While Russia appears to have abandoned its plan to push deep into Ukraine’s heartland for the time being, its new declared goal of gaining control of much of the country’s east still threatens a protracted and bloody conflict.
According to analysts, Moscow will at the very least want to control the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, which make up the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, in order to claim some kind of military victory on May 9, when Russia commemorates the end of World War II.
Even the outcome of the Donbas conflict is uncertain, with Russian forces suffering from low morale and logistical issues following a botched attempt to take Kyiv, according to analysts. Oleksander Motuzianik, a spokesman for Ukraine’s defense ministry, warned on Monday that “The enemy is nearly finished preparing for an assault on the east. The assault will happen very soon.”
Russia may not be satisfied with these areas and instead seek to expand westward to control parts of Ukraine east of the Dnieper River.
After a 2014 conflict, pro-Russian separatists already controlled parts of the breakaway self-declared Donetsk and Lugansk regions.
However, as administrative entities within Ukraine, they did not have full control over these regions, and a key Russian war goal was always seen as expanding their reach. In addition, Russian forces want control of Mariupol, a strategic coastal city on the Sea of Azov that would allow Russia to seize a land corridor leading to the annexed peninsula of Crimea.
On Twitter, former French colonel Michel Goya said, “Russian forces are continuing to carry out limited attacks in Mariupol and northern Donbass while preparing to push more actively from Izyum towards the west of the Sloviansk-Kramatorsk stronghold,” close to current frontlines.
Despite a high number of casualties, resupply problems, and reports of low morale, Russia has the capability to push further west from the Donbass.
This could indicate that Moscow is eyeing Dnipro (formerly Dnipropetrovsk), a Dnieper River industrial hub southeast of Kyiv.
Russia’s strategy could be to “fix Ukrainian forces in the Donbas while also attempting to envelop them with the advance on Dnipro,” Ryan said, referring to a pincer movement that prevents an embattled force from retreating.
The fighting could quickly coalesce around urban targets, sparking insurgencies from residents backed by regular forces, as seen in the early weeks of the war. Both situations have the potential to cost both parties a lot of money.
A Western military source told reporters that the Russians “are going to have to enter cities in the Donbas, and it’s going to cost them,” estimating that 60,000 Russian troops had arrived in the region from the northern fronts.
Around 40,000 of Ukraine’s best-trained and most experienced soldiers have been deployed.
“They’re getting ready for something that will last a long time. However, we have no idea how long the Ukrainians will be able to hold out,” according to the source.
According to James Dobbins, a former US crisis diplomat who now works for the RAND Corporation, Ukraine’s leaders are preparing for tactical urban fighting if Donbas cities fall behind enemy lines.
“They’ve created a website with advice for ordinary citizens looking to engage in resistance activities,” Dobbins said, implying that Ukraine’s leaders are aware that the fight will be long.
Following its redeployment to the eastern front, Russia appears to have gained the upper hand. But, bolstered by the deep patriotic groundswell encouraged by their charismatic President Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukrainians have quasi-existential reasons to hold out.
Moscow’s immediate goals in the run-up to the symbolic May 9 holiday are likely to be secondary to achieving longer-term objectives before showing any willingness to negotiate a cease-fire.
But, as Dobbins warned, “experience shows that insurgent campaigns can last decades, that external assistance and a nearby sanctuary are often critical to insurgent success, and that counterinsurgency campaigns can be very long and manpower-intensive.”
“It’s difficult to see how the Russians could create enough victorious contact points to complete this spring offensive,” Goya says.