Putin is looking for an easy win in the Donbas. He won't get one.

People wait at a bus station in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, Friday, April 15, 2022.
People wait at a bus station in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, Friday, April 15, 2022.   -  Copyright  Petros Giannakouris/Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
By Michael Horowitz
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

Russia's soldiers still do not know what they are fighting for in Ukraine, argues security analyst Michael Horowitz.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

Two weeks after the Russian army withdrew from Kyiv and northeastern Ukraine, Russia announced that it was launching a “new phase” of what it calls its “special operation” in Ukraine.

When announcing this “new phase”, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, once again repeated what has been the official goal of the “operation” since it started in February: To “liberate” the two separatist republics in the eastern provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk.

Of course, the reality is different from the Russian narrative. The truth is that, although Russia claims it only sought to capture the provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk, it did initially launch an all-out attack against Ukraine, with the goal of seizing much if not all of the country. This was supposed to be a “decapitation” strike, a modern-day Blitzkrieg to overrun a country President Putin said didn’t exist in the first place and one for which he expressed contempt.

In a way, the Russian military paid the price for such contempt, as it appears to have badly underestimated the Ukrainian military. Nearly two months after the launch of what was planned to be a two-week-long campaign (according to some Russian documents found by Ukrainian soldiers), this “new phase” is effectively a climb down from Moscow’s grandiose objectives.

The problem Moscow faces is that even this allegedly more limited operation comes with significant difficulties. Attacking the Donbas is no easy task, and there are several reasons why the region has yet to be fully controlled by Russia almost two months into the invasion. One of those reasons is that the Ukrainian units defending the Donbas have been fighting there for years, as they fought the Russia-backed separatists.

While the war came to Kyiv two months ago, it has been there, on a daily basis in Donbas for the past eight years, since the Russian invasion of Crimea, and the rise of the two “people’s republics”. In other words, capturing the Donbas is far from being the “easy win” Moscow is looking for.

To avoid getting stuck attacking well defended and prepared soldiers, Russia is almost certain to try and carry out one of its large-scale “pincer moves”, a strategy that’s typical of Russia’s military tactics. This strategy aims to isolate enemy forces by carrying out a two-pronged offensive that physically separates a smaller enclave from the core of the remaining forces. This results in the enemy being either isolated in a “cauldron” (which is also how the tactic is sometimes referred to) or having to withdraw before being surrounded.

It draws from a long line of similar offensives that trace back to the Soviet Union and were still used years ago in Syria. In the Donbas, this would mean avoiding a more costly direct assault against heavily-defended positions (when possible) by attacking from the northwest and southwest of the Donbas, almost following the borders of those two regions.

As is the case with much of Russia’s military capabilities, this only sounds good on paper. In reality, such large-scale tactics are quite difficult to pull off. Previous efforts to carry out these “pincer moves” in Ukraine have met fierce Ukrainian resistance. There’s a long list of fully besieged cities, including Chernihiv, Sumy, and most notoriously Mariupol, that have proven to be far more resilient than expected in spite of Russia’s heavy use of indiscriminate strikes.

Even if Russia was to pull off this “pincer move”, it will still have to “mop up” large urban areas, with the certainty that most of the isolated force will fight to the death, as did most of the Ukrainian units still fighting in Mariupol weeks after the city was first surrounded.

Efforts to isolate Ukrainian units assume the same level of morale between the two armies, but this is evidently not the case. Ukrainian soldiers know exactly why they fight, whereas Russian soldiers appear confused as to whether they are in Ukraine to defeat “nazis” or to get a new washing machine for their wife.

What’s more, these big pincer movements have one major weakness: they generally require extended supply lines, and the ability to defend them. By moving deep inside enemy lines, Russian forces hoping to surround Ukrainian units run the risk of getting a taste of their own medicine and finding themselves surrounded. This is no small problem: Russian forces have been terrible at protecting their supply lines, and the Ukrainians quite adept at harassing them.

The Ukrainian army also had two weeks to prepare for such an offensive, against an enemy they know quite well. There are already signs that Ukrainian forces are positioning themselves to snap those supply lines through counter-offensives once Russian forces have sufficiently advanced deeper into the Donbas.

More broadly, it’s hard to see how what doomed the first phase of the Russian “special operation” won’t plague the second. Armies can learn but rarely do they learn in two-weeks time.

To be sure, Russia has already implemented some visible changes. The Russian “special operation” in Ukraine has a new overall commander: General Aleksandr Dvornikov. Previously, the operation had multiple heads, and the leadership change is meant to unify the command structure.

Dvornikov owes his appointment to the fact that the offensive in southern Ukraine was perhaps one of the most successful ones, even during the very first days of the war.

But the leadership change is unlikely to truly change how the Russian army performs. Beyond the logistics issues that mired the Russian campaign, one less-discussed challenge has been a clear disconnect between President Putin and his military commanders, who failed to give him a realistic picture of the situation.

In February, President Putin set some ambitious objectives for his upcoming invasion and it appears no one dared to question how achievable those were. A humiliating public interaction between the Russian President and his powerful spy chief, before the war, showed that no one in Putin’s entourage dares contradict him. This is management by fear, and one of the worst kind.

What Dvornikov should have explained is that after losing momentum and a considerable number of soldiers, the Russian army would need more than two weeks to rebuild its strength and regroup. Yet it is clear that Dvornikov did not get any additional time -- and most likely he didn’t ask. Similarly, there are rumours that Putin wants some sort of victory for the May 9 “Victory Day,” which celebrates the defeat of Nazi Germany.

This deadline isn’t realistic, and symbols should not drive the pace of a military campaign. Yet, with what we’ve seen of the flawed Russian decision-making process, it is not far-fetched to imagine that Putin did in fact task the newly minted commander of the Russian forces in Ukraine with achieving such an objective.

This doesn’t make this phase of the war less dangerous. Russia can fail multiple times before being defeated, but Ukrainian forces cannot. The Russian military also typically compensates for a lack of offensive capabilities with heavy firepower, the kind that wrecks cities that are to be “liberated”.

Each occupied village and town is also a “Bucha” in the making. This is Russian war tactics 101, and Dvornikov is not known to be a particularly original commander - just a more ruthless one.

Michael Horowitz is a security analyst.

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