Both Russia and Ukraine have said that Moscow’s offensive in the Donbass region began this week – even though, in reality, the aerial and artillery bombardment by Moscow forces over the past 48 hours are not yet the intensive attack signaled by the Kremlin when it abandoned its attempt to seize kyiv.
The strategy is well known: Russia aims to amass its previously overstretched forces in the east of the country, where it hopes to gain a two or perhaps three-to-one advantage over the Ukrainian defenders, encircle them by attacking south of Izium and, once Mariupol falls, pushing from there to the north.
But the key point, for now, is that Russia is far from having mustered all of its considerable remaining forces for the fight ahead. Pentagon officials said on Tuesday that the attacks so far were only a “prelude to larger offensive operations” that will determine whether the fighting amounts to a relatively short or much longer war.
After two months of fighting, the crude US estimate is that Russia still has 75% of its combat power and 78 battalion battle groups in Ukraine. At full strength, that would be around 62,000, though the figure is likely lower, plus thousands more separatists, mercenaries and other irregular forces.
Several thousand Russian troops – 12 battalions, the United States estimates – remain stuck in the final stages of the Battle of Mariupol, trying to take control of the vast Azovstal steelworks in the city. However, others are still being rebuilt after the defeat near kyiv, so the buildup should be gradual.
“The Russian game plan is potentially to launch a slow and methodical offensive, to prevent a repeat of the poorly coordinated and costly operations in February and March,” said Nick Reynolds, a ground warfare expert at the think tank Rusi. Then Russia’s mistake was to send mechanized forces onto the main roads, allowing them to be shot down by Ukrainian infantry armed with British bazookas and other anti-tanks.
All of this means it is highly unlikely President Vladimir Putin will be able to announce mission accomplished in time for the annual May 9 parade that commemorates Russia’s victory in World War II. But that doesn’t mean Russia couldn’t defeat the Ukrainian mainland army in the weeks that followed.
Western intelligence services do not like to estimate the size of the Ukrainian forces deployed against Russia, even though at the beginning of the war the number of defenders of Donbass was estimated at 40,000 to 45,000. These will have been increased by the massive mobilization of the country at the start of the war, and some reinforcements from kyiv.
But, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy acknowledged in a recent interview with CNN, his country suffered an estimated 2,500-3,000 soldiers dead and 10,000 wounded. Demands for more ammunition and more powerful weaponry continue, and a key weapon is likely to be artillery as both sides attempt to break through each other’s defensive lines in battles reminiscent to some degree of the First. World War.
Russia started the war with two and a half times the number of artillery pieces, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies. And, according to a Pentagon briefing on Tuesday, it still retains “more than 80 percent” of the necessary heavy guns and ammunition, which can bombard Ukraine’s front lines from positions as far away as 30 miles.
But the concern is that Ukraine, whose industrial base is decimated, will gradually run out of standard Soviet 152mm cartridges that it uses in its heavy guns. There are limited supplies around NATO of the Russian weapons it traditionally uses, which is why a week ago – recognizing Ukraine’s needs – the US announced it would send 18 howitzers of 155 mm to Western standards and 40,000 artillery shells.
However, 18 howitzers represent a fraction of Ukraine’s total artillery, putting pressure on NATO members and especially the United States to provide more if fighting escalates – another example of how kyiv depends on the west to help its forces stave off the planned Russian assault. . The Donbass attack on Moscow may be predictable: what is not yet clear is whether Ukraine can immobilize it.