Analysts say the looming battle for the Donbas will prove crucial in Russia’s war against Ukraine

WASHINGTON – The piece of the strength of the Ukrainian resistance, Russia appears to be launching a major offensive under more favorable conditions after attempts to occupy Kiev and other major cities have stalled. The new offensive will focus on the Donbas region, a disputed area of ​​eastern Ukraine that includes two breakaway regions controlled by Moscow.

“They want to achieve some physical, tangible goals in the Donbas within the next few weeks,” a senior Pentagon official told reporters during a Thursday briefing.

But given the ongoing challenges, it is unlikely that Russian President Vladimir Putin will deliver the knockout blow he is desperately seeking, analysts say. Any territorial gain that Russia achieves is expected to be significantly less significant than what Putin envisioned when he launched the invasion of his much smaller and less powerful neighbor in late February.

A Ukrainian soldier is on guard in the Donbas. (Fadel Senna / AFP via Getty Images)

What’s more, these gains could come at the expense of a continuing deterioration in preparedness, morale and other factors already working against Russia.

The final border between Ukraine and Russian forces “can actually not be so different from what it is now,” says Phillips P. O’Brien, a researcher in military strategy and history at St. Andrews University in the UK, arguing against looking at the conflict solely in the form of territorial gains. “What matters is the state of the armed forces, not where they are on the map.”

The first invasion was imagined by the Supreme Russian General Valery Gerasimov as a rapid, ruthless and multi-pronged attack intended to stun the Ukrainians. Kiev was to be overthrown within a few days, and the whole “special operation” – which the Russians insist on still calling what is now apparently a full-scale war – was to be as relatively painless militarily as the previous invasion of Ukraine, in 2014.

A lively Ukrainian resistance, reinforced by Western anti-aircraft systems and other materiel, changed Gerasimov’s plan and forced the Russians to withdraw. “They had no plans for this to be a long, protracted battle,” Benjamin H. Friedman, policy director at Defense Priorities, a think tank in Washington, told Yahoo News in an interview. “They have now changed their thinking.”

According to the Pentagon, the Kremlin has assembled 65 battalion tactical groups, or BTGs, at Ukraine’s eastern border. The question is whether that force will be sufficient to consolidate and expand Russian gains – or whether the same mistakes that plagued the first phase of the war are endemic to the Russian military as a whole, meaning that the second phase will not be all the different.

A satellite image shows the deployment of troops, tents and vehicles west of Soloti, Russia, near the border with Ukraine

A satellite image shows the deployment of troops, tents and vehicles west of Soloti, Russia, near the border with Ukraine. (Satellite image © 2022 Maxar Technologies)

Putin appointed General Aleksandr Dvornikov, who in 2015 was sent to Syria in Russia’s (ultimately successful) efforts to support dictator Bashar Assad, to head the new offensive. Before that, he was fighting in Chechnya in what became a crushing years-long campaign that some fears could be repeated in Ukraine.

Dvornikov’s appointment can be seen as a sign that Putin “now appears ready to embrace long-standing war principles: simplicity, unity in action and focused logistics,” as the retired U.S. brigade. It wrote General Mark Kimmitt in the Wall Street Journal earlier this week.

Kimmitt added that if the precedent holds, offensive Dvornikov is expected to be launched in the Donbas soon, and it will contain the predictable mix of “large armored formations and huge concentrations of artillery, rockets and missiles.”

However, the change in military leadership could also be less a sign of new thinking than a recognition that the Kremlin simply had to do something to show the world – and ordinary Russians – that it was doing everything it could to save an invasion. it thought. would be well over by the spring thaw.

“You don’t fire winning generals,” says military historian O’Brien. Dvornikov wants the same poorly trained army, which has already suffered thousands of deaths, according to NATO estimates.

Putin almost certainly imagined a triumphant parade on May 9, with Russia celebrating its victory in World War II. Now he must avert a direct defeat, a scenario that would have been unthinkable just two months ago. The sinking of the flagship Moscow earlier this week was a reminder of how eerily effective the Ukrainian resistance has proved.

(FILES) This file image taken on August 29, 2013 shows Moscow, the missile cruiser's flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, heading into the Gulf of Sevastopol.  Russia's Moscow warship was hit by two Ukrainian missiles before it sank in the Black Sea, a senior Pentagon official said Friday, calling it a

(FILES) This file image taken on August 29, 2013 shows Moscow, the missile cruiser’s flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, heading into the Gulf of Sevastopol. Russia’s warship Moscow was hit by two Ukrainian missiles before it sank in the Black Sea, a senior Pentagon official said Friday, calling it a “major blow” to Moscow. / AFP / Vasiliy BATANOV

“It’s likely that this part of the war will be crucial,” Friedman said. “Victory-victory does not seem likely” for the Kremlin, he told Yahoo News, imagining a protracted conflict with few meaningful attempts at a peace settlement in the near future.

The Russian army underwent a much-publicized reorganization in 2008, but the underprivileged units fighting in Ukraine are more reminiscent of the clumsy and bloody first campaign in Chechnya – launched in 1994 by Putin’s predecessor Boris Yeltsin – than such technically accurate, effective efforts. , which a Western military could have launched.

A campaign focused on eastern Ukraine gives Russia some advantages, but among them open terrain and shorter supply lines. “Russians will want to bring the Ukrainians out into the open, into the steppe,” Friedman said. “It’s less urban terrain. Probably they’ll at least be able to have more fights outside the cities.”

But even newly discovered topographic advantages could be undone for the Russians, whose spring rains, as some believe, turn unpaved roads into mud, making it difficult for tanks and armored vehicles to maneuver. Even before they were hit by the brutal Russian winter, German troops encountered just that fate in the autumn of 1941, when they invaded Moscow and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).

“The weather will definitely be a factor in war, as it always is,” the defense officer, who briefed reporters Thursday, “and the fact that the ground is softer will make it harder for them to do anything off-road.” especially when it comes to resupply logistics.

And, the official said, poor visibility could prevent Russia from establishing air superiority over Ukraine, a critical factor in any major offensive. “It’s in and out,” O’Brien said of Russia’s current air campaign. “Come in, drop your bomb, go.”

The lack of air support for ground units combined with the relatively small size of the forces now preparing for the eastern campaign (the initial invasion offered 130 battalions, double what Dvornikov wants at his disposal), makes him skeptical of Russia’s prospects.

Ukrainian soldiers in the Donbas

Ukrainian soldiers in the Donbas last week. (Fadel Senna / AFP via Getty Images)

The Ukrainians agree. They have called on the West to help them cope with a crushing blow. “Ukraine can win the next phase of this war with timely and proper Western support,” Nataliya Bugayova wrote in a brief to the Institute for the Study of War, where she is a fellow.

“The outcome of this phase is far from certain,” Bugayova added.

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