Russian forces are advancing in eastern Ukraine, in what the Ministry of Defense in Kiev has admitted is a “tricky situation” as it seeks to push its own counter-offensive into territories occupied by Moscow in the February 2022 invasion.
The action took the Ukrainians by surprise. It is concentrated on the so-called Liman (Donetsk)-Kupiansk (Kharkiv) axis, two cities that were once under Russian control and were retaken at the end of last year by the Ukrainians.
The region was not a priority for the counter-offensive launched by Volodymyr Zelensky on June 4: his actions were concentrated further south in Donetsk and also in Zaporizhya, in southern Ukraine. “The situation is complicated, but it is under control,” said the commander of Kiev’s ground forces, General Oleksandr Sirskii in a Telegram message this Tuesday (18).
On Monday (17), the Ukrainian command in the region had claimed to have monitored the concentration of 100,000 Russian soldiers and 900 tanks in that axis of action, which confirms the biggest offensive since Vladimir Putin used 200,000 men to try to double the Ukraine last year.
On that occasion, the biggest criticism was the dispersion of forces on three autonomous fronts, in addition to tactical errors such as the lack of infantry protection for armored columns. By all indications, the lesson has now been learned, and if the contingent is estimated, it is perhaps 1/3 of the men in occupied territory in Ukraine.
After two days of silence, the Russian Ministry of Defense has confirmed that it is on the offensive. He said he had advanced 1.5 km on a 2 km wide front, which is not measurable at the moment. The movement appears to want to retake the two cities, important railway hubs, thereby cutting off supplies to Ukrainian forces further south.
A tactical option, if this succeeds, would then be to close in on the remaining 45% of the Donetsk region that is still under Kiev’s control. Along with neighboring Lugansk, the area makes up Donbass, the Russian-speaking east of Ukraine whose “defense” is at the heart of Putin’s announced motives for war.
This is still speculative, especially with the slow pace of the war. But it’s bad news for Zelensky, who has spent the past week clamoring for more weapons and a timetable for joining NATO, the US-led military alliance that holds its annual summit.
Some officials complained about what they called a lack of gratitude from the Ukrainian, who hit back. In any case, the Western tanks and armor used in the counter-offensive so far have not managed to penetrate the Russian defenses along the battle front, which is about 1,000 km long.
There have been incremental gains, with Kiev claiming to have recovered 210 square kilometers of area since June, but without decisive action: the main objective of the Ukrainians is supposed to be cutting the so-called land bridge between Russia and Donbass to Crimea, annexed in 2014, via the occupied south of Ukraine.
Zelensky has already admitted the difficulties, and Putin said on Sunday that the counter-offensive was having no effect. In the second, the Ukrainians achieved a symbolic coup by targeting the bridge connecting Crimea to the Russian region of Krasnodar with a maritime drone, partially interdicting the vital supply line for troops on the peninsula.
All this dynamic, still very fluid, may favor the establishment of new provisional war borders, which analysts and politicians speculate may result in negotiations. For now, neither side admits them, but the Kremlin has said more than once that it would talk based on the “new geographic reality”, a euphemism for the 20% area it occupies in Ukraine. Kiev, of course, is not up for it.
But there is a geopolitical window to be considered, which is the US electoral calendar. President Joe Biden will start his 2024 re-election campaign with the shadow of facing his predecessor, Donald Trump, seen as pro-Putin. If he can pull off a deal that at least freezes the conflict, which drains billions of US taxpayer dollars, he could have a trump card in his hand.
There are other factors, such as Western fatigue with the war and renewed pressure on food prices in the world due to the suspension of Russian presence in the agreement that made the outflow of grain production from Ukraine via the Black Sea, which took place on Monday.