Apr 13th 2022

Ukraine: the battle for Donbas will be protracted and bloody – military expert

by Frank Ledwidge


Frank Ledwidge is Senior Lecturer in Military Capabilities and Strategy, University of Portsmouth


There will be no peace deals, no ceasefires and no surrenders in Ukraine. The next two months will bring what US defence officials have called “a knife fight” in the area the Ukrainian army call “The Joint Forces Operation” (JFO). We know this region better as Donbas.

For eight years the two sides have fought there, with Russian regular army elements supplementing separatist units. Now, after defeat in Kyiv, Russian forces are redeploying there to take on Ukraine’s best and most experienced units. The battles to come will resemble more the manoeuvre battles of the second world war than those fought around the cities of Kyiv, Mariupol and Sumy in the six weeks the war has raged so far. Nonetheless, the Russians are unlikely to prevail.

After their recent defeat in the north, Russia has made some significant changes. Most importantly, an overall commander has been appointed. The importance of this is not the identity or experience of the individual Colonel General Alexander Dvornikov – rather it is the fact that the Russians will have a single command staff to co-ordinate and attempt to achieve a single focused and ostensibly realistic operational objective, instead of three separate competing ones in the north, south and east.

Map of Ukraine's Donbas region showing pro-Russian breakaway republics.
Russia’s offensive will now switch to the Donbas region in the east of Ukraine. STUmaps via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-NC-SA

Russia is desperately trying to replace its considerable losses, up to 20% of its force already. Those efforts will make little difference. The conscript troops and reactivated reserves called up recently will not be ready for months. Nonetheless the force the Russians will amass will be formidable, and with shorter and better established supply lines into Russia they may be able to avoid some of the appalling foul ups which have characterised their war so far.

Equally importantly, in theory, they should be able to use their air force to greater effect, being closer to its bases and air defence cover. But recent events have shown that theory is a poor guide to what the Ukrainian air defences can achieve. Finally, the Russian army has always been and remains very strong in artillery, the arm they call “the Red God of War”.

Battles in bulges

These forces are pitched against Ukrainian defenders deployed in several salients or “bulges” – areas surrounded on three sides by Russian-backed separatists. Throughout military history these have offered the possibility of trapping enemy forces in “pockets”. Military historians will recall the Ypres Salient (1914-1918), Verdun (1916), Kursk (1943) and of course the Battle of the Bulge (1944-45) as the most prominent examples of this.

The Russians will seek to probe and break through Ukrainian defences, surround those salients, trap the Ukrainians and annihilate them using their advantages in air and artillery power, or at the very least force them to retreat. Russian-backed separatist troops successfully conducted such an operation on a relatively small scale at the Battle of Debaltseve in February 2015, where artillery was used to devastating effect.

US military analysts report they expect Ukrainian positions in the Severodonetsk Salient, and especially around the town of Sloviansk to be the initial targets for a Russian attempt at encirclement, with an eventual strike at the city of Dnipro – a major communications and road hub – to secure the entire region east of the Dneieper River. All of this this is very well known by the Ukrainian commander, General Valerii Zaluzhnyi and his staff. The Russians want quick battles of annihilation. What they will get is a war of attrition.

Panorama of the Dnipro skyline showing the Dnieper river and the city's skyscrapers.
Target: the strategically significant city of Dnipro, on the Dnieper river in eastern Ukraine. nazarovsergey via Shutterstock

Ukrainian commanders fully and completely understand from bitter experience the risks of being surrounded. They have demonstrated the qualities of agility and tactical innovation required for this kind of battle. Even better, they know what is coming. Nato air and space reconnaissance and surveillance as well as Ukraine’s own intelligence capabilities will ensure that there will be no surprise attacks.

Long war?

With continued and increased western assistance, Ukraine should be able to sustain a long war better than the Russians. Nato assistance will be vital in firming up the defenders’ armoured units giving them a far greater chance to counterattack and retake ground. Retaining some level of control of the air, though, is the single most important factor, which is why retaining and strengthening anti-aircraft missile defences is an absolute priority.

Despite Russia’s advantages in technology and equipment, Ukrainian forces will continue to exploit Russia’s chronic and acute weaknesses in logistics and supply.

Finally, it is one of the firmest rules of warfare that a successful attacker should enjoy a three-to-one preponderance. Russia’s depleted force has nowhere near that preponderance. There are exceptions to this general three-to-one rule – such as the Gulf War of 1991 where a well-led and equipped US-led coalition annihilated a larger and combat-experienced Iraqi army. In such cases, the attackers more than made up for a relative lack of quantity with quality in training, planning and the crucial moral components of cohesion and motivation.

In the spring battles of 2022 it is the defenders, not the attackers who are in abundant possession of those factors against a Russian army beset by chronic issues of endemic corruption professionalism and training which has rendered them apparently incapable of conducting complex operations. These problems are not going away, and will not be solved by a change in command or operational focus.

Above all the ravages inflicted upon them by the Ukrainian armed forces have cut away at their manpower, equipment and morale. The next battle will begin within the next two weeks. Attempting to predict its precise course is ultimately futile, not even the opposing generals know that. It may well be that the Russian army’s fate has already been sealed in what is likely to be a long war.

The single qualification to this may be that Russia could default to escalation using “weapons of mass destruction” of one form or another – whether tactical nuclear warheads or chemical weapons. Reports from Mariupol that the Russians may already have resorted to the latter would, if proved, show that Russia is prepared to resort to something even more serious if they fear a complete military humiliation in Ukraine.

Frank Ledwidge, Senior Lecturer in Military Strategy and Law, University of Portsmouth

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jul 2nd 2022
EXTRACT: "The Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit described this succinctly in his book On Compromise and Rotten Compromises. In “politics as economics,” material interests are “subject to bargaining, everything is negotiable, whereas in the religious picture, centered on the idea of the holy, the holy is non-negotiable.” This, then, is why politics in the US is now in such a perilous state. More and more, the secular left and the religious right are engaged in a culture war, revolving around sexuality, gender, and race, where politics is no longer negotiable. When that happens, institutions start breaking down, and the stage is set for charismatic demagogues and the politics of violence."
Jul 2nd 2022
EXTRACT: "...EU enlargement is essentially a political decision by member states, based on a multitude of considerations that sometimes include dramatic events. Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine is such a turning point."
Jun 29th 2022
EXTRACT: "Most market analysts seem to think that central banks will remain hawkish, but I am not so sure. I have argued that they will eventually wimp out and accept higher inflation – followed by stagflation – once a hard landing becomes imminent, because they will be worried about the damage of a recession and a debt trap, owing to an excessive build-up of private and public liabilities after years of low interest rates." ----- "There is ample reason to believe that the next recession will be marked by a severe stagflationary debt crisis. As a share of global GDP, private and public debt levels are much higher today than in the past, having risen from 200% in 1999 to 350% today (with a particularly sharp increase since the start of the pandemic). Under these conditions, rapid normalization of monetary policy and rising interest rates will drive highly leveraged zombie households, companies, financial institutions, and governments into bankruptcy and default."
Jun 28th 2022
EXTRACT: "It is tempting to conclude that today’s central bankers are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Maybe if they sit tight, they will ride out the storm. Then-Fed Chair Paul Volcker was Public Enemy Number One in the United States in the early 1980s, when he squeezed post-oil-shock inflation out of the system with double-digit interest rates. But in his later years he was revered, and became a national treasure, called on to advise successive presidents in any financial emergency. ----- But central bankers would be wise not to assume that their reputations will automatically recover, and that the status quo ante will be restored. We live in a more disputatious age than the 1980s. Public institutions are more regularly challenged and held to account by far less reverential legislators." ----- "Moreover, former central bankers have joined the chorus of critics. Former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke, breaking the unwritten rule not to reproach one’s successors, has said that today’s Fed made “a mistake” by responding slowly to inflation. And Bailey’s immediate predecessors, Mervyn King and Mark Carney, have weighed in, too, with challenges to the BOE’s policy. The fabric of the central banking fraternity is fraying."
Jun 25th 2022
EXTRACT: "Public opinion in Belarus remains firmly against involvement into the war with Ukraine. Moreover, according to a Chatham House survey, 40% of Belarusians do not support Russia’s war, compared to 32% who do, while around half of those questioned see predominately negative consequences of the war for Belarus (53%) and for themselves (48%). The Belarusian military and security services are also aware of the determined and skilful resistance that Ukrainian forces have put up against Russia and the risks that they would therefore be running if they entered the war against Ukraine. This, in turn, means that the risk to Lukashenko himself remains that he might lose his grip on power, a grip which depends heavily on the loyalty of his armed forces." ---- "Ultimately, Belarus may not be on the brink of being plunged into war quite yet, but its options to avoid such a disaster are narrowing."
Jun 20th 2022
EXTRACT: "Russification (the policy of enforcing Russian culture on populations) appears to be being reinforced by ethnic cleansing. Last month the Ukrainian parliament’s commissioner for human rights, Liudmyla Denisova, informed the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, that 1.3 million Ukrainians, including 223,000 children, had been forcibly deported to Russia."
Jun 11th 2022
EXTRACT: "If Trump had his way, then Vice-President Pence would have also broken his oath to the constitution and derailed the certification of electoral votes. Our continued existence as a Republic might very well have hung on Pence’s actions that day. The mob’s response was to call for Pence to be hanged, and a noose and scaffold was erected apparently for that very purpose. What was Trump’s reaction when he was told that the mob was calling for Pence’s summary execution? His words were: “Maybe our supporters have the right idea.” Mike Pence “deserves” it."
Jun 10th 2022
EXTRACTS: "Speaking to journalist Sophie Raworth on the BBC’s Sunday Morning show recently, former war crimes prosecutor Sir Howard Morrison, now an advisor to the Ukraine government, highlighted the dangers posed by the negative – often insulting and dehumanising – statements made by some Russian politicians and media personalities about Ukraine and its people." ---- "The conditions and attitudes described by Morrison have existed for centuries: Russians have viewed Ukrainians as inferior since before the Soviet era." ----- "And, as Morrison said, stereotyping and denigrating a people as inferior or lacking agency makes atrocities and looting more likely to happen, as we are seeing in Ukraine."
Jun 9th 2022
EXTRACT: "Unless Russia realises that the west is willing and able to push back, a new, stable security order in Europe will not be possible. Concessions to Russia, by Ukraine or the EU and Nato, are not the way to achieve this. That this has been realised beyond Ukraine’s most ardent supporters in the Baltic states, Poland, the UK and the US is clear from German support for strengthening Nato’s northern flank and a general increase in Nato members’ defence spending."
Jun 8th 2022
EXTRACT: "Highly civilized people can turn into barbarians when demagogues and dictators exploit their fears and trigger their most atavistic instincts. Rape, torture, and massacres often happen when soldiers invade foreign countries. Commanding officers sometimes actively encourage such behavior to terrorize an enemy into submission. And sometimes it occurs when the officer corps loses control and discipline breaks down. Japanese and Germans know this, as do Serbs, Koreans, Americans, Russians, and many others."
Jun 1st 2022
EXTRACTS: "Like Metternich, Kissinger commits the fatal error of believing that a few wise policymakers can impose their will on the world. Worse, he believes they can halt domestically generated change and the power of nationalism. Many years ago, this is what Senator William Fulbright termed the “arrogance of power.” This approach failed in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It is also doomed to fail in Russia and Ukraine." ------ "Not surprisingly, Kissinger misunderstands Russia. He appears to believe that, because Russia has been an “essential part of Europe” for over four centuries, it is therefore fated to remain so for the foreseeable future.The claim is completely at odds with history." ---- "Finally, Kissinger misunderstands the implications of his own analysis for Western relations with Russia. “We are facing,” he said, “a situation now where Russia could alienate itself completely from Europe and seek a permanent alliance elsewhere." ---- "But what’s so bad about Russia’s isolating itself from Europe and becoming a vassal state of China? "
Jun 1st 2022
EXTRACTS: "According to the latest figures from China’s National Bureau of Statistics, China’s population grew from 1.41212 billion to just 1.41260 billion in 2021 – a record low increase of just 480,000, a mere fraction of the annual growth of eight million or so common a decade ago." ----- "China’s total fertility rate (births per woman) was 2.6 in the late 1980s – well above the 2.1 needed to replace deaths. It has been between 1.6 and 1.7 since 1994, and slipped to 1.3 in 2020 and just 1.15 in 2021."
Jun 1st 2022
EXTRACTS: "Casualties are very high. A very conservative estimate of overall Russian losses is that they have lost more troops killed since February 24 than in ten years of fighting in Afghanistan. This implies well over 40,000 men taken out of the fight, including the wounded." ----- "Away from the cauldron of Donbas, Belarus has been rattling its somewhat rusty sabre by deploying troops to its border with Ukraine. This is unlikely to trouble Kyiv. The Belarus president, Alexander Lukashenko, is well aware that he may need them at home to shore up his shaky regime."
May 27th 2022
EXTRACTS: "Monetary policymakers are talking tough nowadays about fighting inflation to head off the risk of it spinning out of control. But that doesn’t mean they won’t eventually wimp out and allow the inflation rate to rise above target. Since hitting the target most likely requires a hard landing, they could end up raising rates and then getting cold feet once that scenario becomes more likely. Moreover, because there is so much private and public debt in the system (348% of GDP globally), interest-rate hikes could trigger a further sharp downturn in bond, stock, and credit markets, giving central banks yet another reason to backpedal." ----- "The historical evidence shows that a soft landing is highly improbable. That leaves either a hard landing and a return to lower inflation, or a stagflationary scenario. Either way, a recession in the next two years is likely."
May 26th 2022
EXTRACT: "No, I am not arguing that Powell needs to replicate Volcker’s tightening campaign. But if the Fed wishes to avoid a replay of the stagflation of the late 1970s and early 1980s, it needs to recognize the extraordinary gulf between Volcker’s 4.4% real interest rate and Powell’s -2.25%. It is delusional to believe that such a wildly accommodative policy trajectory can solve America’s worst inflation problem in a generation."
May 26th 2022
EXTRACT: "It will be critical in this context how China will act and whether it will prioritise its economic interests (continuing trade with Europe and the US) or current ideological preferences (an alliance with Russia that makes the world safe for autocracies)."
May 26th 2022
EXTRACT: "The document is full of embarrassing and damming stories of illegal gatherings and bad behaviour. There was “excessive alcohol consumption”, a regular fixture referred to as “wine time Fridays” and altercations between staff. Aides are shown to have left Downing Street after 4am (and not because they had worked into these early hours). Cleaning staff and junior aides were abused, and a Number 10 adviser is on record before the infamous “bring your own booze” party...."
May 17th 2022
EXTRACT: "But even a resounding Russian defeat is an ominous scenario. Yes, under such circumstances – and only such circumstances – Putin might be toppled in some kind of coup led by elements of Russia’s security apparatus. But the chances that this would produce a liberal democratic Russia that abandons Putin’s grand strategic designs are slim. More likely, Russia would be a rogue nuclear superpower ruled by military coup-makers with revanchist impulses. Germany after World War I comes to mind."
May 4th 2022
EXTRACT: ".....a remarkable transformation is taking place in Ukraine’s army amounting to its de facto military integration into Nato. As western equipment filters through to the frontline, Nato-standard weaponry and ammunition will be brought into Ukrainian service. This is of far higher quality than the mainly former Soviet weapons with which the Ukrainians have fought so capably. The longer this process continues and deepens, the worse the situation will be for the already inefficient Russian army and air force."
May 3rd 2022
EXTRACT: " The conventional wisdom among students of the Russian arts and sciences is that Russian culture is “great.” The problem is that, while there are surely great individuals within Russian culture, the culture as a whole cannot avoid responsibility for Putin and his regime’s crimes." ---- "Russianists will not be able to avoid examining themselves and their Russian cultural icons for harbingers of the present catastrophe. What does it mean that Fyodor Dostoevsky was a Russian chauvinist? That Nikolai Gogol and Anton Chekhov were Ukrainian? That Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was an unvarnished imperialist? That Aleksandr Pushkin was a troubadour of Russian imperial greatness? May these writers still be read without one eye on the ongoing atrocities in Ukraine?"