The battle of Donbass could prove decisive in the war in Ukraine
Russia is hammering Ukraine’s Donbass region with relentless artillery and air raids, advancing slowly but steadily in a bid to seize its neighbor’s industrial heartland.
With the conflict now in its fourth month, the Battle of Donbass is a high-stakes campaign that could dictate the course of the entire war.
If Russia wins, it will mean that Ukraine not only loses land, but perhaps most of its most capable military forces, paving the way for Moscow to seize more territory and dictate its conditions in Kyiv.
A Russian failure could lay the groundwork for a Ukrainian counteroffensive – and possibly lead to political upheaval for the Kremlin.
After the invasion’s initial botched attempts to capture Kyiv and the second-largest city of Kharkiv without proper planning and coordination, Russia turned its attention to Donbass, a region of mines and factories where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces since 2014. .
Learning from its past mistakes, Russia is advancing more cautiously there, relying on longer-range bombing to flex Ukrainian defenses.
It seems to work. Better-equipped Russian forces have made gains in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions that make up Donbass, controlling more than 95% of the former and about half of the latter.
Ukraine is losing between 100 and 200 soldiers a day, presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak told the BBC, because Russia has “thrown pretty much everything that isn’t nuclear at the front”.
President Volodymyr Zelensky had previously put the death toll at 100.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov described the combat situation as “extremely difficult” and referred to an ancient sacrificial deity saying: “The Russian Moloch has many ways to devour human lives to satisfy its imperial ego”.
When the war turned bad for Russia, many believed that President Vladimir Putin could claim victory after some gains in the Donbass and then walk out of a conflict that badly scarred the economy and stretched its resources.
But the Kremlin has made it clear that it expects Ukraine to recognize any gains Russia has made since the invasion began, something Kyiv has ruled out.
Russian forces control the entire Sea of Azov coast, including the strategic port of Mariupol, the entire Kherson region – a key gateway to Crimea – and much of the Zaporizhzhia region that could contribute to a new, deeper push into Ukraine, and few expect Mr. Putin to stop there.
On Thursday, the Russian leader drew parallels between the Ukrainian conflict and the 18th century wars with Sweden led by Peter the Great.
Today, as in Tsarist times, “our lot is to take back and consolidate” historic Russian lands, Mr Putin said. Moscow has long considered Ukraine to be part of its sphere of influence.
Unlike earlier failures on the battlefield, Russia appears to be using more conservative tactics.
Many expected him to attempt to surround the Ukrainian forces with a massive pincer movement from north and south, but instead he used a series of smaller movements to force a retreat and not expand its supply lines.
Keir Giles of London’s Chatham House think tank said Russia was “focusing all its artillery on a single section of the front line in order to force its way through by flattening everything in its path”.
Western officials still praise the ability of Ukrainian forces to defend their country, fighting back fiercely and also relying on artillery and retreating in some sections while launching frequent counterattacks.
“Ukraine pursues a flexible defense policy, giving ground where it makes sense instead of clinging to every square inch of territory,” Giles said.
A senior Western official said the Russian campaign “continues to be deeply troubled at all levels”, noting that forces in Moscow are taking “weeks to achieve even modest tactical goals such as the capture of individual villages”.
Last month the Russians lost nearly an entire battalion in a failed attempt to cross the Siverskyi Donets River and establish a bridgehead. Hundreds of people were killed and dozens of armored vehicles were destroyed.
“There is a sense of strategic improvisation or jamming,” the official said, predicting that over the summer the Russian military could reach a “point where it can no longer effectively generate combat power. offensive”.
Ukraine has started to receive more heavy weapons from Western allies, who have supplied dozens of howitzers and now plan to start delivering several rocket launchers.
Mr Putin warned that if the West gave Kyiv longer-range rockets that could hit Russian territory, Moscow could hit targets in Ukraine it has so far spared.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has also said that Russia could respond by seizing more land as a buffer zone for these weapons.
A senior Russian general has already spoken of his intention to cut Ukraine off from the Black Sea by seizing the Mykolaiv and Odessa regions up to the border with Romania, a move that would also allow Moscow to build a land corridor to the separatist Moldovan region of Transnistria which hosts a Russian military base.
Such ambitions all depend on Moscow’s success in the East. A defeat in the Donbass would put Kyiv in a precarious position, with new recruits lacking the skills of the seasoned soldiers currently fighting in the east, and insufficient Western arms supplies to fend off a potentially deeper Russian push.
Ukrainian officials brushed aside those fears, expressing confidence that their military can hold their own stem the Russians advance and even launch a counter-attack.
“Ukraine’s plan is clear: Kyiv is exhausting the Russian military, trying to buy time for more deliveries of Western weapons, including air defense systems, in hopes of launching an effective counter-offensive “, said analyst Mykola Sunhurovsky of the Razumkov Center. , a Kyiv-based think tank.