What happens next in the Russo-Ukrainian war in Donbas, eastern Ukraine?

Ukrainian soldiers stand aboard their armored personnel carrier (APC), not far from the front line with Russian troops, in the Izyum district, Kharkiv region on April 18, 2022.

Anatolii Stepanov | Afp | beautiful pictures

Russia’s new offensive in the Donbas region could prove to be extremely important and decisive in the war, analysts warn, and could define territorial boundaries, analysts warn. of the country in the coming weeks and years.

“The Russian war machine in the east can quickly become a very painful threat to Ukraine,” Maximilian Hess, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told CNBC on Tuesday.

“It is clear that Russia’s war goals are still quite broad,” added Hess, and said that how the battle for the Donbas is played out “will determine what percentage of Ukraine is east of the Dnipro (a river in the east of the Dnipro). split Ukraine). [Russian President Vladimir] Putin left. “

“I think annexation is quite clearly Putin’s long-term goal, the question is to what extent,” Hess added.

Russian officials have stated that their main goals in this new phase of the war was the “complete liberation” of two breakaway, Russian-backed “People’s Republics”, Luhansk and Donetsk.. But most analysts believe that the larger Donbas region, an industrialized region rich in coal reserves, will be annexed by Russia.

Moscow has nurtured separatist sentiment in the region for the past eight years since it annexed Crimea in 2014, although it denies backing rebels in the region.

Russia’s long-awaited offensive in the east appeared to have begun in earnest on Monday with its military forces launching attacks in several areas, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says that the “battle for the Donbas” has begun.

By Tuesday morning, the Russian Defense Ministry claimed to have hit more than 1,200 targets in Ukraine overnight, and later that day there were reports of increased missile and artillery firing in eastern Ukraine. Officials say Russian forces have taken control of Kreminna, a city in the Luhansk region where street battles are believed to have taken place.

On Wednesday morning, the British Ministry of Defense said in an intelligence update that Ukrainian forces were repelling “many progressive attempts” by Russia in the eastern Donbas region.

The refocusing on eastern Ukraine comes after Russia withdrew many troops from areas around the capital Kyiv and other northern regions of the country after failing to make military gains there. However, the Pentagon believes that Russia has significantly increased its combat power in eastern and southern Ukraine. with more battalion-level tactical groups moving into the area last weekend.

Weapons are exhausted

Global Allied leaders discussed the new phase of Russia’s invasion in a video call on Tuesday with several countries, including the US and UK, promising to send more systems more artillery to Ukraine while others, like Germany, pledged more money to help Ukraine buy more weapons.

How quickly any new weapons will reach Ukraine is up for debate, with fears that the war-torn country may struggle to re-arm itself. rapidly in the east, especially if Russia increases the frequency of attacks on its ammunition depots.

Sam Cranny-Evans, a research analyst at British defense consultancy RUSI, told CNBC on Tuesday that there is a lot of uncertainty about how the battle for Donbas will progress and while both both sides will run out of their supplies (military materials and equipment). Over the past two months, Ukraine may be in a more vulnerable position.

“One thing that I’m quite comfortable with is that I think it [the battle] will last for a very long time “with both sides having demonstrated ‘sustained strength,'” he noted.

“There are some questions around the availability of ammunition for the Ukrainians and that could become a pivotal issue, especially during the opening phase of the bombardment and mass shelling. If you don’t have the ammo to shoot those things back then they really have a psychological effect and a physical impact, and obviously they destroy everything.”

However, he noted that Russia is also “probably in a rather limited position in terms of what it can do with its human capacity and material capabilities.”

“The Russians have spent a lot of missiles in this war so far, it will be difficult to replace … and there is additional question of how much attrition the Ukrainians will cause them in the Donbas,” he said. .

Tanks of the pro-Russian army drive on a road during the Ukraine-Russia conflict in Ukraine April 17, 2022.

Alexander Ermochenko | Reuters

Cranny-Evans said it was impossible to foresee a situation where the Ukrainians would be able to push back the Russians in the Donbas, as they have shown themselves to be resilient elsewhere.

“If they can organize, and if they can fully equip their troops, they can. And some analysts are cautiously optimistic that Ukraine can even win. winning this war… a lot of things can really turn the tide of the conflict and it will show which side is likely to win,” he noted.

Who wins’?

The reason it’s difficult for analysts to gauge how important the battle of Donbas could become in a broader war is that it’s difficult to gauge what Putin’s ultimate goal in Ukraine is.

RUSI’s Cranny-Evans notes that the big question remains whether, by focusing on his self-proclaimed mission of “liberating” the Donbas, Putin has abandoned “his ultimate goal of regime change in Ukraine and capture Kyiv” or whether he could accept a more limited victory in the east.

For Ukraine, he said, there could be a hard price to pay if it loses the Battle of the Donbas and Russia annexes the region. In any case, determining the winners and losers of the war will not be an easy task given the devastation that has been unleashed in Ukraine.

“[You could say] that Ukraine won because their country still exists but if they lose Donbass completely, is that really a victory? Does it mean that peace will last forever? Or will Ukraine have to fight another war in 10 years’ time? There’s a lot of stakes for the Ukrainians,” said Cranny-Evans.

Ukrainian civilians and soldiers killed in the war with Russia are buried at a cemetery in Irpin, Ukraine, April 18, 2022.

Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | beautiful pictures

In assessing what the next phase of the conflict could lead to, the US-based Institute for the Study of War said on Monday that the Russian attack “could hardly be more successful”. compared to previous Russian attacks” but warned that their forces “could be able to knock out Ukrainian defenders or make limited profit.”

The research organization noted that Russian forces failed to implement the “operational pause” necessary to “reconstruct” and properly integrate damaged units withdrawn from northeastern Ukraine into operations. in eastern Ukraine.

“As we have assessed before, Russian forces withdrawing from around Kyiv and returning to fight in the Donbas have, at best, been patched up and replenished with troops from other damaged units. , and the Russian military has few mounted units, if any, it said have not previously been deployed to Ukraine to participate in the new operations.

It added that frequent reports of Russian morale falling miserably and ongoing logistical challenges indicate that “the effective combat strength of Russian units in eastern Ukraine is only a fraction of small amount of their paper strength in terms of battalion-level combat groups.”

The institute noted that although Russian forces could take down Ukrainian positions through “heavy concentration of fire and massive numbers of troops”, this would come with a “heavy price” and a revolt. A sudden and dramatic Russian attack remains highly unlikely.

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