Analysis |

Ukraine War: Why the Tide Is Suddenly Turning in Russia’s Favor

Having abandoned its overambitious plans to take all of Ukraine, Moscow has reverted to its tried-and-true methods – more reminiscent of World War I than modern warfare – to slowly gain ground in the east

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
An explosion near the Ukrainian city of Dnipro, the result of Russian bombardments
An explosion near the Ukrainian city of Dnipro, the result of Russian bombardmentsCredit: Reuters
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Less than two weeks after the fall of Mariupol, the eastern port city that became a symbol of resistance against the invading Russian army, Ukraine faces another major military setback. On Tuesday, the military governor of Severodonetsk said that most of the city, in the Luhansk region, had been captured by the Russians.

Ukraine has already lost larger cities than Severodonetsk, which had 100,000 residents before the war began. But together with the adjacent cities of Lysychansk and Rubizhne, this is a major urban and industrial hub where a quarter of million people recently lived. If these cities fall to the Russians, it will mean the entire Luhansk separatist region is now controlled by Moscow.

There are serious military implications as well, as two divisions – including some of the most experienced and battle-hardened brigades in the Ukrainian army – are currently deployed around Severodonetsk. The Ukrainian high command will have to decide in the coming days whether to pull back these forces and accept they have lost Luhansk entirely, or risk their forces being trapped in a shrinking enclave, bombarded by the Russians.

Meanwhile, to the west, the Russians have renewed their advance toward Slovyansk and Kramatorsk – the main cities still under Ukrainian control in the Donetsk region.

Smoke rising in the city of Severodonetsk during heavy fighting between Ukrainian and Russian troops earlier this week.Credit: ARIS MESSINIS - AFP

Russia’s prime objective in Ukraine hasn’t changed: President Vladimir Putin still believes he can topple the whole country. But after his original invasion plans from February completely failed, over the past two months the Russian army has been focused mainly on redeploying its fighting units for the next stage of fighting, with the aim of taking full control of the Donbas regions in the east.

The fighting is by no means one-sided. Russian progress is slow and often faltering, and the Ukrainians have enjoyed some successes in recent days as well. A counteroffensive near the occupied city of Kherson has captured important river crossings, and they have also managed to take advantage of the Russian deployments to recapture areas around Kharkiv, Izyum and Zaporizhzhia. But for the first time since the early days of the war, it can be said that the tide seems to be turning toward the Russians, at least in the areas where they are concentrating their efforts.

Beyond the fact that they’ve greatly limited their immediate objectives, the Russian successes are a result of their basing the new offensive on their strong points.

The logistical problems, the lack of equipment and the vulnerability of their supply routes are much less of an issue with the fighting units operating from the separatist areas that have been controlled by Moscow since 2014. These areas are also convenient for deploying artillery batteries that can hit targets dozens of kilometers away. The Ukrainians, who operated with relative ease behind Russian lines in other areas in the first month of the invasion, are much more limited there.

Russia’s forces are now under one united headquarters commanded by Gen. Aleksandr Dvornikov, and are much better coordinated now. There are no more long armored columns with petrified and bewildered tank crews. Instead, the advance is slow but orderly, with continuous artillery cover.

A destroyed bridge connecting the city of Lysychansk with the city of Severodonetsk in the eastern Ukranian region of Donbas, last week.Credit: ARIS MESSINIS - AFP

There are no tactical innovations here. The junior commanders haven’t been given any more freedom (they wouldn’t know what do with that anyway). Rather, there’s a full return to the basics of Soviet doctrine and a reliance on the old but trusted weapons systems: the multiple rocket launchers, some which were designed back in the 1960s, augmented with relatively newer systems like the Iskander short-range missiles. The ground forces no longer advance without massive artillery barrages first – the kind that destroy entire villages and towns, and push back even the hardiest of Ukrainian defenders.

Compared to the first stage of the war, which was characterized by inflated Russian expectations of a speedy Ukrainian capitulation and overambitious goals of occupying Kyiv and other major Ukrainian cities, the Russian warfare is now much more realistic. For days and often weeks, it’s static and statistical warfare, before relatively small advances.

Neither side is making much use of air power right now, for fear of losing valuable aircraft and trained pilots. Neither are tanks being used much for breakthroughs. It’s a type of warfare that is in some ways more similar to World War I – before planes and tanks became game changers on the battlefield, and when cannon fire was the dominant factor.

Here, the Russians have a clear advantage in the number of launchers and rockets. At least for now. Western countries are supplying Ukraine with new cannons and launchers, but these are not coming fast enough or in sufficient numbers to make up for their numerical disadvantage.

The capture of the Donbas region may not in itself topple Ukraine, but it will greatly dampen the hopes of the last three months that the country can withstand total war for very long, especially as the economic siege – the closure of Ukraine’s airspace and, more crucially, its shipping routes – continues.

Meanwhile, Russia is already exporting wheat it pillaged from Ukrainian storage to, among other countries, its ally Syria. This week it also renewed operations at Mariupol Port, with the first ship carrying on it steel stolen from the Azovstal complex where, until two weeks ago, Ukrainian fighters were still holding out.

Dmytro Mosur, who lost his wife during shelling in nearby Severodonetsk, holding his 2-year-old twin daughters as they wait to be evacuated from the city of Lysychansk, eastern Ukraine, last week.Credit: ARIS MESSINIS - AFP

The great unknown is whether the Russians have sufficient stockpiles of rockets, mainly of Soviet vintage, to continue their bombardment – and, if not, whether the Russian economy in its current state under Western sanctions can gear up production to replenish the stores.

On Monday, the European Union finally announced an embargo on most of its imports of Russian oil by the end of the year, but is still continuing to buy Russian natural gas. The major members of the EU, Germany and France, are worried about their economies taking a hit from the ongoing war more than Ukraine’s prospects of survival, and have slowed down weapons supplies to Kyiv. They hope they can pressure President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to accept a compromise with Putin that would leave the Donbas in Russian hands.

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