We face a serious dilemma as the Battle of the Donbas begins.
The idea that the Russian army remains a powerful, effective force capable of breaking through Ukrainian lines and encircling forces in the Donbas remains widespread. It is regularly claimed that now the Russians have shortened their supply lines, concentrated and rebuilt their forces, and appointed a bloodthirsty war criminal as their commander they will show us what they are capable of. And, it is claimed that the Russians must seize the Donbas and have a major victory by May 9, so that Vladimir Putin can stage a victory day parade then in Moscow.
But what if the Russian forces haven’t improved since the beginning of the Ukraine war? So far the Russians have excelled at blowing things up, shooting civilians, and making incremental advances sporadically. Early signs of the Battle of the Donbas show that these specialties remain honed. Even though the battle was declared open on April 18 (when the Russians started a large artillery barrage in the Donbas) Russian advances since have been slow and halting. There is so far little sign of the Russian army turning into the fast moving, effective military force many analysts had foretold before the invasion started. Indeed, early indications are that the Russians will have difficulty collecting and sustaining the powerful forces they will need to win a decisive victory in the region.
The more we learn about the Russian and Ukrainian forces being collected for the Battle of the Donbas, the further we seem to be from our pre-war assumptions.
A surprising point came to light in a US Department of Defense briefing this Thursday. The Department claimed that Russian tank losses have been so extreme and Ukrainian tank losses so light (and the Ukrainians have received so many reinforcements from Nato countries as well as captured, functioning Russian vehicles) that Ukraine now has more operational tanks in the country than the Russians. The great, iron fist that many assumed the Russians would be able to use to bash the Ukrainians into submission, has shrunk.
Russia’s problems aren’t just limited to tanks. When it comes to soldiers – always an issue in an army short of people who are trained and competent – the Russians are struggling as well. Instead of giving soldiers that were defeated soundly around Kyiv a chance to rest and recuperate, they are throwing them back into battle in the Donbas quickly. Even then, Russian casualties have been so high that even after these measures the Russians are starting the battle with what looks like too small an army. The Russians had somewhere between 80 and 90 battalion tactical groups in the country on Thursday: at most 80,000 or so soldiers. That is a small army when you consider the number of fronts Russia is fighting on. As well as Donbas, Russia also has to encircle Mariupol, block Kharkiv, hold on to Kherson and keep some kind of watch on the hundreds of miles between the Russian and Ukrainian armies
Moreover, the ace in the hole that many assumed the Russians would have, their very large and supposedly modernised, full-service air force, is still being held at bay by the Ukrainians. The Russians have not gained air supremacy, something many assumed they would have within the first few days of the invasion starting. Instead, Ukrainian air defences means Russian pilots are being forced to fly as fast as they can into Ukraine, drop their bombs, and fly out as quickly as they can. What this means is that the Ukrainians have retained the ability to move their forces around without being attacked and to use their own air platforms to continue to engage Russian forces.
While the Russian army still has some very powerful elements, particularly their artillery, they are not going into the battle with anything like the numerical advantages in soldiers and equipment we would normally expect for a major offensive.
And while the Russians are still trying to recover from their heavy early losses, the Ukrainians are in many ways a better armed force than they were at the start of the invasion. Back then, western countries were reluctant to give too many advanced weapons to the Ukrainians and limited shipments to hand-held anti-vehicle or anti-air systems. But since seeing the ferocity and intelligence of the Ukrainian resistance – and the corresponding genocidal tendencies of Russian forces – Nato countries in particular have started increasing significantly the amount of effective heavy weapons they are willing to pass over to Kyiv. Most recently the USA has started pouring in heavy 155 howitzers and even new generation unmanned aerial vehicles to help the Ukrainians. The UK has also gotten in on the act, increasing its weapons deliveries, including the effective Starstreak anti-air system, which could prove important in preventing Russia from attempting to gain air supremacy.
What all this means is that the Battle of the Donbas will most likely be far from the large victory Vladimir Putin craves. More likely the Russians will make small advances, but at serious cost, and their already exhausted soldiers will see their willingness to sacrifice themselves sorely tested. As some point it's worth admitting that the pre-war analysis about the Russian armed forces was so disastrously wrong that we need to move on from it and trust what we are seeing directly in front of us.