Russia-Ukraine Update: May 2024

Strategic Chess: Navigating the Complex Dynamics of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict.

Dr. John Bruni
SAGE International
Adelaide, South Australia
07/05/24
KEY TAKEAWAYS

  1. Accelerated Offensive Timeline: Russia may expedite its offensive against Ukraine to preempt the impact of incoming U.S. military aid. This strategy aims to exploit vulnerabilities within the Ukrainian Armed Forces before American assistance can bolster defences.
  2. Factors Influencing Timing: Several factors, including arrogance, weather conditions, manpower shortages, and airpower disparities, shape the timing of Russia’s potential offensive. These factors present challenges and opportunities for both sides of the conflict.
  3. Importance of Timely Aid Delivery: The effectiveness of U.S. military aid to Ukraine depends on its timely delivery to the front lines. While Russia currently holds the advantage, Ukraine has the potential to shift momentum by mobilizing local resources and integrating promised Western weapons before the anticipated offensive window.

Introduction

As 2024 unfolds, the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine appears poised to enter a critical phase. Recent Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) assessments indicate Russia’s preparations for a summer offensive against the weary Ukrainian forces.[1] However, the timing of this offensive could be influenced by the delayed U.S. military aid package, which was only passed by Congress on April 20, 2024.[2] The potential acceleration of Russia’s offensive timetable to pre-empt the impact of American assistance underscores the complex dynamics at play in this protracted conflict.

Assessment

  1. Acceleration of Offensive Timetable: Russia’s strategic calculus may prompt an expedited offensive timeline to mitigate the impact of incoming U.S. military aid to Ukraine. By advancing their offensive before American assistance can bolster Ukrainian defences, Moscow aims to exploit vulnerabilities within the Ukrainian Armed Forces (AFU) and seize additional territory. The inability to directly target staging bases in NATO states[3] necessitates a swift and decisive Russian approach along the Ukrainian front lines.
  2. Factors Influencing Offensive Timing:
    • Arrogance: Despite the potential for Russian hubris, the Kremlin’s ability to mobilise manpower[4] and resources remains formidable. Putin’s deployment of a portion of Russia’s military-age population and the mobilization of the economy for war efforts grant Moscow significant advantages. Underestimating the speed of weapon distribution to Ukraine may reflect practical considerations rather than overconfidence.
    • Weather Conditions: The onset of the June/July window offers optimal ground conditions for large-scale military manoeuvres, presenting an opportune timeframe for a Russian offensive. However, this predictable pattern allows Ukrainian forces to anticipate and prepare for potential escalations.
    • Manpower Shortages: Ukraine’s personnel deficits pose a critical challenge, potentially undermining the effectiveness of newly acquired weapons. The prospect of NATO or Western contractors deploying to Ukraine could escalate tensions and prompt Russian countermeasures, including nuclear intimidation.
    • Airpower Disparity: Ukraine’s limited airpower capacity leaves its ground forces vulnerable during high-intensity engagements with Russia.[5] While efforts to modernise Ukrainian fighter planes with Western systems are underway, the scarcity of operational aircraft remains a concern. European reluctance to provide crewed fighter planes reflects fears of escalation but may ultimately tilt the balance in Russia’s favour. Drones are being used extensively by both sides, but drones, effective as they are under certain tactical circumstances, do not have the weapons capacity of crewed fighter planes.[6]

Conclusion

The passage of the U.S. military aid package to Ukraine offers a glimmer of hope, but its effectiveness hinges on timely delivery to the front lines. As Russia consolidates its military capabilities and adapts to Ukrainian tactics, the current advantage lies with Moscow. However, Ukraine’s ability to mobilize local resources, expedite Western weapon deployments, and integrate promised F-16s before the anticipated offensive window could shift the momentum in its favour. Achieving these objectives within the June/July timeframe presents a formidable challenge but offers a potential opportunity for Ukraine to regain strategic initiative in the conflict.

Endnotes:

[1] A. Evans, et.al., Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 3, 2024, Critical Threats, https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-may-3-2024 (date accessed: 07/05/24)

[2] P. Zengerle & R. Cowan, US Congress passes Ukraine aid after months of delay, April 24, 2024, Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/world/us/long-awaited-aid-ukraine-israel-taiwan-poised-pass-us-congress-2024-04-23/ (date accessed: 07/05/24)

[3] Without turning the Russia-Ukraine War into a broader Russia-NATO war.

[4] Russia’s September 2022 ‘partial mobilisation’ gave the Russian Army an extra 300,000 soldiers. According to Statista – the Russian Army’s total force as at February 2024 equals – 1.3 million active soldiers & 2 million reserves. This is against an estimated Ukrainian Army total force of 900,000 active soldiers and 2.1 million reserves. Statista, Comparison of the military capabilities of Russia and Ukraine as of 2024, https://www.statista.com/statistics/1296573/russia-ukraine-military-comparison/ (date accessed: 07/05/24)

[5] A glance at the raw data is telling. The Russian Air Force has an estimated 809 fighters against the Ukrainian Air Force’s 72. Statista, ibid.

[6] This is a good piece by Deutsche Welle outlining the very real differences between drones and crewed fighter planes – W.N. Glucroft, NATO warfare: Drones vs. jets in the future of air power, Deutsche Welle, 06/12/2023, https://www.dw.com/en/nato-warfare-drones-vs-jets-in-the-future-of-air-power/a-65874332 (date accessed: 07/05/24)

 

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