The battle of Donbass could prove decisive in the war in Ukraine

Day after day, Russia pounded Ukraine’s Donbass region with relentless artillery and air raids, slowly but steadily advancing to seize its neighbour’s industrial heartland.

With the conflict now in its fourth month, this is a high-stakes campaign that could dictate the course of the entire war.

If Russia wins in the Battle of Donbass, it will mean that Ukraine not only loses land, but perhaps the bulk of its most capable military forces, paving the way for Moscow to seize more of territory and dictate its terms to 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 earlier missteps, Russia is advancing more cautiously there, relying on longer-range bombing to soften Ukrainian defenses.

It seems to be working: better-equipped Russian forces have made gains in the Lugansk and Donetsk regions that make up Donbass, controlling more than 95% of the former and around 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 Zelenskyy had previously put the death toll at 100.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov described the combat situation as “extremely difficult”, referring to an ancient sacrificial deity saying: “The Russian Moloch has a lot of ways to devour human lives to satisfy its imperial ego”. When the war turned bad for Russia, many thought President Vladimir Putin could claim victory after some gains in the Donbass and then ride out a conflict that has badly battered the economy and drained 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 in Ukraine, and few expect Putin to stop.

On Thursday, he 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, Putin said. Moscow has long considered Ukraine to be part of its sphere of influence.

Unlike earlier failures on the battlefield, Russia seems 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, a Russian expert at London’s Chatham House think tank, said Russia was “focusing all its artillery on a single section of the frontline to blast its way through, flattening everything in its path.” ability of Ukrainian forces to defend their country, retaliating fiercely and also relying on artillery and retreating in some sections while launching frequent counterattacks.

“Ukraine has pursued 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 who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the sensitive issue in public said the Russian countryside “continues to be deeply troubled at all levels”, noting that Moscow’s forces take “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 to establish a bridgehead.Hundreds of people were killed and dozens of armored vehicles were destroyed.

“There is a sense of strategic improvisation or confusion,” 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”. Russia has a clear artillery advantage in the Battle of Donbass, thanks to a greater number of heavy howitzers and rocket launchers, and abundant ammunition. The Ukrainians had to be economical in the use of their artillery, with the Russians constantly targeting their supply lines.

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.

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 also said Russia could respond by seizing more land as a buffer zone for these weapons.

Moscow’s previous territorial gains in the south, including the Kherson region and much of neighboring Zaporizhzhia, have prompted Russian officials and their local delegates to ponder plans to integrate these areas into Russia or to declare them independent, such as the so-called “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Ukrainian officials and Western analysts have expressed concern that Moscow may attempt to push its offensive into the heavily populated and industrialized Dnipro region further north, a move that could potentially split Ukraine in two and constitute a new threat to Kyiv.

“Russian objectives in the context of this war are changing as to the situation on the ground,” said Eleonora Tafuro Ambrosetti, an analyst at the Milan-based Italian Institute for International Policy Studies.

“Their goals are kind of flexible enough to adapt to the context on the ground,” she said, noting that Russia could try to harm Ukraine’s economy by seizing the entire coastline. to deny access to navigation.

A senior Russian general has previously spoken of plans to cut Ukraine off from the Black Sea by seizing the Mykolaiv and Odessa regions on the border with Romania, a move that would also allow Moscow to build a land corridor towards the separatist Moldavian 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 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 out to stem Russian advances and even launch a counterattack.

“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.

Philip Breedlove, a retired US Air Force general who served as NATO’s commander-in-chief from 2013 to 2016, warned against any ceasefire that would codify Russia’s gains on the battlefield.

“It’s like raising a 2-year-old,” he said. “If you allow bad behavior to continue, or worse if you reward bad behavior, you’re going to have more bad behavior.” When Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, Washington’s response was inadequate, and when Moscow seized Crimea in 2014, “the West’s and the United States’ response to it was inadequate to the task” , added Breedlove.

Now that Russia has come back for more, the West has another chance to respond. “How we end this war will decide, in my opinion, whether we will see this more in the future,” he added.

(This story has not been edited by the Devdiscourse team and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)