Experts assess the future of Russia’s push towards the Donbas

26 April, 05:30 PM
Ukrainian military in the trenches at one of the positions in the Donetsk oblast, April 22, 2022 (Photo:REUTERS/Serhii Nuzhnenko)

Ukrainian military in the trenches at one of the positions in the Donetsk oblast, April 22, 2022 (Photo:REUTERS/Serhii Nuzhnenko)

If Russia does not dare to announce national mobilization, the battle for the Donbas, regardless of its outcome, will probably become the last major offensive for the Russian army in its full-scale war against Ukraine.

Michael Kofman, a senior fellow at the U.S. Center for Naval Analysis (CNA), an analyst of the Russian armed forces and one of the leading Western commentators on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, is convinced of that. He expressed his opinion on the new phase of the war in Ukraine in his tweets on April 23.

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NV summarized these assessments with the opinion of another military expert – Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in the United States. On April 23, the Economist published an article by Lee on Russia's current offensive in the Donbas, which Lee wrote as a guest author.

The conclusions of both experts are largely similar. Here are 10 key points:

1) So far, Russia has shown the world its army’s weaknesses, has been unable to capitalize on its advantages, and it may be took late for it to correct its mistakes.

"One of the surprising aspects of this war has been the extent to which Russia's strategy exacerbated the weaknesses of its armed forces while failing to maximize their strengths," Lee wrote.

He pointed to the Russians' problems with logistics and their inability to mass sufficient combat power to achieve many of its initial objectives, including the encirclement of the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.

Now, concentrating on southeastern Ukraine, the Russian military will try to mitigate some of these problems, Lee says.

However, he questioned whether it wasn't too late for Russia, and said that the answer would depend on which of the sides suffers more from exhaustion.

Lee says that although the exact losses of Ukrainian forces are unknown, Russia has suffered significant losses - they include a significant amount of military equipment, including helicopters and tanks. Additionally, two battalions of T-80U tanks (over 62), were destroyed or captured, out of six battalions of two tank regiments of the 4th tank division of Russia.

2) Without a national mobilization, the Donbas is the last major offensive the Russian military can attempt given the current state and availability of forces. Kofman draws this conclusion by taking into account the current state of Russian troops and the forces available to them.

"Whether it succeeds, or fails, the Russian military will be largely exhausted in terms of offensive potential," he tweeted.

For his part, Lee notes that national mobilization would require the Russian authorities to recognize the "special military operation" as a real war. And if they don’t do so, it will be problematic for Russia to form additional ground forces.

3) The scenario of the Russian offensive in the Donbas looks risky for the realization of Russia’s goals. Kofman states that "the Russian attack thus far seems to be an advance on Slovyansk from Izyum, pressing the Sievierodonetsk salient, and pushing southwest from Izyum (west of Kramatorsk) to attempt a partial envelopment of Ukrainian positions in the northern part of the Donbas."

"This is a risky operation," he tweeted.

"Ukrainian forces have been reinforcing around Kharkiv, and attacking to threaten the Russian ground lines of communication for this offensive. Even if Russian forces make significant gains, they could be pressed to hold territory, and will be vulnerable afterwards."

4) Russian reinforcements are "far from sufficient" to replace earlier losses suffered in Ukraine. Kofman notes that "Russian forces have taken heavy losses in manpower and equipment, with far fewer combat effective formations available."

"Not clear what we are calling 'BTGs' at this point and their level of manning," the expert wrote, saying that "in the south, Russian forces had been tied down in Mariupol."

"(Russian dictator Vladimir) Putin's announcement that they are going to avoid storming Azovstal probably reflects that they can't afford to lose further manpower and need those units for the Donbas offensive."

Lee also calls staff losses a significant problem for Russia. He noted that a month ago, NATO announced a figure of 40,000 Russian servicemen as casualties, either killed, wounded or taken prisoner, whereas the initial invasion force amounted to about 125 BTGs, a total of less than 100,000 troops.

As for the scale of the invaders' losses, Lee said that not all of them are assault forces, and this figure also includes those responsible for air defense, electronic warfare and other ancillary functions.

He further explained that even before the invasion, the Russian army differed from many NATO armies by its higher share of artillery forces in relation to so-called "mobile units," including tank and motorized infantry units. Such units, as well as elite units (special forces) and airborne troops, will be vital in the attack on the Donbas.

Lee stressed that it was the infantry who took the main brunt of Russian losses, adding that even before that, the lack of light infantry was one of Russia’s clear weaknesses.

5) The appointment of Alexander Dvornikov as the overall commander for Ukraine will not be a turning point for Russia.

"Dvornikov's appointment changes little,” Kofman tweeted.

“There's not much distinguishing him from other Russian generals. The more pertinent question is how/if the Russian military has reorganized command and control, air support, and logistics for this offensive.”

Separately, he added that "if the Russian military sends units in piecemeal, sticking to roads, with narrow advances – they will be defeated by Ukraine as they have in other battles."

"I've seen them make adjustments in some areas, but some of the problems (of the Russian army) are structural," Kofman said.

6) Any success of Russia will be conditional, any advance will be slow and costly. Lee recalls that the attacking side usually strives to achieve a threefold (if not more) advantage over defenders.

The expert says that this level of dominance is now likely to be unattainable for Russia, except for advantages at the tactical level in some places.

He predicts that Russia will try to compensate for this lack of manpower with air strikes and artillery, as well as more actively using the poorly trained forces of the “LPR/DPR" puppet authorities.

Lee states that this is not a recipe for a quick breakthrough, while Ukraine’s Armed Forces have already demonstrated that they are capable, resourceful and have good leadership. He says that it is likely that any progress by Russia will be slow and costly.

Kofman shares a similar opinion, noting that Ukraine has been deploying reinforcements to Zaporizhzhya, Kharkiv and the Donbas.

"Russia has made little effort to disrupt ground lines of communication into the Donbas,” Kofman noted.

"This means that a Russian success is at best contingent and Ukraine could be in position to launch counteroffensives.”

7) Ukraine can afford "tactical" point retreats. Lee says that as long as Ukraine is able to resist Russia's attempts to surround a significant part of its troops, Russia's tactical or operational successes are unlikely to help it achieve strategic goals.

At the same time, the expert is convinced that Ukraine can afford to trade in space in exchange for time, retreating to territories that are easier to defend, or even to cities, if necessary. Lee believes that even if Ukraine loses territory, but at the same time is able to inflict greater losses on Russia than it takes, it can be considered a success.

After all, the expert says, Russia needs forces not only to conduct offensives, but also to hold positions and rotate units on the front line for recovery. And the constant depletion of forces can make such tasks unbearable for Russian troops.

Kofman in turn writes that while "Ukrainian forces appear to have conducted a tactical retreat in some areas, blown bridges,” they “at the same time could position for a counter attack to threaten the sustainment of the Russian offensive."

8) Russia's military goals are obvious, which deprives them of elements of surprise, says Lee, adding this means that Ukraine has the opportunity to thwart these plans and can seize the initiative. According to him, this may include disruption of Russian supply channels, probably the destruction of bridges and roads to force Russian units to move through wetlands; or flank raids and attacks on Russian troops around Kherson and Kharkiv; or even additional raids on Russian territory, such as a helicopter attack on an oil depot in Belgorod on April 1 (Ukraine has not officially commented on the this incident).

Lee emphasizes that Kyiv is interested in not allowing Russia to dictate the terms of the war.

9) The balance of power in the war begins to level off, not in favor of Russia, due to Ukraine’s continual supply of Western weapons.

"Expansion of support to include armor, IFVs, and artillery is going to allow Ukraine to replace losses and equip reserve brigades (esp. artillery and ammunition which Ukraine needs),” says Kofman.

“Hence the general trajectory of correlation of forces in this war is not in Russia’s favor.”

10) The outcome of the battle for the Donbas is not obvious, and much depends on Ukraine's initiatives. Kofman points out that "Donbas is a relatively urban region,” saying that the Russian military will “likely need Severodonetsk to control Luhansk, and Slovyansk with Kramatorsk in order to claim they have captured Donetsk. These could end up prolonged and costly fights in urban terrain."

And noting the prospect of depletion of Russian forces for further full-scale offensives, Kofman writes: "Does this presage a stalemate? Not necessarily. Ukraine has its own offensive options. Russia may next try to consolidate control over territory held and pressure Ukraine via blockade. Its too early to predict what the next phase might look like and it depends on what Ukraine chooses to do."

Lee in turn calls the availability of internal communication lines one of the main advantages of Ukraine, which allows it to redeploy troops and supplies through its territory faster than Russia can.

He emphasizes that Ukraine has also mobilized its territorial defense units, which have already gained combat experience.

Lee believes that Russian dictator Vladimir Putin will continue the war for as long as he believes that his armed forces have a chance to move forward. However, Lee believes that the scale of the problem that Russia faces, both numerically and taking into account rates of loss, suggest that Russia's offensive in the Donbas is likely to lead to only partial successes, if any.

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