Where is the Ukraine-Russia War Headed? Evidence Points to East & South

Moscow's shift in war aims from overthrowing Kyiv to 'liberating' Donbas seems to be an acknowledgment of failure.

4 min read
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All quiet on the eastern front?

Quite the opposite, actually. According to intel provided by the UK defence ministry, Russian forces have retreated from the areas surrounding the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and have begun to redeploy in the east.

Additionally, Ukrainian officials said on Friday, 8 April, that dozens of people had been killed and more than 100 injured in a rocket attack on a train station carried out by Russian forces in the city of Kramatorsk.

The station, which is located in Ukraine's Donetsk region, was being used to evacuate civilians from war-torn eastern Ukraine.

In this article, we take a look at the evidence concerning Russian President Vladimir Putin's preparations for a renewed offensive in Eastern Ukraine and why he may be pursuing this strategy.


'The Liberation of Donbas'

Two days before the attack on the train station, Ukraine's deputy prime minister, Iryna Vereshchuk, urged people in the eastern parts of Ukraine like Kharkiv, Donetsk, and Luhansk, to evacuate.

"It is necessary now, lest people be under fire and threatened with death," she had said.

Her fears were not unfounded. Not long ago, on 26 March, Sergei Rudskoy, the deputy chief of staff of the Russian military, had stated that "the main tasks of the first stage of the operation have been carried out."

"The combat capabilities of the Ukrainian armed forces have been substantially reduced, which allows us to concentrate our main efforts on achieving the main goal: the liberation of Donbas," he had added.

The choice of words merits attention. Putin's war aims have been unclear from the start.

"We will seek to demilitarise and denazify Ukraine," the Russian president had said just before the invasion. Presumably, he meant all of Ukraine.

So why does Russia want to limit itself to "concentrate" its "main efforts" in the "liberation of Donbas," which is located in the east?

It appears as if Putin's central objective – the overthrow of the Zelenskyy regime and the installation of a puppet government in Kyiv – has failed, thereby forcing him to minimise his war aims.


An Acknowledgment of Failure?

When the invasion was launched on 24 Feburary, Putin sent in his best troops to Ukraine, including the "Spetsnaz" (special operations forces).

But the Russian military failed to defeat its Ukrainian counterpart, despite being larger in size and being overwhelmingly superior.

Ukrainian resistance took the Russians by surprise, the Russian Air Force failed to win the skies, and the military even botched up basic preparations like the logistics of fuel and the movement of supplies.

Frederick Kagan of the the American Enterprise Institute's Critical Threats Project told the Associated Press that he couldn't think of a similar situation when a major military power like Russia invaded a country and failed so badly, despite assessing that it was the best time to do so.

"It's stunning," Kagan simply said.

Russia's performance has led analysts to believe that the adjustment in Russian war aims (from "demilitarising" and "denazifying" Ukraine to the "liberation" of Donbas) is an acknowledgment of failure, forcing the Kremlin to formally announce what it did regarding Donbas.

That acknowledgment, however, is bad news for the east because Russia expected to launch a renewed offensive with the objective of pushing its troops beyond the "line of contact" that separated the Ukrainian government-held territory in the Donbas region from the Russia-backed separatist "people's republics" of Donetsk and Luhansk.

"I hope that's where the Western supply of arms will make a significant contribution to Ukrainian forces," one Ukrainian official told the BBC while talking about the possibility of a Russian onslaught in the east.

The horrors of human rights violations loom over the region, especially in cities like Slovyansk and Kramatorsk in northern Donetsk that Russian forces may have already started targeting.


Then There's Mariupol in the South

One look at the map of Ukraine will tell you why the Russians want the south as well: Crimea!

"We expect a further push in the eastern and southern Ukraine to try to take entire Donbas and to create a land bridge," NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg had said earlier this week.

The land bridge that he is referring to is one that will connect Luhansk and Donetsk to Crimea, which has been under Russian control since the 2014 annexation.

To construct the bridge, a key city needs to captured – Mariupol.

The evidence for Russia's ambitions in the south lies in their relentless attacks on the port city in southeastern Ukraine. You can read in detail about Russian aims in Mariupol here.

British military intelligence had stated on Wednesday that the continued bombing of Mariupol (that is yet to stop) was intended to make Ukrainian forces surrender in the encircled southeastern city.

It is, therefore, unlikely that the Russian forces are going to withdraw from Mariupol anytime soon. Escalations in other parts of southeastern Ukraine are also anticipated.


Zelenskyy Appeals To Greece

Meanwhile, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a video address to Greece's parliament earlier this week, invoked Greek history and Greek ethnic identity in order to strengthen his appeals regarding humanitarian aid and evacuation.

During his video address to the Greek Parliament on Thursday, 7 April,he reminded lawmakers of the 19th century Greek patriots in the Black Sea port of Odesa, Reuters reported.

"Freedom or death," he exclaimed during his speech, in reference to the war cry of "Filiki Eteria", a Greek revolutionary society founded by Odesa merchants in 1814 to liberate Greece from the Ottomans.

He also spoke about Mariupol, where thousands of ethnic Greeks reside, and said that the port city had been "reduced to ashes" by the Russian forces.

"I call on you now open to create such a union of friends which will be able to save Ukrainians and Greeks in the south of Ukraine", he added, in a clear reference to Mariupol.

(With inputs from Reuters and AP)

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