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Ukraine’s spring offensive has huge stakes for the future of warfare

WASHINGTON — U.S. officials say Ukraine is preparing to launch a counteroffensive against Russian forces as early as next month, acknowledging the enormous risk that without a decisive victory, Western support for Ukraine could wane and Kiev could face growing tensions. Big entry pressure to end or freeze serious negotiations of the conflict.

The U.S. and NATO allies have provided Ukraine with large quantities of artillery and ammunition for the upcoming battle, and officials now say they hope the supplies will last — unlike two months ago, when weapons just kept coming in and the U.S. Officials fear the supplies may run out.

Meanwhile, about 4,000 troops each from 12 Ukrainian combat brigades are expected to be ready by the end of April, according to leaked Pentagon documents that hint at Kiev’s timeline. The United States and NATO allies are training and supplying nine of the brigades, the document said.

While Ukraine has shared few details of its planned operation with U.S. officials, the operation is likely to take place in the south of the country, including along the Ukrainian coastline along the Sea of ​​Azov, near Russia-annexed Crimea.

“Everything depends on this counteroffensive,” said Alexander Vershbaugh, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia and a senior NATO official. “Everyone is hopeful, maybe overly optimistic. But that will determine whether the Ukrainians will get a decent result in terms of regaining battleground territory and creating more significant leverage to reach some sort of negotiated settlement.”

While Ukrainian officials said their goal was to breach Russian fortifications and cause a widespread breakdown in Russian forces, U.S. officials assessed that the offensive was unlikely to lead to a dramatic shift in momentum in Ukraine’s favor.

The Ukrainian military faces many challenges – and stalemate remains one of the reasons for the most likely outcome. Fighting this winter in Bakhmut, eastern Ukraine, has depleted ammunition stocks and left some veteran troops dead.

U.S. military officials, however, said the Ukrainian military was at risk of being caught by surprise again. They are now equipped with European tanks and American armored personnel carriers, and have new units trained and equipped by US and NATO forces.

“I’m optimistic that from this year to next, I think Ukraine will continue to gain momentum,” British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace told reporters during a visit to Washington last week. “I also think we should be realistic. There won’t be a magic moment when Russia collapses.”

While Ukraine has strayed from the secrecy that usually surrounds military planning by talking openly about the upcoming battle — in part because Ukrainian leaders need to boost morale and put arms pressure on the West — U.S. officials expect Ukrainian forces to use deception and feints to defeat the Russians. balance.

Ukraine’s best chance of flexing its muscles in a counteroffensive will also depend on U.S., NATO, and Ukrainian intelligence. If the U.S. and its allies can discover significant weaknesses in Russian defenses, Ukraine could take advantage of their speed and protection from tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles.

Still, big gains aren’t guaranteed or even necessarily possible. The battlefield is littered with vast numbers of Russian mines, and the Ukrainian advance will depend on the ability of Kiev forces to effectively deploy demining equipment, much of it supplied by the West.

Ukraine forms new combat brigades by forming a core of recruits with a small group of experienced veterans. Beginning in January, the troops traveled to a U.S. military training ground in Germany to learn how to use their new equipment and how to conduct what the U.S. military calls joint-arms exercises — using effective communications to coordinate advancing troops with supporting units such as tanks and artillery.

Training in these tactics has gone well, and an aggressive Ukrainian military has shown itself to be a quick learner, according to multiple U.S. officials. But adopting new tactics is often easier in training exercises than on the battlefield, especially with the Russians so deep.

Soldiers fighting in Ukraine say complex maneuver operations have so far been nearly impossible to execute. They have struggled to coordinate their operations because they need robust communications, which is difficult because radio equipment varies and is vulnerable to Russian jamming. Coordinating anything above the platoon level — a unit of about 30 soldiers — remains very difficult, said a soldier in Ukraine who participated in the recent attempted attack in southern Ukraine.

If the Ukrainians were successful in using these new tactics, even to a small degree, they might be able to defeat the numerically superior Russian forces.

“If they can break through, then I think they can change the dynamic on the battlefield,” Gen. Christopher W. Grady, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a brief interview.

Major questions remain about the supply of Ukrainian artillery and other ammunition. Kiev’s supply of anti-aircraft missiles and artillery ammunition is critical to sustain any advance and defend against Russian air strikes, and could be at dangerously low levels if its forces continue to deplete ammunition at the current rate. After the offensive, there will be little chance for the West in the foreseeable future to rebuild as it did for the upcoming offensive in Ukraine, as there won’t be enough supplies in existing inventories from Western allies to draw from and domestic production won’t be possible until, experts say. This gap will not be filled until next year.

The Ukrainian military is firing thousands of rounds a day in an attempt to rein in Bakhmut, a pace that U.S. and European officials say is unsustainable and could jeopardize an upcoming offensive. The bombing was so intense that the Pentagon raised concerns with officials in Kiev, warning them that Ukraine was wasting ammunition at a critical time.

While the Ukrainian military can use drones to strike behind Russian front lines, they don’t have access to missiles far enough to hit Russian logistics centers, a tactic that proved successful last summer in offensives outside Kharkov and Kherson. important.

The Russians have their own challenges.

Since the invasion began, there have been major doubts about the basic capabilities of Russian commanders and their supply of well-trained soldiers, artillery shells and equipment. The Russians have exhausted many of their cruise missiles, killed thousands at Bakhmut alone, and are depleting ammunition far faster than they can replace them with domestic production.

But Russia is trying to close those gaps. Russian forces have honed their ability to target Ukrainian troops more effectively using drones and artillery. They’ve recently started using glide bombs — using gravity and basic guidance to reach targets without making any noise — to show that they’re still capable of fielding newer weapons on the battlefield. These efforts mean that the window for significant progress against Russia’s depleted forces may not remain open indefinitely.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu has told other officials in private meetings that he believes Russia has a numerical advantage on the battlefield because it has more aircraft than Ukraine, according to a senior European source , Tanks, Cannons And Soldiers. Officials know about the discussion. In these conversations, Shoigu expressed overwhelming confidence that Russia would eventually prevail.

U.S. intelligence officials have repeatedly warned that Russian President Vladimir V. Putin believes the time has come. Given Russia’s larger stockpile of equipment and manpower, the officials said Putin was confident he would eventually emerge victorious as the West’s willingness to support Ukraine faded.

U.S. and European officials say Russia is preparing for a new mobilization to bolster its military ranks without causing the same young people to leave the country as it did when it announced a partial mobilization last year. Some of the leaked Pentagon Papers also outline how Wagner, Russia’s largest military contractor, has restarted recruiting soldiers from Russian prisons.

U.S. officials say there are political costs to any mobilization by Mr. Putin, and even if he is willing to incur those costs, Russia will need time to recruit, train and send them to war. Troops rushed to the front, like Wagner’s jailers, quickly became cannon fodder.

Still, Russia’s ability and willingness to absorb losses remains significant, enabling it to mobilize more conscripts. But some analysts doubt whether Moscow has enough soldiers to fill the trenches it has built on the front.

A focus of the United States and the West has been trying to prevent Russia from finding new arms supplies. U.S. and NATO officials have stymied Russia’s domestic manufacturing with sanctions and export controls, and have put diplomatic pressure on countries to deny Russia’s arms requests.

For now, at least, China appears to have been prevented from sending ammunition or other lethal aid to Russia. U.S. officials have released intelligence about private talks between Beijing and Moscow, but they have not seen any evidence since China sent the weapons. Likewise, Russia’s efforts to obtain guided missiles from Iran have so far been fruitless.

Another notable success is Egypt. While U.S. officials are quietly urging Cairo to provide shells to Ukraine, information gathered by U.S. intelligence agencies suggests that Egyptian officials may also be supplying weapons to Russia, the Washington Post first reported.

The Egyptians appear to be on the side of the Americans, driven by U.S. and British diplomacy. According to a subsequent intelligence report, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi rejected the idea of ​​Cairo supplying the Russian side.

U.S. officials said a production contract had been struck with an Egyptian state-owned arms manufacturer to produce the shells for the United States and American contractors, who then shipped them to Ukraine.

Some European countries, including France, are pushing for talks. Mr Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky are now in a quagmire, with peace talks seemingly out of reach.

CIA Director William J. Burns said in a speech at Rice University earlier this month that for the Ukrainians to force real negotiations, they must ensure that “Putin’s arrogance and arrogance was punctured”.

The Ukrainians say they won’t agree to any peace talks until they beat off the Russians and gain more territory.

The senior European official said there was “less than zero” chance of Putin conceding or cutting losses as a result of Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive. Instead, Mr. Putin may choose to call up more soldiers and send them in, the official said.

Celeste A. Wallander, the U.S. assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, said there was no sign Putin was ready to compromise. “There is little evidence and no reason to believe that Putin would abandon his strategic goal of subjugating Ukraine politically, if not entirely militarily,” she said in an interview. “That was his goal, not just for a year, but already It went on for almost a decade. So there’s no sign of him giving up.”

Michael Schwitz Reporting from Kiev, Ukraine.

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