US sees opportunity for Ukraine to take advantage of Russian weakness

WASHINGTON — The Ukrainian military has a window of opportunity to make gains against the Russian military over the next six weeks, according to U.S. intelligence assessments, if it can continue its push south and north- east before muddy ground and cloud cover forced opposing armies to pause and regroup.

US officials say there is little chance of a widespread collapse of Russian forces that would allow Ukraine to take another huge swath of territory, similar to what it claimed last month. But individual Russian units could break apart in the face of sustained Ukrainian pressure, allowing the Kyiv army to continue to retake towns in Donbass and potentially seize the city of Kherson, a major prize in the war.

Although they are wary of making precise predictions, US and Ukrainian officials say the fighting is expected to continue for months to come despite the recent war favoring Ukraine. And a number of variables could become particularly relevant in altering the trajectory of the conflict: harsher combat conditions in December, the extent to which President Vladimir V. Putin is prepared to step up the fight, if the unit of the Europe can stand this winter as energy prices soar and the potentially changing political environment in the United States could lead to reduced military support for Ukraine.

Part of the difficulty of making wartime assessments is that the war has gone through different phases, with one side and then the other having an advantage. The Ukrainians defeated the Russians in the Battle of Kyiv, only to see Russia advance in the brutal fighting in Donbass over the summer.

In recent days, the fighting has intensified. Still, military analysts say Ukraine has momentum on its side, giving it a chance to figure out where it wants to focus its efforts to reclaim territory.

“There’s a Ukrainian window of opportunity here,” said Mason Clark, a Russian military analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “The Ukrainians have the freedom to choose where they will attack.”

US officials say privately that Ukraine should continue to press its advantage in the coming weeks, but not to the point of expanding military supply lines or giving the Russian military a chance to exploit weaknesses in Ukraine’s defensive lines. Many officials interviewed for this article spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive or classified assessments of the war.

Publicly, senior Ukrainian officials have spoken optimistically about the prospects of significant battlefield victories. Agents in the field agree that they are making gains, but at a high cost.

“We are advancing, but not as fast as we did in Kharkiv province,” said Major Yaroslav Galas, company commander of the 128th Separate Mountain Assault Brigade, which is fighting in the Kherson region. “And there are a lot of losses.”

After the September offensive, Ukrainian forces had to slow down and fortify their supply lines in the northeast. As Russia tried to reinforce these positions, the counter-offensive’s whirlwind rush once again slowed to become the uphill battle of the summer.

Still, some US officials said the Ukrainians appeared ready to move forward and break the stalemate in Luhansk, where they might be able to encircle or break through Russian defensive lines. Importantly, if Ukrainian forces can take control of Route 66 in Luhansk in the coming weeks, they can cut off a key route that Russia uses to supply its troops in occupied areas.

The Russian military is still hampered by challenges similar to those it has faced since the start of the war. Logistical problems prevented Moscow from providing enough soldiers. Communication between Russian units remains difficult, forcing them to deploy senior officers close to front lines and hampering coordinated movements. And the reservists currently forced into the battlefields are poorly trained and ill-equipped.

But even though it is running out of steam now, Russia, according to US officials and military analysts, has not yet lost the war. And it is essential, say US officials, never to underestimate an adversary. Moscow’s military can still conduct large-scale artillery operations, and Russia has two potential assets: an infusion of troops from the forced mobilization that Mr. Putin carried out at the insistence of top commanders and a to absorb heavy losses on the battlefield.

The Russian army suffered a loss of equipment and soldiers that would have broken most armies in Europe. A US government report said last week that the Russians had lost 6,000 pieces of equipment. Estimates of Russian casualties number in the thousands. But a key strength across generations of the Russian military is bringing in more equipment and more soldiers even in desperate times. Despite the losses, US officials say Russia and Mr Putin appear ready to keep fighting. But there are limits.

“Clearly, Russia is currently experiencing significant logistics and sustainment challenges,” the brigadier said. Pentagon spokesman Gen. Patrick Ryder said on Tuesday. “These are only going to get tougher as the winter months set in. And so time is certainly of the essence when it comes to capitalizing on that from an operational perspective.”

Ukraine, on the other hand, has been buoyed by tens of billions in US aid, weaponry and funding that has kept the economy going and enabled its military to first slow the Russian advance and now recover. of the territory.

Given the dynamics of the battlefield, US officials do not believe there will be a long pause in the fighting. Winter snow won’t slow down the fighting, but late autumn mud, what the Russians call rasputitsa,. Once the ground hardens in February, around the first anniversary of the invasion, armies can once again move faster.

Russia could use the next four or five months to regroup, perhaps giving some training to its newly mobilized soldiers. But what happens next, US officials said, is an open question. Russia could try to regain the ground it has lost since September with a resumption of its slow-moving artillery barrage. Alternatively, Mr Putin could order an escalation – potentially to the point of using a nuclear weapon – to change the fortunes of his army. Or, Russia could seek to lock in the gains it has made trying to negotiate with the Ukrainians, counting on European capitals wary of winter fuel shortages to pressure Kyiv into agreeing to a ceasefire. fire.

US officials warn that there are significant caveats to their assessment of the war. Ukrainian officials still do not share most of their operational plans. While the US has better intelligence on Russian planning, Mr. Putin’s intentions for the next phase of the war are hard to discern, and there is currently little, if any, regular contact between US officials. and their Russian counterparts.

“I don’t think the Ukrainians will be able to completely collapse the Russian military in the short term,” Clark said. “In this sense, the Russians were able to absorb the losses. However, I think large Russian offensive operations are pretty much out of place at this point.

The dynamics of the war could change in the spring.

Even if Ukraine prevents Russia from achieving its strategic goals of overthrowing the government in Kyiv and forcing the country away from Europe, that does not mean that Mr Putin will stop fighting. The reality of modern warfare is that the victor has no say when the fighting stops. Mr Putin, officials said, is unlikely to accept defeat in the coming months.

“It’s often up to the loser to decide when the war is really over,” said Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at CNA, a research institute in Arlington, Virginia. “There is a discrepancy in people’s expectations of when the fighting might end versus when the war will end. The fighting may stop, but that doesn’t mean the war itself will end.

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington, and Michael Schwirtz from Kyiv, Ukraine.