Interview with a military expert about the looming Battle for Donbas

8 April, 04:54 PM
Russian military vehicle destroyed in Sumy Oblast (Photo:Dmytro Zhyvytskiy/Facebook)

Russian military vehicle destroyed in Sumy Oblast (Photo:Dmytro Zhyvytskiy/Facebook)

Russia’s primary military campaign in this war will be focused on the Battle for Donbas, despite their losses at Mariupol, Oleh Zhdanov, a military expert, told Radio NV in an interview on April 7. 

This interview has been edited for clarity.

NV: Lets start with news from the United States. Besides new sanctions, the U.S. Senate has passed the Ukraine Lend-Lease act, that would expedite and ramp up shipments of weapons to Ukraine. Now, the House of Representatives is yet to vote on it, but could you tell us about lend-lease, how could it help Ukraine?

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Zhdanov: It will work for us in the following way. Lend-Lease is a program, under which any countries that has weapons Ukraine needs, can give them to us, and the U.S. government guarantees to either pay for them, or replaces them. Ukraine will settle this account with Washington after the war. What is left of all this equipment after the war – well send back, and pay for the rest that was destroyed. Thats Lend-Lease in a nutshell.

NV: How quickly this scheme could start operating, and what else would be needed besides the decision by the United States?

Zhdanov: Besides the principal decision, the whole bureaucratic procedure could take one, maybe two weeks. Then theres the question of how everything will be shipped, exactly: by air, sea, or rail. Dont forget that, as you said, first the bill has to be passed by the House of Representatives, and then the U.S. President has to sign it into law. Only after that can the whole bureaucratic process begin, covering shipments.

NV: Which countries we can count on for these weapons then, whom do we turn to first?

Zhdanov: I think that the Pentagon and U.S. Treasury will be the main beneficiaries of this program. The treasury will issue financial guarantees, and the Department of Defense will work with Ukraines General Staff on the exact list of what and how much of it we need.

One of the benefits of Lend-Lease is that it allows us to get all kinds of weapon systems, not just limited to old Soviet gear, provided the United States are willing to reimburse any other countries – and themselves – for it. Im talking about their own state procurement. Basically, they can use these guarantees to order any kind of weapons Ukraine needs from their own military-industrial complex.

NV: Despite the Russian withdrawal from the north, another attack on Kyiv could still happen at some point. Our position in the east and south remains challenging. How would you forecast developments along the frontlines in the coming weeks?

Zhdanov: Id say that the north-eastern front is more or less safe right now. More or less – because their forces, after weve pounded them, are redeploying to central Russia, close to our borders, recovering. Following this, they will be sent to Ukraines east. Only if they are successful in Donbas, could the Russians threaten Kharkiv or Kyiv again. If that happens, they could reach Dnipro River, and follow it north, splitting up and attacking Kyiv and Kharkiv, our heartland.

But that remains an if”, if they succeed in the east. Were doing everything we can, and we have a very real chance to derail Russian plans. We can describe the Battle for Donbas as decisive for this war.

NV: How big is the threat to our coastal cities, in particular Odesa?

Zhdanov: Theres no major threat. Firstly, any landing attempt at Odesa without proper support from nearby ground troops would be suicidal. And Russian troops did not manage to advance along those lines, they were defeated. Right now, the fighting is going on near Kherson. Mykolaiv, Voznesensk have been defended, enemy offensives were repelled there.

Secondly, Russian marines that were supposed to land at Odesa either died at Mariupol, or are tied up in the ongoing Pacific exercises, due to the crisis in Russo-Japanese relations. Additionally, 40% of their largest landing ships were either destroyed, or need repairs. Its very unlikely they would try a seaborne assault, and they dont have the means to do it, Id say.

NV: Could you expand on this crisis with Japan?

Zhdanov: Well, Japan made very good use of this war, after they saw that all Russian forces from the east of the country were redeployed to its European part. By the way, even their Ussuriysk Army, that had only a skeleton crew, is currently redeploying westward. So Japan declared Kuril Islands historically Japanese territory, under Russian occupation. In response, Russia unilaterally withdrew from the process of signing a peace treaty with Japan – something that is still missing after WWII. To deter any potential Japanese military action, Moscow had to start these emergency Pacific Fleet military exercises. And those marines are currently gaming out naval assaults on Kuril Islands, repelling potential assaults by Japan. Basically, the Pacific Fleet is currently unable to reinforce Russian troops in the west.

NV: What can you say about Mariupol, hows the situation there? From what I understand, the enemy has a five-fold numerical advantage over our boys there.

Zhdanov: Oh, its more than that. Based on the data from our General Staff, on some directions in Mariupol, there are as many as 10 or 12 Russians, for each Ukrainian soldier. By the way, Mariupol is under attack from Russias elite troops: 22nd GRU Brigade, their spec ops forces, and the newest, most modern 150th Mechanized Infantry Division. It joined the ranks only in 2019, and has already lost almost half of its strength. The 1st Marine Brigade from Crimea is also engaged at Mariupol.

The force ratio is insane, even from a military planning perspective. Nevertheless, our defenders are steadfast in fighting for their land, their only motivation is to resist, as opposed to retreat or surrender. Mariupol is an example of what Russia can expect from tying to take any other major city in Ukraine.

Close quarters urban combat is very hard. What happened in Grozny during the first Chechen War is happening right now in Mariupol: Russia is sustaining massive losses. In Grozny they had a second go, during the second war, and they wont have that this time around. And so, they are mired in this battle, unable to advance along any major street, their forces burning down at the hands of our boys.

NV: Russia has no other options, and being unable to take the city, they are destroying it.

Zhdanov: Yes, they are trying to turn it into ruins, but it also isnt very effective. It took them six months to bomb Aleppo into oblivion, erasing the city. Mind you, even then Russians didnt take the city – the garrison simply left, since theres no point to defend empty ruins.

Defending Mariupol, in the meantime, is very important. The city is performing the strategically important task of entangling a large and effective Russian force. Without Mariupol, all these troops would be in Donbas, making our position there much more dire. Every day that Mariupol stands is of vital importance for our front in the east.

NV: How is the situation going to develop for civilians? Some estimate that as many as 100,000 civilians are still in Mariupol. What are the prospects of their evacuation?

Zhdanov: Local authorities in Donetsk and Luhansk regions are correctly warning the population of the need to evacuate, given the way Russia is waging war. In their ineptitude, they cant fight a regular army, so instead they are at war with people, be it the Syrian or Ukrainian people.

The 2007 Georgia war was a short affair, so this wasnt really the case. But even there, the Russians didnt care for collateral damage when bombing Tskhinvali or Abkhazia. Unfortunately, its who they are – not humans, but war criminals, at the very least. Thats how they prosecute war.

NV: Weve all seen their methods in the liberated towns of Kyiv oblast. Is this really their strategy: terror tactics and mass executions?

Zhdanov: I think we all need to understand Russian goals in this war, and how Putin aims to achieve them. We can turn to the recent article about this war by Dmitriy Medvedev. He was channeling Goebbels, laying out the concept of the genocide of Ukrainian nation.

If we followed the advice of some Europeans and laid down our arms to avoid bloodshed,” we would have simply been eradicated: executions, camps, deportations. Putin would have cleansed” the entire country, and every one of us would have suffered from his denazification.

NV: Our only option is to fight.

Zhdanov: I call this war one of national liberation. Were fighting for the very existence of our people, our nation, our state, our country.

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