After the failure of the Russian blitzkrieg, the battle of Donbass is preparing

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After their failure in front of kyiv, the Russians redeployed in the south-east of Ukraine where they intend to carry out the second phase of the invasion alongside their separatist allies. It is for them to seize the entirety of this region of Donbass and this, before the symbolic date of May 9.

“The first phase of the war in Ukraine was counted in weeks, the next could last a month or more.” This is the measure given by Jake Sullivan, the National Security Advisor of the United States, Monday during a press briefing. This second part of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia must be concentrated in the Donbass, this region of south-eastern Ukraine. And to tell the truth, the perspective traced by the White House seems almost optimistic, because the war has never left this territory where Ukrainians and pro-Russians have clashed for nearly eight years.

Both the second part of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and an additional episode in an interminable civil war that began in 2014 in the wake of the Maidan revolution, the battle for Donbass promises to be the new scene of the duel between kyiv and Moscow. What are the stakes and the balance of power in this interminable conflict?

Preposition

After the failure of the Russians on the Ukrainian northern front, where they failed to take either kyiv or any of the country’s major cities, it is therefore the Donbass which now asserts itself as the horizon line of the war between the two belligerents. A region where Moscow can count on the support of the two separatist republics of Donetsk and Lugansk, which declared their independence in April 2014, driven by their pro-Russian sentiment.

“All the elements lead to believe it. The Deputy Chief of Staff of the Russian army announced it twelve days ago and the intelligence services confirm that many forces are prepositioning themselves in the east, opposite from Donbass, coming from Russia”, analyzed this Tuesday the general of the Air Force, Patrick Dutartre, on our set.

The relationship of the forces present in the Donbass
The relationship of forces in the Donbass © Kenan AUGEARD © 2019 AFP

The Russians want to make people forget their mistakes

Indeed, as early as March 25, the Russian army declared its intention to concentrate its efforts in eastern Ukraine, the first clear sign that the Kremlin was burying its dream of a blitzkrieg and total victory over its neighbour. And this time it’s about winning in this new theater where they will be keen not to repeat the mistakes that have thwarted their offensive so far.

“The Russians still have substantial military resources,” said General Jérôme Pellistrandi, our consultant for military issues, to BFMTV.com on Tuesday.

“They have seen the failure of their offensives and now they are going to apply this old principle of concentration of efforts, with new soldiers and new armor. They will be able to have a favorable balance of forces this time. It is estimated that to attack , you have to be three against one”, adds our interlocutor. The latter also wants proof of “train movements” in progress from the Russian Federation to renew forces exhausted by these first five weeks of conflict.

The “phoney war”?

The stakes are high on both sides. “On the one hand, the Russians are looking to increase the perimeter of their possession to be in a position of strength in the negotiations. On the other, the Ukrainians must leave them as little ground as possible to obtain another draw and negotiate” , summarizes for us Jérôme Pellistrandi.

For the moment, it is the “phoney war” in the Donbass. This does not prevent threats, far from it.

“We will have to watch Odessa”, pointed out General Dutartre on our set.

The Ukrainian port, located opposite the Donbass, has just suffered the first Russian bombardments on Sunday.

Sensing the impending storm, the Ukrainian governor of the military-civilian administration of the Donetsk region, Pavlo Kyrylenko, warned Monday during a press briefing: “People must leave the region so that we have the possibility of to act more effectively to protect the Donetsk region and Ukraine as a whole”.

May 9 in sight

Donetsk, a city that has however challenged the power of kyiv since the spring of 2014 and the proclamation of a dissident regime, like Lugansk, about 150 kilometers further to the northeast. Two pro-Russian strongholds for two separatist republics, recognized by Moscow at the end of February, casus belli of the ongoing war.

“Moscow presented the war against Ukraine as a preventive war to come to the aid of these two ‘sister republics'”, continues General Pellistrandi who sees another dimension of the conflict there: “But these do not represent all the Donbass, and Russia wants to control all of the two oblasts which still escape these two republics”.

“The Russians are hoping for a major breakthrough by May 9,” continues Jérôme Pellistrandi.

May 9, or “Victory Day” for the Russians, that of the capitulation of Nazi Germany at the end of the “Great Patriotic War” led by the Soviet Union. A breakthrough which will however be far from trivial. “There has been intense fighting on this front since the end of February too and the Russians have struggled to make progress, gaining a kilometer here, another there,” notes General Pellistrandi.

Trompe-l’oeil and paramilitaries

The officer describes the situation prevailing in the Donbass. A province where the division into these two distinct “republics” appears as a trompe-l’oeil.

“It’s a united front that has stabilized since 2014, with permanent skirmishes between the two camps, along a fortified line, with trenches, shelters”.

In addition to regenerated Russian forces, the Ukrainians will find an enemy with a hybrid profile on the spot. “The separatists have paramilitary groups extremely well equipped and framed ‘Russian’. They are not guerrillas practicing guerrilla warfare, they are almost regular armies”, highlights General Pellistrandi.

“Very high intensity” military combat

But the main danger of this theater of operation resides less according to him in the faces of troops who know each other perfectly than in the topography of this industrial region.

“These are flat terrains, with few natural obstacles, hence the risk of greater military losses.”

But the scarcity of large agglomerations allows us to hope that the civilian losses will be less substantial, continues our interlocutor who foresees “very high intensity combat”.

Crucial battles are already underway nearby. The Ukrainians have indeed launched a counter-offensive around Kherson, very close to Donbass. For kyiv, it is important to find this city taken by the Russians on March 2nd… and to open the way to this Crimea which they have annexed. One more front in this war that comes from so far away and opposes such close adversaries.

Robin Verner

Robin Verner BFMTV journalist

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