Ukraine’s access to weapons could determine the fate of the Donbass offensive | Ukraine

Russia and Ukraine declared that Moscow’s offensive in the Donbas region had started this week, although, in reality, the aerial and artillery bombardment by Moscow forces over the past 48 hours is still not the intensive attack claimed by the Kremlin. when he gave up his attempt. to seize kyiv.

The strategy is well known: Russia aims to concentrate its previously overextended forces in the east of the country, where it hopes to gain a two or perhaps three to one advantage over the Ukrainian defenders, surrounding them by attacking south from Izium and, once Ukraine falls, Mariupol, pushing up from there to the north.

But the key point, for now, is that Russia is far from marshalling all its sizable remaining forces for the fight ahead. Pentagon officials said Tuesday that the strikes so far were simply “a prelude to larger offensive operations” that will determine whether the fighting amounts to a relatively short war or a much longer one.

After two months of fighting, the US rough estimate is that Russia has 75% of its combat power still available and 78 of its battalion tactical groups in Ukraine. At full strength, that would amount to about 62,000, although the figure is likely to be lower, plus thousands of more separatists, mercenaries and other irregular forces.

Several thousand Russian soldiers (12 battalions, US estimates) remain tied up in the final stages of the battle for Mariupol, trying to take control of the city’s large Azovstal steel mill. However, others are still rebuilding after the defeat near kyiv, so the build-up is expected to be gradual.

Donbas fighting map

“The Russian game plan is to potentially launch a slow and methodical offensive, to avoid a repeat of the poorly coordinated and costly operations of February and March,” said Nick Reynolds, a ground warfare expert at the Rusi think tank. Russia’s mistake then was to send mechanized forces down the main roads, allowing Ukrainian infantry, armed with British and foreign anti-tank bazookas, to intercept them.

All of which means it’s highly unlikely that President Vladimir Putin will be able to announce mission accomplished in time for the annual May 9 parade commemorating Russia’s victory in World War II. But that doesn’t mean Russia can’t defeat Ukraine’s mainland army in the coming weeks.

Western intelligence does not like to estimate the size of the Ukrainian forces against Russia, although at the beginning of the war the number of Donbas defenders was estimated at between 40,000 and 45,000. These will have been increased by the massive mobilization of the country at the beginning of the war and some reinforcements from kyiv.

But, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy acknowledged in a recent interview with CNN, his country has suffered between 2,500 and 3,000 soldiers killed and 10,000 wounded. The pleas for more ammunition and more powerful weapons continue, and a key weapon is likely to be artillery as both sides attempt to break through the other’s defensive lines in a fight somewhat reminiscent of World War I.

Russia began the war with two and a half times the number of artillery pieces, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies. And, according to a Pentagon briefing on Tuesday, it still retains “more than 80%” of both the necessary heavy weapons and ammunition, which can bombard Ukraine’s front lines from positions up to 30 miles away.

But the concern is that Ukraine, with its industrial base decimated, will gradually run out of the standard Soviet 152mm rounds it uses in its heavy weapons. There are limited supplies around NATO of the Russian weapons it has used conventionally, which is why a week ago, acknowledging Ukraine’s need, the United States said it would send 18 standard Western 155mm howitzers and 40,000 artillery rounds.

However, 18 howitzers represent a fraction of Ukraine’s total artillery, putting pressure on NATO members and in particular the US to supply more if the fighting intensifies, another example of how kyiv it depends on the West to help its forces avoid the anticipated Russian attack. . Moscow’s Donbas attack may be predictable: what is not yet clear is whether Ukraine can stop it.

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