It was General Dvornikov’s arrival that shifted the focus to the east. He would push for a decisive all-out offensive, using massive firepower and forces, to get the ‘victory’ Putin needs to call off the war.
A war which everyone thought would be over in a week is now entering its third month. If anything, the scale of destruction has only increased, as has the humanitarian cost of the war. But now, as the Russian forces shift direction from “The Battle of Kyiv” to the “Battle of the Donbas”, the war has entered a decisive phase.
Perhaps the slow progress of the war so far was due to the fact that its initial aims and objectives were widely dispersed. The Russians advanced in the north towards Kyiv; in the east towards Kharkiv and Sumy, and moved from Crimea along the coastal belt of the south, towards the cities of Mariupol, Mykolaiv, Melitopol, Kherson and Odessa. The three widely dispersed thrust lines were separated by over 1,400 kilometers and were not complementary, nor could they be sustained.
Around end March—the Russians had approached Kyiv with a force of over 30,000 troops—including some of the crack mechanized and airborne divisions of the 35th Combined Arms Army. They had even begun the process of isolating it from two directions and seized the vital suburbs of Irpin, Bucha, and Brovary. Just when it seemed that the battle for the capture of Kyiv would begin, the Russians announced the withdrawal of their forces from the sector, stating that the focus would be on the Donbas and the eastern Sector—“the original aim of the war”. Russian forces withdrew from this sector, leaving behind scenes of savagery in the suburbs of Bucha and Irpin. Though the immediate threat to Kyiv has receded, the war has intensified in the east, and if anything, the threat to Ukraine has increased.
The Russian withdrawal from Kyiv was the right decision. Even though they had closed in, they did not have the force level to take the town. If anything, their soldiers would have been sucked in a gruelling battle of streets, subways and buildings—akin to the maelstrom of Stalingrad that the German armies encountered in 1942—and taking the town would be time-consuming and expensive. The Russians withdrew in good order back towards Belarus, and continue to pose a threat in being which continues to tie down Ukrainian troops, while they focus on the east and the south. Perhaps Kyiv will be addressed again once in a later phase of the operation.
In the south, the crux of the offensive lies in Mariupol—the vital port just 30 kilometers away from the eastern Donbas region. After being cut off and defended for almost two months by the fanatical Azov Battalion and 36th Marine Brigade, Mariupol has been finally hammered into submission. At the time of going to print, only an isolated force still held out in the Azovtal steel plant, the rest of the city has come under Russian control. Its capture has given Putin a much-needed symbol of victory. More importantly, it opens the gateway to the entire coastal belt in the south and provides Russia a land bridge toward the Crimea and control over the coastline along the Sea of Azov.
Operations to capture the towns of Melitopol, Mykolaiv, Kherson and others—which have already been besieged and been brutally hammered for months—have also intensified. Most of the towns in the southern belt have been cut off from the rest of the country and it is likely that these towns will not be able to withstand the intensified attacks. But one prize—the icing on the cake—is out of Russian reach, as yet. Odessa, Ukraine’s main port (located further to the west on the Black Sea) was reportedly to be captured by an amphibious assault in the initial days of the war itself. That attack did not materialize, perhaps because of lack of success in other sectors and shortage of resources. There has been a major setback when Moskva, the flag ship of the Black Sea fleet, was attacked by Neptune anti-ship missiles and later sunk. Ironically, the Moskva was built in the same ports of Melitopol and Mykolaiv in 1983 (when Ukraine too was part of the Soviet Union) which it now bombed, and from where the missiles which sank it, were likely to have been fired. This has been a huge loss—and a major boost to Ukrainian morale—and the efficacy of long-range anti-ship missiles will now keep Russian ships at bay, reducing their ability to influence operations on land.
But even then, the Russians already hold a swathe of land along the Ukraine coast, which is almost 200 kilometers deep. The capture of the port cities will then enable them to cut off Ukraine from the sea, and gain control over the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. Perhaps Odessa itself could be attacked later, when the other cities fall. That would deprive Ukraine of its ports, make it land-locked and virtually cripple its economy.
Along with the southern thrust, operations along the eastern front have intensified as well. The entire 480-kilometer-long front has been hit by missiles and artillery fire and Kharkiv now appears to be the next major target. The eastern thrust—complemented by attacks from the separatists of the Donbas region—could try to reach the line of the Dnieper River, perhaps near the river town of Dnipro.
If both the thrusts make headway, the Russians could move northward from Mariupol, to link up with the eastern thrust line in the area of Izyum. This will enable them to form a pincer that can cut off all Ukrainian forces in the Donbas region (which comprise of 40% of their army). Luhansk and Donetsk—the two breakaway provinces which Russia has recognized even before the war—will then be completely cut off from Ukraine, and amalgamated with Russia.
If they do attain these aims it could be a significant victory. But it is a big “if”. After all, the Ukrainian army in the east is battle-hardened by eight years of war fighting separatists in the Donbas, and the past two months have shown the Ukrainians to be tough and determined fighters. They have the defender’s advantage of fighting in their own territory, and have called up over 20-30,000 conscripts and reservists to reinforce their forces. They have also been beefed up by an influx of western equipment and aid. However, the Russian targeting of the town of Lviv—the border town where western equipment is received and stockpiled, show that Russians will interdict this route too. They have hit Lviv with long-range hypersonic Kinzhal missiles—and for good measure test fired their latest Sarmat II ICBM (NATO name SATAN II)—a nuclear capable hypersonic missile which can evade most defences. This is a clear-cut signal that they could escalate the war should western powers intervene directly.
The war is now in its most decisive phase. The renewed Russian offensive has made initial gains, but whether they can go on to take their objectives remains to be seen. After all, the soldiers would be tired after two months of hard grind. Many of the units and formations have lost men and equipment due to constant attrition and combat effectiveness would be reduced. (As per western sources, the Russians have lost around 25-30 of the 125 Battalion Operating Groups deployed). But with summer setting in, the ground is harder now, and that will make movement easier—both of tanks and logistics vehicles. They also have a new commander—General Alexander Dvornikov, a Syrian war veteran, who has taken overall command of all forces (a welcome change when all three thrust lines had independent commanders with little coordination between the diverse forces). It was his arrival that shifted the focus to the east and he would push for a decisive all-out offensive, using massive firepower and forces, to get the “victory” Putin needs to call off the war.
The symbol of victory is required, and required soon. After all, Victory Day—the anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany—is coming up on 9 May, and Putin needs to show his people, and the world, the Russian victory over the “neo-Nazis of Ukraine”. In all likelihood, he will have got major gains by then—a huge strip of land along the coast, a rich swathe of eastern land, and of course the breakaway provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk. Russia has announced that it would not return its captured territories, and this itself will give it an area larger than Britain. That is “if” they attain all their aims. But even if they get the victory they look for, it will be a pyrrhic one. In the long term it would not be commensurate with the price they have paid and the manner in which they have marginalized themselves in the world order.
Ajay Singh is the author of five books and over 200 articles. He is a recipient of the Rabindranath Tagore International Award for Art and Literature 2021.