Russian president Vladimir Putin's threat of moving nuclear weapons to Belarus shows that he has begun to understand just how poorly his army is doing in Ukraine, historian Andrei Hvostov suggested. But Ukraine's plans for the future also raise more than a few questions.
"Putin probably isn't competent in his assessments. But he has now realized that the situation [in Ukraine] is not good. That is when things like [deputy head of the Russian Security Council Dmitri] Medvedev reading out Stalin's orders to heads of military factories and Putin announcing that nuclear weapons will go to Belarus start happening," Hvostov told the "Vikerhommik" radio show on Wednesday.
"The Russian army is exhausted in Ukraine if they're resorting to such tricks and rhetoric," he added, pointing to Putin's plan of moving tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus from this weekend.
Hvostov said that [Dmitri] Medvedev allegedly appeared in front of the heads of Russia's military factories, reading out loud orders from Soviet dictator Jossif Stalin from the days of World War II, according to which factory directors would be shot if they didn't considerably ramp up production.
Ukraine's plan in Bakhmut a mystery
Talking about the situation in Bakhmut that Russian troops have been trying to take for months, Hvostov described it as "mysterious."
"Military analysts started saying late last year that Bakhmut would soon be surrendered because it is impossible to hold. Now, it's the end of March, and they're still defending the city. It is a mystery in that sense."
"Reading interviews with soldiers fighting in Bakhmut in the Estonian press, their position is simply that they're defending the country, and if they had to fall back at Bakhmut, they would be forced to do it all again in another city, so why fall back in the first place. That is the rank and file soldier's position," he said
At the same time, the Ukrainian command's plans for Bakhmut, two-thirds of which is surrounded and that is currently home to a few dozen thousand Ukrainian troops, are unknown and definitely risky, Hvostov found.
"Should the Russians manage to surround them completely, it would be a terrible blow for the Ukrainian side, and breaking out this many men would cause considerable casualties. It is a terrible risk," he remarked.
"Now, if the Ukrainian command has decided to take that risk, there are two possible reasons. They either have a brilliant plan that justifies taking such a risk or they know something we don't. Which leads back to a potential plan. This talk of hanging in there mainly to wear out and pulverize the attacking force... I have the feeling this explanation is meant for clueless civilians like us. There has to be a plan behind it, we just don't know what it is."
Hvostov believes that the Russian forces' offensive potential is running thin. "They have made very little progress near Bakhmut in the past week, even though they're still attempting something. People are trying to figure out whether the major offensive declared in late December has ended. Whether this is all they had."
"Next, we need to figure out when we'll see the Ukrainian counteroffensive of which there has been talk for some time. It has been suggested it could happen once the rasputitsa or the muddy season ends," Hvostov said.
He also pointed to reports from Ukraine of the arrival of Western armored vehicles. Leopard and Challenger tanks, as well as Marder and Bradley IFVs.
"Looking at all the armored machinery sent there, we have enough for an armored unit. /.../ The IFVs could prove more decisive here. Because an offensive armored unit consisting of nothing but tanks would not be very effective. Simply pouring tanks onto the battlefield would see them destroyed quite quickly. It needs to be a combination of different weapon systems," Hvostov suggested.
The historian explained that tanks need to be protected by infantry against enemy infantry, while another unit needs to protect the entire armored against aerial attacks. The Gepard self-propelled anti-aircraft guns provided by Germany can be used for this purpose. There must also be an indirect fire unit somewhere behind the lines, Hvostov emphasized.
"It is usually very difficult to assemble such units – the moving parts must all be perfectly aligned," he noted.
"Tere is another interesting aspect in that if the Ukrainians really are gearing up for a major spring offensive, these units must be practicing working together somewhere. But we have heard no reports of anything along those lines."
Something like that happening somewhere in Ukraine would be virtually impossible to hide, the historian suggested. "Therefore, their level of preparedness also remains a mystery. All the good news of how Ukrainian tank crews have been trained in NATO countries... Teaching a tank crew how to operate a tank is not the same thing as teaching it to work with infantry, air defense and rear guard units. It is complicated, must be expertly orchestrated and really requires a lot of practice," he said.
Air support another question mark
Hvostov also pointed out that it remains unclear how Ukraine aims to organize air support for the offensive.
"Talking about NATO members' tactics, an armored assault is usually preceded by air strikes. In both Gulf wars, the Americans and Brits spent three days hitting Iraqi positions from the air, destroying logistics centers and command points. Basically, clearing a path for their ground offensive."
The Russian army tends to use artillery for the same purpose, he added.
What the Ukrainians plan to do remains unclear.
Based on the war so far, neither side has relied heavily on aircraft, courtesy of robust air defenses.
"Therefore, it is likely that the Ukrainians will not be able to use their air force before the offensive starts. I also doubt they have enough artillery capacity. So what will it be?" Hvostov asked.
He pointed to reports of Ukraine having procured a lot drones which could be used to attack Russia. But that could also be a ploy to mislead the enemy, he added.
"If that is the case, it should be kept hidden from the Russians. But what could be the aim of declaring it to the heavens?" Hvostov wondered. "In a situation where they're so open about it, it could serve the purpose of diverting attention from something else. Perhaps the Ukrainians have a plan, while it is not what we keep hearing about."
"There are a lot of questions in the air, and it promises to be an interesting spring," Hvostov said in summary.
Editor: Marcus Turovski