Russia’s Donbas offensive has made little progress in fierce combat, Western officials and analysts say.
The clenched fist of military forces that Russia mustered in eastern Ukraine appears to be losing some of its punch, with the effort to capture all of the Donbas region stalling, according to a senior Pentagon official and other military analysts.
The Russian offensive seems to be several days behind schedule, the Pentagon official said on Friday. It is facing stiff resistance from Ukrainian forces and suffering from some of the same problems with logistics and low troop morale that have plagued the Russian military since it launched a sweeping invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, the official said.
That assessment of the fighting across a broad swath of eastern Ukraine, from the southern coast to the city of Kharkiv in the north, largely comports with what Ukrainian officials have said. But claims from both sides are difficult to confirm on the ground, given the lack of access to the battlefield.
In this latest phase of the nine-week war, Russia’s military is trying to exploit its advantage in the quantity and range of its artillery systems in fights against the more motivated and mobile — but also more lightly armed — Ukrainian defense forces.
Moscow announced the start of the renewed offensive in Donbas nearly two weeks ago but has yet to score any major territorial advances. Despite a three-pronged attack from the north, south and east, Russian forces have only made incremental progress at best, the Pentagon official said.
At the start of its invasion, Russia attempted lightning advances to seize cities and strategic sites, only to see its forces bogged down with heavy losses. Though they were able to secure territory in the south, they were forced to retreat in the north.
Now, using a strategy dating to Soviet times, Russia is relying on artillery to pound Ukrainian forces all along a 300-mile front. Ukrainian forces are ceding small patches of territory only to reclaim them.
“It’s a knife fight,” said the official, with the two sides waging fierce combat in the flat, wide-open terrain that distinguishes this phase of the war from the urban battles in and around northern cities, separated by hills, woods and marshes, that defined the first several weeks.
Russia now has 92 battalion groups fighting in eastern and southern Ukraine — up from 85 a week ago, but still far fewer than the 125 it used in the first phase of the war, the Pentagon official said. Each battalion group has about 700 to 1,000 troops.
Many of Russia’s battalions suffered heavy casualties and equipment losses in the early fighting and were withdrawn to Russian territory. Efforts to reinforce and resupply the battered battalions were hurried, and as a result, many of the units rushed back into the fight are likely not at full strength, the Pentagon official said.
In light of these troubles, one British military expert said the Russian assault on the Donbas had “sort of fizzled,” and that Russia risks running out of new troops to deploy there.
Russia-Ukraine War: Key Developments
Russian oil embargo. European Union countries are likely to approve a phased embargo on Russian oil, sealing a long-postponed measure that has divided the bloc’s members and highlighted their dependence on Russian energy sources. The ambassadors expect to give their final approval by the end of the week, E.U. officials said.
Deterrence and aid. Britain’s military said it would deploy 8,000 soldiers to Europe to join troops from other NATO countries in exercises meant to deter further Russian aggression. The announcement follows President Biden’s request to Congress for $33 billion to bolster Ukraine.
On the ground. After a period of relative quiet, Russian rockets slammed into Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. The barrage hit an empty weapons factory and a nearby apartment building, and Kyiv’s mayor said one person was found dead under the rubble.
NATO guarantees. NATO is exploring ways to defend Finland and Sweden should they ask to join the alliance, even in the period before their membership is ratified. As fears mount that the conflict might spill over the borders of Ukraine, the two countries have been moving toward requesting membership.
“They pulled all of these mauled units out of Kyiv, and then tried to reconstitute them for combat in the east,” said the analyst, Mike Martin, a visiting fellow in war studies at King’s College London. The Kremlin has thus far resisted implementing a general mobilization that would entail wider conscription of Russian men.
An assessment of the combat in Ukraine by Britain’s Defense Intelligence agency released on Friday also suggested sluggish movement by the Russian forces.
“Due to strong Ukrainian resistance, Russian territorial gains have been limited and achieved at significant cost to Russian forces,” the agency said in a statement.
North of Donbas, Ukrainian forces have been waging a campaign to push Russian troops away from Kharkiv, once Ukraine’s second-largest city. Fighting has been fierce there, and Ukraine’s military hopes to force the Russians out of artillery range of Kharkiv, which is just 20 miles from the Russian border.
The Ukrainians there have been fighting to retake territory that Russians have held since early in the war. In recent days, they wrested back control of Ruska Lozova, a town of 6,000 people some 12 miles north of Kharkiv, enabling scores of its residents fleeing down an open road to Kharkiv. It was not clear whether they were able to hold the town in the face of a Russian counterattack.
The Ukrainian military, in a briefing in Kyiv on Friday evening, also noted logistical setbacks for the Russian army, but suggested that they had been surmounted in some instances. A presidential aide suggested the Russian forces had already suffered “colossal losses” in Donbas, though that assessment could not be immediately confirmed.