After more than four months of fierce fighting, Russia declared a major victory: complete control of one of the two provinces in the heart of Ukraine’s eastern industrial region.
But Moscow’s defeat of the last bastion of Ukrainian resistance in Luhansk Province came at a heavy price. The critical question now is whether Russia can muster enough force to launch a new offensive To complete the takeover of Donbass and gain elsewhere in Ukraine.
“Yes, the Russians captured the Luhansk region, but at what cost?” Asked Ole Zhdanov, a military analyst in Ukraine, noting that some Russian units participating in the battle lost up to half of their soldiers.
Even President Vladimir Putin acknowledged on Monday that Russian forces involved in operations in Luhansk need to “take a break and enhance their combat capabilities.”
This raises doubts about whether Moscow’s forces and their separatist allies are ready to quickly push into Donetsk, the other province that makes up Donbass. Observers estimated in recent weeks that Russia controlled about half of Donetsk, and the battle lines have not changed much since then.
What happens in the Donbass could determine the course of the war. If Russia succeeds there, it can free up its forces to seize more territory and impose the terms of any peace agreement. On the other hand, if Ukraine can hold the Russians in for a long time, it can build up the resources for a counterattack.
Russian fatigue had always been part of the plan for the Ukrainians, who began the conflict with their guns – but hoped that Western weapons could eventually tip the scales in their favour.
They are already making effective use of the heavy howitzers and advanced missile systems sent by the United States and other Western allies, and more is on the way.. But the Ukrainian forces said they are still far superior.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said recently that Russian forces fire 10 times more ammunition than the Ukrainian army.
After an unsuccessful attempt to advance lightning on the capital Kyiv In the early weeks of the war, Russian forces withdrew from many parts of northern and central Ukraine and turned their attention to the Donbass region, an area of mines and factories that Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces since 2014.
Since then, Russia has adopted a slow and steady approach that has allowed it to capture many of the remaining Ukrainian strongholds in Luhansk over recent weeks.
Zhdanov, the analyst, predicted that the Russians would likely rely on their superiority in firepower to “apply the same scorched-earth tactics and blow entire cities away” in Donetsk. On the same day that Russia claimed to have captured the last major city of Luhansknew artillery attacks were reported in cities in Donetsk.
But Russia’s approach is not without flaws. Moscow has not released casualty figures since it said about 1,300 soldiers were killed in the first month of the fighting, but Western officials said that was only a fraction of the real toll. Since then, Western observers have noted that the number of Russian forces involved in the fighting in Ukraine has dwindled, reflecting both severe attrition and the Kremlin’s failure to fill the ranks.
Limited manpower forced Russian commanders to avoid ambitious attempts to encircle large areas of the Donbass, opting for smaller maneuvers and relying on heavy artillery to slowly force the Ukrainians back.
The military has also relied heavily on the separatists, who have conducted several rounds of mobilization, and Western officials and analysts have said Moscow is increasingly dealing with private military contractors. It has also tried to encourage the Russian men who have done their homework to sign up again, although it is unclear how successful this will be.
While Putin has so far refrained from declaring a broad mobilization that might spark social discontent, recently proposed legislation suggested that Moscow was looking at other ways to renew the ranks. The bill would have allowed young recruits, who had been drafted into the army for a year and banned from combat, to immediately change their status and sign contracts to become fully professional soldiers. The draft was postponed amid heavy criticism.
Some Western officials and analysts argued that the attrition was so severe that it might force Moscow to suspend its offensive sometime later in the summer, but the Pentagon cautioned that although Russia had been waging troops and supplies at rapid rates, it still had abundant resources.
US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said Putin appeared to accept the slow pace of advances in the Donbass and now hoped to win by crushing the toughest Ukrainian forces.
“We think that Russia thinks that if they are really able to crush one of the most capable and well-equipped forces in eastern Ukraine … it will essentially stagnate the Ukrainian resistance and that could give them more,” Haines said.
If Russia wins in the Donbass, it can build on its capture of the southern Kherson region and part of neighboring Zaporizhzhya to try and eventually cut Ukraine from its Black Sea coast all the way to the Romanian border. If successful, it would deal a severe blow to the Ukrainian economy and also create a corridor into the breakaway region of Transnistria in Moldova that hosts a Russian military base.
But this is far from certain. Mykola Sonhorovsky of the Razumkov Center, a Kyiv-based think tank, predicted that increased supplies of Western heavy weapons, including HIMARS multiple rocket launchers, would help Ukraine turn the tide of the war.
“Arms supplies will allow Ukraine to start a counterattack in the south and fight for Kherson and other cities,” Sonhorovsky said.
But Ukraine has also faced heavy personnel losses: up to 200 soldiers a day in recent weeks of fierce fighting in the east, according to officials.
“Overall, the domestic military balance in Donbass favors Russia, but long-term trends still favor Ukraine,” wrote Michael Kaufman, an expert on Russian military affairs and director of programs at the Virginia-based CNA Research Center. However, this estimate is conditional on continued Western military assistance, and is not necessarily predictive of outcomes. This is likely to be a protracted war.”
Journalists Jurass Karmanau in Lviv, Ukraine, and Eric Tucker in Washington, Washington for the Associated Press contributed to this report.
Follow the Associated Press’ coverage of the Russian-Ukrainian war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine