December 4, 2022

Institute for the Study of War:Ukrainian forces likely to continue military operations as ground freezes

Institute for the Study of War

Ukrainian officials have indicated that Ukrainian forces plan to continue offensive operations over the coming winter to capitalize on recent battlefield successes and prevent Russian forces from regaining the battlefield initiative. Spokesperson of the Ukrainian Armed Forces Eastern Group Serhii Cherevatyi stated on December 4 that frozen ground enables heavy wheeled and tracked vehicles to advance and that Ukrainian forces are preparing such vehicles for winter operations. Cherevatyi also stated that low-quality mobilized recruits and Wagner Group personnel recruited from Russian prisoners are unprepared for combat in the winter. The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense (MoD) stated on November 20 that those who suggest the winter will pause hostilities “likely never sunbathed in January on the southern coast of Crimea,” suggesting that Ukrainian forces intend to continue counteroffensive operations over the coming winter that contribute toward the goal of retaking Crimea. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Volodymyr Havrylov stated on November 18 that Ukrainian forces will continue to fight in the winter because any type of pause will allow Russian forces to reinforce their units and positions. Ukrainian officials’ prior statements on ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive actions in Kherson Oblast are further evidence that these official statements on winter counteroffensive actions are indicators of continuing counteroffensive operations.
Senior US government officials are mistakenly identifying the optimal window of opportunity for Ukraine to conduct more counteroffensives as the spring rather than winter, despite Ukrainian officials’ statements to the contrary. US Director for National Intelligence (DNI) Avril Haines assessed on December 3 that the pace of the war in Ukraine will slow over the winter so both sides can refit, resupply, and reconstitute, despite evidence that conditions on the ground favor a renewed offensive and despite the demonstrated tendency of Ukrainian forces to initiate new counteroffensive efforts relatively quickly after the previous effort has culminated.
Ukraine’s ability to maintain the military initiative and continue the momentum of its current operational successes depends on Ukrainian forces continuing to conduct successive operations through the winter of 2022-2023. Russia lost the initiative in summer 2022 after its offensive in Donbas culminated. Ukrainian forces gained and have retained the initiative since August 2022 and have been conducting a series of successful successive operations since then: Ukraine liberated most of Kharkiv Oblast in September, Kherson City in November, and is currently setting conditions for more Ukrainian pushes elsewhere this winter. Successive operations are a key part of Ukraine’s campaign design. A series of successive Ukrainian counteroffensive operations in Kharkiv and Kherson oblasts demonstrates the Ukrainian military‘s remarkable operational planning skill and knowledge of the strengths of Soviet operational art. Soviet operational art emphasizes that militaries can only obtain their strategic objectives through the cumulative operational success of successive operations ideally conducted without operational pauses between them. Recent official Ukrainian statements make clear that Ukraine’s campaign design is designed to allow a series of successive operations to deprive Russia of the initiative, defeat the Russian military, and liberate more Ukrainian territory.
Weather conditions in winter 2023 likely will dictate a timeframe in which Ukraine can conduct maneuver warfare and continue its string of operational successes with minimal pauses that would increase the risks of Ukraine losing the initiative. The fall mud season in November hampered maneuver warfare, as ISW previously noted. Both Russia and Ukraine nevertheless continued aggressive offensive and counter-offensive operations throughout this muddy period despite some Western predictions that the mud would suspend operations. As the hard freeze approaches in late December, Ukrainian forces will be again able to exploit the weather conditions. Winter is usually the best season for mechanized warfare in Ukraine whereas spring is the nightmare season for fighting in Ukraine. The thaw swells rivers and streams and turns fields into seas of mud. Ukrainian forces likely are preparing to take advantage of frozen terrain to move more easily than they could in the muddy autumn months.
If Ukraine’s allies and partners do not support Ukrainian forces to conduct large-scale decisive counteroffensive operations this winter—as the DNI’s statements might be construed to suggest – then Ukrainians‘ ability to conduct maneuver warfare will be constrained until likely at least after the spring mud season in March 2023. Such a course of action will likely prematurely culminate Ukraine‘s current momentum and grant shattered Russian forces a valuable three-to-four-month reprieve to reconstitute and prepare to fight on a better footing.
Key TakeawaysUkrainian officials have indicated that Ukrainian forces will continue counteroffensive operations over the upcoming winter.Ukraine’s ability to maintain the military initiative depends on Ukrainian forces continuing counteroffensive operations in the winter of 2022-2023.Russian sources reported that Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in the directions of Kreminna and Svatove.Russian forces continued to conduct offensive operations around Bakhmut and Avdiivka.Groups of mobilized Russian soldiers continue to disrupt Russian force generation efforts with refusals to fight, insubordination, and defiance.Russian forces likely publicly executed residents in occupied Luhansk Oblast on accusations of partisan activity.
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