, but the south on the Ukrainian mainland, i.e. the eastern bank of the Dnipro in the Kherson district and occupied parts of the Zaporizhia district. "The disruption of the so-called land bridge to the Crimea would be the absolute turning point of the war," says Oleksiy Melnyk. "The counter-offensive in the Kharkiv district and the liberation of Cherson changed the course of the war significantly. But we are talking about something decisive for the war here, should Russian logistics collapse as a result."
It won't be an easy task, but both Melnyk and Mussijenko see realistic prospects of success here. They therefore do not rule out the possibility - without making concrete forecasts - that active combat operations could come to an end in mid-2023.
When it comes to the Crimean Peninsula, which has been occupied since 2014, both experts are very cautious. "If the Russians got into such a catastrophic logistical situation as they did in Kharkiv, a military operation would make sense, but even then resistance is to be expected. In any case, the fighting would be very bloody," stresses Melnyk. "The priority for the time being is the continental south. Depending on the situation, political and diplomatic discussions could then also be held about Crimea," says Mussiyenko from the Center for Military Law Studies.
Oleksiy Melnyk compares the significance of the most recent, suspected Ukrainian attacks on military airfields like Engels deep in the Russian hinterland with the sinking of the cruiser Moskva and the blowing up of the Kerch Bridge. "This is the airfield where strategic bombers are based, which carry out attacks on Ukrainian energy infrastructure," he says. "The attack may not change the course of the war decisively. But the fewer Russian bombers firing cruise missiles at Ukraine, the better. And psychologically it's a disaster for the Russians, although psychology is often crucial in a war. They also need more anti-aircraft defenses in the focus on the hinterland."
For his part, Oleksandr Mussiyenko has little sympathy when some Western commentators speak of an escalation through Ukraine in the case of such attacks: "I don't even want to comment on that. With their attacks on critical infrastructure, the Russians want the Ukrainians without electricity, without heating and without water The Ukrainian army must do everything possible to at least make such shelling more difficult for the Russians. They do, and that's what martial law covers."