After more than four months of fierce fighting, Russia has won a key victory: full control over one of two provinces in the industrial heartland of eastern Ukraine.
But Moscow’s defeat of the last remaining stronghold of the Ukrainian resistance in Lugansk province came at a high price. The critical question now is whether Russia can muster enough strength for a new offensive to complete its takeover of Donbas and make gains elsewhere in Ukraine.
“Yes, the Russians have taken over the Luhansk region, but at what cost?” asked Oleh Zhdanov, a military analyst in Ukraine, noting that some Russian units involved in the battle lost up to half of their soldiers.
Even President Vladimir Putin acknowledged on Monday that the Russian troops involved in the action in Luhansk need to “rest a bit and strengthen their combat capacity.”
That raises questions about whether Moscow forces and their separatist allies are ready to quickly push into Donetsk, the other province that makes up Donbas. Observers estimated in recent weeks that Russia controlled about half of Donetsk, and the battle lines have changed little since then.
What happens in the Donbas could determine the course of the war. If Russia is successful there, she could unleash her forces to seize even more land and dictate the terms of any peace deal. If the Ukraine, on the other hand, succeeds in pinning down the Russians for an extended period, she could amass the resources for a counteroffensive.
Wearing out the Russians has long been part of the plan for the Ukrainians, who entered the conflict outgunned but hoped that Western weapons could eventually tip the scales in their favor.
They are already effectively using heavy howitzers and advanced rocket systems shipped by the US and other Western allies, with more on the way. But Ukrainian forces have said they remain far inferior.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Hanna Malyar recently said that Russian forces were firing 10 times more ammunition than the Ukrainian military.
After a failed attempt at a lightning advance on the capital of Kyiv in the first weeks of the war, Russian forces withdrew from many parts of northern and central Ukraine and turned their attention to the Donbas, a region of mines and factories where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting the Ukrainians since 2014.
Since then, Russia has taken a slow and steady approach that has seen it seize several remaining Ukrainian strongholds in Luhansk over the course of the last few weeks.
While Ukrainian officials acknowledged that their troops had withdrawn from the city of Lysychansk, the last stronghold of their resistance in Luhansk, the presidential office said on Tuesday that the army was still defending small areas in the province.
Zhdanov, the analyst, predicted that the Russians would likely rely on their advantage in firepower to “apply the same scorched-earth tactics and destroy entire cities” in Donetsk. On the same day that Russia claimed to have taken Lysychansk, further artillery attacks were reported in Donetsk.
But Russia’s approach is not without its drawbacks. Moscow has not given a casualty count since it said some 1,300 soldiers were killed in the first month of fighting, but Western officials have said that was only a fraction of actual losses. Since then, Western observers have noted that the number of Russian troops involved in combat in Ukraine has dwindled, reflecting both the sheer attrition and the Kremlin’s failure to fill the ranks.
Limited manpower has forced Russian commanders to avoid ambitious attempts to encircle large areas in Donbas, opting instead for smaller maneuvers and relying on heavy artillery shelling to slowly force the Ukrainians to retreat.
The military has also relied heavily on the separatists, who have carried out several rounds of mobilization, and Western officials and analysts have said that Moscow has increasingly hired private military contractors. It has also tried to encourage Russian men who have completed their tour of duty to re-register, though it is unclear how successful this has been.
While Putin has so far refrained from declaring a broad mobilization that could fuel social unrest, recently proposed legislation suggested Moscow was looking for other ways to replenish the ranks. The bill would have allowed young conscripts, who are drafted into the army for a year and barred from fighting, to immediately change their status and sign contracts to become full professional soldiers. The draft was shelved amid heavy criticism.
Some Western officials and analysts have argued that the attrition is so great that it could force Moscow to call off its offensive sometime later in the summer, but the Pentagon has warned that even though Russia has been sending troops and supplies to a fast pace, still has abundant resources.
US director of national intelligence Avril Haines said Putin appeared to accept the slow pace of progress in Donbas and now hoped to win by crushing Ukraine’s more battle-hardened forces.
“We think that Russia thinks that if they are able to really crush one of the most capable and well-equipped forces in eastern Ukraine…that will basically lead to a drop in the Ukrainian resistance and that may give them more opportunities,” Haines said. .
If Russia wins in Donbas, it could use its seizure of the southern Kherson region and parts of neighboring Zaporizhzhia to try to cut off Ukraine from the Black Sea coast to the Romanian border. If that succeeds, it would deal a severe blow to the Ukrainian economy and also create a corridor to Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria, which is home to a Russian military base.
But that is far from assured. Mykola Sunhurovsky of the Razumkov Center, a Kyiv-based think tank, predicted that increased Western supplies of heavy weapons, including HIMARS multiple rocket launchers, will help Ukraine turn the tide of the war.
“The supply of weapons will allow Ukraine to start a counteroffensive in the south and fight for Kherson and other cities,” Sunhurovsky said.
But Ukraine has also faced massive personnel losses — up to 200 soldiers a day in recent weeks of fierce fighting in the east, according to officials.
“Overall, the local military balance in Donbas favors Russia, but long-term trends continue to favor Ukraine,” wrote Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military and program director for the Virginia-based think tank CNA. “However, that estimate is conditional on sustained Western military assistance and is not necessarily predictive of outcomes. This is likely to be a protracted war.”
Associated Press writers Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Ukraine, and Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report.
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