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Russia’s ability to mount an offensive in Kyiv is questioned by analysts

Despite the Ukrainian capital suffering one of the biggest missile attacks since the start of the Russian invasion in February, analysts doubt that Moscow will be able to mount a new ground offensive against Kyiv early next year, as the Russian forces remain ill-prepared and battered after 10 months of war.

Ukrainian officials said Friday that Kyiv withstood “one of the biggest rocket attacks” it has faced since Russia invaded Ukraine and that Ukrainian air defense had shot down 37 of the 40 missiles that entered the city’s airspace.

The head of the Ukrainian armed forces said they intercepted 60 of the 76 missiles launched against infrastructure targets in cities across the country. Russian forces fired cruise missiles from the Admiral Makarov frigate in the Black Sea, while Kh-22 cruise missiles were fired from long-range Tu-22M3 bombers over the Sea of ​​Azov, Ukraine’s air force said.

The Ukrainian commander-in-chief, General Valeriy Zaluzhny, also said this week that he expected a new Russian assault on Kyiv in the first months of 2023.

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“The Russians are preparing about 200,000 fresh soldiers. I have no doubt that they will have another chance in Kyiv,” Zaluzhny told The Economist magazine.

A major Russian attack could happen “in February, at best in March and at worst in late January,” he said.

Although Russia mobilized 300,000 reservists between September and October, military experts say Moscow’s new troops are unlikely to be sufficiently trained or equipped to attempt another assault on Kyiv. Moscow’s first attempt in February and March ended in humiliation, thanks to Ukraine’s fierce defensive efforts coupled with significant supply, intelligence, and command problems in the Russian ranks.

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“Such an offensive does not seem very likely to me, but at the same time it is not impossible,” independent Russian military analyst Alexander Khamchikhin told the AFP news agency.

Speaking recently of Russian capabilities, US military expert Michael Kofman also considered Russia’s ability to mount an offensive a “rather unlikely scenario.”

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“They have significant ammunition limitations and the performance of the Russian military is now very much tied to the availability of artillery ammunition,” Kofman told the War on the Rocks podcast.

The White House also doubts that Moscow has the capacity to mount a counterattack focused on Kyiv.

“We don’t see any indication that there is an imminent move on Kyiv,” White House spokesman John Kirby said.

Sergey Surovikin’s reputation for cruelty

Russia’s future military capabilities in Ukraine will largely depend on the new commander Sergey Surovikin, a veteran of Moscow’s wars since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The skinheaded general with a reputation for ruthlessness has been tasked with integrating newly recruited soldiers and regenerating Russia’s badly damaged combat units.

General Sergei Surovikin
General Sergey Surovikin, commander of the Russian forces in Ukraine [Russian Defence Ministry/handout via Reuters]

Australian General Mick Ryan stressed that Surovikin was also working to unify Russia’s fractured command system and trying to better integrate air support with ground operations.

“Surovikin commands an army that suffers from low morale and continues to lose its people and best equipment,” Ryan wrote in Foreign Policy magazine. “So far, the evidence suggests that the troops that Russia has mobilized to replace the dead and wounded are not receiving the kind of demanding training they need to be successful.”

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He warned, however, that the Siberian-born Russian military commander was “almost certainly drawing up battle plans that are sharply focused, unlike previous assaults that dispersed Russian troops.”

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Any attack on Kyiv would be immensely complicated, and the city would be nearly impossible to capture without destroying it.

“Taking a city without destroying it is difficult, apart from cases where there is a decision to surrender, like in Paris in 1940,” Khamchikhin said.

Pascal Ausseur, director of the Mediterranean Foundation for Strategic Studies, a France-based think tank, said he believed the Ukrainian claims of an imminent offensive were an effort to focus minds in Western capitals.

“Ukrainians are shouting ‘keep helping us, don’t let us down,’” Ausseur told AFP. “These statements are meant to make the West say ‘we can still lose everything’.”

They could also be a diversionary tactic as Ukraine looks to attack in the southeast when the ground freezes in the dead of winter, making it easier for vehicles to travel off-road, he said.

“I would find it strange if the Ukrainians were placed in defensive positions that would prevent them from launching offensive operations before March,” Ausseur added.

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