MS Risk Blog

Russian 2024 Spring Offensive

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Key Judgements:

Throughout history, the conflict in Eastern Europe has aligned with the natural rhythm of the seasons. The period of cold weather and mud, known as ‘Rasputitsa,’ significantly impacts the region, particularly in Ukraine. Rasputitsa has served as a formidable obstacle, a ‘wall of nature,’ for both Nazi Germany and Napoleon’s Grand Army during their respective invasions of Russia. In an ironic twist, the Russian military has become the most recent casualty of Rasputitsa.

In 2024, the Ukraine conflict reached a stalemate as neither side achieved significant progress despite multiple offensives in Eastern Ukraine. The combat revolved around trenches and bunkers, with both parties relying heavily on artillery and drones. Furthermore, long-range missiles and drones targeted vital infrastructure of both nations. The Russian military focused on damaging Ukraine’s infrastructure, including power plants, railroads, and broadcasting systems, while Ukraine countered by conducting sabotage inside Russia and striking near border cities. Despite the lack of advancement on the front lines, Russia aimed to weaken Ukraine’s society and force them to surrender on Russian terms.

In the year 2024, Western support for Ukraine has been unwavering, despite the ongoing conflict and political instability in the region. In April, the US Congress and Senate passed a bill to provide aid to Ukraine, which could potentially empower its military and help it withstand the long-standing challenges faced in the region. However, despite the continued support, there are signs of waning public opinion and political will to continue supporting Ukraine. The general population in the West is experiencing a sense of fatigue and disillusionment after years of conflict and instability in the region. Moreover, with several significant elections looming in the European Parliament, the UK, and the US, the current policy towards Ukraine could significantly change. It is important to note that the former US President Donald Trump had a pro-Russian stance in his foreign policy, which could have a significant impact on the future of Ukraine and Russia. Therefore, 2024 could prove to be a critical turning point for both Ukraine and its Western allies.

It is likely that President Putin, having been re-elected in 2024, will view this as an opportunity to establish his exit strategy in the Ukraine war and demonstrate to the Russian public that NATO has been defeated. Due to natural constraints, large-scale military operations are only feasible during the Spring, which has led Ukrainian and Western experts to anticipate an impending Russian offensive. Considering these circumstances, this forthcoming offensive is of critical importance to both Russia and Ukraine.

It appears that the current offensive in the north is directed towards Kharkiv City, which happens to be Ukraine’s second largest city. Over the past few months, the city has been subjected to drone and missile attacks that have primarily targeted its infrastructure. Recently, the Russian MOD announced that Moscow’s troops had taken control of several villages including Pletenivka, Ohirtseve, and Borysivka. It seems that the Russian forces are trying to establish a buffer zone that would prevent Ukrainian strikes into the Russian region that borders northern Ukraine. Belgorod, a Russian city, has been a major target of Ukrainian sabotage and bombing for months. In March, President Putin alluded to the possibility of creating a “sanitary zone” in Ukrainian territory that adjoins Belgorod. If the buffer zone is established, Russian forces would be able to target Kharkiv with their vast artillery capability. The current offensive in Northern Ukraine suggests that Russia has chosen to advance in a region that is less fortified than Eastern Ukraine.

According to several reports, it appears that the Russian forces stationed in northern Ukraine are facing challenges in terms of both quality and quantity. It is estimated that there are around 50,000 to 70,000 Russian personnel in the area, but a Russian opposition outlet reported in March that an additional 300,000 personnel would be required to encircle Kharkiv. Given that the total number of Russian forces in Ukraine is roughly 510,000, it seems unlikely that they could fully encircle Kharkiv without either utilizing forces from the Eastern Front or compromising their efforts. Additionally, the Russian forces stationed in the north have suffered significant losses over the past three years of war, and this trend is continuing.

Although there is a possibility that Russia may deploy additional units to aid the Kharkiv offensive in Ukraine, it is unlikely for several reasons. Over the course of three years of war, Russia has resorted to conscripting from its own population, including prisoners and foreign mercenaries, resulting in a significant number of Russian citizens fleeing to neighbouring countries and heightened public resistance. Putin has responded with severe political violence, including the death of Alexei Navalny and the detainment of journalists and activists labelled as “extremists.” In March, President Putin signed a degree for the routine spring conscription campaign, calling for 150,000 citizens to serve in the military. While it is realistically possible that Russia could conscript additional troops for this offensive, it remains doubtful that these forces would be able to be deployed to northern Ukraine, even if a surprise conscription were conducted.

Even in the best-case scenario for Russian forces, it would be impossible for them to achieve victory through force against Ukraine. As a result, Russia has shifted its focus towards persuading both Ukraine and the Western world to cease providing aid to Ukraine, and ultimately accept a peace deal in Russia’s favour. While a victory in northern Ukraine could potentially influence public opinion in the West, it is unlikely that Putin’s desired outcome would come to fruition. The Russian threat is increasingly concerning, particularly for Eastern European countries such as Poland, Moldova, and the Baltic nations. With an aggressive stance towards the West and a growing number of Russian espionage incidents, most European countries, with the exception of Hungary, maintain their stance against Russia. The majority of EU countries still view supporting Ukraine as a top priority for the newly elected European parliament, even though losing belief of Ukraine’s total victory. It is possible that the successful Russian offensive could align with Trump’s goal of improving the US-Russia relationship. President Trump has expressed his belief that US-Russian policy is unreasonable and has publicly stated that he would end the ongoing Ukraine conflict during his second term in office. However, even if President Trump were to get re-elected in November 2024, his term would not start until January 2025, and balanced House and Senate would not be able to expedite Trump’s drastic foreign policy that would demolish US led world alliance.

In conclusion, Russia’s spring offensive is one of the best exit strategies for Russia, and for President Putin. Replacing defence minister Sergei Shoigu on 12 May could be one of indicator that Putin has high hope for 2024. However, it seems unlikely that Putin’s high hope in this offensive would become reality. Without dramatic development in the frontline or Western countries, it is likely that Russia would still remain in self-made dilemma in Ukraine.