Russia Tries for a Do-Over of Ukraine Invasion in the Donbas

It’s going to be “very, very tough,” one European official said—but Ukrainians remain defiant.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
A Ukrainian multiple rocket launcher BM-21 "Grad" shells Russian troops' position, near Lugansk, in the Donbas region, on April 10, 2022.
A Ukrainian multiple rocket launcher BM-21 "Grad" shells Russian troops' position, near Lugansk, in the Donbas region, on April 10, 2022.
A Ukrainian multiple rocket launcher BM-21 "Grad" shells Russian troops' position near Luhansk, in the Donbas region, on April 10. Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images

Russia began a major new offensive in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region on Tuesday, top Ukrainian officials said, marking the start of a new campaign and a clear effort by the Kremlin to regain the initiative in a 54-day war that was meant to last three.

The offensive began with widespread artillery shelling that extended from the Donbas, where Russian troops had already spent most of the weekend trying to break through Ukrainian lines, along the entire front of the regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv, all the way to the southern city of Mykolaiv, another area where fighting has been deadlocked for weeks.

Russian forces have already notched one objective since the assault began, seizing the front-line town of Kreminna in the Luhansk region, but Ukrainian officials—who said they ceded the town to get to better defensive positions—insist they will repel the Russian offensive.

Russia began a major new offensive in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region on Tuesday, top Ukrainian officials said, marking the start of a new campaign and a clear effort by the Kremlin to regain the initiative in a 54-day war that was meant to last three.

The offensive began with widespread artillery shelling that extended from the Donbas, where Russian troops had already spent most of the weekend trying to break through Ukrainian lines, along the entire front of the regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv, all the way to the southern city of Mykolaiv, another area where fighting has been deadlocked for weeks.

Russian forces have already notched one objective since the assault began, seizing the front-line town of Kreminna in the Luhansk region, but Ukrainian officials—who said they ceded the town to get to better defensive positions—insist they will repel the Russian offensive.

“We will defend ourselves. We will fight. We will not give away anything Ukrainian,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video message that coincided with the start of the fighting. U.S. officials have been more circumspect, calling the uptick fighting a prelude to a larger Russian attack.

Several European officials said they believed Ukraine, despite being outmanned and outgunned, could ultimately blunt the Russian offensive, thanks to a combination of effective Ukrainian resistance, military aid from the West, and the poor performance of Russia’s military in the war so far.

“It’s going to be tough, very, very tough, but the Ukrainians are confident,” one senior Eastern European official said.

Russia withdrew most of its forces from its failed offensive on Kyiv by early April, spending weeks preparing the battlefield for the intensified fight in the Donbas. Russian and Ukrainian forces have fought intermittent skirmishes in the region for weeks in the run-up to the new offensive. In the southeastern port town of Mariupol, surrounded and besieged by Russian forces for weeks, Russia has given the last bastion of Ukrainian defenders an ultimatum to surrender or die as they close the net on the city.

As Russia regrouped from the first stage of the war, failing to take Kyiv and topple the Ukrainian government, it poured more troops into its eastern offensive. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the next phase of the operation is meant to “liberate” Donetsk and Luhansk from Ukraine as top Russian officials double down on false claims the invasion is aimed at “denazifying” Ukraine. (Russia meanwhile has deployed mobile crematoriums, especially around Mariupol, to cover up its mushrooming war crimes.)

A senior U.S. defense official said on Tuesday that Russia sent 13 additional battalion tactical groups into Ukraine in recent days, bringing its total to 78 such units in the war-torn country, and was massing tanks, artillery, helicopters, and logistical support units in Russian provinces just over the border. Russia is also bolstering its forces with foreign fighters and mercenaries who have fought as Russian proxies in Syria and Africa.

Human rights watchdogs have accused those forces of committing numerous human rights violations against civilians, including rape, torture, and execution. Kyiv’s regional police chief, Andriy Nebytov, said on Tuesday that more than 1,000 Ukrainian civilians were killed by Russian troops in recently liberated sites near the capital. Ukrainian authorities continue to extract bodies from mass graves in liberated towns ringing Kyiv, with most of the dead riddled with bullet wounds.

The United States and European powers have spent the last several days making frantic, last-minute preparations to resupply Ukrainian troops for the intensified war in the Donbas, where fighting has been simmering ever since Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine eight years ago. Five military aid shipments from U.S. President Joe Biden’s latest $800 million assistance package have already been delivered to the region, the senior U.S. defense official said, and seven more are incoming within the next 24 hours.

In recent weeks, Western countries have shifted from providing Ukraine primarily small arms and anti-tank guns to delivering larger weapons systems, tanks, and other heavy fighting vehicles as Ukraine prepares for the new Russian offensive. Ukrainian officials are also advocating for Eastern European countries in NATO to transfer MiG fighter jets to Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Russia is trying to ensure that the offensive in the Donbas doesn’t turn into another military quagmire and logistical nightmare like the drive to seize Kyiv, U.S. officials said. Using shorter lines of supply and massing larger numbers of troops, Russia hopes to stymie a large portion of Ukraine’s army in the flat terrain of the Donbas.

Russia’s military is “trying to learn and adapt to some of the mistakes they made earlier in the war, particularly around Kyiv,” the senior U.S. defense official said. “We still believe it is their intent to come both from north and south and to cut off the Donbas.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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