Why the Russian army focuses its efforts on eastern Ukraine: “It will be like World War II”

After a series of defeats near Kiev, Russia withdrew its troops from the Ukrainian capital and moved its strategy and ground operations to eastern Ukraine. This offensive in the area known as Donbas could mean a protracted conflict.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba compared the fighting in the Donbas to those of World War II.

“[Le] it will remember the Second World War, with large operations … the participation of thousands of tanks, armored vehicles, airplanes, artillery ”.

He said this “would not be a local operation” based on current observations of Russian preparations.

“Russia has its plan, we have ours and the outcome of this battle will be decided on the battlefield,” he added.

What would Vladimir Putin need before he could reclaim his goal of “liberating” Ukraine’s old industrial heart? and is it possible?

Russian forces have already unleashed a humanitarian catastrophe in the east, reducing Mariupol to ruin, but failed to defeat the Ukrainian army.

Ukraine’s best-trained forces were already stationed in this part of the country due to the eight-year war with the Russian-backed separatists.

What is the Donbas of Ukraine?

When President Putin talks about Donbas, he is referring to the former coal and steel production area of ​​Ukraine.

What it really means is the the set of two large eastern regions, Luhansk and Donetsk, which extends from the outskirts of Mariupol in the south to the northern border.

NATO also believes that Russian forces will seek to create a land bridge along the southern coast, west of Donetsk, to Crimea.

“The key is that the Kremlin has identified this Russian-speaking part of Ukraine as more Russian than Ukrainian,” says Sam Cranny-Evans of the Royal United Services Institute.

These areas are perhaps mostly Russian-speaking, but they are no longer pro-Russian.

“Mariupol was one of the most pro-Russian cities in Ukraine and destroying it is beyond my understanding. says defense specialist Konrad Muzyka, director of Rochan Consulting.

Hundreds of residents are relocated out of the cities of Luhansk
Hundreds of residents are relocated out of the cities of LuhanskGetty Images

A month after the war began, Russia claimed to have taken control of 93% of the Luhansk region and 54% of Donetsk.

The Russian president is still far from subduing the entire area, but even if he could claim victory, this is a very large territory to control.

Why does Putin want to control Donbas?

The Russian leader has repeatedly advanced the baseless accusation that Ukraine committed genocide in the east.

When the war began, two thirds of the eastern regions were in the hands of Ukraine. The rest was run by separatists, who created small Russian-backed states during a war that began eight years ago.

Shortly before the war, President Putin recognized the entirety of the two eastern regions as independent of Ukraine.

If Russia has conquered the two great regions, it would give Vladimir Putin some kind of success in the war.

The next step would then be the annexation of Donbas, just as it did with Crimea after a discredited referendum in 2014.

And if you did it before May 9, you could even show it off on Victory Day, when the Russian military is still celebrating the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945.

The Russian puppet leader in Luhansk has already talked about celebrating a referendum in the “near future”, even if the idea of ​​even a fictitious vote in a war zone seems absurd.

What is Putin’s strategy?

Russian forces are trying to encircle the Ukrainian army in the east, moving from the north, east and south.

“This is a huge territory to control, and I think we must not underestimate the geographical complexities about it, ”explains Tracey German, professor of conflict and security at King’s College London.

After weeks of fighting, they failed to capture Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv, south of the Russian border, but eventually took control of Izyum, a strategic city further down the main highway leading to the US-controlled Eastern separatists.

‘If you look at what they are doing in Izyum, they are following the main highway lines and that would make sense, as they are moving most of their equipment by road and rail,’ says Professor German.

Kramatorsk station is one of those still open to trains
Kramatorsk station is one of those still open to trainsGetty Images

Cities now in Russia’s sights have already experienced years of war since Russian-backed separatists first took over much of Donbas.

The next the big target on the M03 highway is Slovyansk, a city of 125,000 that was captured by Russian-backed forces in 2014 before being recaptured.

The US-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW) says that if Ukraine clings to Slovyansk, the Russian campaign to conquer both regions “is likely to fail.”

Russian forces are already bombing a number of cities further east in the areas of Luhansk that are still under Ukrainian control, including Rubizhne, Lysychansk, Popasna and Severodonetsk.

Civilians were killed in their homes and destroyed apartment buildings.

These cities are important because their control would allow Russia to advance west and join Russian forces by planning to move southeast of Izyum, ISW says.

The Russians are not only trying to control road supply lines, they are also trying to block Ukraine’s access to the railway lines from the west.

The railway is the most efficient transport for Ukrainian troops and heavy weapons and is the fastest route for fleeing civilians.

Control of parts of the rail network would also allow Russian forces to move their troops and supplies.

Civilians are displaced before the Russian advance. “Save yourself and your family while you can,” local leader Serhiy Haidai told residents as buses and trains headed west.

Trains were still running from Slovyansk on Tuesday, but lines to Rubizhne and Izyum in the north, as well as Mariupol and Melitopol in the south, were cut.

Maryna Agafonova, 27, fled her family home in Lysychansk, leaving her parents behind as Russian bullets continued to rain.

“They attacked hospitals and residential buildings. There is no heating or electricity, “he told the BBC.

“The Ukrainian forces continued to resist in large numbers. They are not allowing the Russians to occupy it. “


“Scary” existence in the separatist Luhansk

Life under the control of Russian-backed separatists is calmer, even as separatist authorities have accused Ukrainian forces of bombing residential buildings and killing civilians.

Officials in the small state of Donetsk say 72 civilians have been killed since mid-February.

A woman in Luhansk told the BBC, on condition of anonymity, that she had seen many Russian military armored vehicles in the city and that the atmosphere was now one of fear and caution.

“I’m scared, It’s just terrifying. “ She said.

He explained that men of military age had to join the local militia, so those who had avoided conscription were in hiding.

“They are mobilizing [hombres] on the streets, trapping them. There are no men in the shops, in the city, on the streets, ”she said. And as a result, he added, all male-run businesses are closed.

“We are already Russia, albeit informally. Everyone has a Russian passport. “

Will the Ukrainian forces resist?

At the start of the war, the 10 brigades that made up the Joint Forces Operation (JFO) in the east were considered to be the best equipped and best trained soldiers Ukraine has.

“We don’t really know how powerful the Ukrainian forces are right now,” says Sam Cranny-Evans of RUSI, who believes there has been an increase in the number of volunteers in recent weeks.

Russian forces they have already suffered heavy losses after more than five weeks of conflict and morale is believed to be low.

They are made up of men enlisted from local separatist areas, as well as the Russian army in general.

“The main goal of the Ukrainians is to inflict the greatest possible losses on the Russian side and the Ukrainians are using asymmetrical tactics to avoid big battles,” says Konrad Muzyka.

A man named Mykyta, who managed to escape the Russian bombing of Mariupol, said he was confident The Ukrainian army would be able to react.

“One day they will return our cities, the Azov battalion will not give up Mariupol,” he told the BBC.

“The Ukrainian army is very clever, I haven’t seen them in my city, but I’ve heard them, they’re very good at camouflaging.”

By Paul Kirby

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