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Ukraine: War with Russia enters new phase before the winter

Frank Hofmann | Anna Pshemyska | Mykola Berdnyk
October 29, 2023

Even without a breakthrough on the southern front, Ukraine is making good use of its resources and is in a better position than before its counteroffensive.

A Ukrainian soldier standing next to a multiple barrel rocket launcher
As winter approaches, the cold and wet weather could hamper the inroads made by Ukrainian forcesImage: Ozge Elif Kizil/Anadolu/picture alliance

Fierce fighting is currently underway around the town of Avdiivka in eastern Ukraine. But it's not possible to independently verify the events on the ground — on some days, Ukraine reports 800 to 1,000 Russian attackers killed, but does not report its own losses.

With the autumn rains, the ground in many places in the battle area has become a barely passable quagmire. Any territory gained by now will most likely be held for the foreseeable future.

It "looks like Russia is going all-in and attempts to advance" before the mud season starts in the eastern sections of the front, Marcus Keupp, a defense expert with the Swiss Armed Forces, wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Ukraine is using this opportunity to "run down the Russians' resources," security expert Christian Mölling of the German Council on Foreign Relations told DW.

"Russian commanders are conducting the offensive at Avdiivka Soviet-style, without regard for their own material or troops," Nico Lange, an expert on Ukraine and Russia at the Munich Security Conference, told DW. "Entire columns of Russian infantry fighting vehicles, troop carriers and battle tanks have already been destroyed by Ukrainian artillery fire or in the minefields."

Lange is convinced that "a new phase of the war" is just beginning in Ukraine.

Russia intensifies assault in eastern Ukraine

Moscow playing for time

"By taking out radar and air defense systems and damaging Russian ships on the western side of Crimea, Ukraine has already expanded its operational capabilities and ensured that grain deliveries could be resumed from Odesa," said Lange.

Now diplomatically marginalized by the West, Russia has few options left but to play for time, believes Sabine Fischer, Eastern Europe expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs and adviser to the German government.

"Russia's political leadership continues to believe it can exhaust Ukraine militarily and corrode international support for Kyiv," she wrote in a recent essay.

Ukraine sees success with AI, Western weapons

Deliveries of armaments for the Ukrainian army this year appear to have brought some success. But the breakthrough of heavily mined Russian lines on the southern front, which many Western nations hoped for, has failed to materialize, said Mölling. Ukraine, he said, has been successful in making good use of its resources.

At a recent DW panel discussion on artificial intelligence in Berlin, Sven Weizenegger, the head of the German Armed Forces' Cyber Innovation Hub, said AI was helping Ukraine make better decisions, enabling them to reduce the use of "munitions by 80 to 90%."

Overall, Weizenegger argued, the Ukrainian forces are more agile on the front lines than the Russians. In the 20 months since Russia's major invasion began, Ukraine has learned to turn its numerical inferiority into an advantage, he explained.

The Ukrainian military is proving to be flexible and has paused its counteroffensive on the southern front near Robotyne during the battle for Avdiivka. "Ukraine is taking an operational pause on this section of the front and is redeploying troops and resources, partly out of caution in light of the current US budget impasse on further Ukrainian aid," said Lange.

Yuriy Ihnat during an interview with fighter jets as a backdrop
Yuriy Ihnat, spokesman for the Ukrainian Air Force, is confident that German weapons, training and ammunition are paying offImage: DW

Ukrainian troops preparing for winter defense

But winter is quickly approaching and Ukraine expects Russia to step up its attack on the energy infrastructure, as it did a year ago.

Nevertheless, Ukrainian air force spokesperson Yuriy Ihnat believes that this time the calculation will work out in Ukraine's favor. For one thing, Germany has just delivered the third IRIS-T SLM air defense system, which Ihnat called "quite excellent and powerful."

The system's high-performance radar can be linked with other air defense systems and is particularly effective, said Ihnat. In addition, he said, "Germany, in particular, is increasing the production of ammunition for both anti-aircraft guns and air defense systems."

The German Gepard anti-aircraft tank has also been very successful in fending off Russian drone attacks. For a long time, ammunition for this vehicle was in short supply, but the German arms manufacturer Rheinmetall has confirmed that since August, Gepard ammunition has been produced exclusively for Ukraine at a newly established production line.

Air force training on F-16 fighter jets

Observers agree that the second winter of this war will be hard on Ukrainians, though Ihnat is hopeful because Ukrainian pilots are making progress in training on Western F-16 fighter jets.

The Ukrainian air force will have trained its first squadron of F-16s by the spring. "This will mean a serious change," said Ihnat, adding that Russia will be forced to move its planes and helicopters farther away from the front lines. "It may not even be necessary to go into battle."

Through all these various changes, the basic principles that have applied so far remain, wrote German government adviser Fischer. To establish the basis for promising negotiations, she wrote, "Ukraine must be substantially strengthened militarily and Russia substantially weakened."

This article was originally written in German.

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