Russian Spring Offensive May Already Be Stalling: U.S. Trainer in Ukraine

  • Erik, an American special forces veteran working with Ukrainian forces, believes that Russia's current assaults—if they represent the height of Moscow's efforts—do not bode well for the Kremlin's counter-offensive.
  • Russian forces are reporting limited success around the Donetsk city of Bakhmut and are continuing attacks on other parts of the front.
  • Ukraine is preparing for its own counter-offensive with the help of new NATO weapons, including tanks and armored vehicles.

President Vladimir Putin's effort to seize back momentum in Ukraine may already be close to exhaustion, an American special forces veteran working with Ukraine's military has said—though he warned that Moscow could be holding back resources for a more punishing push.

Erik—who declined to share his full name for security reasons—is a 26-year veteran of U.S. Army special forces who has been working in Ukraine over the past 12 months, helping sharpen the tactical capabilities of troops fighting on the front lines. Previously working with the Mozart Group, Erik is now coordinating around 20 volunteers through the Ukraine Defense Support Group (UDSG).

Erik spoke to Newsweek from Ukraine about the intense ongoing fighting along the country's southern and eastern fronts, as Moscow's troops seek a breakthrough after a year reflecting an underwhelming Russian military performance.

"If this is the counter-offensive, then it's already stalling," Erik said. "If it's a precursor, then we will see," the veteran added, noting it's hard to be sure if the full force of Moscow's spring offensive has yet come to bear.

Ukraine Donbas
A Ukrainian troop rides a tank on a road of the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas on June 21, 2022. It still isn't clear if Ukraine is seeing the full force of Russia's counter-offensive. Newsweek; Source photo by Anatolii Stepanov/AFP/Getty

Russian forces are reporting limited success around the Donetsk city of Bakhmut, which has been a focus of Moscow's push for several months. Despite reporting staggering casualties, Russian units—fronted by Wagner Group mercenaries under oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin—look set to soon seize the small city, though Ukrainian and Western officials have said the settlement holds more symbolic than strategic value.

"From talking to the folks that we've trained before—several of them just got back from Bakhmut—the thing they said is that the Russians just kept coming, and coming, and coming," Erik said.

"They just had so many people, even if they were using them as cannon fodder. Sheer numbers could be overwhelming. So, the Ukrainians are trying to counter that."

Other Russian activity continues along the front, from Svatove in the northeast to Vuhledar in the southeast and Zaporizhzhia in the south. Ukrainian troops, meanwhile, are looking to inflict maximum pain on the occupiers while preparing their own spring hammer blow supported by a new glut of NATO weapons.

Erik said Western main battle tanks, in particular, are playing on Russian minds.

"One thing that is driving the Russian counter-offensive is the promise of the tanks from the West," he said. "All that armor, that's a big concern... the Russians are concerned about the influx of Western tanks, and they want to get some progress before the Western tanks have an effect on the battlefield."

Newsweek has contacted the Russian defense ministry for comment.

Ukraine's Spring Offensive

German-made Leopard 2 tanks are already in Ukraine, while Kyiv's tank crews have been training on that system and the British Challenger 2 tanks at NATO bases. American-made Abrams tanks aren't expected to arrive in time for the spring offensive, but U.S. Bradley fighting vehicles, French AMX-13 light tanks, and German Marder armored vehicles will.

Kyiv has asked for hundreds of Western tanks to help press its planned counter-offensive, though in reality it will receive far fewer and not all of them at once. Erik said Ukrainian forces must use the weapons to their full potential if they are to succeed.

"Tanks standing alone, they'll get killed. Infantry operating alone in a mechanized environment, you're going to get killed," he said. "They have to be used together."

"They're being trained to use these tanks with combined arms in conjunction with infantry, artillery, unmanned systems. I just hope that they do that when they get on the ground."

"There's been a tendency, sometimes, within Ukraine to save their valuable assets such as tanks, armored personnel carriers, and so on for another day; you don't want to destroy them. But you have to use them. Using them piecemeal just does not work. It has to all be used together."

"The biggest message I'd have for the Ukrainian government is that if you want to have victory here, it's really going to take your folks understanding combined arms operations and how to effectively employ all this new equipment and weapons that you're getting."

Erik said Ukraine's use of the U.S.-provided HIMARS, while successful, is an example of how Kyiv's troops could be more aggressive. "They would fire them at a Russian headquarters or command post, but they wouldn't exploit it," he said.

"There wouldn't be a follow-on attack. So that's what we're teaching them, how to effectively use these weapons systems. And until they get that across the board and in the planning, it's going to be a tough fight for them."

Kyiv is also grappling with manpower pressures. The Ukrainian government closely guards its casualty figures, though Western estimates reach as high as 100,000 dead and wounded since February 2022. Kyiv's casualties might be lower than Moscow's, but Ukraine has fewer people to draw on.

Erik and his UDSG team are now working with Ukraine's Border Guard Service, which has been ordered to stand up a 5,000-strong light infantry brigade to reinforce units fighting at the front.

Ukrainian artillery team firing at Russians Bakhmut
Ukrainian servicemen fire a 105mm howitzer towards Russian positions near the city of Bakhmut, on March 8, 2023, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The battle in and around Bakhmut continues. ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images

"I'm going to be blunt. I think it's because of manpower issues," he said. "They're trying to get any effective forces they can towards the front because of the counter's definitely a sign that they need people, they need more trained forces."

"They're trying to make sure their guys and gals have at least some training before they go," Erik added. "I applaud them for their efforts to try to make sure they're at least getting some basic leadership and planning skills. They understand the need for combined arms operations, which is what we're trying to teach, instead of just throwing forces out piecemeal or without planning. They're trying to do the right thing."

"They're hungry to be a part of it," Erik said of the border guards his team is training. "They realize that they're not ready... they've seen the casualties coming back from the Army, the National Guard, and all the other organizations, and they want to be different."

"There's also a lot of pride with the border guards. They want to have a very good showing there and not just be another unit that's thrown into the grind."