Russia’s Make-or-Break Gambit in the Donbas

Putin is hungry for some sort of win by Russia’s May 9 Victory Day.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (C), Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (L) and Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy, Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov (R) attend the Navy Day parade in St.Petersburg on July 25, 2021.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (C), Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (L) and Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy, Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov (R) attend the Navy Day parade in St.Petersburg on July 25, 2021.
From left to right: Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, President Vladimir Putin, and Adm. Nikolai Yevmenov, the commander in chief of the Russian Navy, attend the Navy Day parade in St. Petersburg, Russia, on July 25, 2021. Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

Having failed to achieve their initial goal of a lightning campaign to seize the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, Russian forces are focusing their efforts on the Donbas region in the country’s east in what is likely to be a decisive—and bloody—next chapter of the war, Ukrainian and Western officials believe.

Despite their size advantage at the outset, Russian forces have been left battered and depleted by several weeks of fierce fighting, which has been compounded by poor coordination and a lack of basic supplies. With U.S. officials estimating that Moscow has lost almost 20 percent of the combat power it had amassed around Ukraine’s borders ahead of the invasion, Russian forces have been left scrambling to piece together combat-ready units as they seek to take swaths of eastern Ukraine.

“If the Ukrainians can withstand this coming offensive, the Russians are in a really dangerous position,” said Justin Bronk, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a London-based think tank.

Having failed to achieve their initial goal of a lightning campaign to seize the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, Russian forces are focusing their efforts on the Donbas region in the country’s east in what is likely to be a decisive—and bloody—next chapter of the war, Ukrainian and Western officials believe.

Despite their size advantage at the outset, Russian forces have been left battered and depleted by several weeks of fierce fighting, which has been compounded by poor coordination and a lack of basic supplies. With U.S. officials estimating that Moscow has lost almost 20 percent of the combat power it had amassed around Ukraine’s borders ahead of the invasion, Russian forces have been left scrambling to piece together combat-ready units as they seek to take swaths of eastern Ukraine.

“If the Ukrainians can withstand this coming offensive, the Russians are in a really dangerous position,” said Justin Bronk, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a London-based think tank.

Western officials expect to see a significant escalation in fighting in eastern Ukraine in the coming weeks as Russia continues to redeploy troops and equipment to the region. A senior U.S. defense official told reporters on Wednesday that Russia has established three major staging areas for the fight in the Donbas, in the Russian towns of Belgorod, Valuyki, and Rovenki. Russia is also trying to improve mobility and firepower south of the strategically important city of Izyum, near Kharkiv, in an effort to isolate Ukrainian troops in the Donbas, the official said, including by building a bridge over a local river.

But the official added that the United States continues to see signs of morale and command problems deep within the Russian ranks, including recent intelligence reporting that officers—not just conscripts—are frustrated with military performance and leadership. Still, Western officials expect Russia to launch the second phase imminently.

“We expect a huge assault in the coming days,” said a European official speaking on background on condition of anonymity.

Commercial satellite imagery captured this week and shared by Maxar Technologies shows a new deployment of troops, armored vehicles, and support equipment close to the borders of Ukraine. A convoy of Russian vehicles, which U.S. defense officials believe contains command and control elements as well as a support battalion, has been spotted moving south toward Izyum.

Less than two months after Russia began its invasion, the war has already taken a number of unexpected turns. Prior to the invasion, many experts were pessimistic about how long the Ukrainian armed forces could hold out against the much larger and better resourced Russian military. But operational blunders by the Russians and a fierce and smart Ukrainian resistance have already forced Moscow to significantly downgrade its war aims—for now at least.

Ukrainian and Western officials believe that Russia is feeling self-imposed pressure to achieve some kind of victory ahead of May 9, the anniversary of Nazi Germany’s surrender in World War II, which is celebrated with a large military parade in Moscow every year.

One immediate target that the Kremlin could try to spin as a victory would be seizing full control of the besieged city of Mariupol on the southern coast, said the European official, who added that roughly one-third of the city remained under Ukrainian control. The city, which prior to the war had a population of almost half a million, has defied expectations, holding out for several weeks despite intense Russian bombardment.

Russia’s self-imposed May deadline could also backfire, forcing it to send in big numbers of troops before they’re ready in pursuit of a hasty victory.

“Now it’s very clearly very much on Russia’s mind,” a Western diplomat said. With so many Russian troops being sent into the war, the diplomat questioned who would be left to participate in the annual military parade. “Where are their troops coming from that would normally parade because they’re sending so many of them? It feels like they’re left with a few students—some 17-year-olds—[to put] on parade.”

Despite scaling back on initial hopes of toppling Kyiv, seizing the Donbas republics of Donetsk and Luhansk would still give the Kremlin a narrative to sell to the Russian public. In his speech announcing the invasion in February, Russian President Vladimir Putin baselessly claimed he was forced to intervene to prevent a “genocide” in the region. Instead, in the words of U.S. President Joe Biden this week, Putin has unleashed a Russian genocide against Ukraine, littering once peaceful Ukrainian towns with mass graves and mobile crematoriums.

In terms of their relative strengths, the Russian and Ukrainian forces are a mirror image of each other. Despite heavy losses, Russia still has a significant amount of equipment and armaments in reserve—but a force that is severely bruised by the fighting and is being supplemented with mercenaries and paid foreign fighters, according to the European official. In March, NATO officials estimated that as many as 40,000 Russian troops had been captured, killed, wounded, or gone missing during the first month of the war.

“The biggest challenge is taking a bunch of units, badly mauled in the fighting, [and] integrating this disparate force into an offensive that will include several operational directions of where they’re going to attack,” Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military at CNA, a think tank, previously told Foreign Policy.

Kyiv’s forces, on the other hand, remain highly motivated and know the terrain well, with many having already served in the Donbas war against Russian proxies that began in 2014. Ukrainian forces, however, are dependent on Western capitals for ammunition, anti-tank weapons, heavy weaponry, armored vehicles, tanks, and new aircraft, among other things.

In addition to the 8-mile-long convoy, Russia has several additional lines of vehicles moving into place for offensive operations, according to satellite images, including near the Ukrainian cities of Barvinkove and Slovyansk. But it isn’t yet clear if they will be introduced into battle slowly or whether Russia will attempt another rapid large-scale assault—and Moscow has not shown so far the tactical military competence needed to rapidly encircle Ukrainian troops.

“If Russian forces make a breakthrough and capture these towns plus the surrounding area, they could succeed in enveloping the bulk of Ukrainian forces in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts,” said Franz-Stefan Gady, a research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “In order to do so, however, Russian forces must show better tactical competence—that is, more effective combined arms maneuvers—underpinned by solid logistical support than has been the case in the first phase of this war.”

Top U.S. Defense Department officials have already indicated that they are expecting a more intense toe-to-toe battle in the Donbas—some of Ukraine’s flattest land—as opposed to Russian long-range strikes that characterized the abortive Kremlin push to capture Kyiv. Speaking at a congressional hearing last week, Gen. Mark Milley, the U.S. military’s top officer, said the terrain in southeastern Ukraine was “more open and lends itself to armor mechanized offensive operations on both sides.”

After speaking with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday, Biden announced an $800 million military aid package to Ukraine that would help prepare the war-torn country for the close-in fight in the Donbas, including artillery systems, armored personnel carriers, and helicopters, none of which the United States had previously provided to Kyiv. Several European countries are also supplying advanced weapons.

As the war has dragged on, Ukraine’s Western partners have proved increasingly willing to provide more sophisticated and lethal weapons, but current and former Ukrainian officials fear that the pace of supply is not fast enough. Andriy Zagorodnyuk, who served as Ukraine’s defense minister from 2019 to 2020, compared the pace of supply to trying to put out a fire using one glass of water at a time instead of a bucket.

“Essentially, we have two scenarios right now. Scenario No. 1: We have enough equipment, and we turn this whole thing into a counteroffensive and squeeze them out of Ukraine,” he said. “The other scenario is this long, exhausting war.”

While the Pentagon reported on Tuesday that there had been a decrease in Russian airstrikes in Ukraine, the Russian Air Force is likely to feature more prominently in the coming battle for the Donbas. Having failed to take out Ukrainian air defenses in the opening days of the war, Russian airstrikes have been limited and largely confined to areas close to the country’s borders. With limited stocks of precision-guided munitions, Russian pilots have had to fly low and on predictable flight paths, making them vulnerable to attack from Ukrainian forces armed with surface-to-air missiles, said RUSI’s Bronk. “As they focus more on the east and the south, that’s allowing their aircraft to have greater prominence,” he said.

With Russia’s military exhausted from heavy losses, and Ukraine under pressure in besieged Mariupol and publicly demanding more ammunition and heavy weaponry from the West, the fight for the Donbas is beginning to have the feel of a make-or-break phase of the war, experts told Foreign Policy.

“If this gets bogged down, it’s not clear what’s next as far as Russian decision-making,” Samuel Bendett, an advisor at CNA and a member of its Russia Studies Program, said in an interview. “It feels like in this reorganization almost everything is on the line right now as far as the Russian military is concerned.”

If the offensive does succeed in securing large swaths of new territory and encircling the large pocket of Ukrainian troops fighting in the Donbas, it would give Moscow substantial leverage in future peace talks—and perhaps even a toehold from which to launch a renewed assault on Kyiv.

“Clearly, both militaries have been exhausted,” Bendett added. “The question is, who is more exhausted right now?”

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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