Analysis – Bogged down in Ukraine, Russia moves war goalpost

Captured Russian tanks can be seen in the Sumy region
FILE PHOTO: A charred Russian tank and captured tanks are seen amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine in Sumy region, Ukraine, March 7, 2022. Picture taken March 7, 2022. Irina Rybakova/Press Service of Ukrainian Ground Forces/Handout via REUTERS

March 25, 2022

By Mark Trevelyan

LONDON (Reuters) – Russia has reformulated its war aims in Ukraine in a way that could make it easier for President Vladimir Putin to claim a face-saving victory despite a sad campaign in which his army has suffered humiliating setbacks, military analysts say.

Russia attacked its neighbor by land, air and sea on February 24, advancing as far as the capital Kyiv – where its forces stalled for weeks – in an attempt by Ukraine and the West to overthrow President Volodymyr’s democratic government to overthrow Zelenskyy.

On Friday, however, a senior military official said the ultimate goal was to “liberate” the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting the Ukrainian army for eight years.

“The main objectives of the first phase of the operation were generally achieved,” said Sergei Rudskoy, head of the Main Operations Directorate of the Russian General Staff.

“The combat potential of the Armed Forces of Ukraine has been significantly reduced, which makes it possible to focus our core efforts on achieving the main goal, the liberation of Donbass.”

Donbass, where Putin has accused Ukraine of “genocide” against ethnic Russians without evidence, has long held a prominent place in Moscow’s litany of grievances against Ukraine.

But if conquering the entire Donbass had been the goal from the start, Moscow could have launched a much more limited offensive and spared itself the effort and casualties associated with invading Ukraine from the north, east, and south.

“Obviously they have failed utterly in everything they set out to do and so they are now redefining what the purpose is so they can declare victory,” said Ben Hodges, a former commander of US Forces in Europe. who now works for the Center for European Policy Analysis.

“Clearly they are unable to continue sustained large-scale offensive operations… Their logistical problems were apparent to all, they have serious personnel problems and the resistance has been far greater than anything they could ever have imagined.”


The cost of Russia’s “military special operation” was high. Rudskoi, the General Staff official, on Friday acknowledged 1,351 deaths among Russian soldiers. Ukraine claims the real figure is more than 10 times that.

Oryx, a Dutch military blog that chronicles both sides’ equipment losses based on verifiable photos and videos, says Russia lost 1,864 pieces of hardware, including 295 tanks, 16 planes, 35 helicopters, three ships and two fuel trains. It has confirmed Ukrainian losses of 540 items, including 77 tanks.

Each side regularly reports the amount of enemy equipment it destroys, but none acknowledge their own casualties.

Frustrated in its offensive, Russia has resorted to rubbing cities with rockets and artillery.

“The advance is stalled at this point, or very slow at best,” said Nick Reynolds, a land warfare analyst at the RUSI think tank in London.

“His original strategy is now completely unachievable. His initial strategy was to behead the Ukrainian government or collapse it simply by moving the military into the country… Apparently that didn’t happen; But on the contrary.”

Russia has more work to do to achieve even the more modest goal of driving Ukrainian forces from the east. Of the two regions that make up the Donbass, the Defense Ministry’s Russian-backed forces control 93% of Luhansk but only 54% of Donetsk.

Ukraine, meanwhile, is increasingly confident.

Deputy Ground Forces Chief of Staff Oleksandr Gruzevich said on Friday that Russia would need three to five times more forces to take Kyiv and that it was being blocked in its efforts to establish a land corridor across the southern coast to connect annexed Crimea to Donbass .

Hodges, the retired US general, said the question now is whether the West would be brave enough to overcome its fears of a Russian escalation with chemical or nuclear weapons – which would offer Moscow no tactical advantage – and increase support for Ukraine amplify even more.

He said more equipment such as long-range missiles, artillery and drones, coupled with the deployment of Western intelligence, could allow Kyiv to shift from defense to attack.

“We are only giving support to Ukraine instead of flooding it,” he said. “It feels like we want to avoid defeating them, but we’re not ready to let them win.”

(Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets; Editing by Daniel Wallis) Analysis – Bogged down in Ukraine, Russia moves war goalpost

Bobby Allyn

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