At the moment neither side of the Ukraine civil war has the force to launch a large-scale offensive. By end of April, however, rebels will have completed forming and training a number of new units
The author of the article below is 'yurasumy', one of the better known Russian bloggers following the war in Donbass. His sympathies lie with the rebels, but he is capable of useful, non-partisan analysis.
Active combat operations on the Donbass. When, who, and how serious? There is plenty of guessing and speculation on this topic, and there will be even more as actual combat operations approach.
It would be naïve and stupid to expect large-scale offensive operations by the junta in the upcoming weeks. The Debaltsevo debacle hurt not only the troops’ morale and self-esteem. It also inflicted colossal, on UAF ['Ukraine Armed Forces'] scale, equipment losses. The winter campaign cost it more than a quarter of all of its armored vehicles and tanks, up to 1/6th of all artillery. Most of those losses are total and irreversible.
Of course, whatever damaged equipment could have been repaired was already returned into service, but the winter losses cannot be replaced by anything. UAF units are adopting new organizational structures: four-gun artillery batteries, some of the field battalions are no longer mechanized but merely infantry, and all new units being formed are designated as infantry right from the start. Nobody even pretends they are mechanized.
Artillery situation is more or less stable. But here too there were significant changes. UAF artillery is increasingly towed, which makes it rather vulnerable in a modern war. Moreover, there is a shortage of some towed cannon (e.g., Msta-B 152mm howitzers).
Tank units are constantly reducing the number of combat-ready units. The time when the UAF could simultaneously field 10 tank battalions with full equipment and trained crews has long passed. The shortage of both was already visible in the winter campaign. Training unit crews were sent into battle to reinforce the line formation. There is no equipment and no personnel to form new units. There is no more long-term storage equipment available for use. Everything that was usable was already sent to line units, and some of it was lost in battle. The number of new tanks built can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Everything that is advertised as new is in actuality thoroughly overhauled old tank hulls, of which there are still about 2,000 available. However, there are no spare parts, no factory capacity and…no money to allow for mass production. Therefore the UAF can concentrate no more than 6-7 tank battalion equivalents, including equipment from training units. Formally there are 12-13 tank battalions, but their equipment strength is around 50%. Moreover, the pace of equipment construction means that the UAF can at most add one battalion in two months, provided it suffers no losses at the front.
The situation is hardly better in other armored vehicles. Its deliveries are being delayed. The reasons are banal and even slightly comical. The West, by introducing sanctions against Russia, also de-facto organized a military-technical blockade of Ukraine. There are many critically important components, first and foremost engines, which Ukraine does not manufacture and cannot obtain from abroad. Western suppliers have all refused. This led to the collapse of many important programs: the deliveries of Dozor-B vehicles have never even begun, the number of KrAZ trucks for military needs is only a few dozen per month even though theoretically the industry could build hundreds, BTR production is delayed by shortage of spare parts which are badly needed to repair damaged equipment.
All of these factors have forced the junta to deprive of their mobility not only new units, many of which are yet to be created, but also the “mechanized” units of the old UAF brigades. I cannot help but agree with Tsenzor.net chief editor Yuriy Butusov that the partial skimming of such an expensive resource as heavy equipment in order to provide it to newly formed units is a harmful rather than helpful measure. The new units will not be battle-ready by summer, and the absence of armor in old units will greatly reduce their offensive capabilities.
But that’s not the end of the problems. The first wave of demobilization is accelerating. Kiev decided not to risk keeping the first mob wave soldiers in uniform. This will, however temporarily, reduce the personnel strength of the first line at the front (which was only 30-35 thousand troops as of January). There can be no increase in the personnel strength until the new contingents are trained (May-June), it’s also debatable if they can retain the current personnel strength. Moreover, the experienced soldiers who are being demobilized will be replaced by whoever could be snagged and sent into uniform from all over Ukraine.
Conclusion. I’m still of the opinion that the Junta will not conduct offensive operations. They have no capacity for them. Until May-June, they won’t even be able to maintain the personnel strength of their forces, although that’s not the main factor. The lack of equipment and supplies is what’s really preventing the junta from deploying a sizable military grouping. Moreover, the number of actually combat-ready units is still in decline, and it started in July of 2014. At that time, the active field force was 50-thousand strong. Now it’s no more than 30 thousand. The rest are supporting units.
Nevertheless, there are forces which are not happy with peace on the Donbass. The leadership of many “volunteer” units understands that long peace means their rapid demise (possibly in the physical sense too). The war can prolong their agony and even make their existence useful for the behind-the-scenes puppetmasters. They cannot pass up this chance.
Here, too, not everything is well when it comes to preparations for active combat operations. However, their problems are somewhat different. The junta is ALREADY not capable of attacking, and its military potential is decreasing with every campaign, while the republican units are NOT YET ready to conduct large-scale offensives.
Why was the NAF able to conduct a large-scale offensive in the summer, but not in the winter? For two reasons. In the summer, UAF units, not expecting to come under attack by “northern wind” units, were caught in mid-step and were thoroughly thrashed as a result. During the winter the young Republican armies had to break into well prepared defenses. Moreover, it was decided not to introduce the “wind of Boreas” forces into battle, while the NAF['Novorossiya Armed Forces'] military potential is still not up to the task of a large-scale offensive.
Planning of the second summer campaign assumes forming of a large number of new units of the NAF (5-7 new motorized rifle brigades, 2-3 tank battalions, new artillery units). That’s the purpose of large-scale mobilization. Not only will their personnel strength be increased, but their firepower also, by increasing artillery and tank strength. This was made possible by the large amount of captured equipment and Russia’s technical support. Forming and training of new units will end not later than the end of April (or possibly in May). By that time the NAF will be clearly superior to the UAF not only in the technical but also in the numerical sense, and if one considers the passive assistance of the “wind of Boreas” on secondary front sectors, this superiority will be quite perceptible.
Conclusion. One should not expect large-scale offensive operations by the NAF before the end of April. Moreover, premature active operations might delay UAF “demobilization”. Of course, this still leaves reconnaissance in force and fire preparation. Especially since it requires several weeks, judging by the experience of the winter battles.
I don’t expect large-scale offensive operations even with limited aims (e.g., the liberation of a city) in the next several weeks. At the same time, the situation will continue to grow more tense. The chaos within the junta (the Poroshenko-Kolomoysky struggle) may provoke a premature collapse of the junta, but even then it would be dumb for the NAF to attack, before it reaches full readiness. I think that the NAF command will not do something stupid. Besides, there’s no need to hurry. The junta is growing weaker with every passing month.