Analysis: Looming Battle in Donbass to Shape the Course of Russia’s War in Ukraine

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A satellite image shows armored vehicles at the northern end of a military convoy moving south through the Ukrainian town of Velykyi Burluk, Ukraine, April 8, 2022. Picture taken April 8, 2022. 2022 Maxar Technologies satellite image /Handout via REUTERS

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LONDON, April 13 (Reuters) – Russia is building up forces for a fresh assault on Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region, setting the stage for a protracted battle that is sure to inflict heavy casualties on both sides as the Russians attempt to encircle Ukrainian fighters, analysts said.

Military analysts are hesitant to predict who will win the battle for Ukraine’s industrial heartland of Donbass, a crucial conflict that is likely to be brutal and ultimately define the course of the war.

“The outcome of the battle could be that both sides will be beaten to the point where neither will be able to mount an offensive or a counter-offensive,” said Konrad Muzyka, director of Poland-based consultancy Rochan.

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“The Ukrainians will defend their land to the last man. The Russians will suffer significant losses.”

A difficult “frozen” conflict could emerge and last for months with the constant threat of a new assault from Moscow, he said. Russia describes its campaign, which began in February, as a special operation aimed at degrading Ukraine’s military capabilities and rooting out dangerous nationalists.

A protracted battle would frustrate any hopes President Vladimir Putin has of declaring a meaningful victory in time for May 9, when Russia will mark victory over Nazi Germany in World War II with a huge military parade that the Kremlin chief oversees every year.

Overwhelmed by Russia, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenksiy called on the West to help save his country. He wants NATO to help monitor his airspace and the West to send in more fighter jets, anti-tank missiles and rockets.

Moscow began withdrawing its forces near kyiv and northern Ukraine late last month in order, he said, to focus on taking Donbass.

Even without the arrival of reinforcements, the Russian invasion has slowly pushed Ukrainian fighters back into parts of Donbass and secured around 90% of the Luhansk region, Nick Reynolds, a ground warfare analyst at think tank RUSI told Reuters. London.

Ukrainian troops resisted most vigorously in Donetsk, which together with Luhansk makes up Russian-speaking Donbass, part of which was seized by Russian-backed separatists in 2014. A large Ukrainian contingent has since entrenched itself.

Moscow could try to break through Ukraine’s eastern front while advancing with northern and southern troops, tanks and armored vehicles in a pincer movement. This would seek to outflank and encircle Ukrainian forces from behind, analysts said.

Ukraine will likely try to avoid open tank battles, using artillery to target supply lines and equipment, and send raiding parties to attack convoys and logistics lines, analysts said .

Fearing that their forces will be surrounded, Ukrainian strategists will have to constantly assess whether to withdraw the fighters to avoid a rapid and chaotic retreat in which they could be separated or crushed by artillery and air fire.

“It’s the disengagement from…the front line that’s going to be the problem. That’s one of the calls the Ukrainians are going to have to make,” Reynolds said.

CAN MARIUPOL HOLD?

At the southern end of the Donetsk region on the Sea of ​​Azov, Russia appears poised to take full control of the beleaguered port city of Mariupol, where exhausted Ukrainian marines are desperately resisting, Reynolds said.

“Unless the Russian advance runs out of steam with logistics and morale, I think Mariupol is sadly over… If Mariupol falls, it frees up a lot of manpower for other parts of the advance (from Russia),” Reynolds said.

Russia could launch its new assault on Donbass as early as the end of this week or next week when reinforcements arrive from Russia and Belarus as well as kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy in Ukraine, Muzyka said.

US private company Maxar released satellite images taken on Friday showing a 13km-long Russian military convoy of armored vehicles and trucks towing artillery and support kit east of the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv heading south towards the Donbass.

The advance of Russia’s northern pincer would likely push south from the town of Izyum which is strategically on the route to the Ukrainian cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk.

The governor of the Donetsk region said on Tuesday that Russia appeared to be in the final stages of regrouping and was pounding the region with round-the-clock shelling.

“We are going to see a protracted battle for Donbass. Russia has a chance to win, but only because of its preponderance in firepower, equipment and manpower, not in because of its operational superiority,” Muzyka said.

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Reuters reporting; Editing by Cynthia Osterman

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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