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Why Putin Is So Desperate for the Russian Military to Conquer Donbas

Service members of pro-Russian troops fire from a tank during fighting in Ukraine-Russia conflict near the Azovstal steel plant in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine May 5, 2022. Picture taken May 5, 2022. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

On day 104 of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Russian military continues to push in the Donbas in search of a breakthrough that would offer Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin a political victory.

The Situation in the Donbas 

In its daily estimate of the war, the British Ministry of Defense focused on the situation in the Donbas. The battle for Severodonetsk continues hot, with both sides trying to wrestle control of the strategic city.

“Over the weekend, Ukrainian forces have recaptured parts of Sieverodonetsk although Russian forces likely continue to occupy eastern districts. Russia’s broader plan likely continues to be to cut off the Sieverodonetsk area from both the north and the south,” the British Military Intelligence assessed.

In addition to attacking from the front, the Russian military is trying to encircle and cut off Severodonetsk from the north (Izium and Lyman) and the south (Bakhmut). Thus far, however, these attempts for a larger encirclement have failed largely because of the lack of a competent combined arms and maneuver warfare capability on the Russian part.

“Russia made gains on the southern, Popasna axis through May but its progress in the area has stalled over the last week. Reports of heavy shelling near Izium suggests Russia is preparing to make a renewed effort on the northern axis,” the British Ministry of Defense added.

But despite tactical gains over the last couple of weeks in the region, the Russian military is still looking for the breakthrough that would allow it to finally capture the whole of the Luhansk province before it moves to neighboring Donetsk province.

“Russia will almost certainly need to achieve a breakthrough on at least one of these axes to translate tactical gains to operational level success and progress towards its political objective of controlling all of Donetsk Oblast,” the British Military Intelligence stated.

Over the past month, the Russian military has changed its tactics and is now employing massive barrages of long-range fires to “soften up” targets before armored and mechanized battalion tactical groups move in.

The new tactics have achieved two things: first, they have utilized the known might of the Russian artillery—although much of it is indiscriminate—to the maximum; and second, they have masked the personnel issues that are plaguing the Russian forces in the frontlines.

Over three months of war have taken a toll on the Russian military, which has lost more than 30,000, according to the Ukrainian government. A lot of these troops were experienced, professional soldiers. And now they have been replaced by conscripts, inexperienced contract troops, national guardsmen, mercenaries, or even forcibly-mobilized militiamen.

Russian Casualties and Faulty Strategy

In contrast to how the Russian military goes about its operations in the Donbas was how it started the war, especially in the north in the direction of Kyiv. There, the Russian military violated its own principles of war time and again and just pushed forces to frontlines without any coherent strategic or tactical plan to enable them to succeed.

“Russia’s assault into northern Ukraine ended in a costly failure. Russia failed to implement its own principles of war. With the limited combat readiness of many units, it spread its forces too thinly without enough support from artillery and combat aircraft,” the British Ministry of Defense stated.

But there was a psychological aspect in the Russian defeat in Kyiv too. Russian intelligence assessed that the Ukrainian population would welcome the Russian troops with open arms. That wasn’t the case.

“Above all, it was based on wildly optimistic assessments about the welcome Russian troops would receive in Ukraine. Russia has now adopted a ‘strategy of attrition’ and is achieving slow and costly gains in the Donbas,” the British Military Intelligence added.

The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense claimed that as of Tuesday, Ukrainian forces have killed approximately 31,360 Russian troops (and wounded approximately thrice that number), destroyed 212 fighter, attack, and transport jets, 177 attack and transport helicopters, 1,390 tanks, 694 artillery pieces, 3,416 armored personnel carriers, 207 Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS), 13 boats and cutters, 2,405 vehicles and fuel tanks, 96 anti-aircraft batteries, 553 tactical unmanned aerial systems, 53 special equipment platforms, such as bridging vehicles, and four mobile Iskander ballistic missile systems, and 125 cruise missiles shot down by the Ukrainian air defenses.

1945’s New Defense and National Security Columnist, Stavros Atlamazoglou is a seasoned defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate. His work has been featured in Business InsiderSandboxx, and SOFREP.

1945’s Defense and National Security Columnist, Stavros Atlamazoglou is a seasoned defense journalist with specialized expertise in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate. His work has been featured in Business Insider, Sandboxx, and SOFREP.