As Russia gradually seizes more territory in Ukraine and continues to pound various targets in the Donbas, analysts fear that Ukrainian fighters are losing the upper hand, leaving the eastern region vulnerable to being wholly seized amid a prolonged conflict.
“I am worried about it,” William Alberque, director of strategy, technology and arms control at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told CNBC. “There are huge risks that Ukraine will continue to lose land incrementally.”
A lot has changed since Russia first launched its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. Having initially appeared to attack the country from the south, east and north, Russia soon appeared to realize it had bitten off more than it could chew and instead changed its focus to eastern Ukraine.
That move away from Ukraine’s capital city of Kyiv, as well as other strategic failures by Russia’s forces during the initial phase of the conflict, gave Ukraine’s leadership and fighters a big morale boost and there was optimism among Western allies that perhaps Ukraine could even “win” this war against its more powerful neighbor.
Such unabated optimism has not lasted long, however, particularly as Russia appears to be throwing everything it can at seizing the entire Donbas region as it aims to cement a land corridor from Russia via the Donbas to the Black Sea, where it seeks to take control of Ukraine’s ports and trade.
The Donbas region refers to the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in the easternmost part of Ukraine.
For several weeks now, Russian artillery has been battering eastern Ukrainian cities such as Lysychansk and Severodonetsk — the last city held by Ukrainian forces in the Luhansk province.
On Monday, Luhansk’s governor warned that Russia controlled a majority of Severodonetsk and that severe fighting continued, with all but one bridge into the city destroyed and the last one critically damaged. What’s worse is that Russian forces appear to have renewed their assaults on Kharkiv too, Ukraine’s second largest city, to the northeast, after a period of respite.
Losing Severodonetsk would be a major blow to Ukraine, analysts agree, and there are concerns that the country’s forces could be starting to lose momentum in the fight against Russia’s re-focused onslaught.
Russia is making advances
The situation now appears to have changed in Russia’s favor, analysts warn, and the capture of Severodonetsk by Russia, which is looking increasingly likely, could mark another turning point for Ukraine, and another major loss, like that of its major port Mariupol on the Sea of Azov.
“Russia is making incremental advances and is now reportedly controlling most of the strategic city of Severodonetsk, although heavy fighting is continuing in the area,” Andrius Tursa, central and eastern Europe advisor at Teneo Intelligence, said in a note last week.
“The capture of this city — as well as Lysychansk to the west — is crucial for Russia to gain full control of the Luhansk administrative region. If successful, the Russian offensive would likely shift focus onto the Donetsk region, around half of which has been already occupied,” he said.
Tursa said the situation in Donbas reflects Russia’s military advantages, including much greater firepower and troop numbers. Worryingly for Ukraine, Russia also appears to have sharpened its strategic nous.
“Compared to the first phase of the offensive, the Russian side appears to have improved its operational and logistical activities and is taking greater advantage of its air superiority and electronic warfare capabilities. Meanwhile, Ukraine is suffering from slow and insufficient weapons supplies from its allies.”
Alberque said there was still the possibility that the Russian line will collapse somewhere and they’ll have to pull troops out of the Severodonetsk front and push them toward the north, toward Kharkiv or Kherson, but what made this inflection point of the invasion dangerous was that Russia was now throwing everything it has at fully occupying the region.
“This is the part of the war that one really worries about because it’s a war of attrition because it’s just Russia throwing tons and tons of crap equipment into the battle. It’s them using the Donetsk and Luhansk fighters as cannon fodder. It’s them just drawing upon their huge human resources and there is the chance [Ukraine is] going to lose more land.”
Alberque added that he has “real fears that if Ukraine can’t collapse parts of the Russian line, and start pushing them back, and force Russia into an even further reduced [territorial] ambition, that we may see some sort of semi-permanent frozen conflict that lasts a decade or more.”
For its part, Ukraine continues to plead with its Western allies for hundreds more pieces of heavy weaponry to have what it called “weapons parity” with Russia and to “end the war,” according to Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Ukraine’s wish list, including a request for tanks and more long-range weaponry such as howitzers and MLRS or multiple-launch rocket systems — which have a 50-80 kilometer range and can strike targets with precision-guided rockets — are seen to be exactly what Ukraine needs right now and while the U.S. and U.K. have pledged more of these weapons, there are concerns over how long it will take to deliver them.
Teneo’s Tursa said that the delivery of NATO-standard weapons – combined with heavy troop and equipment losses on the Russian side – could still shift the military balance in favor of Ukraine in the longer term.
However, he noted, “it remains unclear whether such deliveries are timely and sufficient for Ukraine to halt the Russian offensive in Donbas or regain at least some of the occupied territories.”