Russia claims progress with brutal tactics on a smaller battlefield

Russian military leaders are finally able to declare some success in their troubled invasion of neighboring Ukraine, as a brutal but concentrated assault in the south and east has made steady progress in recent days in the long-disputed region of Donbass.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told reporters in Moscow on Tuesday that Russian troops now control virtually all of the far eastern Lugansk region – encompassing some 10,000 square miles – and are on the offensive in the pitched battle for control of Sievierodonetsk, the largest city in the region. not under Russian control. In addition, Shoigu said, Russian troops cleared and reopened the port of Mariupol, captured from Ukrainian forces after a brutal siege last month.

“Overall, 97% of the territory of the Lugansk People’s Republic has been liberated so far,” the Russian minister said.

Although Ukrainian forces remain entrenched and expect a major boost as sophisticated US and allied weapons arrive in the coming days, Russian President Vladimir Putin currently controls the coveted “land bridge” across southern Ukraine linking pro-Moscow separatist forces to Luhansk and neighboring countries. Donetsk with Crimea, the peninsula Mr Putin forcibly annexed from Kyiv in 2014.

For virtually the first time since repelling the first waves of the Russian attack that began on February 24, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his aides are acknowledging the heavy daily casualties in the fighting east and south and feeling the need to explain why Ukrainian forces have retreated in certain areas.

“Don’t let the news that we ceded something scare you off,” presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said in a video address Tuesday, according to The Associated Press. “It is clear that tactical maneuvers are underway. We give something away, we take something back. »

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Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai appeared to confirm Mr Shoigu’s claim that Russian forces hold key sections of Sievierdonetsk, with the two sides still in a tug of war for control.

“The toughest street battles continue, with varying degrees of success,” he said.

Outside observers also say they sense a change in tone in Kyiv, where triumphalist rhetoric after surprising early victories has given way to a grim realization that Russia’s revamped and refocused campaign in Donbass will likely mean a war of long and costly wear.

“Ukrainian defenders are retreating wisely in the face of this reckless barbarism, but at the cost of their own morale and will to continue the fight,” said Frederick W. Kagan, senior researcher and director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute. , said in a lengthy analysis of the state of the fighting for Time magazine this week. “The Ukrainians are beginning to doubt whether they can win for the first time since winning the Battle of Kyiv.”

Prior to the start of the invasion, Russia and Russian-allied forces controlled approximately 7% of Ukrainian territory, including Crimea. Mr Zelenskyy estimated last week that Russia now owns 20% of the country, including a significant part of Ukraine’s industrial heartland in the Donbass.

Ukrainian defense officials claimed success this week. They said a planned Russian naval blockade had been pushed back more than 60 miles from the country’s Black Sea coast, easing the threat of bombardment from the sea.

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Once completely controlled by Russian ships, the northwestern part of the Black Sea has become a “grey zone”, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said in a message on social messaging site Telegram on Monday.

Deeper issues

Paradoxically, Mr. Kagan is among a growing number of military analysts who say modest gains on the ground cannot mask the deeper problems facing Russia. The Kremlin has long since abandoned its greatest hopes of “decapitating” the Kyiv government, and the offensive in the east is being carried out by exhausted and demotivated troops hastily moved from other fronts of the fight.

Recent Russian advances, he said, are a “mirage,” an effort by Mr Putin to break the will of Ukrainian defenders before his own decimated forces and senior officer corps crumble.

“There is no vast mobilization of Russian troops preparing to go to war, no untapped reserves of combat-ready troops to send, no more areas of the front from which to draw fresh troops for another campaign,” he wrote. “Even though Putin ordered [a] general mobilization tomorrow, new troops would not start pouring into Ukraine for many months – such are the realities of mobilizing and training soldiers even to be cannon fodder.

Retired General David H. Petraeus, a former commander of US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Russian hopes of encircling Ukrainian defensive forces entrenched on the Donbass front lines look increasingly unlikely. He told Bloomberg News on Tuesday that Ukrainian counterattacks on the Russians’ northern and western flanks could “collapse the edges” of the Russian position before it could be reinforced.

General Petraeus also said that the Ukrainian defenders will soon be reinforced with a “staggering” amount of US and allied weapons and longer-range artillery that can target Russian supply lines and rearguard positions. .

Longtime Russian military analyst Pavel K. Baev, writing this week in the Eurasia Daily Monitor, was equally pessimistic about Russia’s broader military ambitions.

“Russian troops continue to push into the ruins of Sievierodonetsk behind heavy artillery barrages, but they can’t deliver anything resembling the elegant enveloping operations that are so prized by Russian military theorists,” he wrote on Monday. . “The streak of minor tactical successes over the past two weeks may, in fact, bring strategic defeat closer, as fatigued battalion tactical groups suffer more casualties and cannot be merged rather than reinforced due to lack of reserves.”

Britain’s Ministry of Defence, in its daily combat intelligence assessment, said Russian commanders could come under increasing pressure for a major breakthrough given the firepower targeted at smaller towns such as Sievierdonetsk, Popasna and Izium.

“Russia will almost certainly need to achieve a breakthrough on at least one of these axes to translate tactical gains into operational-level success and progress towards its political goal of controlling the entire Donetsk region,” the ministry said on Twitter.

Separately, AP reported that US military advisers have begun training Ukrainian forces on a new generation of multiple rocket launchers that President Biden authorized last week. Training is taking place in Germany and other European locations, and the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, could be deployed in Ukraine by the end of the month.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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