Russia may lack reserves to respond to Ukrainian counteroffensive: Officials

Russia's forces are "stretched" and diminished, Western officials said.

May 19, 2023, 1:18 PM

Western officials said Russia’s forces in Ukraine are so badly depleted that Russia may lack the reserves to effectively respond to a major counteroffensive from Ukrainian troops in the coming weeks.

One official said Russia does not appear to have a dedicated reserve force to react to a major breakthrough from Ukraine.

The assessment, given by Western officials speaking on condition of anonymity to reporters, suggested they back Ukraine’s capacity to attempt an ambitious offensive soon and that the weakened state of Russian forces is increasingly favorable for it, although there was no certainty it would succeed.

While the officials could not say when the counteroffensive would begin, they said the forces Ukraine has gathered and equipped with Western help are now at an "increasingly high level of readiness."

Russia’s own forces are now so diminished that they are "stretched" and strung out along a more than 1,000-kilometer-long front line, the officials said.

One official cautioned that Ukraine still faced a "monumental" challenge to break through Russia’s lines, saying it would be a "monumental achievement for any army" and warned it was entirely possible the counteroffensive would not achieve its goals.

But, if used effectively, the assault force built up by Ukraine has "the potential for some success" on a scale ambitious enough to alter the outcome of the war, the officials said.

More than trying to retake all of Ukraine's territory, the key aim for the counteroffensive was to inflict serious enough battlefield defeats on Russian forces to alter President Vladimir Putin’s view of the war. The official said the Kremlin believes it can "win by default" by holding defensive lines and outlasting Western support for Ukraine. The counteroffensive was a chance for Ukraine to convince Putin that was no longer a tenable strategy, officials said.

"The cognitive effect from battlefield activity I think in this case is arguably more important than how many square meters of territory that they manage to achieve,” the official said.

Russia currently has over 200,000 men in Ukraine, according to the officials, and it has built formidable defenses in occupied areas, including extensive minefields that will pose significant obstacles for the counteroffensive.

PHOTO: Clergymen take part in a funeral ceremony to bury the remains of members of the Russian armed forces and three civilians, who were killed in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict, at a cemetery in Luhansk, Russian-controlled Ukraine, May 18, 2023.
Clergymen take part in a funeral ceremony to bury the remains of sixty service members of the Russian armed forces and three civilians, who were killed in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict, at a cemetery in Luhansk, Russian-controlled Ukraine, May 18, 2023.
Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

But the officials said the quality of Russia’s troops manning those defenses was dubious, saying many were badly trained and had poor morale.

Moreover, officials said it appeared Russia had no dedicated reserve force to respond if Ukrainian was able to successfully pierce the line on a large scale.

The Western assessment was notable because it echoes similar warnings from Russian pro-war commentators recently, who have been sounding the alarm around Russia’s preparedness to defend against the counteroffensive.

Some Western countries have previously worried that major Ukrainian successes could trigger Russia to respond with nuclear weapons. But those fears have receded recently and an official said there has been a significant drop-off in Russian nuclear rhetoric.

Analysts are debating whether recent local counterattacks by Ukraine around the city of Bakhmut may be part of the counteroffensive.

Ukraine in the past several days has succeeded in forcing Russian units to retreat on the northern and southern flanks of the city, in the first advances Ukrainian forces have made in months defending the city.

The advances have triggered dire warnings from Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, whose forces have spearheaded Russian efforts to take Bakhmut. Prigozhin has warned that Ukraine is now attempting to encircle the city.

Wagner is still advancing slowly inside Bakhmut but the Ukrainian successes on the city’s flanks threatens to nullify any eventual capture of the city.

The Ukrainian territorial gains themselves are small -- measured in hundreds of meters -- but independent analysts as well as Russian pro-war commentators have said they believe Ukraine is counterattacking in Bakhmut to force Russia to pull forces from other areas on the front line, thinning them for a possible main blow.

"Ukrainian formations are fulfilling the main task: forcing Russia’s Armed Forces to stretch its forces and removing the most capable fighting units from other critically important directions," a prominent Russian military blogger, who publishes on Telegram as "Rybar," wrote this week.

Ukraine appeared to continue its momentum near Bakhmut on Thursday, advancing again toward the village Sakko i Vanzetti, according to Russian and Ukrainian public statements. The U.S.-based think tank Institute for the Study of War said Ukraine has now "seized the tactical initiative" around Bakhmut.

Gen. Oleskandr Syrskyi, Ukraine’s top ground forces commander, told troops this week that Wagner forces in Bakhmut now felt like "rats in a trap" and the Russian army was now "into a stupor."