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Who has the advantage in the war for eastern Ukraine?

The “battle of the Donbas” will be a very different fight than what we’ve seen so far.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once famously cautioned following a decisive battlefield victory in 1942, when the tide of World War II seemed to be turning in the allies’ favor, that it was “not the end, not even the beginning of the end but, possibly, the end of the beginning.”

It’s a phrase that may apply to the recent withdrawal of Russian forces from the areas around Kyiv: an “end of the beginning moment” for the war in Ukraine.

Russia launched a three-front invasion on Feb. 24, with the apparent goal of toppling the Ukrainian government. Nearly eight weeks into the war, that initial goal is almost certainly out of reach, thanks to stiffer-than-expected Ukrainian resistance, substantial international help and well-documented logistical and strategic difficulties for Russia. Now, Russia is focused on a more modest objective: an offensive aimed at taking over the contested region of southeastern Ukraine known as the Donbas.

Two months ago, few outside analysts gave Ukraine’s forces much chance of withstanding the Russian onslaught. Many predicted a Russian victory within days. Now, few doubt Ukraine’s will or ability to fight back. But the battle of the Donbas will be a very different sort of fight and one that may play more to Russia’s strengths. Both sides are likely to face difficult military and political questions in the weeks to come.

The new war

The Russian goal now appears to be to secure control over that larger area, before agreeing to a ceasefire. Though significantly less than the regime change Russia originally hoped for, this would allow Putin to declare victory in what he continues to call a “special military operation.” It would also give the Kremlin an area rich in natural resources, including vast reserves of coal. A secondary goal: If Russia can successfully take the city of Mariupol, on the sea of Azov (as of this writing, a last bastion of Ukrainian forces is holding out, but that battered city is mostly under Russian control), Russia will have largely succeeded in creating a “land bridge” between areas it controls in eastern Ukraine and the annexed peninsula of Crimea.

Advantage Russia?

From a Russian perspective, the war may be about to get easier. In their offensives thus far, Russian forces have been stretched thin, deployed in many parts of the country and often relying on small raids that have left them vulnerable to Ukrainian ambush. Hence the frequent reports of Russian troops and armored vehicles taken out by Ukrainian snipers and missiles. Now, Russian forces are massed in one part of Ukraine and operating much closer to Russian territory. The war in Donbas is more likely to resemble traditional World War II-style combat with an established front line in which the Russians have advantages in both manpower and firepower.

The Donbas is also much better suited for Russia’s artillery-first style of fighting. “If you look at battles for Kyiv, they were urban battles where the Ukrainians had the advantage of knowing the terrain, and they outnumbered the Russian forces. And that gave Ukrainians advantage in a close fight,” Vershinin told Grid. “Donbas is an open steppe. It’s grasslands, similar to our Great Plains. Out there, there is no way to hide. So Ukrainian troops, fighting in the open, are going to be destroyed by the Russian superior firepower.”

The battle for Donbas could also see more use of Russian air power, which has been conspicuous by its relative absence so far, said CNA’s Edmonds. “[Russian planes] would be flying over separatist areas to attack things just beyond the line of contact,” he told Grid. “And so much of your flight path would be secure as opposed to just flying all around Kyiv where every piece of terrain is enemy terrain.”

Meet the new boss

Advantage Ukraine?

Given the favorable terrain, Donbas might have been a relatively easy fight for Russia if it had concentrated all its forces there two months ago. It might have been that one-week war that many had anticipated. Now it’s a different story. “They’re not going into this fresh,” Edmonds noted. “They’ve really had their nose bloodied, and they’ve lost a lot of people.”

“With current casualty and major equipment loss rates continuing, my guess is that Russia will not have the ability to take this fight into June,” IISS’s Gady told Grid. “If the war goes on with casualty rates similar to the first weeks of the war, Russia will need a longer operational pause in June and July, while reserves are being mobilized and additional reservists called up.”

Questions for Ukraine

One reason it’s difficult to make firm predictions about the battle for the east is that, as Edmonds put it, “We don’t have very clear picture into the Ukrainian army. We just haven’t concentrated on it as much, and a lot of information is purposely kept out of the mainstream media.”

Whatever its strength, Ukraine’s task is simple, if not easy, for the next few weeks: Fight back as hard as possible and push for as much foreign aid as possible. If its troops in the east are encircled or face heavy losses, the Ukrainian government will start to face difficult choices. Ukraine could withdraw its forces to more easily defensible positions farther west, but that could make Russian control of the Donbas effectively a “fait accompli.” If the Ukrainians defy the odds again and can hold out until Russia’s personnel problems start to bite, they face a different set of choices.

“Seized with a recent victory, are they going to try to push the Russians out of Ukraine writ large or are they going to try to hold them to where the separatist areas currently are?” asked Edmonds. In other words, will the Ukrainians be satisfied with merely preventing Russia from taking any new territory, or will they keep fighting until the “people’s republics” are also wiped from the map? (For now, Crimea is probably a lost cause.) And how long will Ukraine’s foreign backers continue to provide assistance if its goals expand?

Just a few weeks ago, these would have seemed like good problems to have. Ukraine’s forces still have to survive the next few weeks’ onslaught before they get to them.

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