After more than four months of bitter fighting, Russia won a decisive victory: complete control of one of two provinces in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland.
But Moscow’s capture of the last major stronghold of the Ukrainian resistance in Luhansk province came at a heavy price. The critical question now is whether Russia can muster enough strength for a new offensive to complete the conquest of Donbass and make gains elsewhere in Ukraine.
“Yes, the Russians captured the Luhansk Oblast, but at what cost?” asked Oleh Zhdanov, a military analyst in Ukraine, noting that some Russian units involved in the battle had lost up to half their soldiers .
Even President Vladimir Putin acknowledged on Monday that Russian troops deployed in Luhansk need to “take a little rest and strengthen their combat capability.”
That casts doubt on whether Moscow’s forces and their separatist allies are prepared to rapidly advance deeper into Donetsk, the other province that makes up Donbass. Observers estimated in recent weeks that Russia controlled about half of Donetsk, and the battle lines have changed little since then.
What happens in the Donbas could determine the course of the war. If Russia succeeds there, it could free up its forces to conquer more land and dictate the terms of a peace deal. On the other hand, if Ukraine manages to pin down the Russians for a longer period of time, it could build up the resources for a counteroffensive.
Exhausting the Russians has long been part of the plan of the Ukrainians, who entered the conflict with lesser arms — but hoped Western arms might eventually tip the scales in their favor.
They are already effectively using heavy howitzers and advanced missile systems sent by the US and other Western allies, and more are on the way. But Ukraine’s armed forces have said they remain heavily outnumbered.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Hanna Malyar recently said that the Russian armed forces fire ten times more ammunition than the Ukrainian military.
After a failed attempt at a lightning-fast advance on the capital, Kyiv, in the first weeks of the war, Russian forces withdrew from many parts of northern and central Ukraine and turned their attention to the Donbass, a Moscow-backed region home to mines and factories where separatists have been fighting since 2014 against Ukrainian forces.
Since then, Russia has taken a slow and steady approach that has allowed it to seize several remaining Ukrainian strongholds in Luhansk over the past few weeks.
While Ukrainian officials acknowledged that their troops have withdrawn from the city of Lysyhansk, the last stronghold of their resistance, the presidential office said Tuesday the military is still defending small areas in Luhansk.
Analyst Zhdanov predicted that the Russians would likely rely on their firepower to “use the same scorched-earth tactic of blowing away entire cities” in Donetsk. On the same day that Russia claimed it had captured the last major city in Luhansk, new artillery attacks on cities in Donetsk were reported.
But Russia’s approach is not without drawbacks. Moscow has not given casualty figures, as it said about 1,300 soldiers were killed in the first month of fighting, but Western officials said that was only a fraction of actual casualties. Since then, Western observers have noted that the number of Russian troops involved in fighting in Ukraine has dwindled, reflecting both heavy attrition and the Kremlin’s failure to replenish ranks.
Limited manpower has forced Russian commanders to avoid ambitious attempts to encircle large areas in the Donbass, opting for minor maneuvers and relying on heavy artillery fire to slowly force the Ukrainians to retreat.
The military has also relied heavily on separatists, who have conducted multiple rounds of mobilization, and Western officials and analysts said Moscow has increasingly engaged private military contractors. It has also tried to encourage the Russian men who have done their duty to re-enroll, although it is unclear how successful this has been.
While Putin has so far refrained from declaring a broad mobilization that could stoke social discontent, recently proposed legislation indicated that Moscow was looking for other ways to fill out the ranks. The law would have allowed young conscripts who are drafted into the army for a year and disqualified from combat to immediately change their status and sign contracts to become full-fledged professional soldiers. The draft was shelved under heavy criticism.
Some Western officials and analysts have argued that the attrition is so severe it could force Moscow to suspend its offensive sometime later this summer, but the Pentagon has warned that Russia is still churning out troops and supplies at a plentiful pace Resources.
Avril Haines, director of US intelligence, said Putin appeared to accept the slow pace of the advance in Donbass and now hopes for victory by crushing Ukraine’s most battle-hardened forces.
“We believe that Russia thinks that if it really can crush one of the most capable and well-equipped armed forces in eastern Ukraine … that will lead to a fundamental collapse of the Ukrainian resistance and that perhaps this will give them more power options.” ‘ Haines said.
If Russia wins in Donbass, it could build on its conquest of the southern Kherson region and part of neighboring Zaporizhia in an attempt to eventually cut off Ukraine from its Black Sea coast to the Romanian border. If successful, it would deal a devastating blow to Ukraine’s economy and also create a corridor to Moldova’s separatist region of Transnistria, home to a Russian military base.
But that is anything but certain. Mykola Sunhurovsky of the Razumkov Center, a Kyiv-based think tank, predicted growing stocks 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 counteroffensive in the south and fight for Kherson and other cities,” Sunhurovsky said.
But Ukraine is also grappling with massive personnel losses: up to 200 soldiers a day in recent weeks of intense fighting in the east, officials said.
“Overall, the local military balance in Donbass favors Russia, but long-term trends still favor Ukraine,” wrote Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military and program director at Virginia-based think tank CNA. “However, this estimate is dependent on continued military support from the West and is not necessarily predictive of results. This is likely to be a protracted war.”
Associated Press journalists Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Ukraine, and Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report.
Follow AP’s coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine