British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once famously cautioned following a decisive battlefield victory in 1942, when the tide of World War II seemed to be turning in the allies’ favor, that it was “not the end, not even the beginning of the end but, possibly, the end of the beginning.”
It’s a phrase that may apply to the recent withdrawal of Russian forces from the areas around Kyiv: an “end of the beginning moment” for the war in Ukraine.
Russia launched a three-front invasion on Feb. 24, with the apparent goal of toppling the Ukrainian government. Nearly eight weeks into the war, that initial goal is almost certainly out of reach, thanks to stiffer-than-expected Ukrainian resistance, substantial international help and well-documented logistical and strategic difficulties for Russia. Now, Russia is focused on a more modest objective: an offensive aimed at taking over the contested region of southeastern Ukraine known as the Donbas.
That offensive, focused on what Russia’s military calls the “liberation of Donbas,” has now begun. After the Russians began attacking along the entire 300-mile front line in the region Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced, “We can now say that Russian forces have started the battle of the Donbas, for which they have long prepared.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov acknowledged on Tuesday that “another stage” of Russia’s military operation had begun.
Two months ago, few outside analysts gave Ukraine’s forces much chance of withstanding the Russian onslaught. Many predicted a Russian victory within days. Now, few doubt Ukraine’s will or ability to fight back. But the battle of the Donbas will be a very different sort of fight and one that may play more to Russia’s strengths. Both sides are likely to face difficult military and political questions in the weeks to come.
The new war
In some ways, the war in Ukraine is returning to its roots. The Donbas, a predominantly Russian-speaking region comprised of two oblasts, or administrative districts — Donetsk and Luhansk — has been in a state of armed conflict since 2014, when Russian forces helped separatist rebels set up two autonomous “people’s republics” in the region. On the eve of war in February, Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized the two republics as independent; crucially, his declaration covered not only the areas controlled by separatists but all of Donetsk and Luhansk, a much larger area.
The Russian goal now appears to be to secure control over that larger area, before agreeing to a ceasefire. Though significantly less than the regime change Russia originally hoped for, this would allow Putin to declare victory in what he continues to call a “special military operation.” It would also give the Kremlin an area rich in natural resources, including vast reserves of coal. A secondary goal: If Russia can successfully take the city of Mariupol, on the sea of Azov (as of this writing, a last bastion of Ukrainian forces is holding out, but that battered city is mostly under Russian control), Russia will have largely succeeded in creating a “land bridge” between areas it controls in eastern Ukraine and the annexed peninsula of Crimea.
Standing in the Russians’ way is what’s known as Joint Forces Operation (JFO), considered the best-trained and equipped troops in the Ukrainian military, who’ve been fighting the separatists for years. Not much is known about the current condition of the JFO: Before the war, it numbered around 40,000 troops. Since then, it has undoubtedly suffered heavy losses but also been bolstered by reinforcements and volunteers. Russia’s immediate military priority, according to analysts, is to encircle these troops, cutting them off from the rest of Ukraine. Franz-Stefan Gady, a research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said this encirclement is theoretically possible, but that in order to pull it off, “Russian forces must show better tactical competence, underpinned by solid logistical support than has been the case in the first phase of this war.”
None of this means the rest of Ukraine is suddenly safe. At least seven people were killed on Monday in a missile strike on Lviv, the western Ukrainian city that has been a refuge for those fleeing other fighting in other parts of the country. Jeffrey Edmonds, an expert on the Russian military at the Center for Naval Analysis (CNA), said these strikes are likely to continue in order to keep up pressure on the Ukrainian government and population. “They are more coercive in nature than actually trying to achieve some kind of territorial gain,” he said. That will be cold comfort to those living with air raid sirens and the attacks that often follow.
From a Russian perspective, the war may be about to get easier. In their offensives thus far, Russian forces have been stretched thin, deployed in many parts of the country and often relying on small raids that have left them vulnerable to Ukrainian ambush. Hence the frequent reports of Russian troops and armored vehicles taken out by Ukrainian snipers and missiles. Now, Russian forces are massed in one part of Ukraine and operating much closer to Russian territory. The war in Donbas is more likely to resemble traditional World War II-style combat with an established front line in which the Russians have advantages in both manpower and firepower.
Alex Vershinin, a recently retired U.S. Army officer with experience in war gaming, who correctly predicted many of Russia’s logistics and supply dilemmas in an article last year, said those dilemmas will be less of a factor in this new phase of the war. He noted in particular that Russian forces are operating closer to the railways they rely on for resupply.
The Donbas is also much better suited for Russia’s artillery-first style of fighting. “If you look at battles for Kyiv, they were urban battles where the Ukrainians had the advantage of knowing the terrain, and they outnumbered the Russian forces. And that gave Ukrainians advantage in a close fight,” Vershinin told Grid. “Donbas is an open steppe. It’s grasslands, similar to our Great Plains. Out there, there is no way to hide. So Ukrainian troops, fighting in the open, are going to be destroyed by the Russian superior firepower.”
The battle for Donbas could also see more use of Russian air power, which has been conspicuous by its relative absence so far, said CNA’s Edmonds. “[Russian planes] would be flying over separatist areas to attack things just beyond the line of contact,” he told Grid. “And so much of your flight path would be secure as opposed to just flying all around Kyiv where every piece of terrain is enemy terrain.”
The changing nature of the fight is one reason why the Ukrainian government has been doubling down on requests for heavier weaponry. Zelenskyy detailed a wish list to Western countries last week including artillery systems and ammunition, rocket launchers, armored vehicles, air defense systems, combat aircraft and tanks. While NATO allies were reluctant to provide some of this type of offensive aid early in the conflict when it looked unlikely the Ukrainians would hold out for long, some of these systems, including tanks, are starting to arrive in Ukraine. Whether these will be enough or deployed to eastern Ukraine in time to make a serious difference, remains to be seen.
Meet the new boss
The war in Ukraine has not been kind to Russian generals. An eighth one — Maj. Gen. Vladimir Frolov — was killed in combat last week, a stunning toll for just two months of fighting. The heavy losses among Russia’s senior officers have revealed serious issues with Russia’s command structure. The Russian military has little in the way of a mid-level noncommissioned officer corps, meaning generals are often on the front lines commanding troops. Moreover, high-level strategic decisions appear to have been coming mostly from senior officials in Moscow rather than officers on the ground. That might make sense for the quick decapitation operation Putin envisioned back in February, but not for the prolonged, grinding war of attrition he’s facing now.
The Russians took steps toward addressing at least one of their major organizational issues on April 10 by finally appointing a single commander, Gen. Aleksandr Dvornikov, to oversee military operations in Ukraine. Dvornikov, who has been commanding Russian forces in Ukraine’s south and east, is considered one of the country’s most competent commanders. He also has a reputation for ruthless tactics and is perhaps best known for having been the first commander of Russian forces in Syria after the military intervention in 2015. U.S. officials have dubbed him the “butcher of Syria” for his role in the bombardment of civilians in Aleppo and other cities.
Aleppo-style tactics have already been on display in Mariupol, where the Russian siege has killed at least 10,000 civilians, according to the city’s mayor, and in Izyum, a city with a prewar population of 46,000. There is every reason to believe Dvornikov will use such tactics if he deems them necessary in the new campaign.
Given the favorable terrain, Donbas might have been a relatively easy fight for Russia if it had concentrated all its forces there two months ago. It might have been that one-week war that many had anticipated. Now it’s a different story. “They’re not going into this fresh,” Edmonds noted. “They’ve really had their nose bloodied, and they’ve lost a lot of people.”
We don’t know exactly how many troops Russia has lost — NATO estimates it’s at least 7,000 — and many of those are likely among its most experienced and best-trained front-line fighters. Equipment losses have also been substantial.
“With current casualty and major equipment loss rates continuing, my guess is that Russia will not have the ability to take this fight into June,” IISS’s Gady told Grid. “If the war goes on with casualty rates similar to the first weeks of the war, Russia will need a longer operational pause in June and July, while reserves are being mobilized and additional reservists called up.”
Russia is fast burning through the available troops it has for the operation. U.S. officials say about 75 percent of its combat-ready forces are already deployed in Ukraine. Studies suggest troops should be cycled out of combat every 60 days maximum or they’ll lose combat effectiveness. There are probably about 1,000 mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group fighting in Ukraine, plus some Syrians and Chechens. But Russia will still need more troops from somewhere.
The Kremlin recently began its spring draft early, aiming to sign up about 134,000 conscripts. But the use of conscripts is controversial in Russia. Putin only reluctantly acknowledged conscripts were fighting in Ukraine at all, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has assured skeptical families of the new recruits that they won’t be sent to hot spots. On paper, Russia has a reserve force of about 2 million former conscripts, but only a few thousand of them may be combat-ready. Plus, a mass mobilization would make even more clear to the Russian public that this is far more than a “special military operation.” Putin’s government has been remarkably successful at managing public opinion about the war so far, but that will get more difficult as more young Russian men are sent to the front line and many never return.
It’s widely believed that Putin is hoping for a solid military achievement to celebrate by May 9 Russia’s all-important Victory Day celebration — but for all the above reasons, he’s unlikely to get one. All indications are this is going to be a much longer war.
Questions for Ukraine
One reason it’s difficult to make firm predictions about the battle for the east is that, as Edmonds put it, “We don’t have very clear picture into the Ukrainian army. We just haven’t concentrated on it as much, and a lot of information is purposely kept out of the mainstream media.”
Whatever its strength, Ukraine’s task is simple, if not easy, for the next few weeks: Fight back as hard as possible and push for as much foreign aid as possible. If its troops in the east are encircled or face heavy losses, the Ukrainian government will start to face difficult choices. Ukraine could withdraw its forces to more easily defensible positions farther west, but that could make Russian control of the Donbas effectively a “fait accompli.” If the Ukrainians defy the odds again and can hold out until Russia’s personnel problems start to bite, they face a different set of choices.
“Seized with a recent victory, are they going to try to push the Russians out of Ukraine writ large or are they going to try to hold them to where the separatist areas currently are?” asked Edmonds. In other words, will the Ukrainians be satisfied with merely preventing Russia from taking any new territory, or will they keep fighting until the “people’s republics” are also wiped from the map? (For now, Crimea is probably a lost cause.) And how long will Ukraine’s foreign backers continue to provide assistance if its goals expand?
Just a few weeks ago, these would have seemed like good problems to have. Ukraine’s forces still have to survive the next few weeks’ onslaught before they get to them.
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.