‘The battle for Donbas will be long and bloody, more like the Second World War than what happened in Kiev’

Ukrainian soldier in Donbas

Ukrainian soldier in Donbas

Photo: EPA / BBC News Brazil

There will be no peace accords, ceasefire or surrender in Ukraine.

The next two months will bring what US defense officials call “a knife fight” in what the Ukrainian military calls “Joint Forces Operation” (JFO). This is the region known as Donbas.

For eight years, the two sides fought there, in a scenario where elements of the regular Russian army are supplemented by separatist units.

Now, after the defeat in Kiev, Russian forces are splintering across the region to face Ukraine’s best and most experienced units.

The battles to come will be more like the maneuver battles of World War II than those fought in the cities of Kiev, Mariupol and Sumy in the six weeks the war has lasted so far.

However, it is unlikely that the Russians will triumph.

After the recent defeat in the north, Russia has made some significant changes. The most important was the appointment of a general commander.

The importance of this is not the identity or individual experience of Russian General Alexander Dvornikov, but the fact that the Russians will have a commander to coordinate and try to achieve a single focused and seemingly realistic operational objective, rather than three separate objectives that compete among themselves. itself in the north, south and east.

Russian troops now control much of eastern Ukraine

Russian troops now control much of eastern Ukraine

Photo: Getty Images / BBC News Brazil

Russia is desperately trying to replace its considerable losses in the conflict, which account for up to 20% of its strength.

New efforts will make little difference. The reactivated soldiers and reserves that were recently called up will not be ready in a few months.

However, the force the Russians have mustered will be formidable, and with smaller, better-established supply lines in Russia, it is possible they could avoid some of the terrible mistakes that have characterized their side of the war thus far.

Equally important, in theory, is that in the Donbas region they will be able to use their air force more effectively, as they are closer to their bases and to the area covered by their air defense.

But recent events have shown the theory to be an unreliable parameter regarding the range of Ukrainian air defenses.

In the end, the Russian army has always been and still is very strong in artillery, the weapon they call “the Red God of War”.

the battles

In these types of battles, forces are launched against Ukrainian defenders positioned at various high points or “bulges”, which are areas surrounded by Russian-backed separatists.

Throughout military history, these battles have offered the chance to trap enemy forces in “pockets”.

Military historians remember the First Battle of Ypres (1914-1918), Battle of Verdun (1916), Battle of Kursk (1943) and the Battle of the Bulge (1944-45) as the clearest examples of this.

The Russians sought to probe and breach Ukrainian defenses, encircle the borders, arrest the Ukrainians and annihilate them using their advantages in air power and artillery, or at least force them to retreat.

Russian-backed separatist troops successfully carried out such an operation on a relatively small scale at the Battle of Debaltseve in Ukraine in February 2015, where artillery was used to devastating effect.

US military analysts believe that Ukrainian positions on the border of the city of Severodonetsk and mainly around the city of Sloviansk will be the initial targets of a siege attempt by the Russians, with an eventual attack on the city of Dnipro, a major road hub. and communications, to dominate the entire region east of the Dneiper River.

All this is well known to the Ukrainian commander General Valerii Zaluzhnyi and his staff.

The Russians want quick battles of annihilation. What they will get is a war of attrition.

From bitter experience, Ukrainian commanders fully understand the risks of being surrounded.

They have demonstrated their qualities in agility and tactical innovation necessary for this type of battle.

Pro-Russian militias in Donetsk

Pro-Russian militias in Donetsk

Photo: Getty Images / BBC News Brazil

Better yet, they know what’s to come. NATO’s air and space reconnaissance and surveillance, as well as Ukraine’s own intelligence capability, will ensure that there are no surprise attacks.

A long war?

With continued and growing Western assistance, Ukraine should be able to sustain a long war better than the Russians.

NATO assistance will be vital in reasserting the defenders’ armored units, giving them a much better chance to counterattack and regain ground.

However, having some level of air control is the most important factor, which is why maintaining and strengthening anti-aircraft missile defenses is an absolute priority.

Despite Russia’s advantages in technology and equipment, Ukrainian forces will continue to exploit the adversary’s acute and chronic weaknesses in logistics and supplies.

One of the firm rules of war is that a successful attacker must enjoy a three-to-one superiority.

Russia’s exhausted strength is far from superior. There are exceptions to this three-to-one rule, such as the 1991 Gulf War, where a US-led and well-equipped coalition wiped out a larger, combat-experienced Iraqi army.

In these cases, attackers made up for the relative lack of quantity with quality in training, planning, and the moral components crucial to cohesion and motivation.

In the spring 2022 battles, it is the defenders, not the attackers, who are in abundant possession of these factors against a Russian army beset by chronic problems of endemic corruption, professionalism, and training that have rendered them seemingly incapable of complex operations.

These problems will not go away and will not be resolved by a change in command or operational focus.

Above all, the damage inflicted by the Ukrainian armed forces reduced their manpower, equipment and morale.

The next battle will start in the next two weeks. Trying to predict its precise course is ultimately futile, not even generals at war can.

It could be that the fate of the Russian military is already sealed in what will likely be a long war.

The only reservation for this may be that Russia opts for an escalation using “weapons of mass destruction” in one form or another, through tactical nuclear warhead or chemical weapons.

Mariupol’s accounts suggest that the Russians may have already resorted to these weapons. If this is proven, it shows that Russia is prepared to resort to something even more serious if it fears complete military humiliation in Ukraine.

* Frank Ledwidge is Professor of Strategy and Military Law at the University of Portsmouth, England. This article originally appeared on The Conversation. You can read the original version on here.

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