Day after day, Russia punishes Ukraine’s Donbass region with relentless artillery fire and air strikes, in slow but steady progress to take its neighboring country’s industrial stronghold.
The conflict is already in its fourth month, and the Battle of Donbass could set the course of the war.
If Russia prevails, Ukraine will lose not only territory, but perhaps the bulk of its most capable armed forces, opening the way for Moscow to occupy more territory and impose its terms on Kyiv. A Russian failure could set the stage for a Ukrainian retaliation, and perhaps lead to political turmoil for the Kremlin.
After unsuccessful attempts to capture Kyiv and the country’s second largest city, Kharkiv, at the start of the invasion, without proper coordination and planning, Russia turned its attention to the Donbass, an area of mines and factories where Russian-backed separatist fighting. are. Ukrainian army since 2014.
Russia has learned from its past mistakes and is acting more cautiously there, relying on more and more attacks to destroy Ukraine’s defence.
The system seems to be working. The better equipped Russian forces advanced into the two regions that make up the Donbass, Luhansk and Donetsk, and controlled about 95% of the former and half of the latter.
Ukraine loses between 100 and 200 soldiers a day, Presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolik told the BBC, because Russia “has basically thrown everything that isn’t nuclear at the front.” President Volodymyr Zelensky previously reported a daily death toll of 100.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov described the war situation as “extremely difficult” and referred to an ancient deity associated with sacrifice, saying that “the Russian Moloch has many means of devouring human life to satisfy his imperial arrogance”. ” ,
When the war was going badly for Russia, many thought that President Vladimir Putin would claim victory after some gains in the Donbass and then end a conflict that has dealt a heavy blow to its economy and its resources. has ended. But the Kremlin has made it clear that it expects Ukraine to accept the progress the Russian military has made since the start of the offensive, which Kyiv has rejected.
The Russian army controls the entire coast of the Azov Sea, including the strategic port of Mariupol, the entire Kherson region – an important access point to Crimea – and much of the Zaporizhia region, from where it can reach further into Ukraine, And now there is hope that Putin will stop.
The Russian president on Thursday compared the conflict in Ukraine and the 16th-century wars that Peter the Great waged against Sweden. As it was in tsarist times, Putin said, “our task is to recover and consolidate the Russian historical lands”. Moscow has long considered Ukraine as part of its sphere of influence.
In contrast to its initial setbacks in the war, Russia now adopts a more conservative strategy. Many expected him to try to encircle the Ukrainian army in a massive pincer movement from the north and south, but instead he took small steps to force a retreat and not put excessive pressure on his supply lines. .
Keir Giles, a Russia expert at the Chatham House think-tank in London, said Russia “focuses all its artillery on a single part of the front to flatten everything in its path.”
Western officials continue to praise the ability of the Ukrainian army to defend their country, fiercely resorting to artillery strikes and retreats in some places in retaliatory tactics.
“Ukraine has adopted a flexible defense policy where it makes sense to do so rather than hold onto every inch of the ground,” Giles said.
A senior Western official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly, said the Russian campaign is “deeply complicated at all levels,” noting that Moscow troops It takes weeks to reach “even minor tactical objectives such as taking individual towns”.
The Russians lost almost an entire battalion last month in an unsuccessful attempt to cross the Siversky Donets River and set up a bridgehead. Hundreds of soldiers were killed and dozens of armored vehicles were destroyed.
There is “a sense of strategic improvement or general disarray,” the official said, noting that Russian troops “may reach a point in exercise where they can no longer generate offensive combat power” in the summer.
Russia has a clear artillery advantage in the Battle of the Donbass, having more heavy howitzers and rocket launchers, as well as having abundant ammunition. Under constant Russian attacks on their supply routes, Ukrainians have had to be economical on their artillery.
Ukraine has begun receiving more heavy weapons from Western allies, who have provided dozens of howitzers and are now preparing to deliver several rocket launchers.
Putin has warned that if Western countries supply Kyiv with long-range rockets that can reach Russian territory, Moscow could strike targets in Ukraine it has so far avoided. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also said that Russia could respond against such weapons by taking more area in the form of a safety margin.
In areas formerly occupied by Moscow in the south, such as the Jershon region and a good deal of the neighboring Zaporia region, Russian officials and administrators appointed by them at the local level study plans to include or declare those territories in Russia. are doing. The independent self-denominational “People’s Republic” of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Ukrainian officials and Western analysts expressed concern that Moscow may seek to advance its offensive north toward the populated and industrialized Dnepro region. Such a move would run the risk of splitting Ukraine in two and posing a new threat to Kyiv.
“Russian objectives in the context of this war are changing in relation to the situation on the ground,” said Eleonora Tafuuro Ambrosetti, an analyst at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies in Milan.
“Their goals are somewhat flexible to adapt to the context on land,” he said, noting that Russia intends to harm the Ukrainian economy by occupying the entire coastline to deny access to shipping traffic. can try.
A top Russian general has already talked about plans to cut Ukraine off the Black Sea by seizing the Mykolaiv and Odessa regions up to the Romanian border, a move that would allow Russia to establish a land connection with the broken region of Transnistria. will allow. In Moldova where there is a Russian military base.
Those ambitions depend on Moscow’s success in the east. A defeat in the Donbass could put Kyiv in a precarious position, with new recruits lacking the skills of experienced soldiers now fighting in the East, and insufficient Western weapons supplies to deal with a potentially deep Russian offensive.
Ukrainian officials dismissed those concerns, saying they believed their forces could halt Russian advances and even launch a counterattack.
“Ukraine’s plan is clear: Kyiv is reducing the Russian army, trying to buy time for more deliveries of Western weapons, including anti-aircraft systems, in hopes of an efficient counter-attack,” said Razumkov Center analyst Mykola Sunhurovsky, a think tank. Study based in Kyiv.
Philip Breedlov, a retired US Air Force general who served as top commander from 2013 to 2016, advised against a ceasefire that would consolidate ground gained by Russia.
“It’s like educating a two-year-old,” he said. “If bad behavior is allowed, or worse, if bad behavior is rewarded, there will be worse behavior.”
When Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, Washington’s response was inadequate, and when Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014, “Western and US responses to that were inadequate to the situation,” Breedlov said.
Now that Russia is back for more, he said, the West has another chance to respond. “How we end this war will, in my opinion, decide whether we’re going to see more of it in the future,” he said.
Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor in Washington, Uras Karmanau in Lviv, Ukraine, Jill Lawless and Sylvia Hui in London and Frances D’Emilio in Rome contributed to this report.