Defense lines more than 800 kilometers long, sometimes three lines deep, large numbers of soldiers to hold them: Moscow is preparing for the Ukrainian counteroffensive, the outcome of which, according to Kiev and the West at least, will be decisive for the continuation of the war , lasting over 14 months.

As the winter mud begins to dry, and after Russian offensive operations with relatively limited results, the war is expected to soon pass into a new phase, in which Kiev wants to gain the initiative of the movements.

But Moscow has learned from past failures and is calculating for a permanent war, a war of attrition – in which it is confident it will prevail.

Fortified positions

Russian defense installations extend from Kherson (south) to northeastern Ukraine, an imaginary line with a length of 800 to 900 kilometers. These are “layers of fortifications and trenches,” according to Brady Affrick of the American Enterprise Institute.

They include barbed wire, trenches to block the passage of tanks, minefields, obstacles, especially prefabricated defenses such as “dragon’s teeth”, machine guns, trenches for soldiers.

Ukrainian attacks will find in front of them several, successive lines of defense. The Russians’ aim is to “take the hit”, summarizes Pierre Razou, academic director of the Mediterranean Foundation for Strategic Studies (Fondation méditerranéenne d’études stratégiques, FMES).

The attacker tends to get “stuck” on the second line of defense; and, “even if he gets past it, the third is really complicated.”

When and where

Various options are offered on the front line. However, “in any defensive strategy, what you seek is to lead the attacker to the battlefield of your choice,” points out Andrew Gayler, an analyst at the British Janes Institute.

The location of the Ukrainian counterattack may not yet be decided. Perhaps there will be a smaller-scale operation to deceive the adversaries, so that the Russian commanders will be fooled, think that it is the counter-attack and throw forces to defend it, when in fact “it will not be the main” operation.

In Moscow, Vasily Kasin of the HSE National University says the attack could be in Bakhmut, the theater of merciless fighting since last summer, or in the south. But “the data we have is very limited,” he acknowledges.

On Monday, the head of Russia’s private military company Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, predicted that the Ukrainian counterattack might come on the day his men take Bakhmut, or shortly thereafter, pointing to May 9, the anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany.

FMES’s Pierre Razou insists on the bluff scenario, an “excellent deception operation by Kiev” to convince the Russians that Ukrainian forces are “not ready” – and to strike.

Numerical superiority

For its part, the Kremlin is counting, as it has since the beginning of the conflict, on the much larger pool of soldiers and conscripts at its disposal. He continues to bolster Russia’s armed forces with an intensive propaganda campaign to persuade young Russians to enlist.

“The Russian expeditionary force, although exhausted by the effort, still has sufficient reserves of manpower to help withstand the blow,” Philip Gross and Vincent Touré estimated in a recent report for the Foundation for Strategic Research (Fondation de la recherche stratégique , FRS).

At the same time, he made sure to take measures to limit the “mobility” of the opponents to “greatly complicate any Ukrainian advance”.

Even if the Russian reserves who will be called upon to face the Ukrainian counterattack are not so well trained, they can hold defensive lines. In any case, according to Vasily Kashin at least, “no Ukrainian counterattack, even the most effective one, will end this war.”

Kiev forced

On paper, with the Western military hardware it has received, Kiev is better armed than it was a year ago.

But some of these weapons are not yet at the front. And some simply replaced Ukrainian equipment that was destroyed.

The FRS highlights the “high level of casualties caused by the war of attrition, particularly among the most experienced officers and soldiers”, as well as “the drastic reduction in ammunition consumption”.

The Ukrainian forces are also required to use a combination of Soviet-era weapons and modern, mainly Western, equipment. Their hardware complexities further underline how important supply and support, especially technical support, are.

After all, piercing enemy lines does not automatically mean control of a conquered territory. “The further (the Ukrainians) go in trying to retake territory, the longer their supply line will need to be,” warns Andrew Gayler.

Failure forbidden

THE Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky he knows that Western governments are approaching the limits of their capabilities in terms of the aid they offer him, and support for his country’s armed forces is being discussed – and contested –, especially in the US.

“He has no right to be wrong. He can only act when he is sure of the hit” he will achieve, summarizes Pierre Razou.

As Ukraine prepares its counterattack, it is simultaneously forced to defend itself, and the list of priorities is long: it includes Kiev, Kharkiv, the supply axis between the two cities, the border with Belarus, the axes to the border with Poland and Romania, Odessa, the nuclear power plants…

For retired colonel-turned-historian Michel Goya, only “two successes” have been achieved in this war in any decisive advance: “in Popashna by the Russians in May 2022 and above all in Kharkiv province by the Ukrainians in September”.

However, he adds, “the positions of both sides, especially the Russian side, are now much stronger than they were then.”