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Ukraine readies spring offensive expected to be largest mobilization since war with Russia began

Europe’s greatest armed conflict since World War II is poised to see the largest mobilized effort since the war in Ukraine began as Kyiv prepares for an anticipated spring offensive. 

Analysts from the Institute for the Study of War believe that, based on information released from Russia and Ukraine, previous war movements and historical patterns of ground warfare, Kyiv is readying its troops for another significant offensive push. 

“We are now on the eve of a Ukrainian counteroffensive,” George Barros, a Russia analyst and leader of the Geospatial Intelligence Team for the Institute for the Study of War told Fox News Digital.

“And I think we’re going to see some major map changes if the Ukrainians are able to be successful in the direction or directions they choose,” he added. 

Ukrainian soldiers ride on an armored vehicle near the retaken town of Lyman in Donetsk region Oct. 6, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Ukrainian soldiers ride on an armored vehicle near the retaken town of Lyman in Donetsk region Oct. 6, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images)

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Barros said he and his team assess that the anticipated offensive could take place within the next two months, but he noted that he wouldn’t be surprised if he woke up to the news that it had begun already.

Since December, the focus of the war effort has appeared to take place in the Bakhmut sector, where brutal fighting has ensued and trench warfare resembling battlefield scenes reminiscent of the World Wars have reigned. 

But analysts at the Institute believe Ukraine and Russia have their sights set on a bigger prize — the Zaporizhzhia region.

Zaporizhzhia, a region Russia President Vladimir Putin claimed to have annexed in late September, has largely remained out of major headlines except for late last summer when nuclear experts were increasingly concerned by the threats levied at the power plant there.

But the region holds considerable value to both Ukraine and Russia.

Barros explained that Ukraine needs the region for its port access to the Sea of Azov and the mineral industry in, not only Zaporizhzhia, but in the neighboring Donetsk region to the east.

An infographic shows the Zaporizhzhia region positioned north of the Sea of Azov and in between the Donetsk region to the east and Kherson region to the west. 

An infographic shows the Zaporizhzhia region positioned north of the Sea of Azov and in between the Donetsk region to the east and Kherson region to the west.  (Elmurod Usubaliev/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

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“If you’re going to control the port, you’re also going to control the mineral extracts here, but the fact of the matter is that militarily this territory is necessary to control what the Russians have in Kherson,” he said, referring to the region directly west of Zaporizhzhia. 

The Zaporizhzhia region sits in between Kherson and Donetsk, which the analyst explained is not only needed if Ukraine wants to take back sea lanes as far west as Odesa, but to block Russia’s ability to adequately supply forces in Crimea through its Kherson networks. 

If Kyiv wants to take back the Zaporizhzhia region to then pinch Russian forces out of Kherson, push its troops northeast through Donetsk and make headway for Crimea – which Russia has occupied since 2014 – then it is the highways Ukraine must secure. 

The Kerch Strait bridge that connects mainland Russia with Crimea shown is shown in this November 2018 photo.

The Kerch Strait bridge that connects mainland Russia with Crimea shown is shown in this November 2018 photo. (Gallo Images/Copernicus Sentinel 2018/Orbital Horizon)

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“The Russians are logistically incapable of supporting all of the troops that they have positioned [in Kherson and Crimea] through the bottleneck of the Kerch Strait Bridge,” Barros said.

The analyst explained that the land bridge that connects Russia to Crimea was not built to handle immense amounts of traffic, is geographically poorly positioned and is still damaged from the October attack, meaning Russia relies heavily on Ukraine’s eastern highway system.  

Ukrainian officials have said they will not stop fighting Moscow until they have ousted all Russian forces from Crimea, and the way to do this is by punching south into a vital triangle area formed by the cities of Melitopol, Tokmak and Vasilyevka, Barros explained. 

A map of a vital triangle region in Zaporizhzhia made up by Tokmak, Melitopol, and Vasilyevka cities. Ukraine could target the triangle region in a spring offensive.

A map of a vital triangle region in Zaporizhzhia made up by Tokmak, Melitopol, and Vasilyevka cities. Ukraine could target the triangle region in a spring offensive. (Graphic provided by the Institute for the Study of War)

“If they can take this triangle, they will have effectively interdicted the key roads and the key highways that are necessary for supporting everything west of this position,” Barros added. “And that’s going to cause a major logistical problem for the tens of thousands of Russian troops that are in this territory.”

But this will be no easy feat. 

Ukraine, which has successfully employed informational warfare against Russia in past campaigns, has made its intentions in southeastern Ukraine clear, and Moscow has responded by heavily fortifying its troops in this triangle sector. 

“These are things like trenches, tank traps, dragon’s teeth, concrete pillboxes, other field fortifications, revetments, things of that nature,” Barros said, explaining that these protective measures are layered and often concentrically ringed around certain locations.  “They are actually positioned in tandem with the key supply routes, key arterial roads that connect the various different major settlements and towns and that constitute the main supply lines that actually protect the Russian position.”

A map of Russia's defensive fortifications in Zaporizhzhia around Tokmak, Melitopol and Vasilyevka. Ukraine could target the triangle region in a spring offensive.

A map of Russia’s defensive fortifications in Zaporizhzhia around Tokmak, Melitopol and Vasilyevka. Ukraine could target the triangle region in a spring offensive. (Graphic provided by the Institute for the Study of War)

But Ukraine does have a unique advantage in the area. It is the No. 1 site for civilian resistance groups in all of Ukraine. 

“Melitopol in particular is the single most hotbed for partisan activity and partisan attacks,” Barros said. He explained that, not only do these groups inform on Russian positions, they are a constant nuisance for the Russian forces in the area as they routinely employ improvised explosive devices and car bombs against them. 

But Barros said the emphasis placed in this region could also be a ploy by Kyiv in a similar move it used in the lead-up to its successful recapture of Kharkiv. 

Late last summer, Ukraine was again putting a lot of emphasis on its plan to retake Kherson. This prompted Russia to move troops from the northern Kharkiv region to the south and left Russian forces in the north undermanned and enabling Ukraine to swoop in to achieve one of its greatest successes in the war to date. 

Ukrainian soldiers from various brigades take part in a military drill on psychological combat training at an undisclosed location close to the border with Belarus in Ukraine March 11, 2023. 

Ukrainian soldiers from various brigades take part in a military drill on psychological combat training at an undisclosed location close to the border with Belarus in Ukraine March 11, 2023.  (REUTERS/Violeta Santos Moura)

But Kyiv also continued with its operational goals in the south and was able to exhaust Russian resources and force occupying troops to withdraw from the city of Kherson by November. 

“We know that the Ukrainians conducted the Kharkiv counteroffensive last September with four brigades,” Barros said. “And the Ukrainian government has discussed explicitly how for this [next] counteroffensive effort they have formed no fewer than, I believe, eight or nine brigades.”

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Barros pointed out that, not only is Ukraine’s spring counteroffensive expected to be at least twice as large as last year’s major offensive push, these are new brigades Kyiv has formed explicitly to lead its strike force.

The analyst said Ukraine could again employ a similar tactic to last year’s offensive and direct its counteroffensive efforts in multiple locations, like the Bakhmut sector.

A Ukrainian soldier takes part in a military drill on psychological combat training at an undisclosed location close to the border with Belarus in Ukraine March 11, 2023. 

A Ukrainian soldier takes part in a military drill on psychological combat training at an undisclosed location close to the border with Belarus in Ukraine March 11, 2023.  (REUTERS/Violeta Santos Moura)

The team at the Institute have assessed that Kyiv can win this war against Russia, and it will likely achieve this by relying on Putin’s hesitancy to mobilize more men for the front lines, coupled with the fact that the troops already in Ukraine continue to be lacking in arms, training and morale.

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“The Ukrainians will present a series of military and logistical dilemmas to the Russian military and force the Russian military to pick from a buffet of bad options,” Barros predicted. “Decisions like, ‘Do we prioritize the defense of the south or do we prioritize the defense of a different area on the frontline?’

“And this is important because it means that, ideally, the Russians [will] have to make a series of suboptimal decisions and not ever be able to make a preferable decision.” 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy makes a surprise visit to Kherson Nov. 14, 2022. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy makes a surprise visit to Kherson Nov. 14, 2022.  (Paula Bronstein /Getty Images)

Kyiv has said it will look to conclude the war by the end of the year, but after roughly four months of little traction from either side, defense officials, including Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, have said this is unlikely. 

Barros said that periods of stagnation in war are “normal” and enable troops to be refitted and rest up, but he noted that Ukraine, eager to end this war quickly, would have continued its momentous push through the winter months had NATO and the U.S. adequately armed its troops. 

Both Western policymakers and Putin have prolonged the war over concerns of escalating the conflict beyond Ukraine’s borders and drawing NATO into a full-fledged war with Russia.

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Putin failed to mobilize men in the lead-up to his invasion, which resulted in an embarrassing withdrawal from the Kyiv region and subsequent failures across Ukraine in the more than 13 months since the war began. 

The West has shown repeated reticence and then acquiescence when it comes to supplying Ukraine with the arms and equipment it needs to oust Russian troops, like tanks and warplanes. 

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“Western policymakers are extremely susceptible to Russian information operations,” Barros said. “And we’re very concerned about the possibility that Russia might employ a nuclear weapon or a tactical nuclear weapon if it seems like the Ukrainians are about to win.

“But, bottom line, we assess that … it’s extraordinarily unlikely that Putin will use a tactical nuclear weapon,” he added, noting that it cannot be ruled out entirely. “The way that this war has been fought so far shows that the Ukrainians can inflict defeats, and not just defeats, humiliating defeats against the Russian military. 

“And Putin can be forced to take losses,” Barros added. “And [the Russians] find ways to be able to justify and explain it away.” 

You can view the ISW interactive map showing the assessed control of terrain in Ukraine here.

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