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Battle of Donbas: A Massive Tank War Could Decide Ukraine’s Fate

Russian Army tank firing. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Russian Army tank firing. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Russia and Ukraine appear to be in the final stages of preparation to fight the Battle of Donbas, in what is shaping up to be the biggest tank battle in Europe since the decisive Battle of Kursk in World War II. The stakes for both Moscow and Kyiv couldn’t be higher. The course of the entire war could hinge on the outcome in the Donbas.

On February 24, Russian forces invaded Ukraine on four major axes of advance, near Kyiv, Kharkiv, the Donbas, and up through the Crimea. In spreading their limited numbers of troops, Russia’s military leadership violated one of the oldest principles of war: mass. Instead of designating a primary objective and allocating the bulk of their combat power to seizing that objective, they dispersed their forces so widely that Ukraine’s defenders were able to repulse all four axes.

After suffering serious combat losses in the environs west and north of Kyiv, Russia acknowledged its failures and about a month into the war made the decision to limit its failures in the Kyiv and Sumy regions by withdrawing all its forces and repositioning them to the northern side of the ongoing Donbas fight. Russia also kept its forces north of Kharkiv conducting limited probing attacks and harassing artillery fire to keep the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) from withdrawing to join the Donbas fight.

South of the Donbas, Russia is in the final stages of completing the destruction of the UAF defenders of Mariupol, which will open a land bridge between Russia and its forces in Crimea, allowing logistics and other support to its troops in the Kherson area (where likewise lo-level fighting continues so as to pin down Ukrainian troops and prevent them from reinforcing their compatriots in the Donbas).

Meanwhile, there is a grouping of up to 40,000 Ukrainian troops defending the front lines of their fight in the Donbas. Russian strategy shifted from the disaster of the opening rounds and its revised plans are now coming into focus: continue pushing forward with their troops east of the Donbas line, bring up Russian troops from the southern/Mariupol axis to attack the southern shoulder of the Donbas pocket, and bring Russian armor from Kyiv to attack the norther shoulder of the Donbas pocket.

If Russia succeeds in flanking the UAF positions on either the north or south side, they will be able to cut off the entire Ukrainian battle force and systematically destroy or capture them. Ukraine, on the other hand, will seek to prevent Russian attempts to encircle their forces in the Donbas. Their task will be very difficult, but not impossible.

Ukraine can’t pull its troops out of their fights against Kharkiv or Kherson areas, because doing so would open up even more territory for Russian forces to capture. But they can now reposition considerable number of the troops they had defending Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Sumy and send them – along with whatever strategic reserves Kyiv may still have – to reinforce their battle group in the Donbas.

UAF troops have the advantage of having built considerable defensive works in this area, in the years since 2014, and they can make any Russian attempt to breach the front lines egregiously expensive in blood and tanks. Ukraine’s objectives to prevent any Russian breakthroughs will be complicated, however, for several reasons.

First, the Russians aren’t the only ones to have suffered significant losses of personnel and armor, Ukrainian forces have also lost a lot of troops and tanks. Thus, UAF combat effectiveness is less than when the war started. It is unknown how many casualties Ukrainian troops have suffered and how many trained troops they still have left to defend the Donbas front, as the Kyiv government has enforced an information blackout on friendly troop losses.

Second, while Russia’s supply lines to its side of the Donbas are short and secure, Ukraine’s are ironically more difficult. Ukrainian reinforcements and the throughput of Western-delivered military gear have to travel hundreds of kilometers from Kyiv to get to the front – and Russia continues to hammer away at these supply lines with air attacks, drone strikes, and rocket and missile raids. Every successful interdiction deprives the defenders of badly needed troops, fuel, ammunition, and arms.

Kyiv has been pleading with NATO countries for heavy weapons, tanks, fighter jets, and long-range air defense missile systems. It is important to understand that such aid would take considerable time to assemble, transport to Ukraine, and deliver to the front – all of which will come under the scrutiny of Russian pilots and drone operators to try and destroy before they arrive at the front. But there is an equally important factor at play: training.

Every day of this war, Ukraine losses a number of trained troops that it can’t readily replace. To go on the offensive, Ukraine would have to create entire battle groups with new tanks, self-propelled artillery, and air defense systems that don’t presently exist. It will take time to train them – first as individuals on their own tanks, then as platoons, and then as battalions – before they would have a reasonable chance of defeating Russian armored units in the field. If Ukraine rushes troops and new equipment into a battle without having adequately trained them first, they will be much less effective and thus have a more difficult time stopping the Russians.

The 1943 Battle of Kursk saw a powerful German tank army attempt to break through a Soviet defensive front. The Soviets were able to spend months preparing elaborate defensive positions and brought up large numbers of reinforcements, planned and rehearsed local counterattack routes, and stored huge amounts of fuel, food, and ammunition. When Hitler’s troops finally attacked, they were shredded and lost tens of thousands of irreplaceable casualties. The defenders suffered major losses as well but inflicted such a defeat on the Germans that they never regained their ability to attack and were driven from Soviet territory.

This Battle of the Donbas will be fought on terrain not too dissimilar from the Battle of Kursk, and there is just as much riding on the outcome of this battle. If Russia is able to close off the pocket-forming around the UAF battle group, there is virtually nothing the Ukrainians can do to break them out, and the path back to Kyiv will again be open to Putin, should he choose to make a new attack – but this time Ukraine would have far fewer defenders.

If the UAF is able to hold the line and inflict losses of sufficient scope on the Russians, Putin’s forces may lose the ability to return to an offensive and be forced to dig in and go on the defensive. In that case, the war will enter a new and potentially darker phase: attrition warfare that may eventually bleed both sides dry.

Regardless of who wins this fight, both the Russians and Ukrainian troops are going to suffer severe military losses and the civil infrastructure is going to be damaged beyond belief. Upon the conclusion of this fight, neither side will be in a position to go on the offensive, likely for months, as both would need to rebuild, replace, and retrain their force.

The most practical solution for all involved would be to recognize that this looming battle will be one of attrition for all involved and comprise levels of destruction that mankind has not seen since the 1943 Battle of Kursk. There will almost certainly be no winners from this fight. Instead, one side will simply lose worse than the other. And the bitter reality is that this war will end with a negotiated settlement, not a military victory, almost irrespective of how the Donbas Battle plays out.

America’s overriding priorities are first, to ensure the war doesn’t expand beyond the Ukrainian borders and escalate into a U.S. or NATO on Russia conflict, and second to assist in finding ways to end the war as soon as possible. The longer the war continues, the more Ukrainians will suffer and die.

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1

Written By

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1.