Members of the 56th Guards Air Assault Brigade of the Russian Airborne Forces. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The widely-heralded, much-feared Russian offensive in the Donbas has in 17 days made slow progress in grabbing key terrain and has so far failed to wipe out the main force Ukrainian army.

This is despite the highly vulnerable state of the Ukrainian forces, surrounded on three sides but still holding out. 

But with “demilitarization” being one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s stated war aims, if the Kremlin raises its game and closes off the salient, it could change the war.

If Russian forces trap and destroy the main Ukrainian maneuver force in Donbas, their own forces would win the freedom of maneuver to rampage across much of the country during campaign season, which runs from mid-May to late October.

While even that circumstance might not allow it to capture big cities – manpower-challenged Russia has so far only stormed Mariupol – it could firm up territorial gains in both the south and east and re-orient its main force westward toward Moldova.

Perhaps more dangerously for Ukraine, Russia could shift its efforts to severing the flow of weapons, munitions, fuel and other critical materials from the West. If that is achieved, Kiev would be vulnerable to a knockout blow late in the year.

New conditions are potentially coming into play that look to be to Russia’s advantage. One relates to climate and freedom of movement and the other to manpower.

The spring thaw that restricted Russian armor to roads in the first phase of the invasion is largely over, leaving the ground dry for sweeping maneuvers. And Russia’s battered forces in Ukraine may get reinforcements if – as is being predicted in both east and west – Putin calls for the mobilization of conscript troops on World War II Victory Day on May 9.

Center of war gravity

The key fighting power of both sides has converged on Donbas.

Conflict has been ongoing in the disputed, coal-rich area of eastern Ukraine since 2014. Russia-backed separatists in the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk hold major chunks of the region, winning huge sympathy from both the Russian public and polity.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced that the major Russian offensive in Donbas opened on April 18. That followed an announcement weeks earlier by Russian sources, following the retreat by Russian units from northern Ukraine, of a strategic refocus.

Sergei Rudskoy, head of the General Staff’s operations directive, said on March 26 that the redeployment “allows us to concentrate our main efforts on achieving the main goal: the liberation of Donbas.”

In April, Moscow appointed General Aleksander Dvornikov to take overall command of operations in Ukraine, linking up a disjointed fight. He has since concentrated his forces.

Russian General Aleksander Dvornikov has his work cut out for him. Image: Facebook

Some 93 Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs – the key Russian fighting unit in this war) are believed to be deployed in or around the Donbas, though other sources put that number as high as 111 BTGs.

Facing them, the main force of the Ukrainian Army – the 10 brigades of the Joint Forces Operation (JFO) – has been built up in western Donbas over eight years.

The key focus of action is the Severodonetsk Salient – a Ukrainian position surrounded on three sides by Russian forces advancing on three axes, from north, east and south. Around the perimeter of the salient, the Russians have taken Kreminna and the towns of Severodonetsk, Rubizhne, Popasna and Lysychansk are in play.

If they can keep the Ukrainians engaged in the east while seizing the key communications hubs west of or behind the Ukrainians – in Slovyansk and nearby Kramatorsk – the defenders will be trapped in a kessel, or cauldron, and can then be annihilated.

Indeed, Russian advances south and west of Izyum are making the Ukrainian position increasingly perilous.

Yet despite the gradual Russian advances in Donbas, despite the vulnerability of the Ukrainian positions and despite the massive firepower the Russians are bringing to the fight, the salient has not been closed off. No kessel has – yet – been created. 

According to an email sent to reporters by the US-based Institute for the Study of War, Russia’s pace is “slow and halting.”

There are even reports that a Ukrainian unit, the 81st Air Assault, which other information shows is holding the northwest shoulder of this area of operations, is rotating companies out of the line for one-week rests and refits.

While the reports make clear the ferocity of the fighting and how the unit’s ranks have been fleshed out with older conscripts led by “fresh-out-of-the-academy” officers, the rotation does not suggest a desperate situation.

This may be because the JFO has long prepared. Prit Buttar, a military historian of World War II who has traveled widely in Ukraine, told Asia Times the area is dotted with villages, most within tank-gun range of each other, offering defenders an echeloned network of defenses to fall back through.

Meanwhile, the Russian offensive on the northern shoulder is itself precarious. Russian forces have not taken Kharkiv – a major communications junction – and it is not clear how secure their control of Izyum is. Successful Ukrainian counter-attacks have been reported.

This shows the competing forces – and the possible avenue of attack to be taken by Russian forces from Izium, trapping Ukrainian forces. Map: Twitter

The limited gains it is winning suggest that Russia just does not have enough manpower to fight such a fierce war over such huge spaces and it is unclear if the new generalship has made a difference at the tactical level.

“We don’t know the impact that a unified command chain is having,” Eun Graham, a senior fellow at the International Institute of Strategic Studies think tank, told Asia Times. “And Ukraine is a big country, so even this concentration of force is relative.”

Still, these matters could change.

Campaign season opens at last

The soft ground of the first phase of the war forced armored columns convoys onto roads. These narrow axes of advance, frequently passing through urban areas, were easy to block and ambush – as were supply columns.

Now, the late spring and summer – long days and firm ground – is bad news for the dug-in defenders of Ukraine. It favors mobile attackers and the armor-heavy Russians.

If the latter effectively deploy drones and other reconnaissance assets in the service of their big guns, their artillery can suppress Ukrainian anti-tank positions, while tanks and mobile infantry, charging off-road, can fight a fast “deep battle”, bypassing fortified villages and dislocating defenses.

That would be classic armored warfare. While the fighting on the Eastern Front during World War II was notorious for its freezing winter conditions, most of history’s armored maneuver battles war took place in fine conditions.

The current change of season “could be a game-changer,” Graham said. “Improvement of the ground favors the offensive.” But he warned: “It also favors the counter-offensive, so that does not stand as much in Russia’s favor as we may think.”

Classic armored warfare: German tanks and armored troop carriers, maneuvering off-road, en-masse, on a broad front. Battle of Kursk, 1943. Photo: Bundesarchiv-Bild-101III-Merz-014-12A,

Time to mobilize?

May 9 is Russia’s World War II Victory Day and a massive parade in front of the Kremlin is an appropriate national stage for patriotic messaging.

A range of opinions from Russian experts and US State Department officials, aired in Western media, as well as from UK officials, repeated in Ukrainian media, suggests that Putin could use the day to upgrade the status of his “special military operation.” That could mean a grand call to national mobilization or even a formal declaration of war.

Thus far, the operation has been fought almost entirely by professionals. But a new fighting format could send conscripts into Ukraine, call up reservists or extend conscription terms beyond the current year.

Those would be turnarounds. Early in the conflict, on March 8, Putin said that no conscripts were being deployed in Ukraine, but was contradicted the following day.

Russian Ministry of Defense Spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov admitted, according to Russian media: “Unfortunately, several facts of the presence of conscripts … on the territory of Ukraine were discovered.”

Still, Konashenkov added that “practically all such servicemen have been returned to Russian territory.”

Clearly, the conscript issue is delicate even for a leader as empowered as Putin. Yet call-ups are not being discussed only in Western media.

Regardless of the official narrative in Russia, there is an understanding that the war has not gone according to plan. As early as April 16, columnist Petr Akopov wrote in Russian state-run media Ria Novosti: “It is necessary to say what everyone has been waiting for a long time: we need mobilization.

“The West is now making every effort to ensure that the conflict lasts as long as possible, pumping Ukraine with weapons and encouraging it psychologically.”

Akopov expressed hope that “Russia will destroy most of the heavy equipment before it reaches the Ukrainian troops … and the fuel crisis in Ukraine is just around the corner,” but Western assistance, nevertheless, “can significantly delay the time of the military operation.”

Akopov was writing last month. Other opinion leaders are now openly expressing direr analyses. A high-profile commentator on a television talk show last week raised the possibility of military defeat in Ukraine and subsequent Armageddon.  

“I recently took part in a conversation, and one of the experts said there are two paths: Either we lose in Ukraine and give everything up, or World War III starts,” Margarita Simonoyan, a senior journalist, said, sparking nervous jokes from the host about the latter possibility.

But would a call-up improve Russia’s battlefield position?

There are no firm Russian figures on the number of conscripts in the armed forces. Most estimates are that they make up around 25%. Nor are there any indications that an army of pro-Russian Syrian mercenaries is massing to join the fight, as was suggested earlier in the conflict.

Graham of IISS is unconvinced that shoving more, rather than better, troops into battle will shift Russia’s fortunes.

“Any attempt to surge a mix of mercenaries or conscripts looks like barrel-scraping,” he said. “Conscripts in Russia serve one year, so they are turning out troops who leave just at the point they gain confidence.

“They have structural headwinds against them,” Graham added. “Putting conscripts in to make up for the deficiencies of professionals is asking for trouble.”

Even if it calls up conscripts, it is not clear that Russia has enough men to generate a viable mass of force against Ukraine. Photo: AFP / Sputnik / Igor Rudenko

More men, longer fight

With Ukraine having already ordered a general mobilization, it is not clear that the manpower matrix can shift to Russia’s favor. And the issues of Ukrainian morale, and its soldiers’ determination, have so far amazed much of the world.  

Moreover, Ukraine’s defense thus far has been magnified by the errors Russia has made in virtually every area of the war.

Its opening offensive was widely dispersed across the country, lacked a supreme commander and was launched at a time of year when mobile forces were restricted to road networks.

Russia’s coup-de-main operation in the north was overly ambitious, failed to account for Ukrainian resistance and may have substituted wishful thinking for cold intelligence analyses.

In both the north and east, the Russians have faced logistics, communications and coordination challenges, and in some units, problems related to morale and basic tactical skills. These latter points have led to the losses among Russian generals.

“There may be an element of Ukrainian propaganda in all these issues, but clearly, there are problems,” said Graham. “This is why they are putting generals into the front ranks to lead, 19th-century style, against 21st-century weapons.”

But no combatant can rely on his enemy making mistakes ad infinitum. An April 22 report from thank tank RUSI, Operation Z: The Death Throes of an Imperial Delusion, states that following earlier failures, the Russian army has wrested control of the war from the intelligence service, the FSB.  

It is also far from clear how trained or skilled many of the Ukrainians holding weapons are. Many of these hastily armed militias may be unsuitable for any operation other than sentry duty or guarding urban areas.

This again points to a major trend in this war thus far: Russia attacks, Ukraine defends. And with the former wielding the bigger maneuver force, the initiative rests with Moscow.

The last question, then, must be strategic patience. Which combatant will outlast the other? On that, RUSI warns, “Russia is now preparing, diplomatically, militarily and economically for a protracted conflict.”