Russia continues to bombard the Donbas region of Ukraine with artillery and air strikes, making gradual but steady progress toward capturing Ukraine’s industrial core.
With the fight now in its fourth month, it’s a high-stakes battle that could determine the war’s outcome.
If Russia wins the fight of Donbas, Ukraine would lose not only land but also the majority of its most capable military forces, allowing Moscow to seize more territory and impose its conditions on Kyiv. A Russian failure might pave the way for a counteroffensive from Ukraine, as well as political turmoil in Russia.
Following failed attempts to capture Kyiv and Kharkiv without good planning and coordination early in the invasion, Russia switched its attention to the Donbas, an area of mining and factories where Moscow-backed rebels have been fighting Ukrainian forces since 2014.
Russia is walking more carefully in Ukraine, learning from its previous mistakes and relying on longer-range bombardments to weaken Ukrainian defences.
It appears to be working: Russian forces have gained ground in both the Luhansk and Donetsk regions of the Donbas, holding over 95 percent of the former and around half of the latter.
According to presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak, Ukraine is losing between 100 and 200 soldiers every day because Russia has “thrown pretty much everything non-nuclear at the front.” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had estimated that up to 100 people died every day.
“The Russian Moloch has enough of resources to consume human lives to gratify its imperial ego,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said, referring to an ancient deity of sacrifice.
When the war was going badly for Russia, many believed President Vladimir Putin would declare victory after gaining some ground in Donbas and then depart a battle that had severely harmed the country’s economy and stretched its resources. However, the Kremlin has made it clear that it expects Ukraine to recognise all of Russia’s accomplishments since the invasion began, which Kyiv has ruled out.
Few expect Putin to stop now that Russian soldiers control the whole Sea of Azov coast, including the important port of Mariupol, the entire Kherson region — a key gateway to Crimea — and a huge piece of the Zaporizhzhia region that might enable a further drive deeper into Ukraine.
On Thursday, he drew comparisons between the Ukrainian conflict and Peter the Great’s 18th-century wars with Sweden. Putin stated that “our lot is to take back and consolidate” traditional Russian lands, just as it was during the czarist era. Ukraine has long been considered part of Moscow’s sphere of influence.
Unlike previous battlefield disasters, Russia looks to be taking a more cautious approach. Many expected it to employ a large pincer operation from the north and south to encircle Ukrainian forces, but instead it has used a series of smaller advances to force a retreat and avoid overextending its supply lines.
Russia, according to Keir Giles, a Russia expert at London’s Chatham House think-tank, is on the rise “concentrating all of its weaponry on a single area of the front line, levelling everything in its path.”
Western leaders continue to commend Ukrainian forces for their capacity to defend their country, depending on artillery and retreating in some areas while mounting repeated counterattacks.
“Ukraine has pursued a flexible defence posture, surrendering ground where it makes sense rather than defending every inch of its territory, “Giles remarked.
The Russian campaign “continues to be deeply troubled at all levels,” according to a senior Western official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorised to discuss the sensitive issue in public. He added that Moscow’s forces are taking “weeks to achieve even modest tactical goals such as taking individual villages.”
In a disastrous attempt to cross the Siverskyi Donets River and establish a bridgehead last month, the Russians lost virtually an entire battalion. Hundreds of people were killed, and hundreds of armoured vehicles were damaged in the attack.
The official predicted that the Russian military will reach a “point where they can no longer effectively create offensive combat power” this summer.
In the struggle for Donbas, Russia has a distinct advantage in artillery, thanks to a larger number of heavy howitzers and rocket launchers, as well as ample ammunition. With the Russians constantly targeting their supply lines, the Ukrainians have forced to be frugal with their artillery.
Ukraine has begun to receive more heavy weapons from Western partners, who have already sent dozens of howitzers and are planning to supply multiple rocket launchers in the near future.
Putin has warned that if the West provides Kyiv with longer-range rockets capable of hitting Russian territory, Moscow may target Ukrainian targets that it has so far avoided. Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, has suggested that Russia may retaliate by taking more land to act as a buffer zone against such weapons.
Moscow’s previous territorial gains in the south, including the Kherson region and a large portion of neighbouring Zaporizhzhia, have prompted Russian officials and their local appointees to consider plans to fold those areas into Russia or declare them independent, similar to the so-called “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Ukrainian officials and Western analysts have expressed fear that Moscow may try to push its attack further north into the densely populated and industrialised Dnipro region, dividing Ukraine and posing a new danger to Kyiv.
“Russian aims in this war are altering in response to the ground situation,” said Eleonora Tafuro Ambrosetti, a researcher at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies in Milan.
“Their intentions are adaptable to the reality on the ground,” she added, suggesting that Russia may try to harm Ukraine’s economy by controlling the entire coastline and denying shipping access.
A top Russian general has previously spoken of intentions to shut Ukraine off from the Black Sea by taking the areas of Mykolaiv and Odesa all the way to the Romanian border, allowing Moscow to establish a land corridor to Moldova’s breakaway Transnistria, which hosts a Russian military facility.
All of Moscow’s aspirations are contingent on its success in the east. A loss in the Donbas would place Kyiv in a perilous situation, with new recruits missing the battle-hardened skills of those fighting in the east, and Western weaponry supplies insufficient to stave off a potentially deeper Russian drive.
Officials in Ukraine dismissed such concerns, saying they are confident that their military will be able to fight off Russian advances and even launch a counter-offensive.
“Ukraine’s strategy is clear: Kyiv is wearing down the Russian army in order to buy time for more delivery of Western weapons, especially air defence systems, in the hopes of launching a successful counteroffensive,” said Razumkov Center analyst Mykola Sunhurovsky.
A retired US Air Force general who served as NATO’s top commander from 2013 to 2016, Philip Breedlove, warned against any cease-fire that would cement Russia’s wartime victories.
He compared it to rearing a two-year-old. “You will get more bad behaviour if you allow poor behaviour to stand, or worse, if you reward bad behaviour.”
When Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, Washington’s response was insufficient, and when Moscow grabbed Crimea in 2014, “the West and the United States response was inadequate to task,” according to Breedlove.
Now that Russia has returned, the West has a second chance to reply. “How we end this war, in my opinion, will determine whether we see more of this in the future,” he added.
Lolita C. Baldor contributed reporting from Washington, Yuras Karmanau from Lviv, Ukraine, Jill Lawless and Sylvia Hui from London, and Frances D’Emilio from Rome for the Associated Press.