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War in Ukraine | Offensive announced in the Donbass: pivotal fight in sight

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Russia decided a few weeks ago to withdraw its troops deployed in northern Ukraine to concentrate its military efforts in the east of the country, targeting Donbass more specifically. The offensive announced by the Kremlin to take control of the whole of this region represents a major challenge for the Ukrainian forces and could prove decisive for the rest of the war.

A forced reorientation

In a speech on Tuesday, the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, assured that the “special military operation” launched at the end of February in Ukraine was going smoothly and that the “noble” objectives pursued by his country would be achieved. Moscow’s announcement of the eastward redeployment of troops that had been sent to the north of the country to try to take Kyiv in particular remains an admission of failure, notes Liam Collins, an American military analyst who has worked for a long time at West Point Academy. “The operation in the North has failed. Russia is trying to secure some form of victory, and Donbass seems to be its best opportunity in this regard,” he said.

A region already divided


PHOTO RONALDO SCHEMIDT, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Residents walking the streets of Sievierodonetsk, Luhansk region, on Wednesday

After taking control of Crimea in 2014, the Kremlin underhandedly supported an uprising by separatist rebels in the Donbass that led to the creation of two “people’s republics” occupying almost a third of the administrative regions (oblasts) of Donetsk and Luhansk. A simmering conflict has persisted for years along a “line of control” arranged under peace agreements that have never been fully respected. A few days before the outbreak of war, Vladimir Putin announced that he recognized the independence of the two republics and mobilized his troops to “protect” them against the Ukrainian threat. The maneuver served as a theoretical justification for launching the invasion, which involved several axes going far beyond the Donbass.

A better strategy

The vice-rector for research at the Royal Military College Saint-Jean, Pierre Jolicoeur, points out that the Russian army made a serious mistake by multiplying the fronts at the start of the war while neglecting the “complex logistics” required to ensure supplying the troops. The repositioning in the Donbass of the forces that had been deployed in the north of the country and the establishment of a unified command should allow Russia to be “more effective”, notes the researcher, who expects that Moscow’s troops “continue to advance” in the region. The Ukrainian forces, which have weapons provided by several Western countries, have so far offered a “heroic” resistance, but part of these successes stemmed from the disorganization of the invaders, underlines Mr. Jolicoeur. Liam Collins notes that it was easier in the north of the country for Ukrainian soldiers to take advantage of their mobility to inflict damage on Russian troops traveling in armored vehicles on major roads. The Donbass, notes the ex-soldier, offers flatter, more open spaces, and fewer large agglomerations, which makes it a territory more difficult to defend against the Russian army, richer in armored vehicles and planes. Mr. Collins also expects Russian gains in the region, without wishing to assume the final result.

Reduced activities for the time being


PHOTO ALEXEI ALEXANDROV, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Buildings destroyed by Russian forces in Mariupol on Wednesday

The Institute for the Study of War notes, in an analysis published on Tuesday, that Russia is currently pursuing “limited” military operations in the Donbass while waiting for the planned troop reinforcements to materialize. The army has consequently made “limited gains while continuing to suffer significant losses”, notes the organization. Justin Massie, a specialist in security and defense issues attached to the University of Quebec in Montreal, notes that Russian leaders hope that the troops deployed in Mariupol and others further north, near Kharkiv and Izium, can converge and “clamp” the Ukrainian forces who are at the front in the Donbass. The fall of Mariupol, if it materializes, would mark an important step for Moscow, since it would free up troops to deploy this strategy, notes the researcher. He expects Russian forces to soon intensify artillery fire and airstrikes against Ukrainian positions in the area to facilitate their advance.

What will happen if Donbass is taken by Russia?

Justin Massie thinks that Russia’s attitude will depend on the cost inherent in taking Donbass. If the offensive succeeds, but the human and material losses turn out to be extremely heavy, Moscow could be willing to negotiate a ceasefire. Otherwise, Vladimir Putin will be tempted to take advantage of his momentum to intensify his action elsewhere in the country, for example by trying to take Odessa, notes the researcher, who expects Ukraine to be “partitioned” from de facto for a long time. Eugene Rumer of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace thinks the Russian leader will certainly continue the offensive elsewhere in Ukraine if he gains control of all of Donbass. He does not rule out, in the longer term, the possibility of a new offensive against the capital, Kyiv. “It will depend on the resources at his disposal. However, I do not think that they are in the process of being exhausted. The regime has daily inflows of nearly $1 billion from the sale of gas and oil,” he warns.

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