After more than four months of fierce fighting, Russia has won a key victory: full control of one of two provinces in the industrial heartland of eastern Ukraine.
But Moscow’s rout of the last remaining bulwark of Ukrainian resistance in Luhansk province came at a high price. The crucial question now is whether Russia can muster enough forces for a new offensive to complete its takeover of Donbass and make gains elsewhere in Ukraine.
“Yes, the Russians have taken over the Lugansk region, but at what cost?” asked Oleh Zhdanov, a military analyst in Ukraine, noting that some Russian units involved in the battle lost up to half of their soldiers.
Even President Vladimir Putin acknowledged on Monday that the Russian troops involved in the action in Lugansk should “take a rest and strengthen their combat capacity”.
This raises doubts as to whether forces from Moscow and their separatist allies are ready to push deeper quickly into Donetsk, the other province that makes up Donbass. Observers have estimated in recent weeks that Russia controls about half of Donetsk, and battle lines have changed little since then.
What happens in the Donbass could determine the course of the war. If Russia succeeds there, it could free up its forces to seize even more land and dictate the terms of any peace deal. If Ukraine, on the other hand, manages to corner the Russians for an extended period, it could build up the resources needed for a counter-offensive.
Exhausting the Russians has long been part of the plan of the Ukrainians, who started the conflict outgunned – but hoped that Western weapons might eventually tip the scales in their favor.
They are already effectively using heavy howitzers and advanced rocket systems sent by the United States and other Western allies, and more are on the way. But Ukrainian forces said they remained heavily overwhelmed.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Hanna Malyar recently said that Russian forces fire 10 times more ammunition than the Ukrainian army.
After a failed attempt at a lightning advance on the capital of Kyiv in the first weeks of the war, Russian forces withdrew from many parts of northern and central Ukraine and turned their attention to Donbass, a region mines and factories where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces since 2014.
Since then, Russia has taken a slow and steady approach that has seen it seize several remaining Ukrainian strongholds in Lugansk in recent weeks.
Zhdanov, the analyst, predicted that the Russians would likely rely on their firepower to “apply the same scorched earth tactics and blow up entire towns” in Donetsk. On the same day that Russia claimed to have taken the last major city of Luhansk, new artillery attacks were reported in towns in Donetsk.
But Russia’s approach is not without drawbacks. Moscow did not give a casualty figure as it said some 1,300 troops had been killed in the first month of fighting, but Western officials said that was only a fraction of actual losses. Since then, Western observers have noted that the number of Russian troops involved in the fighting in Ukraine has fallen, reflecting both high attrition and the Kremlin’s inability to fill its ranks.
Limited manpower forced Russian commanders to avoid ambitious attempts to encircle large areas in the Donbass, opting for smaller maneuvers and relying on heavy artillery barrages to slowly force the Ukrainians to retreat.
The military has also relied heavily on the separatists, who have carried out several rounds of mobilization, and Western officials and analysts have said Moscow is increasingly relying on private military contractors. He has also tried to encourage Russian men who have served their tour of duty to re-enlist, although it is unclear how successful this has been.
While Putin has so far refrained from declaring a broad mobilization that could foment social unrest, a recently proposed bill has suggested Moscow is looking for other ways to replenish ranks. The bill would have allowed young conscripts, enlisted in the army for a year and banned from combat, to immediately change their status and sign contracts to become full-fledged professional soldiers. The project was shelved amid heavy criticism.
Some Western officials and analysts have argued that the attrition is so heavy it could force Moscow to suspend its offensive at some point later this summer, but the Pentagon has warned that while Russia has contributed troops and supplies at a rapid pace, it has abundant resources.
US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said Putin seemed to accept the slow progress in Donbass and now hoped to win by crushing the most battle-hardened Ukrainian forces.
“We believe that Russia believes that if it is able to really crush one of the most capable and well-equipped forces in eastern Ukraine…it will lead to a collapse of Ukrainian resistance and it could give greater opportunities,” Haines said.
If Russia wins in the Donbass, it could build on its capture of the southern Kherson region and part of neighboring Zaporizhzhia in an eventual attempt to cut Ukraine off from its Black Sea coast to the Romanian border. If successful, it would deal a crushing blow to Ukraine’s economy and also create a corridor to the breakaway Moldovan region of Transnistria which hosts a Russian military base.
But it is far from certain. Mykola Sunhurovsky of the Razumkov Center, a Kyiv-based think tank, predicted that the growing supply of Western heavy weapons, including HIMARS multiple rocket launchers, will help Ukraine turn the tide of the war.
“The arms deliveries will allow Ukraine to launch a counter-offensive in the south and fight for Kherson and other cities,” Sunhurovsky said.
But Ukraine has also faced massive personnel losses: up to 200 troops a day in recent weeks of fierce fighting in the east, officials say.
“Overall, the local military balance in Donbas favors Russia, but long-term trends still favor Ukraine,” wrote Michael Kofman, Russian military expert and program director at the think tank. CNA based in Virginia. “However, this estimate is conditional on sustained Western military assistance and is not necessarily predictive of outcomes. This will likely be a protracted war.
Associated Press reporters Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Ukraine, and Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report.
Follow AP’s coverage of the Russian-Ukrainian War at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine