Putin’s war muddies on Donbas’s eastern front after three months of fighting | International

Russia’s war against Ukraine is now being fought in the eastern Donbas region. After 12 weeks full of setbacks for President Vladimir Putin, who has been changing the course of his goals since he launched the invasion by land, sea and air -with kyiv in the main circle of his target-, the conflict seems to have stalled in the provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk, where a military dance of offensives and counter-offensives is taking place. Pressured and with its conventional military capabilities severely depleted, the Kremlin is launching increasingly bloody attacks on the cities and towns of this eastern mining belt, following its raze-then-occupy strategy.

In 88 days, the conflict in Ukraine has wrought a wave of devastation on the country and its citizens, killing thousands of people and forcing millions from their homes. Putin’s invasion has shaken the world, has precipitated a global food crisis by exacerbating food price escalation, and forever shaken and altered the global geopolitical map, with the historic turning of Sweden and Finland – which share land borders with Russia—by applying to join NATO, thus breaking its traditional status of neutrality.

Bounded and muddy in Donbas, with embers still hot on other fronts and with a large swath of occupied territory that Russia will have to make an effort to maintain, the war launched by Putin has no end in sight. With three months to go since the start of the large-scale offensive, the talks between an increasingly isolated Russia —and which handles the gas tap with pressure— and a Ukraine that greatly needs the weapons of its Western allies —whose flow it may not be limitless—they are paralyzed.

A boy looks at a wrecked Russian infantry vehicle at an exhibition in central kyiv on Saturday.
A boy looks at a wrecked Russian infantry vehicle at an exhibition in central kyiv on Saturday.GLEB GARANICH (REUTERS)

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Ukrainians continue to be bombed. Like the one that killed Roman Sementsov at the Kramatorsk train station when the volunteer and his wife, Yelena, were helping dozens of people trying to flee the city of Donetsk and Russian attacks. It was the morning of April 8. At the end of the day, only she returned home. And she sat on the sofa for two days, without moving, straining her ears because she thought that a miracle would happen, that her eyes had not seen the charred body of her husband at the Kramatorsk station, along with that of dozens of others. Women and children. She was still confident that Sementsov would return home. “I still can’t believe it. I cannot assume that he is gone, that this nightmare continues, that families like mine experience this loss every day due to the efforts of a sadist like Putin who wants to subjugate Ukraine”, laments Yelena Sementsova.

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Kremlin advances in Luhansk

Kramatorsk, considered until the beginning of the invasion the military capital of Donbas, is now a ghostly city, with the streets largely deserted. The town is in the path of Russian troops on one of the hottest fronts, Izium, through which they are trying to advance from that city to the south of Kharkov, which has become a key logistics center. But the fiercest battles of the conflict are being fought on the Lugansk front, around the city of Severodonetsk —besieged by Russian troops and the focus of constant attacks— and through the towns that line the so-called “highway of life”. ”, which links the battered industrial city with Bakhmut and which the Kremlin wants to destroy to block access to the city and thus complete its siege. It is in Luhansk that Putin’s troops are making some gains — and also some heavy losses. They have already gained 90% control of a region that already in 2014, when Moscow illegally annexed the Crimean peninsula and promoted the separatist guerrilla in Donbas, they had devoured a good part.

After the withdrawal from the outskirts of kyiv —the capital that that terrifying column of Russian tanks captured by satellite images never managed to reach— and from the north of Ukraine; and after the forced withdrawal of a good swathe of the outskirts of the battered Kharkiv —the country’s second largest city, a focus of great destruction— it’s time to take stock. Russia has claimed the city of Mariupol, with which it has completed control of access to the Sea of ​​Azov and a large strip of land that joins the Crimean peninsula and rises towards the Dnipro River and the city of Zaporizhia. Moscow also dominates the city of Kherson, the regional capital and which gives it access to the Black Sea, which it has blocked with its ships and weapons; an oceanic blow to the Ukrainian economy —which carried out a fundamental part of its exports by sea— and a global one: the country is considered one of the world’s breadbaskets.

The Russian armored convoy to kyiv captured by satellite images in late February.
The Russian armored convoy to kyiv captured by satellite images in late February.Maxar

However, taking into account the alleged capabilities of the Russian Armed Forces and the military potential of the Kremlin, Putin’s plan to subjugate Ukraine, a country he considers fictitious and whose sovereignty he has tried to take away, has not gone well. What the head of the Kremlin called a “special military operation” with the argument of “demilitarizing” and “denazifying” Ukraine – a country with a Jewish president and in which the ultranationalists got less than 2% in the last elections (2019) – It has not been as fast as the head of the Kremlin anticipated, a former KGB spy who has been in power for more than two decades and has turned the Eurasian country into a state governed by the security apparatus, isolated at the international level.

New recruiting strategies

Russia is now facing enormous difficulties on the ground that have forced it to change its strategy and scale back its territorial ambitions. Its forces are depleted and the morale of the soldiers is very low, says Dara Massicot, a researcher at the specialized security consultancy Rand Corporation. And she is now trying to implement new recruiting strategies.

A group of MPs from the ruling United Russia party on Friday proposed a legal change to allow men over 40 to sign military service contracts for the first time. Now, Russian citizens who want to serve as conscripts must be between 18 and 40 years old. Moscow last published data on soldiers killed in the invasion at the end of March. So there were officially 1,351. Western estimates are 10 to 20 times higher. Ukraine has also not published its figures. The losses are putting the offensive in serious difficulty, according to UK Ministry of Defense reports. Putin has so far resisted signing a large-scale mobilization – in fact, the invasion is not considered a war in Russia and it is illegal to define it as such – and raising the legal age for conscripts would allow the number of soldiers to be increased.

A Ukrainian soldier, in the ruins of the Azovstal steelworks, e.
A Ukrainian soldier, in the ruins of the Azovstal steelworks, e.Dmytro Kozatskyi (AP)

After 12 weeks, the war has become a battle of attrition in which endurance capacity counts, analyzes Félix Arteaga, a researcher at the Elcano Royal Institute. Ukraine has not only failed to advance a millimeter on its way to becoming a member of NATO, but it seems to have accepted that joining the Atlantic Alliance (of which Spain is a part) is not a realistic option. “NATO is not ready for Ukraine,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has admitted on several occasions. But although Ukraine – which has also asked for access to the European Union – has the economic and military help of its Western allies, they cannot replace their losses in soldiers, writes Arteaga. And military aid will suffer as the conflict continues, the researcher points out in a recent article.

The G-7 countries — the world’s seven largest economies — agreed on Friday to provide Ukraine with nearly $20 billion in loans and grants to try to prop up its economy. But kyiv needs about $5 billion a month to maintain basic government services, according to the International Monetary Fund. The United States will give Ukraine an additional military and humanitarian aid package, as signed by its president, Joe Biden, on Saturday.

The key to western weapons

In addition to aid for reconstruction, with the conflict turning into a grueling war, only continued support from its Western allies and the flow of weapons can help Ukraine win the war, acknowledge sources in the Zelensky government, who are making every effort again so that defense material, which has played a key role in this war, continues to arrive. “Aid marks the survival of Ukrainian soldiers,” says Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar. Military analysts believe that the battle now hinges not so much on the skill or stamina of the Ukrainian soldiers, but on the accuracy, quantity and striking power of the long-range weapons at their disposal.

Western military aid to Ukraine began primarily with shipments of bulletproof vests and helmets. Now it includes drones that can destroy tanks and artillery from 30 kilometers, anti-aircraft defense systems, such as the Stingers; Javelin anti-tank missile systems, which use thermal imaging to find their target and can be fired from a shoulder launcher or from the ground; light anti-tank weapons; NATO standard 155mm howitzers; Mi-17 helicopters. But aid in the form of weapons may have a limit, especially if the war stalls and is limited in Donbas, where it risks losing international attention and failing to reverberate on the global geopolitical board; as happened with the war that began in 2014. Almost three months after the Russian invasion, the United States, the largest manufacturer and exporter of weapons in the world, is running out of some and has production capacity somewhat reduced by the pandemic.

As the war continues, voices grow among the Western allies, which, off the top, urge Ukraine to negotiate with Russia and even make some concessions to end the conflict at a very high global cost. Zelensky, who has insisted that the end of the war will only be reached when Ukraine recovers all the occupied territories —including not only those invaded in this war, but also Crimea and the parts of the Donbas under Kremlin control since 2014— has shown this Saturday, again, more open, despite the bloody Russian offensives and the crimes committed in some occupied areas. “There are things that can only be reached at the negotiating table,” said the Ukrainian president, who has warned that only a diplomatic breakthrough instead of an absolute military victory can end the war.

Meanwhile, in Kramatorsk, at the home of Román Sementsov, the volunteer who helped those fleeing from the bombs to leave the city by train and who ended up being killed by a missile, his wife Yelena says she is sure that if Putin’s troops manage to moving forward will not remain only in Kramatorsk, in Donetsk, in Donbas. “We, as we can, hold the line and resist, but we need help. If they pass later it will be the turn of the rest of Europe. Everyone should be looking this way now.”

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