Analysts say looming battle for Donbas will prove decisive in Russia's war on Ukraine

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WASHINGTON — Stung by the strength of the Ukrainian resistance, Russia is looking to launch a major offensive under more favorable conditions after attempts to take Kyiv and other major cities have floundered. The new offensive will focus on the Donbas region, a contested swath of eastern Ukraine that includes two breakaway regions controlled by Moscow.

“They want to achieve some physical, tangible objectives in the Donbas within the next couple of weeks,” a senior Pentagon official told reporters during a Thursday briefing.

But given the ongoing challenges, Russian President Vladimir Putin is unlikely to deliver the knockout blow he desperately seeks, analysts say. Any territorial gains Russia does achieve are expected to be considerably less significant than what Putin envisioned when he launched the invasion of his much smaller and less powerful neighbor in late February.

A  Ukrainian soldier
A Ukrainian soldier stands guard in Donbas. (Fadel Senna/AFP via Getty Images)

What’s more, those gains could come at the expense of continued deterioration of readiness, morale and other factors already working against Russia.

The final border between Ukraine and Russian forces “might actually not be that different from what it is now," says Phillips P. O’Brien, a scholar of military strategy and history at St. Andrews University in the U.K., arguing against looking at the conflict purely in terms of territorial gains. “What matters is the state of the armed forces, not where they are on the map.”

The initial invasion was envisioned by top Russian Gen. Valery Gerasimov as a quick, ruthless and multipronged assault meant to stun the Ukrainians. Kyiv was to be toppled within days, and the entire “special operation” — as the Russians insist on still calling what is obviously now a full-scale war — was to be as relatively painless, in military terms, as the previous invasion of Ukraine, in 2014.

A spirited Ukrainian resistance, bolstered by Western anti-aircraft systems and other materiel, upended Gerasimov’s plan, forcing the Russians to retreat. “They weren’t planning on this being a long, drawn-out fight,” Benjamin H. Friedman, policy director at Defense Priorities, a Washington think tank, told Yahoo News in an interview. “They’ve now shifted their thinking."

According to the Pentagon, the Kremlin has amassed 65 battalion tactical groups, or BTGs, on Ukraine's eastern border. The question is whether that force will be sufficient to consolidate and expand Russian gains — or whether the same mistakes that plagued the first stage of the war are endemic to the Russian military as a whole, meaning that the second stage won’t be all that different.

"Russia may pour more manpower and firepower into Donbas," says Russia expert Michael Weiss, who recently traveled to Ukraine, "but it's still stuck with the army it had for the last 50 days, which was driven out of Kyiv by an adroit and creative adversary."

A satellite image shows the deployment of troops, tents and vehicles west of Soloti, Russia, near the border with Ukraine
A satellite image shows the deployment of troops, tents and vehicles west of Soloti, Russia, near the border with Ukraine. (Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies)

To head the new offensive, Putin appointed Gen. Aleksandr Dvornikov, who in 2015 was dispatched to Syria in Russia’s (ultimately successful) effort to prop up dictator Bashar Assad. Before that, he fought in Chechnya in what became a grinding years-long campaign that some fear could be replicated in Ukraine.

Dvornikov’s appointment might be taken as a sign that Putin “seems ready now to embrace long-standing principles of war: simplicity, unity of effort and focused logistics,” as retired U.S. Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt wrote in the Wall Street Journal earlier this week.

Kimmitt added that if precedent holds, the offensive Dvornikov is expected to soon launch in Donbas will feature the predictable mix of “large armored formations and enormous concentrations of artillery, rockets and missiles.”

The change in military leadership, however, could also be less a sign of fresh thinking than a recognition that the Kremlin simply had to do something to show the world — and ordinary Russians — that it was doing all it could to salvage an invasion it thought would be well over by the spring thaw.

“You don’t fire winning generals,” says military historian O’Brien. Dvornikov will have at his command the same poorly trained army that has already suffered thousands of deaths, according to NATO estimates.

Putin almost certainly envisioned a triumphant parade on May 9, when Russia celebrates its victory in World War II. Now he needs to stave off outright defeat, a scenario that would have been unthinkable only two months ago. The sinking of the flagship Moskva earlier this week was a reminder of how uncannily effective the Ukrainian resistance has proved.

(FILES) This file photo taken on August 29, 2013 shows the Moskva, missile cruiser flagship of Russian Black Sea Fleet, entering Sevastopol bay.  Russia's Moskva warship was hit by two Ukrainian missiles before it sank in the Black Sea, a senior Pentagon official said Friday, calling it a
(FILES) This file photo taken on August 29, 2013 shows the Moskva, missile cruiser flagship of Russian Black Sea Fleet, entering Sevastopol bay. Russia's Moskva warship was hit by two Ukrainian missiles before it sank in the Black Sea, a senior Pentagon official said Friday, calling it a "big blow" for Moscow. / AFP / Vasiliy BATANOV

“It is likely that this part of the war will be decisive,” Friedman said. “Victory-victory doesn't seem likely” for the Kremlin, he told Yahoo News, envisioning a drawn-out conflict with few meaningful attempts at a peace settlement in the near future.

The Russian army went through a much-touted reorganization in 2008, but the underprepared units fighting in Ukraine are more reminiscent of the bumbling and bloody first campaign in Chechnya — launched in 1994 by Putin’s predecessor Boris Yeltsin — than the kind of technically precise, efficient effort a Western military might have launched.

A campaign focused in eastern Ukraine does provide Russia with some advantages, however, among them open terrain and shorter supply lines. “Russians will want to bring the Ukrainians out into the open, into the steppe,” Friedman said. “It’s less urban terrain. Presumably they will at least be able to have more fights outside cities."

But even newfound topographic advantages could be undone for the Russians if, as some believe, spring rains turn unpaved roads to mud, making it difficult for tanks and armored vehicles to maneuver. Even before they were blitzed by the brutal Russian winter, German troops encountered that very fate in the fall of 1941, as they pushed toward Moscow and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).

“Weather will certainly be a factor in war, as it always is,” the defense official who briefed reporters on Thursday said, “and the fact that the ground is softer will make it harder for them to do anything off of paved highways,” especially when it comes to resupply logistics.

And, the official said, poor visibility could keep Russia’s from establishing air superiority over Ukraine, a critical factor in any major offensive. “It’s in and out,” O’Brien said of Russia’s current air campaign. “Come in, drop your bomb, leave.”

The lack of air support for ground units, combined with the relatively small size of the forces now preparing for the eastern campaign (the initial invasion featured 130 battalions, twice what Dvornikov will have at his disposal), make him skeptical about Russia’s prospects.

Ukrainian soldiers in Donbas
Ukrainian soldiers in Donbas last week. (Fadel Senna/AFP via Getty Images)

Ukrainians agree. They have called on the West to help them deal a shattering blow. “Ukraine can win the next phase of this war with timely and proper Western support,” wrote Nataliya Bugayova in a brief for the Institute for the Study of War, where she is a fellow.

“The outcome of this phase is far from determined,” Bugayova added.