The Donbas Offensive is Exactly What I Said it Would Be, and That’s Bad for Russia
Way back in early April, I said this:
The fixed lines of the eastern front, then, seem like more of an even match than the logistically complicated reality of seizing Kiev. All Russia has to do is hammer away at the trenches and other fortifications of a less mobile opponent.
I called it WWI with smart bombs. I also said this:
If Russia can gain ground steadily — not even quickly, but steadily — it can still “win” the war.
Something like this has played out. Russia is making painfully slow advances in a very concentrated part of Ukraine. (The pain here refers both to that suffered by Ukrainian civilians and Russian conscripts and perhaps by Ukrainian soldiers asked to repeat the stand of the fighters at Azovstal. This remains an intensely immoral war in so many ways.)
It’s discouraging to see Russia advance at all, but the pace of that advance speaks to Russia’s likely eventual failure. It is inefficient in the extreme, a repeat of the tactical success, but strategic failure, of Azovstal.
A smart military would have contained the forces at Azovstal and moved on. Russia instead expended manpower and firepower in something like irritation at not being able to claim that they had fully subdued a city they’d already reduced to ruins (a crime against decency on the scale of what Nazi Germany did to countless civilian cities or what the Allies did to Dresden or what Russia already did to Aleppo).
Russia seems like it very well may encircle Severodonetsk and Lyshchansk and slice off another sliver of occupied land for their lackeys in the DNR, but they have made no progress anywhere else (for example, around Mikolaiv) and given up ground around Kharkiv. That implies that all of Russia’s artillery and armor is trained on this one spot, and they can still barely move. They are losing soldiers and equipment, and their ability to build more tanks and artillery is being crimped by sanctions. Meanwhile, Ukraine is being steadily re-armed by NATO.
What kind of endgame does all this portend?
I earlier said:
Ukraine has to hold Russian forces in the east long enough to join the EU or NATO or both.
There is another option, though — Ukraine can become a de facto member of NATO, and that seems to be what is playing out. It is training like a NATO country. It is being equipped like a NATO country.
The most likely scenario I now foresee is that Ukraine will smartly retreat from the Donbas. They will walk, not run and force Russia to suffer extremely high costs for every inch of soil. They will counterattack from Kharkiv, and they will eventually cut the supply lines from Belgorod to the front. They will continue to degrade Russia’s offensive capabilities, and eventually, Russia’s offensive will stall, if not collapse. Russia’s greatest weapon might be a world food crisis and inflation, but NATO is far from helpless to improve that situation. It can always give Ukraine the means to end Russia’s naval blockade of Ukraine’s remaining ports, like Odessa. The recent decision to transfer HIMARS to Ukraine suggests that NATO would trust Ukraine with long-range anti-ship systems.
There are no winners in this war (unless welcoming Finland and Sweden can count as a win for NATO) — everyone is suffering for it — but it seems increasingly likely that there will be a clear loser.