War in Ukraine – The New Phase

Sub Title : Events during the war thus far and the likely future scenario

Issues Details : Vol 16 Issue 2 May – Jun 2022

Author : Ajay Singh

Page No. : 46

Category : Geostrategy

: June 1, 2022

The war in Ukraine has now been on for three months. There is no gainsaying that Russia has made some gains but the Ukrainian resistance seems to have taken them by surprise and a swift victory that the Russians were perhaps hoping for has eluded them. It is unlikely that the war will end any time soon. The article covers the events thus far and the likely future scenario.

When the Russian offensive moved into Ukraine on 24 February, the ambitious offensive comprised three prongs, one emerging from Crimea towards the coastal region of the South; one from the East directed towards Kharkiv and perhaps headed for the line of the Dnieper River. Both these thrusts were complemented with an offensive launched by separatists’ forces and Russian troops in the Donbas. Yet, the major thrust came in from the North which was headed for Kyiv – the capital and nerve center of Ukrainian resistance.

After over a month of limited gains, the Russians abruptly withdrew forces from Kyiv to focus on the Donbas – ‘the original aim of the campaign’. The pull back of over 20-30,000 troops from Kyiv was marked by allegations of atrocities in towns such as Bucha and Irpin, but the Russians moved back in relatively good order. In many ways, it was the correct decision. The Russian thrust towards Kyiv had overstretched their resources and it was clear that they would not be in a position to capture the large town.

Moving away from Kyiv and focusing on the East was possibly the brain child of Gen AlexandrDvirnikov, the newly appointed overall commander of the offensive. This veteran of the Chechen and Syrian wars is reportedly close to Putin and perhaps he used his experience and clout to shorten the front and make the offensive more manageable. The Russians paused for a week or so in the first week of April, ostensibly to regroup and re-organize their forces, and more importantly to make up their losses in the first phase of the war. Then preceded by the usual missile and artillery bombardments –a renewed offensive was launched in the East and South.

The Next Phase of the War

To understand the significance of the shift in strategic direction, we must understand the geography of Eastern Ukraine. The Donbas region, comprising of the Luhansk and Donetsk provinces are the Eastern most areas of Ukraine, virtually abutting into Russia. Most of the population is Russian speaking and have strong ethnic ties. In 2014, when Ukraine announced its intentions to join NATO and EU, Russia responded by fomenting separatism in the Donbas region – including sending in fighters and arms.  The fighting in the Donbas continued for over seven years till it was agreed in Dec 2021 to strengthen the ceasefire agreement of 22 July 2020. But the Donbas remained restive. The long turmoil had sucked in almost 30% of the Ukrainian army there.

When the Russians launched their offensive, the Eastern thrust went in towards Kharkiv, from the North of the Donbas. The Southern thrust line moved from the South west of the Luhansk region towards the coastal areas. The Donbas was girdled by the two thrust lines, from where a complementary thrust line was also launched with

pro-Russian separatist groups and the Russian 22 Army Corps. Taken together, this offensive could virtually carve out the entire area of South and Eastern Ukraine.

The key to the operation lay in the capture of the towns of Kharkiv and Mariupol. And as the operations progressed, the Russians did achieve a major success by capturing much of the Southern areas – including Mariupol.  But in the East their offensive stalled. Let us have a look at how the battles progressed and what lies ahead.

The Battle for the South

In the Southern areas the Russians debouched from Crimea and succeeded in capturing a vast swath of area across the coastline along the Sea of Azov. Kherson – the major town in the East had fallen, and the towns of Mariupol, Melitopol and others had been invested in the first phase of the operation itself. The key however, lay in the capture of Mariupol.

The city of Mariupol is the largest city on the Sea of Azov, and a major industrial hub. Located just 30 kilometers from Donetsk, it is vital to Russia as it links the coastal areas to the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk Provinces and is essential to provide a land bridge to the Crimea.

The Russians attacked Mariupol on 25th February itself, with a force from the Donetsk along with an amphibious assault that landed West of Mariupol. The Russians converged on Mariupol from two directions and surrounded it by 28 February. Invested and besieged, the town was pounded by missiles, artillery and naval fire, but the city refused to surrender. It was only around early April that the Russians could establish a foothold on the town. But the  defenders from the fanatical Azov Battalion and the 36 Marine Brigade, though overwhelmed refused to give up and the remnants moved to the Azovstal Steel Plant – called ‘The fortress within the city’. In scenes reminiscent of the battle of Stalingrad – Russian and Ukrainians fought in streets and bombed out buildings, at times just 40 meters away from each other. Even as the fighting in the plant continued, the Russians began clearing the streets, and on 09 May – Russia’s Victory Day – held a victory parade in the streets of Mariupol.

The siege of Mariupol finally ended on 17 May when the remnants of the Azovstal Steel Plan surrendered and the 82-day long battle of Mariupol came to an end. The capture of Mariupol is one of the notable Russian successes of the war. With this, the land route all along the coast to Crimea is open. It now gives the Russians full control of the Sea of Azov coastline in an unbroken stretch right up to Crimea and till the Black Sea. The capture of Mariupol also freed around 12000 Russian troops which could be used elsewhere. Mariupol also provided the base, from where Russians could advance northwards to link up with the Eastern thrust, or even develop operations further West along the coast – towards the prize of Odesa.

The capture of Odesa was severely curtailed by the loss of the MOSKVA – the flagship of the Black Sea fleet.  Its loss will hinder Russian plans to launch operations against Odesa but could come about at a later juncture. The capture of Odesa – if it comes about – will give Russia control over the complete coast and make Ukraine a land-locked country. It will also lead to  opening the door to Moldova and Transnistria – which are now emerging as the long-term objectives. Transnistria is a breakaway state within Moldova lying to the West of Ukraine. Like the Donbas, its people have strong Russian affinities. If Russia succeeds in moving all the way to Transnistria, it can then declare it independent and occupy an area along the entire Southern region, leaving Ukraine as a land locked rump.

The Eastern Thrust

The fall of Mariupol and the seizure of the entire Southern region gives Russia the base from where it can move northwards to link up with the Eastern thrust going towards Kharkiv. The Russian aim was probably to seize Kharkiv and Mariupol as the Northern and Southern shoulders of their offensive and launch prongs moving  south and north  that would link up in the area of Izium – in a move that would enable them to cut off the entire Southern and Eastern regions of Ukraine and trap over 30 – 40% of the Ukrainian army there.(In a maneuver that would be reminiscent of the classical German encirclements of Soviet forces in World War II)  Perhaps they could also plan a larger encirclement that would move further West along the line of the Dnieper River and cut off the rich areas to the east of the river.

The offensive in the East began in mid-April as the Russians pummeled Ukraine in one of the largest barrages of fire seen during the war in which they struck at over 300 military targets on one day. The focus seemed to be to capture the Donetsk and the Luhansk regions in their entirety and also capture Kharkiv.

The Russian offensive intensified around end April – perhaps hoping to have some tangible gains by 9 May – Russia’s Victory Day. And yet, while they did succeed in capturing towns and villages in the Donbas, their offensive gradually ground down into a war of attrition, with villages changing hands, and limited gains of just a few kilometers every day.  The major battles were fought in the towns of Izium and Severodonetz – key junctions that were essential for the link up of their Eastern and Southern thrust lines. Izium saw the major fighting of this sector and was subjected to 17 attacks, but though the outlying villages were captured, the town held on.

By mid-May, the Russians had succeeded in securing almost 80 percent of the Donbas. Their advance in the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, which comprise the Donbas, was aided by the pro-Russia militia the DPR. But in other sectors, their offensive met with little success. The Ukrainians not only held on to their areas – forcing the Russians into towns and villages – but actually went on the offensive with their strength bolstered by an infusion of Western arms and a surge of reservists. With their lines holding, the Ukrainians launched a counter attack on Kharkiv, retaking over 60 villages around the town. They also reached East of the town and Ukrainian troops even advanced as far as the Russian frontier. Troops of their 227 Battalion put up much-publicized selfies of themselves standing by the border posts.

The Ukrainian counterattack, threatened the Russian supply lines from Belgorad,  and  by 15 May, the Russians began withdrawing from Kharkiv, to prevent being cut off. That pullback was indicative of the fact, that the Russian offensive in the East had perhaps spent itself. Just as the Russians withdrew from Kyiv to shorten the front, their withdrawal from Kharkiv enabled them to focus on the Donbas region and the South and consolidate their positions there. The gains in these areas are quite considerable. They have made inroads of almost 200 kilometers across a frontage of over 800 kilometers and seized an area larger than Britain. But how long will they be able to hold on to it is different. After all, the Ukrainians have proved themselves to be doughty and determined fighters and could continue to launch local counter attacks and cut off Russian supply lines.  As of now, the war seems to have reached a dangerous stalemate, with no definite end in sight.

Likely future Scenario

With neither side fully attaining their aims, there is no clear end to the war. Negotiations between Ukraine and Russia have virtually broken down, with the Russian insistence that it would hold on to its captured territories and the Ukrainian insistence (rightly) that they vacate all areas occupied by them. The original aim of the war (of Ukraine foreswearing NATO membership) now seems to be lost and both sides look for an end-state which will enable them to terminate the conflict on favorable terms.

For Ukraine, the end-state is clear. They want a return of all areas captured by the Russians (plus around $500 Billion in damages caused). It is unlikely that they will be able to get it, and in the short term would be forced to merely restrict further Russian advances – and launch local counter attacks to improve their positions. A full-scale counter offensive to evict the Russians does not seem within their capabilities as of now.

Russia seems to have given up (for the time being) in their aims in both Kyiv and in the Eastern sector towards Kharkiv. But their gains in Donbas and in the South are considerable and they would hold on to it. They could annex the area in much the same way they annexed Crimea in 2014. But then what? The Ukrainians and the rest of the world would never formally acknowledge it and this conflict could then become an interminable ‘frozen conflict’ and linger on in much the same manner that the conflict has lingered on since 2014.

It all hinges on the staying power of both Russia and Ukraine. Russia has also suffered immense attrition to men and equipment – with an estimated 20 percent of its force being hors de combat. Making up those losses and still retaining the momentum for the offensive will be difficult. It is unlikely that the Russians will be able to achieve their long term aim of seizing Odesa and moving all the way to Transnistria, nor can they hope to rejuvenate their eastern thrust. But they could take over all of Donbas, and the Southern areas and then hold on to them. The Ukrainians have suffered greatly as well, but their losses have been made up by reservists (approximately 30 – 40,000 have already been inducted) and their equipment is being rapidly replenished by the Western nations, which helps make up their losses. They too will aim to push the Russians back from key areas to improve their defensive posture, but the recapture of their lost cities or even the areas of Donbas seem unlikely. As per analysts, the Russians will exhaust themselves by around August or so, and it is quite likely that the war will take a turn after that.  But at the moment, the war lingers on as a long and bloody battle of attrition, in which neither side seems fully capable of attaining their goals.