The Battle of Donbass could prove crucial in the Ukraine war

Day after day, Russia bombards Ukraine’s Donbass region with relentless artillery and airstrikes, making slow but steady strides to conquer its neighbor’s industrial heartland.

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

If Russia is victorious in the Battle of Donbass, it means Ukraine will lose not only land but perhaps the bulk of its most capable armed forces, paving the way for Moscow to seize more territory and dictate its terms to Kyiv. A failure by Russia could prepare the ground for a Ukrainian counter-offensive – and possibly lead to political upheavals in the Kremlin.

After botched early attempts in the invasion to capture Kyiv and its second largest city, Kharkiv, without proper planning and coordination, Russia turned its attention to the Donbass, a region of mines and factories where Moscow-backed separatists have been battling Ukrainian forces since 2014.


Russia, having learned from its past missteps, is taking a more cautious approach, relying on longer-range bombing to weaken Ukraine’s defenses.

It seems to be working: the better-equipped Russian armed forces have made headway in both the Luhansk and Donetsk regions that make up the Donbass, controlling over 95% of the former and about half of the latter.

Ukraine is losing between 100 and 200 soldiers every day, presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak told the BBC, as Russia has “thrown pretty much everything non-nuclear on the front lines”. President Volodymyr Zelenskyj previously put the daily death toll at up to 100.

Describing the combat situation as “extremely difficult,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov referred to an ancient sacrificial deity, saying, “The Russian juggernaut has many means of devouring human life to gratify its imperial ego.”

When the war was going badly for Russia, many thought that after some successes in Donbass, President Vladimir Putin could achieve victory and then exit a conflict that has severely damaged 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 Azov Sea coast, including the strategic port of Mariupol, all of the Kherson region – a key gateway to Crimea – and much of the Zaporizhia region, which could support a further push deeper into Ukraine, and few expect that Putin will stop.

On Thursday he drew parallels between the Ukraine conflict and Peter the Great’s wars with Sweden in the 18th century. Now, as in those tsarist times, “it is our lot to reclaim and consolidate historical Russian lands,” Putin said. Moscow has long considered Ukraine part of its sphere of influence.

Contrary to previous battlefield failures, Russia appears to be employing more conservative tactics. Many had expected it to attempt to encircle Ukrainian forces with a massive pincer movement from the north and south, but instead it has taken a series of smaller steps to force a retreat and not overstretch its supply lines.

Keir Giles, a Russia expert at London think tank Chatham House, said Russia was “concentrating all of its artillery on a single stretch of the front line to carve its way forward, leveling everything in its path”.


Western officials still praise the Ukrainian forces’ ability to defend their country, putting up a fierce fight and similarly relying on artillery and retreating in some sectors while launching frequent counterattacks.

“Ukraine has a flexible defense policy, yielding where it makes sense rather than holding on to every 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 publicly, said the Russian campaign “remained deeply concerned at all levels,” noting that Moscow forces had “weeks need tactical goals like taking individual villages to achieve even modest objectives.”

Last month, the Russians lost almost an entire battalion in a botched attempt to cross the Siverskyi Donets River and establish a beachhead. Hundreds were killed and dozens of armored vehicles destroyed.


“There’s a sense of strategic improvisation or muddling through,” the official said, predicting that by the summer the Russian military could reach a “point where it can no longer generate an effective offensive combat capability.”

Russia has a clear advantage in artillery in the battle for Donbass thanks to a larger number of heavy howitzers and rocket launchers and plenty of ammunition. The Ukrainians had to be economical with their artillery, while the Russians constantly targeted their supply lines.

Ukraine has started receiving more heavy weapons from Western allies, who have provided dozens of howitzers and are now planning to begin delivering multiple rocket launchers.

Putin has warned that if the West provides Kyiv with longer-range missiles 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 such weapons.


Moscow’s past territorial gains in the south, including the Kherson region and much of the neighboring Zaporizhia region, have prompted Russian officials and their local representatives to consider plans to annex these areas to Russia or 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 seek to push its offensive into the densely populated and industrialized Dnipro region further north, a push that could potentially cut Ukraine in two and pose a new threat to Kyiv.

“Russian objectives related to this war are shifting in relation to the situation on the ground,” said Eleonora Tafuro Ambrosetti, an analyst at the Milan-based Italian Institute for International Political Studies.

“Their targets are somehow flexible enough to adapt to the local context,” she said, noting that Russia could try to hurt Ukraine’s economy by confiscating the entire coast to deny access to shipping.


A senior Russian general has already spoken of plans to cut off Ukraine from the Black Sea by occupying the Mykolaiv and Odessa regions up to the border with Romania, a move that would also allow Moscow to build a land corridor to Moldova’s separatist region of Transnistria , which houses a Russian military base.

All of these ambitions depend on Moscow’s success in the east. A defeat in the Donbass would put Kyiv in a precarious position, as new recruits lack the skills of battle-hardened soldiers now fighting in the east, and stockpiles of Western weapons are insufficient to repel a potentially deeper Russian push.

Ukrainian officials brushed aside such 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 wearing down the Russian army and trying to buy time for further deliveries of Western weapons, including air defense systems, in hopes of launching an efficient counteroffensive,” said Razumkov Center analyst Mykola Sunhurovsky, a Kiever Think Tank.


Philip Breedlove, a retired US Air Force general who served as NATO commander in chief from 2013 to 2016, warned of a ceasefire that would codify Russia’s battlefield accomplishments.

“It’s like raising a two-year-old,” he said. “If you let bad behavior go, or worse, if you reward bad behavior, you’ll get more bad behavior.”

When Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, Washington’s response was inadequate, and when Moscow occupied Crimea in 2014, “the West and the United States failed to respond,” Breedlove added.

Now that Russia has come back for more, the West gets another chance to respond. “How we end this war, I think, will determine whether we see more of it in the future,” he added.


Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor in Washington, Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Ukraine, Jill Lawless and Sylvia Hui in London, and Frances D’Emilio in Rome contributed.



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Sarah Y. Kim

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