Evidence is mounting that Moscow has failed to make much progress in the Donbas of eastern Ukraine, despite months of fighting in the industrial and agricultural region close to the Russian border.
Russia’s military bloggers and like-minded activists have in recent weeks lamented the lack of progress from the winter campaign. Russia has not secured victory in the city of Bakhmut, or in the towns or Avdiivka, Vuhledar, Lyman or Marinka.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner mercenary group, said on Sunday that his forces had raised a Russian flag over an administrative building in Bakhmut, according to the Reuters news agency, but acknowledged that Ukraine was still holding the western part of the city. Mr. Prigozhin has prematurely called such victories before.
“The winter campaign in the Donbas is over,” said Igor Girkin, a former Russian intelligence officer who led a military intervention in eastern Ukraine and now blogs about military affairs. “We can say that the winter campaign ended unsuccessfully.” The comments by Mr. Girkin, who uses the nickname Strelkov, were echoed by others in Russia who have ties to the military and have at times been critical of the Kremlin’s approach to the war.
Russia’s winter offensive followed a series of battlefield setbacks last fall. In the early days of the invasion, Ukraine was also successful in fending off the toppling of its government in Kyiv.
A Ukrainian military expert, Oleksiy Melnyk, said that two factors in particular had served to impede Russia’s campaign this year. The first was the battle for the town of Vuhledar in Donetsk, in which elite Russian forces sustained severe losses, including tanks and other armored vehicles. The second was Kyiv’s decision not to abandon Bakhmut as Russia advanced around the city, including capturing the nearby town of Soledar.
“The Russian offensive campaign is about to end,” Mr. Melnyk said in an interview. “It seems they will not try a major offensive any time soon.”
But he cautioned that the Kremlin appeared to be laying plans for a protracted conflict, aiming to drain Ukraine’s fighting strength over time and waiting for international support for the government in Kyiv to wane.
Dmitri Kuznets, a military analyst who writes about the war for Meduza, an independent Russian-language news site published in Latvia, downplayed the long-term significance of the offensive for Moscow, arguing that it was not possible to judge without knowing its precise objectives.
“We will know the result of this entire winter campaign for both Russia and Ukraine only after the Ukrainian counteroffensive happens,” he said in an interview.
Both sides have also been building up their forces in southern Ukraine, where Moscow suffered a major setback last fall. Retaking Crimea, which Russia annexed illegally in 2014, is a major territorial objective of the government in Kyiv. But to do so, it will need to capture ground on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River in the Zaporizhzhia region.
If and when Ukraine does launch its counteroffensive, it can make use of stocks of weapons supplied in recent months by the United States and other allies and deploy newly trained soldiers.
Mr. Menlyk, the Ukrainian military expert, said the counteroffensive could come in the next few weeks, “once the ground becomes suitable for tanks to move across open fields.”
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