"Battle for the Donbas": Russia launches new offensive in eastern Ukraine

"Battle for the Donbas": Russia launches new offensive in eastern Ukraine

The irony here is that Russia might have gotten control of the Donbas without firing a shot — and in fact largely already had it. Now, nearly two months into their attempt to annihilate Ukraine as a sovereign entity, Vladimir Putin has launched his consolation-prize phase of the war, aiming to get enough of Ukraine to sell as a victory.

Reuters calls it an “all-out assault,” but that’s what happened on February 24, too:

Russia launched its long-awaited all-out assault on east Ukraine on Tuesday, unleashing thousands of troops in what Ukraine described as the Battle of the Donbas, a campaign to seize two provinces and salvage a battlefield victory.

Ukrainian officials insisted their troops would withstand the new assault, which they said began overnight with massive Russian artillery and rocket barrages and attempts to advance across almost the entire stretch of the eastern front.

In the first reported success of Russia’s new assault, Ukraine said the Russians had seized Kreminna, a frontline town of 18,000 people in Luhansk, one of the two Donbas provinces.

“Kreminna is under the control of the ‘Orcs’. They have entered the city,” the province’s Ukrainian governor, Sergiy Gaidai, told a briefing, invoking the goblin-like creatures who appear in J.R.R. Tolkein’s fantasy books.

It’s never good to have to give ground. As the film version of George Patton said, “I don’t like to pay for the same ground twice.”  However, one has to recall what happened in February and March to understand that it’s sometimes not all bad, either. Russians penetrated deeply into Ukraine’s north, only to have their lines of communication fall apart and get stuck while overextended. The Ukrainian forces then spent weeks chewing them to pieces. This might turn out exactly the same for Russia, although their lines of communication in and through Donbas should be easier and more well established. It’s going to be tough for Ukraine to push back in that region.

At the moment, the Ukrainians say their lines are bending but not breaking:

Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s national security and defense council, said Russian forces attacked along nearly the entire front line in Donbas and Kharkiv, breaking through in two small cities. “Fortunately, our military is holding on,” Danilov said.

The Pentagon did not contradict the Ukrainian assessment but took a more cautious approach, with spokesman John Kirby saying the Russians “are shaping and setting the conditions for future offensive operations” with hundreds of missile strikes and artillery barrages.

The Russians are also taking aim at Ukraine’s lines of communication. Russian attacks have hit military targets as far west as Lviv:

At the same time, the relative calm that western Ukraine has largely enjoyed after more than 50 days of war was shattered when Russian missiles struck the city of Lviv, killing at least seven people and injuring 11, including a child. Regional officials said they were the first deaths recorded inside the limits of the city, which has been a safe haven for displaced Ukrainians and foreign diplomats, as well as aid workers and journalists.

A preliminary assessment indicated the strikes were launched from airplanes that came from the direction of the Caspian Sea, the regional governor, Maksym Kozytskyi, said at a news conference. Officials said the Russian forces hit a military warehouse as well as a commercial service station where local drivers go for tire repairs and carwashes. The warehouse was not being used by the military when it was hit, Kozytskyi said.

The Washington Post’s description of the main offensive in Donbas doesn’t mention air power, although they mention it in regard to the strikes on Lviv. It should be easier for Russians to fly sorties in eastern Ukraine, with their short routes from Russian airfields and no need to rely on the now-sunk Moskva for support. One has to wonder whether this is an omission on the Post’s part, or whether Russians have grown leery about flying against Ukrainians now armed with S-300s.

The New York Times’ report is also absent of any discussion of air power. It does, however, note that the Russians have changed battlefield strategy after their failures in their first offensive:

Now, with a narrower goal focused primarily on Ukraine’s east, the new military campaign that Russia said on Tuesday that it had begun will be much more methodical, according to Ukrainian and U.S. officials.

Instead of lightning attacks from the Russian front lines, Moscow’s forces — arrayed in a semicircle that stretches west to east from the city of Izium to Sieverodonetsk — have increased their artillery barrages and sent small detachments of troops to probe Ukrainian lines. Many of the Ukrainian troops that are in this region, known as the Donbas, are entrenched in earthworks that have been there for the better part of a decade.

Known as “shaping operations” in military circles, these smaller Russian attacks are often precursors to larger troop movements, or serve as a distraction from other fronts. In the past several days the Russians have sent around 11 more battalion tactical groups into the Donbas, bringing the number there to around 75, according to Pentagon officials. Each group has roughly a thousand troops.

The tactics may have improved. Has the military command? What about the quality of the troops and the communications between units and command? Tactics matter, logistics matters more, and morale matters most. These forces just got beaten by what was supposed to be a rag-tag militia over the last few weeks, and now they’re going up against entrenched fortifications and battle-tested native forces.

For the Ukrainians, what matters most now — besides their spirit and fortitude, already proven — is supply. The West has apparently decided to go all in on materiel, but they will need to get those munitions to the Donbas front as soon as possible to stop Russia from gaining any more ground. For now, we can expect some Russian advances with the added troop strength and perhaps some improved tactics. If Ukrainians get the arms they need, though, we can perhaps also expect the same outcomes we saw in the north.

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