Dead end

In the past 10 months, Russia managed to only capture about 4% of Donbas. Troops are basically treading water while losses are mounting. Novaya Gazeta Europe dissects Russia’s war effort in Ukraine

Dead end

Bodies of killed Russian soldiers, March 2022. Photo: MARCUS YAM / LOS ANGELES TIMES

Having started the war with an attempt to “capture Kyiv in three days”, Russia has officially bogged down in fighting in 2023. The Battle for Donbas has been going on for nine months, and the Russian army spent six of them standing in one place. Russia only managed to seize a little over 2,000 square kilometres of territories in bloody clashes, or just 4% of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The last major city that Russian forces occupied was Lysychansk in early July. Novaya-Europe’s data department takes a closer look at the Kremlin’s blitzkrieg that turned into a long war of attrition which it most likely cannot win.

Ukrainians woke up on 24 February 2022 to nationwide missile strikes.

Russian forces launched five offensive operations. They were advancing in the north on Kyiv and Kharkiv, in the south on Kherson and Mariupol and in the east and north on the Luhansk region.

By 28 March, Russia had occupied over 25% of Ukraine’s territories: 155,000 sq.km. However, the main objective was not reached: efforts to encircle and seize Kyiv failed. Ukrainian defence proved to be effective. The Russian army was sustaining great losses and was troubled by logistical issues.

Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu on 29 March announced that the “first stage” of the “special military operation” was completed. On 4 April, Russia withdrew its troops from the Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Sumy regions.

“In the beginning, Russia was attempting to either assert control over the whole of Ukraine or most of it, including Kyiv and the southern part, naturally, to cut Ukraine off its coast. But this ambitious and completely reckless plan was not grounded in reality. It completely disregarded the capabilities and wishes of Ukrainians,” military observer David Sharp says.

The fast single-file nature of the offensive carried out without any serious air force support or other cover as well as the participation of Russian National Guard units who were supposed to establish order in captured cities show that the Russian General Staff did not expect Ukraine to put up any serious resistance. The ten-day blitzkrieg went up in smoke.

After that, Russia regrouped and attempted a classic offensive manoeuvre to encircle the Ukrainian capital. This plan also suffered defeat.

In the beginning of the spring, the Russian command announced the “second stage” of the “special military operation”. Defence Minister Shoigu underlined that the Donbas “liberation” was its key goal.

The Battle for Donbas, which was extensively covered and hailed by Russia’s propaganda media, commenced on 18 April. Many in Russia expected that the war would be over in weeks by 9 May, Victory Day.

However, nine months have passed, while Russia only lost more control over occupied territories.

In total, Russia was pushed out of 15,000 square kilometres of land since 18 April. This is equal to losing Russia’s Kaliningrad region.

These setbacks came after Ukraine launched two successful military operations: a large-scale counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region in September and HIMARS strikes on Dnipro bridges and crossings leading to Kherson. These relentless missile attacks left Russia logistically vulnerable on the right bank of the Dnipro and eventually forced it to retreat from Kherson.

Russia’s standstill in Donbas

The key prize in this stage of the Ukraine war for Russia is to capture the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in their administrative borders. Shoigu and Commander-in-Chief Putin both mentioned this.

Russia’s major territorial gains in Donbas came right in the beginning of the war, in February-March. Russia then secured the Sea of Azov coastline as well as northern areas of the Luhansk region and laid siege to Mariupol. In the two first months of the Ukraine war, Russia almost doubled its area of control in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions — from 34% to 73%. The Kremlin grabbed more than 670 cities, towns, and villages with a population of 465,000 people.

Russia changed its tactic in April and focused the bulk of its forces on capturing the whole of Donbas. Initially, Russia’s retreat from Kyiv yielded results and Russian troops successfully concentrated on this task. In May, Moscow claimed Popasna, Rubizhne, and Lyman — the three cities of strategic importance for a future offensive. By 20 May, Russia had occupied Mariupol, a city of 400,000 people, and forced almost 2,500 Ukrainian service members who were defending the Azovstal Steel Works to surrender.

However, the offensive pace started to slow down in June. Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, where almost 200,000 people lived before the war, were the last significant breakthroughs for the Russian army to date. They were captured on 25 June and 3 July respectively.

“Unlike the Ukrainian army that launched a mobilisation, Russia [until October] tried to fight the war exclusively with professional service members. It exhausted the army’s powers and slowed down the offensive without any serious advances except for the captures of Popasna, Sievierodonetsk, Lysychansk, and Mariupol,” military analyst Kirill Mikhaylov explains.

The siege of Sievierodonetsk lasted more than three months and exhausted the Russian army. Moreover, Russia was forced to redeploy a significant number of troops to this area which left other sections of the frontline vulnerable.

“The struggle for Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk was a very long operation with huge losses. Even though I disagree, some analysts believe that it was almost the main reason behind Russia’s defeats near Balakliya, Izium, Lyman, and in the Kherson region later in the war,” military observer David Sharp adds. “[The capture of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk] was the epitome of a Pyrrhic victory. It showed that the nature of the war had changed. Russia stepped into the attrition stage.”

Russia’s offensive had completely stalled by August. The pace of the advance had dropped by four times compared to April. Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces began liberating their territories in September.

Having started the invasion with “Kyiv in three days” victory slogans, Russia had bogged down in the war by the end of 2022.

The Russian army barely moved a kilometre in the past six months of the Battle for Donbas that started nine months ago. Soledar with its population of 10,000 people is the biggest settlement seized by Russia in Donbas since July.

As a result, Russian forces managed to occupy just over 2,000 square kilometres of territories in the nine months of bloody clashes since the Battle of Donbas commenced, or 4% of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions combined. In total, 77% of these areas are controlled by Moscow. Supposing that the Russian army continues to advance at a similar pace in Donbas, the region will be occupied in four and a half years.

The time it takes the Kremlin troops to assault cities offers another insight into the stalling nature of the Russian offensive.

  • In May 2022, Russia needed 84 days to capture Mariupol (400,000 people).
  • In June, it took Russian forces 112 days to seize Sievierodonetsk (100,000).
  • In January 2023, Russia spent 175 days, or almost six months, claiming Soledar (10,000).

Since the invasion began, Russia captured cities and towns in Donbas where 1.4 million people lived in the pre-war times. At the same time, Ukrainians have now reclaimed settlements where 80,000 lived.

“Operation successes are crucial. When an offensive does not just lead to a town capture but also crushes the enemy’s defences and destroys its group of forces. Meanwhile, there’s not much point talking about the [offensive] pace when Russia has been spending months to crack Ukraine’s defence lines, barely moves, and dulls its potential,” Sharp believes.

Who was ‘liberated’ by Russia

The Kremlin talks a lot about “liberating” Donbas and helping its people. However, Russia’s artillery flattens cities to capture them. Mariupol, Sievierodonetsk, Popasna, and others are reduced to rubble following their “reunification” with Russia.

According to the UN, 8,000 civilians have been confirmed killed since the war began. However, the real death toll can be much higher.

Millions of people, including those from Donbas that Russia is “saving”, have turned into refugees. More than 2.8 million people fled from Ukraine’s eastern regions to Russia alone. For example, more than half of Mariupol’s residents left the city even according to Russia’s reports. Kyiv stressed that its population had dropped manifold.

Russia’s losses are also very tangible. Open sources alone point out that the Russian army has lost almost 15,000 people in the Ukraine war. In reality, this number can be 40-60% higher according to the BBC, or up to 35,000. Moreover, this number does not include soldiers from the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics, Moscow’s Donbas puppet states formed in 2014 that were later annexed, who were killed, became disabled, or are missing.

In total, Russia’s losses including those injured, captured, and missing can be as high as 150,000-200,000 service members according to the Defence Ministries of Ukraine and the UK.

Ukraine can launch an offensive in spring

This trench warfare stage in the Ukraine conflict, which is already drawing comparisons to the First World War, cannot last long. Russia is right now mounting offensives on several axes: Russian troops are assaulting Kupiansk, Lyman, Bakhmut, Marinka, Avdiivka, and Vuhledar but to no significant effect. “Russia’s big offensive is already ongoing. But it’s going in a way that not everyone can even notice it, such is its quality,” head of Ukraine’s military intelligence Kyrylo Budanov noted sarcastically in an interview.

“Russia currently does not have enough trained forces who could bring back the manoeuvring phase of the war and seize any major cities or towns. We see actions of draftee units in the fighting for Vuhledar which has been going on for three weeks without any significant results. We are talking about the officially elite 155th and 140th marine brigades which were reinforced with draftees. These troops fight even less effectively than the ones that Russia started the war with,” Kirill Mikhaylov adds.

As the war drags on, Russia’s technical capabilities are gradually declining. The Kremlin resorts to using increasingly older and outdated weapons on the battlefield. Ukraine’s capabilities are improving on the contrary due to Western military aid supplies.

“The current phase [trench warfare] can last until mid-spring when an active offensive will begin. If Russia cannot change anything, Ukraine will. If not in the middle of spring, then towards its end or in early summer. The Ukrainian army will get tanks, the winter will be over, and we will see active fighting. They are trying to liberate its territories on any occasion,” military blogger Ian Matveev says.

Ukraine wants to recapture Donbas and Crimea to reinstate the country in its 1991 borders formed after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, Russia is trying to at least hold on to the occupied territories and capture the whole of Donbas.

“I think that the long-term war goals remain the same in the Kremlin a year into the war. They continue to believe that they can destroy Ukraine as a state and preside over it, split into parts, and install a puppet government. They just think that it will take a while,” Matveev adds.

It all points to one thing: the war is unlikely to end in the next year.

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