Skip to content
Analysis: Repelled by kyiv, what is Russia’s military strategy?


Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Tuesday that the operation in Donbass is “a very important moment in this whole special operation”.

The Russian objective is clear and publicly declared: to secure all eastern regions of Ukraine, Donetsk and Lugansk, parts controlled by Russian-backed separatists since 2014. A second objective is to crush the remaining resistance in the port city of Mariupol to shore up a land bridge linking Russia’s Rostov region with Crimea, which Russia seized from Ukraine eight years ago.

To these ends, Russian forces deployed north and east of Kyiv have been redeployed and, in some cases, replenished after suffering heavy losses.

Now they – and cooler units – are piling into Ukraine from the northeast. US officials estimate that Russia has mobilized some 78 battalion battle groups in eastern Ukraine, likely around 75,000 troops. Still others are being assembled in Russian border regions.

So far, their tactics are straight out of the Russian playbook: heavy use of artillery, rocket systems and missiles followed by advancing armour. Towns in Luhansk such as Severodonetsk, Popasna and Rubizhne were reduced to rubble, with electricity, gas and water supplies destroyed.

But Russian progress on the ground has been modest. This may be because they didn’t take the time to regroup after the beatings they suffered in February and March.

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) claims that “Russian forces did not take the operational pause that was likely necessary to properly reconstitute and integrate damaged units withdrawn from northeast Ukraine into the operations in eastern Ukraine”.

US officials estimated that Russia had lost up to 25% of the combat firepower it had before the invasion.

Boxing the Donbass in

CNN’s analysis of satellite imagery, dozens of social media videos and statements from both sides suggest the Russians are now trying to advance along three axes.

Imagine Donbass as a square: Russian forces are already on three sides, leaving only the west open to the Ukrainians for reinforcements and, if necessary, a retreat.

From the south and east, Russian forward units advanced a few kilometers at best this month. To the south, they had already advanced in the region of Zaporizhzhia, neighboring Donetsk. This week they began shelling villages well inside Zaporizhzhia.

From the north, after taking the city of Izium earlier this month, they have made little progress.

Analysis: Repelled by kyiv, what is Russia’s military strategy?

What is unclear at this point is whether the Russians can and will shift gears, and a more coordinated offensive is upon us. The Kyiv campaign bulletin suggests otherwise, but U.S. officials believe that for now Russia is still conducting “shaping operations … to make sure they have the logistics and a support in place”.

Even so, the ISW believes that “the Russian military likely failed to address the root causes—poor coordination, inability to conduct cross-country operations, and low morale—that hampered previous offensives.”

Ukrainian tactics

The Ukrainians proved cunning in this conflict, ceding territory to preserve resources but using their knowledge of the terrain and mobility to inflict casualties on Russian units.

This week, Ukrainian units withdrew from the town of Kreminna in the Luhansk region when they faced overwhelming firepower.

Now they must decide if they will mount static defenses, which could lead to destroying or encircling units in the face of Russian artillery, rockets and armored assaults. The alternative is mobile defense – fighting and retreating to less vital ground, hitting the Russians when they fall back, then holding their lines in whatever terrain they choose.

Simultaneously, the Ukrainians will seek to disrupt Russian supply lines, creating confusion while challenging Russian logistics and morale. And the morale of some Russian units – redeployed for their second offensive in as many months – may be fragile.

Analysis: Repelled by kyiv, what is Russia’s military strategy?
One of the Russian targets is the city of Sloviansk, but the surrounding territory includes forests, rivers and swamps – difficult to cross and requiring specialized bridge equipment. Where the Russians are confined to the roads, as has become clear north of kyiv, they are more vulnerable to both Ukrainian drones and light anti-tank missiles.

The Ukrainians don’t only play in defence; in recent days, small units have made modest gains east and south of Kharkiv, potentially threatening Russian supply lines. If they can sustain that, the Russians should dedicate units to protecting those lines.

There are already signs that Ukrainian special forces are operating behind Russian lines: last week a road bridge on a main route from Russia was blown up. There was also unexplained damage to a railway bridge inside Russia, on the outskirts of Belgorod. The Russian military relies on the railways for much of its logistics. In this aspect of the battle, Western intelligence support can play a crucial role.

Another important aspect of the coming fight is cultural. Ukrainian units enjoy a certain autonomy and are encouraged to exploit opportunities on the battlefield. Even in the absence of clear directives or orders, they have the motivation to fight. In contrast, the Russian chain of command is rigid and the culture does not encourage enterprise.

Even so, Ukrainians also face considerable risks. They are fighting – essentially – in an area that could close if the Russians succeed in one or more directions. They will have to maneuver intelligently as they did around kyiv, constantly alert to the risk of being surrounded.

Analysis: Repelled by kyiv, what is Russia’s military strategy?

When Mariupol falls, the Russians can redirect the forces that were dedicated to this assault, but they have been degraded and exhausted by nearly two months of urban fighting.

Above all, in a race against time, Ukraine needs a constant resupply of arms and ammunition, much of which must now come from outside the country via a long supply line that is likely to be interdicted. They need more anti-tank weapons and mobile air defenses.

Counterattacks aimed at disrupting the Russian offensive should be protected from the air.

On Tuesday, a senior US official said Washington was working “around the clock” to get weapons to Ukraine at “unprecedented” speed. The United States has already authorized $2.3 billion in arms and equipment shipments to Ukraine since the invasion.

“What’s unprecedented here is the number of back-to-back swabs we’re doing at this speed,” the official said.

Aim for Victory Day

There has been talk that the Kremlin wants tangible progress by May 9, when Russia marks Victory Day marking the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. At the current rate of progress, that seems unlikely. The much bigger question is whether this conflict stretches into the summer, in a grim war of attrition.

The Russian military is expected to rotate units, drawing on limited reserves, to support a conflict that has already beaten its ground forces. His calculation (and the political strategy of the Kremlin) will be affected by the effectiveness of the Ukrainian resistance and the ability of Western governments to supply Ukraine with more and better equipment.

Analysis: Repelled by kyiv, what is Russia’s military strategy?
Writing in War on the Rocks, Jack Watling of the Royal United Services Institute in London said: “The Ukraine challenge bought time and an opportunity not only to prevent further Russian gains in Donbass, but also to shape the battle beyond. Ukraine’s allies are acting today, they can deter or at least prepare for a summer offensive.”
There is an emergency for supplies. Last week, the Biden administration authorized another $800 million security package, which included artillery and anti-artillery radars. On Tuesday, the president indicated that more is to come.

Ukraine will need offensive gear if it is to punish any vulnerability in Russian lines, and that includes heavy armor (like combat-ready tanks) as well as a host of other systems.

Watling says there is no time to waste. “Providing Ukraine with tactical mobile air defense systems such as the National would allow Ukraine to maneuver near the Russian border and retake towns while attacking Russian supply lines.”

The National – or NASAMS – is an advanced, mobile surface-to-air missile system.

Western governments understand that this is a critical moment: to raise the cost of Russia’s “special military operation” to the point where it is unaffordable. The Ukrainians are clamoring for even more and better weapons, especially as they try to get their air force flying.

Still outnumbered and outgunned, they will need agility, determination and reinforcements to stave off phase two of Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine.


cnn Eur