In March the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts noted that the war in Ukraine was not ending anytime soon: “right now, both sides have reasons to believe that they will win this war.”
Let’s start with the Russians. They have abandoned their attempt to decapitate Ukraine’s government and force a regime change. In lowering their sights to Donbas, however, a lot of Western military analysts now believe that they can conquer enough territory to plausibly declare a victory of some sort.
The logic, which I have heard from several experts, sounds compelling. Abandoning the other Ukraine campaigns allows Russia to concentrate its forces in the east and the south. Russia has also — finally — appointed a single theater commander, a decision that seems like it should be part of Land War 101 but took Vladimir Putin over a month to actually do. If Russia finally takes Mariupol, that would create a land bridge from Crimea to the east and free up a dozen battalion tactical groups to focus on attacking Donbas. Because this region is closer to Russian soil, the logistics snafus that complicated their other operations should be less acute.
Attacking Donbas also plays to Russia’s preexisting strengths. The terrain is open and flat, far less hospitable to the insurgency-style warfare that Ukraine employed so effectively to thwart Russia’s advance on Kyiv. Instead, military analysts predict open tank warfare reminiscent of World War II. In that kind of combat, Russia’s preponderance of forces becomes an even bigger advantage. Finally, to the extent that there is any residual sympathy in Ukraine for rejoining Russia, it is in Donbas.
To sum up: the reason one would expect Russia to do well in Donbas is not because it is changing its tactics, but because it has chosen a place to attack where Russian forces can keep doing what they know how to do.
That all sounds ominous for Ukraine. And yet, there are decent reasons to believe that the Ukrainians are also well-placed for victory. Their most obvious advantage continues to be the superior will, skill and morale of their forces. Russian forces might be massing near Donbas but intelligence reports suggest that their morale would best be described as “not high.” Furthermore, the Russian forces being redeployed to the east are not in great shape. If they encounter reverses in their eastern offensive, it is easy to envisage Russian forces crumbling there just as they did during the attempt to move on Kyiv.
The assumptions of shorter logistics and greater mass of forces for Russia might be less than meets the eye. Ukraine has already counterattacked and disrupted supply lines between Belgorod and the front lines. The latest report from the Institute for the Study of War suggests that the Russian forces massing in Donbas mostly consist of “low-quality proxy conscripts.” This might explain how Russia keeps losing generals.
Another presumption is that the more armored the battle, the better the odds for Russia. But NATO countries are also sending heavier weapons to Ukraine, training them in using those weapons, and expanding intelligence sharing with the Ukrainians. Arming the more motivated, better-trained Ukrainian army with better weapons seems like it increases Ukraine’s odds of victory. It also raises the interesting question of how vulnerable Russian forces are to counterattack.
As the war has gone on, Ukraine has succeeded in forcing Putin to define victory down. This increases the odds that Russia can accomplish its limited goals. If Ukraine can succeed in this next phase, however, then Russia will either have to abandon its “technical military operation” or admit it is trapped in a full-scale war with a determined and enterprising enemy.