Will the Russian spring Offensive succeed?

An In-Depth Analysis by Anders Puck Nilsen

I am a bit more interested than average in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. In this regard, I have spent some time finding sources that provide good and as objective as possible analysis of the situation there. 

One of the analysts I follow is the excellent military analyst at the Royal Danish Defence College, Anders Puck Nilsen. His blog posts and YouTube videos are viewed by tens of thousands each time he publishes his message. Puck Nilsen also has a background as a naval officer.

I have summarized his latest YouTube video in this blog post and added my own opinions on the ongoing Kharkiv offensive—an offensive that may not be as offensive as many fear. The ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine has seen many developments, each adding layers of complexity to the situation. 

Recently, media articles have painted various scenarios, some bordering on doomsday predictions. However, it is important to dissect these narratives to understand the actual situation.


Predicting the Offensive: Initial Expectations

In his previous analysis, Puck Nilsen argued that an attack on the Kharkiv region was less likely due to the substantial number of soldiers and equipment required for operational success. By operational success, he meant a scenario where Russia could make significant advancements into Ukraine, fundamentally altering the war dynamics. While fewer soldiers could cross the border, their progress would be limited, stabilizing the frontlines without achieving significant results.



 The Reality of the Russian Attack

Contrary to most initial predictions, Russia launched a (surprising) attack with a limited number of soldiers and minimal equipment. Reports suggest that around 30,000 Russian soldiers were allocated for the offensive in the Kharkiv region, with another 20,000 prepared for a similar offensive in the Sumy region. This raises the question: What have these efforts achieved?


Analyzing the Achievements: Tactical vs. Operational Significance

Military observers have described the Russian achievements as tactically significant. This terminology has caused confusion in Western media regarding the severity of the situation for Ukraine. The crux of the misunderstanding lay in the interpretation of military terminology.


In military terms, there are three levels of warfare:

– Tactically Significant Results: 

Small victories like taking control of specific areas without altering the overall battle dynamics.

– Operationally Significant Results:

Major gains that influence large portions of the frontline, creating new opportunities for further advances.

– Strategically Significant Results:

Outcomes that could potentially change the entire course of the war, such as causing a collapse of the opposing forces.

When observers describe Russian achievements as tactically significant, it means they have captured some positions such as hills, towns, or tree lines. However, this does not translate into operational or strategic significance, which would indicate major shifts in the war dynamics.


The Misinterpretation in Western Media

The confusion in Western media stems from a lack of understanding of these distinctions. Journalists, receiving dramatic reports, often misinterpret tactical gains as more significant than they actually are. This misunderstanding can lead to exaggerated perceptions of the conflict’s progression.


 The Objectives Behind the Offensive

Given the limited tactical achievements, what is Russia’s objective in launching this offensive?

Three main explanations are discussed:

  1. Capture of Kharkiv City: This is deemed unrealistic due to the substantial resources required. Taking a city the size of Kharkiv would require at least 80–100,000 soldiers.
  2. Establishment of a Buffer Zone: Aimed at preventing Ukrainian attacks into Russia. While it could protect against raids and enhance bombardments, the current achievements fall short of creating a coherent buffer zone because Ukraine has long had the opportunity to use ATACMS and the British Storm Shadow for attacks within Russia. The buffer zone will not be made long or wide enough to prevent this.
  3. Diversion Operation: Intended to stretch Ukrainian resources along the frontline, potentially creating exploitable weaknesses elsewhere. For a diversion to succeed, it must draw more Ukrainian resources than Russian, which is not evidently happening. The Russians are pulling resources from their frontlines to Kharkiv, thus thinning themselves out. At best, this could be an advantage for Ukraine.


Evaluating the Diversion Operation

For a diversion operation to succeed, it must divert more of the enemy’s resources than its own. Currently, the Russian offensive in Kharkiv seems to draw significant resources from both sides. Successful diversions require reserves to exploit any breakthroughs, turning tactical events into operationally significant ones. At present, Russia appears to lack these necessary reserves.


Fragmentation in Russian Strategy

An important aspect to consider is the coherence of Russia’s strategy. Just because a plan exists does not mean it is effective. Russia’s current actions, spreading forces thinly across all sectors of the frontline, contradict basic military principles which emphasize concentration and focused objectives. This approach suggests a potentially flawed strategy.


Command Structure and Internal Dynamics

Early in the war, Russia’s efforts were hampered by an uncoordinated command structure, with fragmented operations and competition among forces for resources and success. There was a period when Russia seemed to have resolved these issues, achieving more coherent planning. However, current operations indicate a possible return to fragmentation, influenced by internal competition among generals.


General Lapin's Role and Motivations

General Lapin, who currently commands the northern forces, was criticized and sacked after Ukraine’s counteroffensive in Kharkiv in 2022. Now he seems eager to prove himself, potentially driving his actions in Kharkiv. Similar motivations seem to influence General Teplitsky in the southern sector. This internal competition might be causing a fragmented command structure, complicating the understanding of Russia’s overall plan.


General Gerasimov's Influence

General Gerasimov, head of the Russian general staff, might be distributing resources to maintain cohesion among his generals. This internal dynamic could explain the lack of a clear, coherent strategy. Observers’ difficulty in discerning Russia’s plan might indicate that the plan itself is not particularly sound.


Concluding Thoughts on the Offensive

In conclusion, Russia’s offensive in Kharkiv, described as tactically significant, has not achieved operational or strategic gains. The potential objectives—taking Kharkiv City, establishing a buffer zone, or a diversion operation—appear unrealistic or questionable given the current achievements and resource allocation. The fragmented command structure and internal competition among generals further complicate the situation. 

The conclusions are that the offensive is an attempt by Russia to reach significant goals before Ukraine receives the necessary supplies and can mount a resistance that will stabilize the frontline. In short, Putin is running out of time with each day that passes towards summer and Ukraine’s steady influx of Western military aid.

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