After facing a string of setbacks nearly a year into its war on Ukraine, Russia is planning another major offensive to make up for its losses on the ground and justify its heavy human cost at home.
Intelligence analysts and researchers largely agree there is an offensive brewing in Moscow, likely to come sometime in the winter or early spring.
Still, there is no clear picture of what that will look like, and whether Moscow has any real hope of retaking the momentum given Ukraine’s determined resistance and Western backing.
“We have no doubt that the current masters of Russia will throw everything they have left and everyone they can muster to try to turn the tide of the war and at least postpone their defeat,” Ukrainian President Voldymyr Zelensky said in an address earlier this month .
Last month, Ukrainian Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, the commander of Ukraine’s armed forces, warned Russia is amassing some 200,000 troops for “another go at Kyiv,” in an interview with The Economist, although analysts said an attempt to take the capital was unlikely.
US intelligence has previously pointed to a slowdown in the war that indicates no major ground offensives will happen until the spring.
Over the weekend, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) released an analysis suggesting Russia is planning a major push in the next six months to “regain the initiative and end Ukraine’s current string of operational successes.”
ISW laid out a list of possible actions the military could take, including an offensive to take complete control of the Donbas in eastern Ukraine, launching an effort from ally Belarus in the north or preparing to defend against and exploit a Ukrainian counteroffensive in the Donbas.
Belarus was used as a staging ground for Russia early in the war, and Russian troops are training there. Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled to Minsk last month to meet with Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko.
But an offensive from Belarus is unlikely, according to multiple analysts, based on troop movements and preparations.
The most likely course of action is for Russia to seize control over the Donbas, made up of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, both of which share a border with Russia and were among four provinces illegally annexed by Moscow late last year.
George Barros, a Russian researcher at ISW, told The Hill that he has seen a buildup of Russian forces in Luhansk.
“Russians are setting up for a decisive effort in Luhansk,” he said. But that “could mean a Russian offensive or it could also mean a Russian defensive effort designed to defeat a Ukrainian counteroffensive.”
The Donbas is where the heaviest fighting has lingered for the past few months after Putin launched a failed, full-force assault across Ukraine early last year, and then retreated from one of his major prizes — the southern city of Kherson — in November.
Russia has concentrated troops in the eastern Donbas, and took control of almost all of Luhansk over the summer. But Ukraine still holds territory in Donetsk, including the city of Bakhmut, where Ukrainian troops have fended off repeated Russian assaults.
Bakhmut is a key transportation hub in the Donetsk and would strategically serve Russia as a launch point for a push further west towards cities like Kramatorsk and Sloviansk.
John Herbst, the senior director of Eurasia affairs for the Atlantic Council, said any Russian offensive over the winter or early spring will likely be part of an effort to take complete control of the Donbas.
“The most likely thing is what is continuing in Donbas will continue more,” he said. “That’s the easiest thing for them to do.”
Ukraine also expects any new, major Russian offensive to occur in the Donbas.
Yuriy Sak, an advisor to Ukraine’s Defense secretary, said there is a “dynamic” movement of troops in Luhansk that could indicate a large-scale offensive launch from the region.
“The military objectives that the Russians have had and that they’ve never been able to accomplish was gaining complete control over Luhansk and Donetsk,” Sak told The Hill. “We hope that this will not happen. If it does, we are prepared.”
The US National Security Council and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence did not respond to a request for comment on this story. In a statement, the Pentagon said “we are not going to speculate on what actions Russia may or may not take.”
Ukraine has refused to entertain ceding any territory to Russia in the name of peace; however, due to its geographic proximity and large ethnic Russian population, the Donbas has been suggested as a focus of peace talks. Figures from Elon Musk to Henry Kissinger have suggested a popular vote to decide the region’s future, as a piece of a potential compromise to end the war.
Russia’s short-term objectives come as Russia is preparing for a protracted war. Putin has publicly said the war could be a long conflict, and Russia’s defense chief laid out a plan this week to boost the size of the military from 1.15 million to 1.5 million by 2026.
But despite mobilizing hundreds of thousands of reservists to join the fight, there is skepticism that Russia has the manpower or firepower to reverse its losses, given depleted morale, internal power struggles and a depleted inventory of ammunition.
Russia made its first gain this month since August in Soledar, a salt mining town in Donetsk that saw some of the most brutal fighting in the war. Control of the town could help Russia take Bakhmut, but the victory was costly. Russia leveled the town with artillery strikes and reportedly lost thousands of troops to the “meat grinder” of Ukraine’s defenses.
The Soledar fight also revealed internal feuds between Russian mercenary company Wagner Group and Moscow’s generals. US National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby warned last month that the Wagner Group was becoming a “rival power center” in Russia.
ISW assessed there are preparations underway to increase the Russian military’s effectiveness ahead of the next offensive.
Conventional Russian troops, as opposed to Wagner Group mercenaries or Moscow-allied separatists in the Donbas, are training in Belarus and Russia, an indication they are being conserved for future use. The focus on training marks a shift from earlier in the war, when Russia at times sent in untrained soldiers.
Putin has also pushed to ramp up production in the defense industrial base, presiding over related meetings and visiting defense facilities in December. The Russian president infamously scolded a trade minister last week for not moving fast enough on manufacturing orders for aircraft.
Also last week, Putin appointed Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff of the Russian armed forces, to oversee the war in Ukraine, which ISW said was the Russian Defense Ministry reasserting control and potentially preparing for a major offensive.
Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s Main Intelligence Directorate spokesperson Andriy Yusov said this week that Putin directly ordered Gerasimov to seize control of the Donbas by March, a claim the Kremlin on Tuesday declined to confirm or deny, according to Russian news service Tass.
Ukraine is also likely preparing for a major counteroffensive of its own following two highly successful campaigns last year that retook the cities of Kherson and Kharkiv.
Branislav Slantchev, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego, who studies the war, said “Ukrainians have to go on the offensive” again to beat back a renewed Russian effort.
“Neither side is close to the objectives they have, in the sense that the Russians still need to conquer territory they claim is theirs and Ukrainians need to liberate territory that the Russians have taken,” Slantchev said. “You cannot achieve any of these goals by going on the defensive.”
Slantchev added that both armies are “trying to obviously confuse each other on where these offensives will come and who’s going to go first.”
In the past couple months, Ukraine has received more commitments of heavy weaponry and vehicles, including infantry fighting vehicles from the US and Germany and heavy tanks from the UK
A meeting of dozens of defense leaders on Friday at Ramstein Air Base in Germany could also result in more heavy weapons for Ukraine, including American M1 Abrams tanks and Germany’s Leopard tanks.
Gian Gentile, the associate director of Rand Corporation’s Arroya Center, said Ukraine could be “trying to develop an offensive with a mechanized force.”
“The next three to four months are going to be quite telling,” he said. “It’s either going to go for one side or for the other side — or it’s just going to be stuck in a really nasty stalemate for a while.”