The next six weeks, before fall mud spreads, could allow Ukraine’s military to press forward in the Donbas and potentially retake Kherson, American officials said. But Russia may not be deterred.
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WASHINGTON — The Ukrainian military has a window of opportunity to make gains against Russia’s army over the next six weeks, according to American intelligence assessments, if it can continue its push in the south and the northeast before muddy ground and cloud cover force the opposing armies to pause and regroup.
American officials say there is little chance of a widespread collapse in Russian forces that would allow Ukraine to take another huge swath of territory, similar to what it claimed last month. But individual Russian units could break in the face of sustained Ukrainian pressure, allowing Kyiv’s army to continue retaking towns in the Donbas and potentially seize the city of Kherson, a major prize in the war.
Though wary of making precise predictions, American and Ukrainian officials say the fighting is likely to continue for months more despite the fact that the war has favored Ukraine recently. And a number of variables could become particularly pertinent in shifting the trajectory of the conflict: more difficult fighting conditions in December, the extent to which President Vladimir V. Putin is willing to escalate the fight, whether Europe’s unity can be maintained this winter as energy prices soar and the potentially changing political environment in the United States that could result in a decrease of military support to Ukraine.
Part of the difficulty of making wartime assessments is that the war has gone through different phases, with one side and then the other having an advantage. The Ukrainians defeated the Russians in the battle for Kyiv, only to see Russia grind forward during the brutal fighting in the Donbas over the summer.
In recent days, the fighting has grown intense. Nevertheless, military analysts say that Ukraine has momentum on its side, providing it with a chance to determine where it wants to concentrate efforts to reclaim territory.
“There’s a Ukrainian window of opportunity here,” said Mason Clark, a Russian military analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “The Ukrainians have the freedom to choose where they’re going to attack.”
U.S. officials say privately that Ukraine should continue to press its advantage in the coming weeks, but not to the point of overextending its military supply lines or giving the Russian Army a chance to exploit any weaknesses in Ukraine’s defensive lines. Many of the officials interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive or classified assessments of the war.
Publicly, senior Ukrainian officials have spoken optimistically about the prospects for significant battlefield wins. Officers in the field agree that they are making gains, but at a high cost.
“We are moving forward, but not quite as swiftly as we did in the Kharkiv Province,” said Maj. Yaroslav Galas, а company commander with the 128th Separate Mountain Assault Brigade, which is fighting in the Kherson region. “And there are many losses.”
American officials believe the Ukrainian advance could soon compel Russian forces in Kherson to pull back past the Dnipro River, returning most of the city to Ukrainian control. Russian commanders had recommended pulling back to the river, only to have Mr. Putin countermand that order. This week, Russian occupation officials began efforts to force some 60,000 people from Kherson to the eastern side of the Dnipro, ahead of the Ukrainian push.
After the September offensive, Ukrainian forces had to slow down and fortify their supply lines in the northeast. As Russia moved to reinforce those positions, the lightning push of the counteroffensive has once again slowed to the grinding battle of the summer.
Still, some American officials said Ukrainians appeared ready to push forward and break the stalemate in Luhansk, where it may be possible for them to surround or break Russian defensive lines. Importantly, if Ukraine’s forces can take control of the Route 66 highway in Luhansk in the coming weeks, they can cut off a key road that Russia has been using to supply its troops in occupied areas.
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Russia’s military is still hobbled by challenges similar to those it has faced since the start of the war. Problems with logistics have prevented Moscow from keeping soldiers adequately supplied. Communication between Russian units remains difficult, forcing them to deploy senior officers close to the front lines and hampering coordinated movements. And the reservists now being forced to the battlefields are poorly trained and badly equipped.
But even if it is losing momentum now, Russia, according to American officials and military analysts, has not yet lost the war. And it is critical, American officials say, to never underestimate an adversary. Moscow’s military can still conduct large-scale artillery operations, and Russia possesses two potential strengths: an infusion of troops from the forced mobilization Mr. Putin carried out at the insistence of key commanders and an ability to absorb large battlefield losses.
The Russian military has suffered a loss of equipment and soldiers that would have broken most armies in Europe. A U.S. government report said last week that the Russians had lost 6,000 pieces of equipment. Estimates of Russian casualties run into the thousands. But a key strength across generations of the Russian Army is to bring up more equipment and more soldiers at even desperate moments. Despite the losses, American officials say that Russia and Mr. Putin appear ready to keep fighting. But there are limits.
“Clearly, Russia is experiencing some significant logistics and sustainment challenges right now,” Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, said on Tuesday. “Those are only going to get harder as the winter months set in. And so time is certainly of the essence when it comes to capitalizing on that from an operational standpoint.”
Ukraine, on the other hand, has been sustained by tens of billions in American aid, weaponry and funding that have kept the economy going and allowed its army to first slow the Russian advance and now reclaim territory.
Given the battlefield dynamics, U.S. officials do not think there will be a long pause in combat. Winter snow will not slow the fighting, but the mud of late fall, what Russians call rasputitsa, will. Once the ground hardens in February, around the first anniversary of the invasion, the armies can once again move more quickly.
Russia may use the next four or five months to regroup, possibly giving some measure of training to its newly mobilized soldiers. But what happens next, American officials said, is an open question. Russia could try to regain the ground it has lost since September with a resumption of its slow-moving artillery barrage. Alternatively, Mr. Putin could order an escalation — potentially to the point of using a nuclear weapon — to change his army’s fortunes. Or, Russia could look to lock in the gains it has made by trying to negotiate with the Ukrainians, counting on European capitals wary of winter fuel shortages to pressure Kyiv to agree to a cease-fire.
American officials caution that there are important caveats to their assessment of the war. Ukrainian officials still do not share most of their operational plans. While the United States has better intelligence about Russian planning, Mr. Putin’s intentions for the next phase of the war are difficult to discern, and there are currently few, if any, regular contacts between American officials and their Russian counterparts.
“I don’t think the Ukrainians are going to be able to completely collapse the Russian military in the near term,” Mr. Clark said. “In that sense, the Russians have been able to absorb losses. However, I think major Russian offensive operations are pretty much off the table at this point.”
The dynamic of the war could change come spring.
Even if Ukraine stops Russia from ever achieving its strategic goals of toppling the government in Kyiv and forcing the country to turn away from Europe, it does not mean that Mr. Putin will stop fighting. The reality of modern warfare is that the winner does not get a say in when the fighting stops. Mr. Putin, officials said, is unlikely to accept defeat in the coming months.
“It is often up to the loser to decide when the war is truly over,” said Michael Kofman, the director of Russian studies at C.N.A., a research institute in Arlington, Va. “There is a divergence in people’s expectations of when the fighting might end versus the war being actually over. The fighting may die down, but it doesn’t mean the war itself will end.”
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington, and Michael Schwirtz from Kyiv, Ukraine.