Russia may step up its attack in eastern Ukraine. Here’s what that means

And later that same day, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned citizens of hard times ahead in the east, saying that in “Donbass, Mariupol, towards Kharkiv, Russian troops are piling up the potential for strikes. Mighty Blows. We will defend ourselves. “

“The situation in the southern direction and in the Donbass remains extremely difficult,” added Zelenskyy. It was the second time in 24 hours that he had warned of a widening Russian offensive in Donbass.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also expects the Donbass to become the lynchpin. “Russia is trying to regroup, resupply and reinforce its offensive in the Donbass region,” he said on Thursday.

An analysis of what is happening on the ground in eastern Ukraine supports this view, with Russian tanks and artillery stepping up their attacks and even more Ukrainian civilians fleeing west. The Russian offensive is being conducted in several directions at once.

A Ukrainian soldier smokes a cigarette in a trench on the front line east of Kharkiv on March 31, 2022.

Back to basics

When Putin announced the invasion on February 24, he claimed that the goal of Russia’s so-called “military special operation” was to rid Donbass of neo-Nazis and protect its population from alleged “genocide” by Ukrainian authorities.

The Russian campaign has since been a hodgepodge of operations that included a faltering ground offensive and highly destructive rocket and artillery fire, and its ultimate goals are still elusive. But the focus of the Russian military effort – and rhetoric – has recently shifted to southern and eastern Ukraine.

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The daily summaries of the Russian Defense Ministry have attempted to focus on achievements in these regions, and over the past week various Russian officials have identified Donbass as the main goal of the operationwith other measures designed merely to pin down Ukrainian troops.

On Wednesday, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said Russian forces would regroup to “intensify operations in priority areas and, most importantly, complete the operation to completely liberate Donbass.”

At the same time, Denis Pushilin, the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, said the aim of the campaign was to secure all Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Before the offensive, the separatist “People’s Republics” controlled about a third of the two regions.

Getting an accurate picture of the battlefield to the east is difficult at best – but Russia and its allies in Luhansk and Donetsk are pounding on Ukrainian-held troops Cities and towns and move forward. And yet they are still facing fierce resistance from some of Ukraine’s best units, more than a month after the invasion began.

The devastation of the south-eastern city of Mariupol, where an estimated 90% of the buildings were damaged in the month-long fighting, is well known. It was described as the new Aleppoa reference to the Syrian city devastated by a Russian-backed siege in 2016.

Much of Mariupol is now under Russian control, but its defenders still tie down significant Russian and Chechen forces and inflict heavy casualties.

Soldiers from the Chechen Republic walk during fighting in the Ukraine-Russia conflict in the city of Mariupol March 31, 2022.

Russians claim progress

The horrors of Mariupol are not unique. Further north, cities like Izium, Rubishne and Severodonetsk have also suffered widespread damage in weeks of fighting. Most are without electricity and water.

Ukrainian troops are holding on in Rubishne and Severodonetsk, even though they are depopulated ruins that are surrounded and bombarded daily. But on Friday, the Ukrainian General Staff confirmed that Izium had fallen to the Russians after weeks of fighting.

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Ukrainian forces are now trying to stop the Russians from advancing further south toward the cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, which were briefly held by pro-Russian separatists in 2014 and would represent a significant asset.

Ukrainian officials in the Donetsk region this week reported Russian shelling and airstrikes along the entire “line of contact” separating separatist-held areas from the rest of Ukraine before the Russian invasion. But that line is now history as Russian forces advance beyond it.

According to Moscow’s version of events, Russian forces are gaining territory as they push west toward regional borders. The Defense Ministry said on Thursday that Russian troops had advanced 6 kilometers in one day and had now occupied the town of Zolotaya Niva. If true, the Russians would be only 25 km from the Donetsk regional border.

It is also clear that the Russians are trying to curb the fuel supply to the Ukrainians: they hit another fuel depot near Dnipro on Thursday.

Residents of Severodonetsk in the Luhansk region wait hidden in their basement during heavy shelling by Russian forces and Russian-backed separatists February 28, 2022.

Ukraine’s military insists it repels Russian attacks in Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Serhii Haidai, head of the Luhansk regional military administration, said Friday that Ukrainian forces repelled attempts by Russian forces to bypass their positions west of the city of Luhansk.

But the daily evacuation of civilians from towns like Rubizhne, Bakhmut and Popasna suggests that Ukrainian forces are falling behind.

“We organize trains and buses to save as many lives as possible of Ukrainians, residents of the Luhansk region,” Haidai said on Thursday.

But so far, he confirmed on Friday, only 18,000 people have been evacuated from Luhansk, leaving hundreds of thousands exposed to daily bombardments and with little access to water and gas.

An armored vehicle carrying pro-Russian troops drives along a street past a destroyed apartment building in the besieged southern port city of Mariupol, March 31, 2022.

Quick wins “unlikely”

The danger for Ukrainian troops in this area is that they will be caught between Russian troops advancing from the east and other units that have pushed south from Crimea, with varying degrees of success.

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If the Russians reach the borders of Donetsk and Luhansk, they could even advance to the more defensible Dnieper River, on which the major cities of Zaporizhia and Dnipro lie.

But Russian ground forces’ performance so far in this conflict suggests they have work to do to secure both eastern provinces. The Institute for the Study of War said in its recent assessment that “efforts to deploy Russian forces and move damaged units away from the Kiev Axis make it increasingly unlikely that Russian forces will make quick gains in the Donbass region.”

And Brian Mikalovsky, To write for Foreign Affairs, said the Russians’ “northern and southern invading forces still have several defense lines of Ukraine and a few hundred kilometers of territory that they have to cross before they can unite, and the [Ukrainian] Army is fighting hard to prevent Russia from succeeding.”

Mikalovsky, who lived in Severodonetsk until January, added: “Persistent Ukrainian soldiers set fire to several columns of tanks at the entrances to Severodonetsk. Russian forces entered Rubishne, but they suffered heavy casualties and were only able to capture half of the city. ”

Even if the Russians manage to crush resistance in these eastern cities and towns and give the Kremlin a chance to declare victory, they will leave themselves a wasteland of destruction that will likely take decades and tens of billions of dollars to repair .

https://www.cnn.com/2022/04/01/europe/ukraine-russia-donbas-analysis-cmd-intl/index.html Russia may step up its attack in eastern Ukraine. Here’s what that means

Chris Estrada

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