Vladimir Putin badly needs a victory, and may be ready to unleash Russia's deadliest assault to date. But Ukraine has its best fighters in the eastern region, fighting a war there since 2014, and may have several key tactical advantages.
Even after last week’s bloody attack on the Kramatorsk railway station, the trains have not stopped running. Here in the Donbas region, a new flock of soon-to-be refugees continue to flee what Vladimir Putin has promised will be the next main theater of hostilities in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Families arrived by bus to Slovyansk, half an hour from Kramatorsk, to catch the last trains heading west. "It's the second war we've lived through — eight years ago we stayed, this time it’s much worse, there is no certainty of tomorrow,” one local told Francesco Semprini, reporting for Italian daily La Stampa.
Indeed, in the neighboring region of Luhansk, shelling has already picked up in recent days, leaving more and more residents without power, gas and water. Sergei Gaidai, head of the Luhansk Regional State Administration, used the messaging platform Telegram to explain what local officials are up against:
"We try to fix everything we can. But every day there are fewer and fewer repair crews in the region,” Gaidai said, according to the Ukrainian news outlet Livy Bereg. “When you see how hard it is for your colleague who plugs in the light or welds a water heater, no matter how brave you are, it becomes more and more important just to get the people out. The shelling by the Russian army is getting more and more intense.”
Kyiv's elite forces
The eastward shift of Vladimir Putin’s attention follows the apparent failure of the Russian army's blitzkrieg plan and the failed offensive in central Ukraine. Satellite images accessed by CNN show a convoy of Russian troops heading south and east toward Donbas, portending a massive assault.
Still, unlike Kyiv, armed conflict is nothing new in this region: The Donbas has been occupied by pro-Russian separatists since 2014, and the Ukrainian army and the Ukrainian government have had no control over these territories for the past eight years. That has left the governments of the self-proclaimed republics, supported materially and technically by the Kremlin, to operate with a mix of loosely affiliated gangs and regular Russian troops.
The best weapons supplied to Ukraine by other countries have come here since the start of the war.
Yet, because of the recent combat history, the areas around the border of the occupied Donbas also feature the highest level of elite troops of Ukraine — and it is there that the most modern weapons supplied to Ukraine by partner countries have been directed since the beginning of the war.
The defense of long-suffering Mariupol also remains important to the battle for Donbas: The Ukrainian army's reduced units that continue to fight the invading troops within the city limits continue to hold Russia at bay, preventing it from releasing the full force of its military for an offensive into Donbas.
Reports this week of a possible chemical attack in Mariupol, which have not been confirmed, would be an unprecedented escalation and spark international condemnation. But it would also be the clearest sign that the coming battle in Moscow's eyes is an all-or-nothing showdown
Destruction in Stanytsia Luhanska, eastern Ukraine
Putin needs a win
There is a widely circulated opinion that Putin's interest in Donbas is purely material: Ukraine's main source of coal and gas is located there. However, even before 2014, Donbas was a subsidized region, corroded by local government corruption and frequent accidents at coal mines.
Since 2014, many mines have fallen into disrepair and been flooded by ground water; steel mills have stopped, and their blast furnaces must operate without interruption — and it is even harder to ensure operations under military occupation. Economically, Donbas has little or no value today. When it returns to Ukraine, it will require massive investment over many years to restore life in this region. Russia, contrary to what some Western analysts may think, is not interested in restoring it at all.
The reason for Putin's impending all-out fight for Donbas is not economic. It is strategic and ideological. It has been noted how important it is for the Russian government to show its citizens at least some kind of victory. After failing in Kyiv and central Ukraine, there was one card left to play for propaganda back at home: the fight to "liberate" Donbas.
The Kremlin has been telling Russians that the Ukrainian army has been killing the Russian-speaking population of Donbas for eight years, which justified the war that began on Feb. 24. Many Russians sincerely believe that it was the horrible treatment of Russian speakers in Donbas that "forced" local gangs to ask Moscow for help in 2014 and declare independent republics.
If, after thousands of casualties suffered by the Russian army, Donbas is not conquered, the Russian government could lose the last thread of trust that its propaganda has continued to feed to ordinary Russians. Already, Russians receiving the coffins of their sons and husbands have begun asking this very question to their government.
In fact, if Russian does not take Donbas, the Putin regime itself could risk not surviving this war.
Military map, from Mariupol to Kharkiv
So how is the looming military showdown shaping up? If we look at the map of Ukraine and the locations of the Ukrainian and Russian armies, it becomes obvious that the Ukrainian forces have moved deep into Donbas, which means that the Russian command can try to encircle some of Kyiv's troops located there, by connecting the fronts from Mariupol to Kharkiv.
However, in all directions, the Ukrainian army continues to fire on the invading columns, and the Russian military is advancing extremely slowly, losing positions in many directions.
Preparing for Donbas, Putin installed General Alexander Dvornikov, a commander with experience in the Syrian war, while also announcing a draft that could give the Russian army another 130,000 conscripts.
Mikhail Samus, director of New Geopolitics Research Network, says the Russian moves are "all tactical." From the point of view of operations, it is clear that they will try to surround Ukrainian troops and aim to reach the border and the coast. "This offensive operation will be a key battle in this war," says Samus. "How this battle will be completed will depend on what positions Ukraine and Russia will be in the next stages of both military confrontation and diplomatic confrontation."
General Alexander Dvornikov
General Alexander Dvornikov will lead the Russian assault in Donbas
Battle in the air
The Ukrainian newspaper Korrespondentwrites that Russia will throw all of its air force into Donbas, which will cause the destruction of the already badly damaged cities of the region.
“Russia is likely to actively use artillery, try to break the well-fortified defensive positions of the Armed Forces from the air, and only then launch a ground offensive," the Korrespondent piece reads. "An attack by Ukrainian troops with infantry without prior artillery fire experience can lead to huge losses for the Russian army and significantly increase the risk of defeat.”
Half the people left a long time ago.
In the meantime, civilians continue to flee the area, hoping they can come back one day, as soldiers prepare for the showdown. "NATO helps, but we need more," Pavel, a soldier, tells La Stampa. "With the support of Europe we can do it — if we can do it, our people will be able to come back here.”
"Half of the people in this region left a long time ago, and since the horror reports from Mariupol broke, this is accelerating," Tetyana Ignachenko, spokeswoman for the military administration of the Donetsk region, told Arnaud De La Grange of Le Figaro. "Some prefer to stay. The war has been raging on their doorstep for eight years, so they are already used to the noise.”