Russia has launched a new offensive in Luhansk — here's what it tells us about Putin's strategy in Ukraine

Russia has launched a new offensive in Luhansk — here's what it tells us about Putin's strategy in Ukraine

Originally published in the ABC


In September 2022, the armed forces of Ukraine conducted their first major offensive of the war. During weeks of tough fighting, the Ukrainians were able to punch a hole in the Russian defences in the northern Luhansk Oblast.

They were then able to exploit their penetration of the Russian line, recapturing 500 Ukrainian settlements occupied by Russia and liberating over 12,000 square kilometres of Ukrainian territory.

Another major achievement of the offensive was that it placed Ukraine's second-largest city, Kharkiv, outside Russian artillery range for the first time in the war.

Despite these stunning achievements, attention quickly turned elsewhere. The larger Kherson offensive would proceed more slowly than the Kharkiv offensive. However, it would force the Russians to withdraw from their positions west of the Dnipro River in late 2022.

Then, the Battle of Bakhmut occupied the attention of the media and defence analysts, with Wagner human waves and stout defence by the Ukrainians covered in detail.

Since June this year, the Ukrainian southern counteroffensive has dominated headlines. And while that is still the case, the Russians recently launched what might be best described as the "forgotten offensive".

Launched in the northern Luhansk Oblast, the Russians have concentrated a massive number of troops and have been conducting attacks on the Kreminna-Svatove axis.

What this offensive says about Russia's strategy

So far, the Ukrainians appear to have been able to minimise Russian gains in Luhansk. But what does Russia's new offensive tell us about its strategy and the trajectory of the war?

First, the Russians probably want to draw as many Ukrainian formations away from the southern offensive as possible. The Ukrainians did not achieve the rapid penetration that many unrealistically expected in the opening days of their counter-offensive.

But they have been slowly conducting attrition of Russian frontline forces in the south, as well as Russian headquarters, logistics and artillery. Russia's southern forces might face some peril in the coming weeks if their attrition continues and this shifts the correlation of forces in Ukraine's favour. As Michael Weiss and James Rushton recently put it, in the south, "the Russians see Ukrainian progress where others don't".

Second, the recent Belgorod incursions, the Wagner Group mutiny, Moscow drone attacks (including one over the weekend), and Kerch Bridge attacks have highlighted the relative weakness of Russia's defence of its border with Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin must be seen to be defending the Russian motherland in the face of these attacks. And while he is not subject to the whims of popularity polls, he must respond to any perception of weakness lest the more hardcore nationalists in his circle decide to act against him.

The Wagner mutiny will have had an impact on perceptions of Putin inside the Kremlin and in the Russian population more broadly. Being on the offensive somewhere in Ukraine, at least in Putin's view, will help address any perceptions of weakness.

At the same time, it is possible that Putin and the Russian commander General Gerasimov are seeing Ukraine's slow progress in the south as an opportunity to strike elsewhere. As Putin recently noted: "There are no results, at least for now. The colossal resources that were pumped into the Kyiv regime … are not helping."

However, neither man has excelled in their professional judgements and direction of this war so far. Any assumptions on their part about Ukrainian progress are probably resting on poor flows of information.

A third takeaway is that Russia retains its strategic objective of securing the Donbas and incorporating it into the Russian Federation. If the Ukrainian offensive does reclaim its southern territories, Putin still needs to be able to claim that he has retained the territory that he recognised as part of Russia in 2022.

This would be a minimalist outcome for Putin, and one that he probably accepts he needs as a fall-back position if the worst (for Russia) occurs in the south.

The war going forward

Finally, what does the Russian operation in Kharkiv say about the trajectory of the broader war in Ukraine? It demonstrates that despite its many battlefield and strategic defeats — and the lack of allies assisting them — the Russian president and his immediate circle are determined to continue this war.

And despite the setbacks and lack of success in the Gerasimov-led Russian offensive of 2023, the Russians retain the ability to attack the Ukrainians on the ground, with drone and missile strikes, and in the economic domain. The Russians intend to keep on fighting in the hope that Ukraine's supporters simply lose patience.

So far, Russia's "forgotten offensive" in northern Luhansk has only made minor gains on the Kreminna-Svatove axis, including the claimed capture of the town of Nadiya over the weekend. The tiny advances that have been made are being exaggerated by the Russian "mil-blogger" community, which is increasingly subservient to Russian information warfare objectives.

Still, the Ukrainians know better than to underestimate the Russians.

The Ukrainian high command, while focused on their southern campaign and the Battle of Bakhmut, will be keeping a wary eye on their north-eastern front to ensure the Russians can't make significant gains.

The Ukrainians will not wish to withdraw from the territory that they regained last year at such a high cost. It will demand some tough calls on the allocation of Ukrainian forces between the north and the south. Much hard fighting remains ahead of us.


Areas of expertise: Russia-Ukraine war; military history and strategy; advanced technologies