In the days prior to Easter, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that the initial phase of the “special military operation” in Ukraine had ended and a new one had begun. This “new phase” is focused on capturing control of the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, which together form the Donbas. To achieve this goal, it was decided that the Russian offensive on the northern border of Ukraine heading toward Kyiv should be stopped. These units were removed from combat and sent to Belarus and Russia to be rebuilt and then moved towards the Donbas front.
It appeared at that time that three battles were forming–battles Russia needed to win. Since then, we've received new information. We've learned that the Russians are planning to take over Odesa as well as the Black Sea coast while creating a land bridge that goes over to Crimea and ends in the “breakaway” Russian dominated “republic” of Transnistria.
We're about two weeks into this new stage, so let's take a look back at what's transpired.
In this region, towns often change hands. The Russians have achieved some success in repressing a Ukrainian offensive, but the Ukrainians have also been able to achieve some success. This region is stable at the moment. The Russians want to move a significant amount of troops northwest and launch an assault from there, in support of the main goal of gaining control over the Donbas. They can't do that due to the constant pressure from Ukrainian forces in the west.
There is only one rail line from Crimea to Kherson through the Donbas. Equipment and supplies that traveled via rail are now required to be transported via vehicle. This will lead to an enormous reduction in logistical support available to Kherson.
Mariupol isn't yet secured. Instead, the Ukrainian soldiers were forced into bunkers underneath a steel mill that was designed to withstand a nuclear explosion. The decision to take Mariupol is crucial since the remains of around 12 BTGs (battalion tactical groups) are working to reduce defenses around Mariupol. Russian President Vladimir Putin along with his Russian high command want to take these out and transfer the units to the Donbas. Putin has also ordered that the steelworks be sealed. The most important thing to note is that setting up a perimeter around a steelworks could require the majority of the Russian forces in Mariupol. However, even if the perimeter is established, it will be a one-man-deep line, and an active reserve will be essential to avoid a break-out by the defense. In the end, most of these BTGs will remain at the points they're at now.
Mariupol is situated on the principal route that connects Donetsk to Kherson. If Kherson does fall and the Mariupol defense forces continue to stand or, even more importantly, break out, the Russian forces that stand between the two cities face the risk of being removed. The area between the north and west of Mariupol is the location of intense partisan fighting.
In essence, even though the Russian may want to disband the guarding forces in Mariupol and relocate the majority of their soldiers to the Donbas, they won't be able to. They've largely won this struggle if they leave their current units; however, can they resist the urge to relocate large numbers of troops to join the Donbas battle?
We can measure the impact of this fight. Recent video images suggest that the primary Russian combat forces are Chechens, including a mix of Russian naval infantry and Donbas militia. If the information is accurate, the pressure will be lifted off of the Mariupol defenses, and those dozens of battalion tactical groups that are freed will have the smallest forces to engage in combat.
This battle is known as the Clausewitzian difficult point. It's the pivotal point in the war. If Russia cannot take control of the Donbas, then nothing else is important. The initial idea, which appeared to be creating a double envelope that would extend from the salient north and south points, is not going anywhere any more. Instead, the Russians are moving slowly, in a methodical manner, restricting their military operations based on their supply sources. The Ukrainians are allowing themselves to be beaten. The most important piece of terrain for the Russians includes the city of Sloviansk and the highway between Sloviansk and Kramatorsk. If the Russians succeed, they will have destroyed the Ukrainian salient that was threatening the Luhansk puppet state.
Supply is one issue, and another is the ongoing Ukrainian offensive in the northeast. The main terrain lies in the city of Kupyansk, in which the Russian railway lines and the highway that supply the Donbas offensive meet. It is important to note that the Ukrainian offensive is almost within range of the central area’s artillery. As much as Russians may not want to acknowledge it and continue their push forward in the Donbas, they won't. Should Kupyansk be hit by artillery, all movement towards the south would cease. If Kupyansk goes down, the Russians will be in the midst of a possible disaster.
On Tuesday, a Russian missile hit the bridge connecting Northern Odessa Oblast and the city of Odessa in the southern part of the Oblast. The demise of this bridge will mean that gasoline and other consumer products that were previously transported via Moldova and Romania are now stopped.
There is also this theory. It’s not apparent how the Russians can carry out an operation over the shore using the assets, troops and ships that are in the theater. It’s unclear how they can sustain a presence in the face of an invading force. The only way this could be possible is in the event Russia can convince Transnistria to begin an attack against Moldova, joining the invasion forces. However, time isn't non-neutral. Ukraine has received an unprecedented quantity of munitions, such as Javelins and Stingers, moving munitions such as Switchblades, and artillery. Nearly 200 M-777 towed howitzers have been pledged, and more than half have been delivered. Ukrainian gunmen are in formation. There are also tanks in a variety of sizes.
Russia does not have the combat strength and logistics capability to achieve an Operation Bagration-style victory. It’s likely that a large portion of the developments achieved in the Donbas are due to the fact that the Ukrainians have chosen to exchange real estate for time and have not sacrificed the manpower required to carry out victory at this phase of the war in the event that they're short of artillery. If Ukraine is conducting a delay operation that involves the attrition of Russian forces, while avoiding major losses and decisive battles, the new units that are being built and the latest equipment being collected may be deployed at a precise location and time that Ukraine chooses.
Mariupol could become a major issue for the Russians, if the reports of a major transfer of troops is true. Ukrainian troops are located within a 40-mile distance of Mariupol (roughly a distance equivalent to being on the lunar dark side). Their threats to free Mariupol could force troops to move elsewhere.
Kherson is expected to be the site of minor battles, with towns being peeled off until the Transnistria business settles itself. While this is happening, Ukraine has to assume there's going to be an attack. Moreover, most of its forces along its Transnistria frontier will remain in the region. If the attack occurs, it will be an inconvenience but not an issue that will cause a major distraction. There are 1,400 Russians in Transnistria and a further 4,000 local security forces with no logistics base. A pretty weak base for an invasion force. New Ukrainian artillery might alter the direction of the battle in the event that this front is hit with any of it.
The most important thing to note is that there isn't much evidence to suggest that the Russian Army gained a lot from the initial five days after the invasion. Many operations are being conducted with a small number of soldiers. Combat arms are being handled cautiously. The panache and dash that you see in the operational plans are not evident when you observe the activities being carried out by Russian units.
The Russians have a difficult situation. The terrain they must traverse in the north is extremely favorable to the defense. The supply lines they currently have are not able to sustain the 70-80 BTGs they have planned for the region. It is also a race against the clock. As more Ukrainian units are built and deployed into the battlefield each day, and new massive weapons arrive, Russia is trying to find the perfect spot in which their units can be reconstructed to be effective in combat and also where the Ukrainians aren't yet ready to deploy the weapons that were sent to them. The Russians need to be successful in all three combats: holding Kherson, securing Mariupol and taking complete control over the Donbas to have an opportunity to gain their territorial goals. Ukraine has only one essential battle to win: the Donbas.