On the anniversary of the invasion of Russia in the war against Ukraine, experts fear a major spring offensive.
What are the goals of Putin's army?
Munich – Is Russia's big offensive imminent in the Ukraine war?
If one believes the assessments and fears of experts, Vladimir Putin's army could have used the more or less static winter in the Russia-Ukraine war to launch a large-scale military operation on the anniversary of the "special operation".
In the military sense, one speaks of a spring offensive when armies try to take action again in the following spring after traditionally poor conditions for warfare in the winter.
The aim is to gain decisive advantages for the course of the war through one or more concentrated military operations.
For this purpose, the warring parties use the cold season to compensate for the loss of soldiers and lack of material or to further upgrade.
Russia's offensive in the war in Ukraine: Putin's army has big goals for the anniversary
There are many signs that Russia, whose arms production is under pressure, is pursuing precisely this strategy in the war in Ukraine.
According to the
think tank, a possible date for Vladimir Putin's offensive could be February 24, which marks the anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The Ukrainian Defense Minister who is still in office, Oleksiy Resnikov, who due to the corruption scandal is likely to be replaced at the head of the ministry soon by the head of the military intelligence service, Kyrylo Budanov, also believes February 24 is the most likely start of a Russian offensive.
"We're definitely anticipating a possible Russian offensive, they like symbolism," Reznikov said, unmistakably referring to the anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Moreover, a Ukrainian military adviser told
the Financial Times
that credible information would even suggest an attack as early as mid-February.
The trembling before the major offensive begins not only in Kyiv, but also in the rest of the country.
Russia-Ukraine war: Kyiv trembles at Putin's plan for an offensive
But what goals could Russia's converted army actually have in mind?
Ukraine suspects that Putin's plan includes large-scale attacks, primarily in the south and east of the country, in order to shift the front in the Russia-Ukraine war and record significant territorial gains.
If the big offensive should happen, Russia will probably bring its best soldiers into play.
According to a BBC
report , key cities such as Bakhmut, Wuhledar, Kharkiv, Zaporizhia or the Ukrainian capital itself
are at the center of possible attacks from the Russian side as a result of the offensive .
Putin's feared offensive in the Ukraine war: Russia's advance in Bakhmut
Bakhmut could be a coveted target for Putin's offensive in the Ukraine war.
In the past few weeks, the city in eastern Ukraine has been at the center of fighting.
The heavy losses that the defenders inflicted on the Wagner Group mercenaries in particular made headlines in the media.
For now, Ukrainian forces appear to remain in control of the city.
One of the main goals of Russia's feared spring offensive will probably be the conquest of Bakhmut for Putin's army.
© IMAGO/Adrien Vautier / Le Pictorium
But how long?
According to consistent media reports, it appears that Russian army forces have replaced most of the mercenaries employed by "Putin's cook" Prigozhin.
These continue to encircle Bachmut.
Putin's propaganda, which has backfired on other occasions, would no doubt exploit the offensive's capture of the city as a major victory in the war against Ukraine.
Russia's major offensive in the Ukraine war: success in Bakhmut only of minor military importance?
Apart from the psychological components that a defeat for Ukraine in Bakhmut could have, from a military point of view a success for Putin's army might only be of limited significance in the Ukraine war.
"Ukraine does not have the luxury of being able to choose its battles," explains US military expert Michael Kofman in an interview with
"If it gives up Bakhmut, the forces will have to retreat to the defensive line in front of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk.
The battle is then simply shifted a few kilometers to the west.”
However, another scenario suggests that taking Bakhmut could open a door for Russia to pursue a declared goal in the Ukraine war: conquering the eastern Donetsk region.
If or when Bakhmut falls, Putin's army could advance unhindered onto the aforementioned line of defense and "put further pressure on the Ukrainians there," adds Kofman.
Spring offensive by Putin's army: Wuhledar probably has more symbolic than military value for Russia
This is exactly where another target of a possible major offensive by Russia in the Ukraine war comes in: Wuhledar.
A preliminary stage of Putin's army's spring offensive may have already begun here.
Also in Donetsk Oblast and due to its current location on the south-eastern curve of the current front lines, the city arguably matters to Russia for two reasons.
That's why, according to Kofman, "the Russian military is trying to sacrifice its own troops, the B selection, so to speak, in order to decimate better Ukrainian units."
For one thing, Wuhledar is close to the only rail line connecting Crimea to the Russian-controlled territories to the east.
There are repeated reports of Ukrainian fire on Russian supply trains.
On the other hand, Wuhledar has a symbolic character for the leadership in the Kremlin.
Because military milestones are used by Moscow for propaganda purposes in order to justify the "special operation" in front of the population in its own country and to legitimize the critical voices.
Russia's major offensive in spring: With the capture of Wuhledar, Putin is getting closer to the goals of the Ukraine war
And yet the importance of the city from a military point of view should not be underestimated.
With the capture of Wuhledar, Putin's army would come a considerable step closer to the two main goals stated in the Ukraine war.
Aside from conquering the entire Donbass, including the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, various military experts assume that Putin wants to expand the conquered corridor between Crimea and Russian territory.
In addition to Bachmut, Wuhledar in the Donetsk region could also be of particular importance in the event of a possible major Russian offensive.
© IMAGO/Sergey Averin
These territorial gains could also offer Russia's presidents a political way out for a possible end to the Ukraine war, in which a well-known political scientist believes "Putin's defeat is at most a matter of time".
Russia's big spring offensive in the Ukraine war: Soldiers and Wagner mercenaries flock to Zaporizhia
There are also increasing signs of a major Russian offensive in Zaporizhia Oblast.
Among other things, Russian soldiers and mercenaries from the Wagner Group are flocking to Melitopol in droves.
This is what Ivan Fyodorov, former Ukrainian mayor of the city, told the
news agency .
Zaporizhia has a very special status for Russia's supply lines to Crimea.
"Unfortunately, they chose our city, our oblast, as the logistical and administrative center of the occupied south of our country, so they are there en masse," Fyodorov said.
The mercenaries and Russian soldiers would come "en masse" and "settle in houses and social facilities."
Major offensive by Russia: Moscow and Kyiv are aware of the strategic importance of Zaporizhia
The background is that Moscow, like Kyiv, is aware of the strategic importance of the cities of Melitopol and Zaporizhia in the Ukraine war.
The capture would allow Ukraine to cut off key supply lines to Russian-held Crimea, which an ex-US general has described as "key" to ending the Ukraine war.
Even if Ukraine has "enough anger" in its stomach, a recapture of Crimea seems hopeless given the current situation in the Ukraine war.
Ukraine's top commander, Valery Zalushniy, recently admitted that his troops lack the strength and equipment to carry out such an attack.
Kharkiv a possible target of Putin's army in Russia's major offensive in the Ukraine war
Kharkiv can probably also be classified as an object of desire for Russia in the Ukraine war.
Despite the close proximity to the border, Putin's army has not been able to take control of the second largest city in north-eastern Ukraine during the fighting.
By capturing Kharkiv, Russia could deal a potentially war-defining blow to Ukraine.
© dpa / Ukrinform
Nonetheless, during the course of the Ukraine war, Kharkiv's population faced almost constant rocket fire.
In recent weeks, observers have recorded an increase in artillery shelling of civilian areas in the city.
A possible prelude to Russia's major offensive?
Russia's spring offensive in the Ukraine war: Strategic advantages for Putin's army in the capture of Kharkiv
The latest assessment by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) on February 8 might suggest so.
According to the analysis, Russia's spring offensive may have already begun here, as Russian operations on the region's border, particularly on the Svatove-Kreminna front line in Luhansk Oblast, have increased.
Meanwhile, Russian sources report further attacks on Ukraine's defense line and marginal territorial gains for Putin's forces.
Some local military officers told the
that they "would not be surprised" if Putin's army made another push on the city as a result of the frozen ground.
After all, the strategic advantages that a capture of Kharkiv would bring have not gone unnoticed by the Russian military either.
The capture could not only lead to the city being cut off from Kyiv, but at the same time ensure that the Ukrainian troops stationed south of the city would not be able to retreat to Kyiv.
Russia's major offensive in the spring: Kyiv as the ultimate prize in the Ukraine war
Kyiv itself is likely to arouse more than just longings in Moscow.
By Putin's standards of a successful large-scale offensive in the spring, the capture of the Ukrainian capital would probably be the ultimate prize in the Ukraine war.
But even as fears surface that history is repeating itself, Russia's military leaders may have to admit that it's no longer 2022.
At that time, a joint military exercise between the Russian army and Belarus turned into an almost unopposed advance on Kyiv.
In the course of the Russian spring offensive that was thought to be possible, Kyiv would probably be the ultimate price for Putin's army.
© Ulf Mauder / dpa
Judging from the current situation, however, Ukraine and the West seem to agree that Kyiv is nowhere near as vulnerable to being taken over by Russian troops as it was last year.
"We don't see any formations that would be able to reach Kyiv," said Defense Minister Resnikov, who was still in office, and dismissed the possibility of the Ukrainian capital falling.
“Besides, it is fundamentally impossible to capture Kyiv.
It's a big city with four million people ready to defend themselves."
Russia's spring offensive on February 24: Putin's army has a "desire to do something big"
Kyiv will probably remain an unrealistic target at the beginning of the feared spring offensive by Putin's army.
Nevertheless, according to the head of the National Security and Defense Council, Russia will try to have flagship results ready around the first anniversary of the war on February 24.
"They must have something to show their people," Oleksiy Danilov told Reuters in an interview in Kyiv on Tuesday.
"They have a great desire to do something they see big by that date."
An anonymous Ukrainian military official has also warned the US newspaper
of the imminent danger of a spring offensive.
"In the next 10 days we expect a new, huge invasion," the official said.
In addition, according to the magazine, the Secretary General of the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Jonatan Vseviow, expressed his concern: "Something is cooking in the East."
Whether, where or when and, above all, with what intensity and with what success a possible large-scale offensive by Russia in the Ukraine war will take place is difficult to say at the given time.
A lot will also depend on the preparations and the resilience of Ukraine, which thwarted Putin's plans at the beginning of the Russian "special operation".