Ukraine, what’s happened and what’s to come in 23?

By Philip Ingram MBE

It was hard to predict as the world celebrated the birth of 2022 that only a few weeks later Russia would launch a major European conflict with global consequences. As we witness the birth of 2023 it is right to reflect on what has, is, and could happen.

I have been commenting continuously on this re-invasion and globally impacting conflict from before it started with my first blog on 4th Jan 22 and assessment was in the right ballpark! (https://greyharemedia.com/russia-and-ukraine-an-intelligence-goldmine/). Several blogs on the build-up later and 3 days before Russia’s re-invasion I had assessed their main effort would be in the East (https://greyharemedia.com/potential-war-plan/), largely Russia’s current plan. I had discounted Russia’s attack on Kyiv as nothing but a possible feint as I believed it beyond them. Russia proved it was beyond them and to date have failed in all of their strategic and operational objectives.

Tactically in the early part of the conflict Russia gained a lot of Ukrainian territory in the East, across the disputed Donbas region, building on that had been annexed by separatists in 2014. However, it is increasingly clear that those tactical advances were giving the Ukrainians the time they needed to reset after defending Kyiv, mobilise and start training new military personnel, protect, train, and deploy manoeuvre formations with new units, new capabilities and integrate new donated equipment’s.

The Ukrainian military were trading space for time, a recognised military tactic, slowing the Russians as much as possible, disrupting their logistics and command and control and causing massive attrition on their first and second echelon forces as they advanced. Ukraine fought a textbook defensive battle preparing for its counter offensives which have both been massively successful, initially in the Kharkiv area and then in the Kherson area, giving us a masterclass in planning and executing complex combined arms, all arms high intensity warfighting at formation level. They have prepared their formations for this in a few short months, of note it takes a British Army Brigade a 2-year training cycle to get to that level of preparation.

Ukraine is now controlling the tactical battle and has Russia fixed in the Bakhmut area where fighting has been ongoing for months. With the Russians effectively fixed, Ukrainian reconnaissance are probing for the next weak point for another Kharkiv and Kherson like counter offensive. This is what we are likely to see in 2023, Ukraine taking back more chunks of territory after attritting the Russians before exploiting weak points in a very well planned and deliberately executed way.

Ukraine controls the momentum of the tactical battle and as such is dictating the time and place of activity. This will likely continue through the year with pauses in the early spring and autumn as the ground will be too soft for manoeuvre warfare with armoured formations. Territory will be taken back in manageable chunks unless the whole Russian defence collapses. It is probable that Ukraine will leave any actions into Crimea to recapture that until 2024 unless there is a rapid collapse of the Russian military inside mainland Ukrainian territory, remembering all territory recaptured has to be secured, protected and rebuilt.

From a Russian perspective they just want to slow the war down as much as possible and attrit Ukrainian forces to deplete their military capability. They will be hoping to generate a manoeuvre formation from something, however what is clear from what we have seen in 2022 is the basic building blocks just don’t exist. Russia will therefore be looking at its operational level and strategic tactics to get some form of victory. Putin wants and needs the war to become as protracted as possible but also is beginning to realise that the longer it goes on the less secure his position is.

At the operational level Russia wants to continue with its fight to try and break the will of the Ukrainian people by attacking infrastructure targets like power, water, and communications, hoping that the people will force the politicians to seek peace quickly. However, what is clear from UK Defence Intelligence Reports is Russia is running out of missiles, hence why it is sourcing Kamikaze drones from Iran. In addition, at the operational level, keeping a potential threat from Belarus means that the Ukrainians must keep some forces focused on defending any incursions from there, however unlikely they may be.  I can’t see Belarus entering the conflict this year.

Operationally, Ukraine has shown it understands the deep battle and use of SOE type capabilities causing fires and sabotage deep into Russia and the use of conventional drone attacks deep into Russian territory. The Crimea Bridge attack had a major effect, and we will likely see more of these type attacks through 2023.

The next continuing area of conflict is at the Strategic Level. For Ukraine the focus is maintaining the support of the international community, pushing for more weapons, better weapons, continued military support through training, combat supplies and of course money to keep the country going. The Ukrainians will continue to use the information domain which has been captured and utilised perfectly by President Zelensky and he will likely continue to do so.

Russia has more strategic ambitions as it sees its strategic ‘battles’ as its way of winning something. Strategically it wants to break the will of the international community, hence attempts to restrict grain from Ukraine, hence the use of energy as a weapon, hence the desire to elongate the conflict as Putin sees a growing tiredness and will try to exploit instabilities in the run up to the US Presidential Elections and UK General Elections. Watch for strategic cyber operations aiming at information compromises around both!

His internationally focused strategic actions will continue to generate more economic migrants heading to the West. I would not be surprised if Russian crime gangs are backing many of the people trafficking syndicates we are seeing in the UK.  Russian focused espionage activities will continue and grow aimed at ensuring dissenting oligarchs continue to fall out of windows, downstairs or have heart attacks whilst looking for opportunities to exploit in traditional espionage ways. Strategically Russia’s cyber operations will continue disrupting Western businesses and operations.

Strategically Putin wants to expand relations with Iran as a weapon supplier and could trade nuclear technology for weapons. He is courting North Korea as a potential supplier but also a plausibly deniable outlet for Cyber and with Kim Jong Un firing missiles off frequently it keeps many countries having to maintain a focus there and not with more assets on Ukraine. He sees China as key, needing China economically to buy natural resources but Xi Jung Ping will have ambitions to buy Russia and keep Russia as stable as possible fearing a breakup causing him more problems along his 4,209.3-kilometre common border.  We will see Putin operating more ruthlessly in his strategic actions through 2023 all backed by his information operations.

2023 will be a year of more Ukrainian success but it is vital to remember the human cost is nothing like has been seen since the Second World War. Pressure on the international community will continue and may increase but the only hope for a long-term peace is for Russia to be ejected from Ukrainian territories. As the momentum lies with Ukraine then there is no need for them to seek an early diplomatic settlement. The pain will remain throughout this upcoming year.

Philip Ingram MBE is an international commentator and former senior British Military Intelligence Officer and is available for comment.