Russo-Ukraine war has completed elevenweeks with no signs of abating. In the first week of April, after battling for almost five weeks on a distant northern axis Russia decided to disengage its forces from the capital city Kyiv and border cities of Chernihiv and Sumy. The centre of gravity of the operations has now shifted to Ukraine’s Donbas region and coastal areas. Conflict is taking place in the Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson and Mykolaivoblasts of Ukraine. Cruise missilesfired from the Black Sea, Caspian Sea and Russian hinterland have been targeting the Kyiv, port city Odessa, fuel depots,suspectedweapon and ammunition depots and railroad junctions to prevent resupply of weapons to the troops.
Cities of Kharkiv and Mariupol though heavily devastated by shelling and missile strikeshave still not fallen. The ‘special military operations’ announced by President Putin were intended to wrap up the war on a winning note by annexing Donbas region and showcase the victory at the V Day parade at Red Square on 09 May, which Russian generals could not accomplish. The slow of pace of advance of the Russian tank columns indicates that Donbas may hold out longer than the expected deadline. Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, in a recent interview has rightly observed that the Russian operation in Ukraine has ‘dragged’ on.
The conflict has united Europe under the banner of NATO as never before. Russia is reeling under incessant economic sanctions and many more may be imposed in future. This conflagration may engulf Moldova as there are occasional military activities in Russia supported Transnistria region east of Dnister river. Russia wants to tackle Odesa, but its present commitments and resources do not permit.
The war may spread to the Baltics, as Sweden and Finland intendapplying for the membership of NATO. NATO may admit both the countries during its Madrid conference in coming June. Sweden and Finland will come under the umbrella of collective defence under the Article V of NATO, but in the interregnum, there is no such security guarantee on offer to the applicant countries. This is making Sweden dither a bit while Finland appears firm in its resolve. With Sweden and Finland joining the NATO’s ranks the geo-strategic balanc of the Nordic and Baltic region will turn against Russia. It will be a great provocation for Russia, which has been warning these countries with grave consequences.
A plethora of Russian formations and units have been reported fighting in the east Ukraine. It indicates that Russia is fielding its battle-weary recycled formations due to paucity of troops and equipment.Kharkiv the capital city of Kharkiv oblast has been under Russian attack since start of the operation. An industrial city known for its heavy engineering plants has a radius of 20-25 kilometers having many suburbs in its fold. Despite the heavy fighting and widespread destruction Russians have neither been able to capture the entire city nor the whole oblast. Currently, Izyum a smallcity located on the Donets River and about 120 kilometres southeast from Kharkiv is witnessing fierce fighting.Izyumis important for progressing operations into the Donbas region on the Slavyansk and Severodonetsk axes.
Ukrainian forces have been launching counterattacks from the north and northeast of Kharkiv and managed to wrest control of many villages. Their likely aim is to push back the enemy east of the international border, so that Russian guns cannot bombard the city. Ukranian success should be a cause for concern to the Russians, because it may take the battle to Belgorod (border oblast of Russia) or threaten their lines of communication towards Slavyansk and Severodonetsk.
Russian ground offensive in Luhansk Oblast is directed towards the Rubizhne-Severodonetsk-Lysychansk from where intense fighting has been reported.After the fall of Popasana Russian forces are likely to advance towards Bakhmut to tackle Slovyansk from the south.
Donbas region comprise of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts. There has been a civil war going on in the Donbas region since 2014. The rebels had declared independence of Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) and Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) from the Ukraine. The rebels of LPR and DPR had liberated about one-third of the area of the region and were fighting along a line of control dividing Ukranian army and the rebels. Before the start of the war on February 24, President Putin had recognized both theserepublics as an independent entity from Ukraine.
Loss of Donbas region would be a major economic blow to Ukraine as ores, minerals, heavy engineering, iron and steel, equipment are produced here. Port of Mairupol situated on the mouth of River Kalmius in the Sea of Azov is part of the Donetsk oblast.
A major operation is going on in the Donbas region to annex territory up to its geographical limits. Russian army is attacking the Ukraine army positions from the east (along with the rebels of LPR and DPR), north and west. Entrenched Ukrainian army is proving more than a match to these assaults. The progress of operations has been very slow and frustrating for the Russians.
Port city of Mariupol has witnessed very violent contest for its control by Russian and Ukrainian forces. Once known as the ‘Gateway to Donbas;, the city has been completely destroyed but the Ukrainian forces are still holding out in a small exclave called Azovstal steel plant. Russian army has captured most of the city but it is finding it hard to wrest control of the last sliver of land abutting the Sea of Azov. Loss of Mariupol would mean that Ukraine has lost control over its entire coastlinealong the Sea of Azov.
The Southern Axis
The operations from south were launched from the Crimean peninsula which Russia hadannexed from Ukraine in 2014. Since the start of the operations, this axis has been most successful for the Russians. Crossing from Crimea, Russians have captured a sizeable chunk of territory in Zaporizhzhia and Kherson oblasts and the cities of Berdyansk, Melitopol and Kherson. The coastal areas of the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson are also under their control. Russians havealso captured the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant – the largest nuclear power plant in Europe and among the 10 largest in the world. However, the capital city Zaporizhzhia is still holding out.From Kherson, Russian army has launched attacks in the neighbouring Mykolaiv oblast. Ukrainian forces have stood their ground stoutly and Mykolaiv city has not fallen.Russian’s likely aim is to capture Mykolaiv in order to address Odesa.Along the southern axis the Ukrainian forces are staging counterattacks at Mykolaiv, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in order to halt Russian advance and wrest control of the lost territories.
What has turned the Table?
At the start of war, the survivability of Ukrainian forces looked hopelessly dim in front of the sheer mass of the Russian armed forces. Ukraine was acutely aware of its asymmetry in tanks, infantry combat vehicles (ICV), armoured personnel carriers (APCs) andaviation assets. As the conflict lingered on and the military aid from the NATO nations chiefly from US, UK, Germany, France and the Netherlands and neutral countries Sweden and Finland to Ukraine poured in, the one-sided conflict turned into a stalemate with Russian side accruing major casualties and losses. Loss of Russian Navy’s guided missile cruiser Moskva to Ukrainian Neptune anti-ship missile has impacted the capability of its Black Sea fleet.
The military aid to Ukraine which started as contribution of body armour, helmets, night vision goggles and combat rations has now stepped up to infantry weapons, man-portable anti-tank and surface-to-air missiles, drones, howitzers, tanks and other armoured vehicles andMi 8 helicopters. Ukrainians saturated the battlefield with anti-tank and surface-to-air missiles. Anti-tank missiles like FGM 148 Javelin (US), Next Generation Light Anti-tank Weapon (NLAW) (UK), Panzerfaust 3 (Germany) and AT4 – 84mm rocket launcher (Sweden) and surface-to-air missiles – FIM 92 Stinger (US), Starstreak (UK) and Sterla (Germany) were provided in large quantities by NATO member countries.
Foreign trainers imparted training to the weapon crews in Ukraine and Poland. Some reports also suggest that the serving special forces’ personnel from various countries masquerading as volunteers are also fighting alongside the frontline troops. Most important is that US is sharing battlefield intelligence with Ukrainian forces, which have been able to stall the Russian advances.
Fixation of the Russian army with built-up areas has cost it dear. Almost on all fronts their mechanised columns got embroiled in fighting in built-up area (FIBUA), where army is still fighting and incurring losses. Russian tank columns strung out on a road or bunched up near a city circle fell prey to tank hunting teams lurking in the folds of the ground and ruins of the cities. Two anti-tank missile systems that have wreaked havoc on the Russian armoured columns are Javelin (US) and NLAW (UK).
Similarly, proliferation of man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS) on the frontline and in depth areas has put a caution on the Russian air force. Notable amongst these MANPADS are Stinger (US) and Starstreak (UK), which were given to the troops after initial training. Smitten by initial losses, Russian fighter jets and helicopters seldom venture out in the battlefield for supporting ground troops. The deployment of the Russian Spetsnaz (Special Forces) and airborne formations forces (VDV) during the conflict through air insertion has been restricted to a large extent due to this vulnerability.
As the war lingers on and Ukrainian forces grow on their resolve to fight back, Russian forces need to review their strategy to wrap this conflict on a winning note. Battle fatigue is evident on the Russian formations, units and troops who have been fighting tirelessly.
By Col. Utkarsh Singh Rathore