The conquest by Russia of Eastern Ukraine and in particular of the two provinces of Donbass, announced objectives of Moscow, will go through urban and insurrectional combats that are murderous, long and whose outcome will also depend on Western aid.
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After a failed start to the offensive at the end of February, the Russian forces now assume to carry their effort to the east of the Dnieper river, which cuts the country in two and could mark the limit of current Russian ambitions, according to Western experts.
“The enemy has almost finished preparing an assault on the east. The attack will take place very soon,” Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman Oleksandre Motouzianik warned Monday.
After withdrawing its troops from the Kyiv region and northern Ukraine, Moscow has made its priority the total conquest of Donbass, part of which has been controlled since 2014 by pro-Russian separatists.
The Kremlin, in an assumed way, intends to take complete control of the border districts of Lugansk and Donetsk before May 9, the anniversary of the Nazi defeat against the Soviet army in 1945.
“Russian forces continue to carry out limited attacks in Mariupol and northern Donbass while preparing to push more actively from Yzium towards the west of the Sloviansk-Kramatorsk stronghold”, confirms former French colonel Michel Goya on Twitter.
“We should witness a level of operations” on May 9, “the two adversaries lacking offensive capabilities to significantly modify the front line”.
Russian offensives continue on the cities of Rubizhne, Popasna and Severodonetsk.
The Russians have positions that are not limited to the Donbass alone. They continue to shell Mariupol (south), which has not yet yielded, and seem to be interested in the whole territory east of Dniepro.
The city, rich in industries, is the fourth in the country and “constitutes a political and military objective” for the two belligerents, estimates Mick Ryan, retired American general, according to whom Moscow will be tempted to “fix the Ukrainian forces in the Donbass while trying to envelop them by advancing on the Dniepro”.
“Both will be bloody battles.”
Beyond military operations alone, Russian forces are trying to get their hands on permanent administrations and governance structures in the territories they control.
The first weeks of the war had already shown that the fighting was in danger of freezing around urban targets and turning into an insurrection. Two developments that will take a heavy toll on both sides.
The Russians “will have to return to the cities of Donbass, it will cost them dearly”, notes a Western military source, who estimates that 60,000 Russian soldiers have left the northern front to join this region.
Some 40,000 seasoned, trained and equipped Ukrainian soldiers are deployed there. “We are committed to something very long. However, we do not know what the capacity of the Ukrainians is to hold out over time,” she said. And “if they lose these men in the cauldron, the Ukrainians will no longer be able to oppose in the long term”.
James Dobbins, an analyst at the RAND corporation in Washington, notes for his part that the “Ukrainian command has already begun to form a resistance movement to fight behind enemy lines”. One website even provides “advice for ordinary citizens who want to engage in resistance.”
Russian forces seem superior with their redeployment in the East. But the Ukrainians have essential reasons for wanting to hold on and rely in particular on a strong patriotic feeling behind the charisma of President Volodymyr Zelenski.
“If Russian forces make a breakthrough in the east or are able to advance to Dnepro, we could see a change in the dynamics of the war,” said General Ryan.
Dnipro airport, completely destroyed. | AFP
But “experience shows that insurgent campaigns can last for decades (and) that foreign aid and an adjacent sanctuary are essential for the success of the insurgency,” recalls James Dobbins.
In any case, Moscow has both urgent objectives as May 9 approaches and other longer-term ones before possibly accepting negotiations. In both cases, nothing is played.
“We do not see how (the Russians) could create enough victorious points of contact to win in this spring offensive”, writes on his Twitter account Michel Goya.
“Western aid is obviously essential, whether in terms of intelligence, modern light equipment (missiles, drones, editor’s note) or heavier equipment”.