Russian forces have launched their widely-expected offensive in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. On Tuesday morning, local time, Ukrainian officials reported intensive Russian bombardment across the region.
The attack was widely anticipated. Russian president Vladimir Putin has urged his troops to “de-Nazify” Ukraine ahead of Russia’s May 9 Victory Day celebration commemorating the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany.
It’s important to note that, while there are some far-right battalions in the Ukrainian military, the country harbors no more extremists than Russia does. Putin’s “de-Nazification” rhetoric is propaganda masking an ideological and territorial war.
The Donbas offensive was all but inevitable once Putin ordered his commanders to withdraw Russia’s battered, starving battalions from northern Ukraine late last month. The Kremlin shifted forces south and east as Moscow’s war aims contracted.
Where before Putin clearly desired regime-change in Kyiv, now it appears he’d declare victory following modest territorial gains west of Donbas, which largely has been under the control of Russian-backed separatists since 2014.
The big guns signaled the Kremlin’s renewed campaign. “This morning, an active phase of the Russian offensive set off almost along the entire front line, the occupiers tried to break through our defenses,” tweeted Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council. “Our military is defending, we are not surrendering our territories.”
The Russian army launched its wider on Ukraine with more than 100 battalion tactical groups starting the morning of Feb. 24. Each BTG has around a thousand soldiers and 50 or so tanks or other armored vehicles.
Ukrainian troops wreaked havoc on the BTGs that drove south from Belarus and Russia toward Kyiv. Analysts have confirmed Russian losses totaling nearly 3,000 tanks, fighting vehicles, artillery and other major hardware. Thousands of Russian troops have died. Thousands more are wounded or incapable of further fighting.
But even after all those losses, the Russian army and its Chechen and separatist allies still managed to stage around 75 BTGs for the second phase of the war, in Donbas.
It’s unclear how many troops the Ukrainians have deployed to oppose the offensive, but it’s worth noting that fresh brigades, recently called up from Kyiv’s reserves, have arrived in eastern Ukraine. A Ukrainian brigade oversees several front-line battalions.
Skirmishes signaled the coming Russian offensive. Russian troops pushed west from the town of Izium, near besieged Kharkiv, while Ukrainian forces moved to encircle the attackers. Those initial clashes ended with the apparent destruction of one Russian BTG and no decisive change in the overall disposition of the two armies.
A battle much farther south could shape events in Donbas. Separatist forces, strongly backed by Russian air power, are tightening their encirclement of Mariupol, an historic port city on Ukraine’s Sea of Azov coast.
After nearly two months of siege warfare, half of Mariupol’s 400,000-person pre-war population is dead or displaced from the city. The remnants of several Ukrainian formations—including marines, territorials and members of the far-right Azov battalion—have consolidated their defense at the sprawling Azovstal steel plant.
It’s like a huge bunker for thousands of people, including as many as a thousand civilians. Tunnels underneath the factories and warehouses shelter their occupants from relentless Russian bombardment.
The Russian air force has focused most of its 200 daily attack sorties on Mariupol. “We’ve not really observed any air strikes deeper into Ukraine out of those two areas,” an unnamed U.S. Defense Department spokesperson told reporters on Thursday.
Apparently running low on cruise missiles, the air force last week began sending Tu-22M heavy bombers directly over Azovstal for the first time for carpet-bombing raids.
“For more than 50 days, the defenders of the city have been heroically defending themselves, despite the overwhelming enemy forces and constant air bombardments, artillery and rocket fire,” Serhiy Volyna, commander of the 36th Marine Brigade in Mariupol, told a reporter Monday. “Mariupol is still a Ukrainian city, no matter what Russian propaganda tells you.”
The Mariupol garrison and the civilians it protects are low on food, medicine and ammunition. “Our wounded die in unbearable torment every day, because medicines, disinfectants and anesthesia are long over,” Volnya lamented.
Ukrainian troops are tied up in Donbas and around Kherson, west of Mariupol. There’s little chance of a breakthrough attack relieving Mariupol’s defenders.
But Mariupol’s garrison is tying up as many as a dozen Russian and separatist BTGs. That’s 15 percent of the overall Russian and allied force. “Russian commanders will be concerned by the time it is taking to subdue Mariupol,” the U.K. Defense Ministry stated. “Concerted Ukrainian resistance has severely tested Russian forces and diverted men and materiel, slowing Russia’s advance elsewhere.”
If and when Mariupol falls, the Russians might be able to shift additional forces north toward the Donbas front line. It’s hard to project what condition those forces might be in once—if—they finally manage to root out the garrison in Azovstal. Volnya for one vowed never to surrender his brigade. “We will not give up and will fight to the end.”
What happens next in Donbas depends to some degree on what occurs in Mariupol. But don’t expect the Russians to make big gains, fast, in any event. It’s the muddy season in Ukraine and Donbas’s roads were poor before the first fighting broke out eight years ago. Tanks and other vehicles will move slowly, making them easy targets for enemy missile teams.
The Russian army is bloodied. It’s lost more tanks than many other armies have in their entire arsenals. At least eight Russian generals have died. Morale in the front-line battalions reportedly is low.
The Ukrainians meanwhile continue to enjoy substantial material and intelligence support from the United States and its NATO allies. And the Ukrainians, while suffering, aren’t lacking for motivation.
The first phase of the wider Russia-Ukraine war ended in defeat for Russia. The second phase is just beginning. It’s too soon to say who might prevail.