Russian soldiers in the Donetsk region
NOS Nieuws•vandaag, 20:41
Wessel de Young
Wessel de Young
The fighting in eastern Ukraine is intensifying. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a US think tank, reports today that the long-awaited Russian offensive has begun and the Ukrainian governor of Luhansk also talks about a large-scale attack. Russia expert Bob Deen of the Clingendael Institute puts this message into perspective. “It doesn’t work that way anymore, on one particular day. The offensive has already started secretly, a week or two ago.”
Deen acknowledges that the Russians are pushing on all fronts. “But the real tough fighting is yet to come.” His colleague Peter Wijninga of The Hague Center for Strategic Studies (HCSS) sees all kinds of signals that the battle is getting fiercer and that the Russians are scaling up. According to him, the intensification indicates that “something is afoot”.
What the Russians are doing on the northern front most closely resembles an offensive. In Lugansk province, the Russian army has taken over the initiative. “The Ukrainians were on the attack there, now the Russians. That is remarkable,” says Deen, who sees that the Russians have gathered many troops there. It is a development that the ISW also sees.
Residents of the Ukrainian village of Yampil flee the area around Bachmut after reports of the Russian advance:
Ukrainians fleeing Russian advance: ‘Police said we have to leave’
“The Russian offensive has started in the Lugansk province, but the Ukrainians manage to prevent the Russians from making territorial gains. The Russian offensive there is probably not yet fully underway,” the ISW writes. The governor of the Luhansk region, Serhi Hajdaj, also talks about a large-scale offensive. He said on Ukrainian television today that Russian troops are trying to break through the defenses near the city of Kreminna.
Russian troops are trying to push their way west through the snow and forests towards the Ukrainian positions, Hajdaj said. “There is constant shooting. We see attacks almost every day now. Small groups of Russians trying to advance with the support of armored fighting vehicles and tanks.” According to the governor, they have not been able to break through the Ukrainian defenses so far.
Wijninga recognizes this image: “The Russians do two things, they tire the Ukrainians and at the same time they are looking for the weak spots in the defense.”
It is difficult to predict when the Russians will be able to force a breakthrough. Deen and Wijninga think that the chance of this is greatest if the city of Bachmoet falls. The city has been fought over for months. After a possible fall, Russian troops are released, which can then be deployed in other places.
The net closes around Bachmut.
Peter Wijninga, The Hague Center for Strategic Studies
Deen and Wijninga think that the fall of Bachmoet is now a matter of weeks. “The net closes around Bachmoet,” says Wijninga. Deen: “The Ukrainians are turning Bachmoet into a kind of Mariupol. They have maintained that for months. It has a lot of symbolic meaning for the Russians.”
Deadline in March
There are two main reasons why the Russians are now stepping up the pressure for a main offensive. President Putin has sent the message to the commander of the Russian army that the entire Donbas must be in Russian hands by March at the latest. Furthermore, ‘the frost is still in the ground’, so that tanks can be driven. “When spring starts, they get stuck,” says Wijninga. Nevertheless, tanks are now not used for major attacks.
Wijninga notes that Supreme Commander Gerasimov still has a lot of work to do. “There is only a strip up to the administrative border of the province of Luhansk. The Russians have made the furthest progress there. But a reasonable area of Donetsk province, the size of one third of the Netherlands, still needs to be taken.”
The Russians are not capable of much more than this, thinks Wijninga. On the southern front at Zaporizhia “maybe two more diversions, but no more.” An attack on Ukraine from all corners of the world, such as on February 24, 2022, is no longer an option, he thinks.
The provisional main target of the Russians are now the two places Slovjansk and Kramatorsk, in the province of Donetsk. “That would be a great loss for the Ukrainians,” says Deen. He assumes that a Russian offensive will eventually “culminate” in a Ukrainian offensive, when the advancing Russians reach the end of their strength, “just like in August”.
The two analysts dare not predict how long the battlefield can undulate in this way.
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