With exhausted troops and low morale, Vladimir Putin’s gamble in the Donbas could backfire

Russia may have high aspirations to take southern Ukraine, but its forces are vulnerable and facing steely opponents

DEFENCE AND SECURITY EDITOR and RUSSIA CORRESPONDENT. 23 April 2022 •

Russian soldiers

Morale is low among the battle-weary Russian troops CREDIT: Alexander Ermochenko/REUTERS

For Russia to gain “full control over the Donbas and southern Ukraine” as the latest shift in Moscow’s war aims seem to suggest, Vladimir Putin will need to refresh and reorganise his forces, fast.

It is a bold ambition. But where will the troops come from?

Russian forces were defeated in the north of the country, along with Voznesensk and Mykolaiv in the south

The mayor of Mykolaiv said this week his city was “over motivated” to repel the invaders, in contrast to the low morale of Moscow’s troops.

“Go home and live,” he told Russian soldiers trying to get his city to surrender, “or come here and die. Welcome to hell, motherf——!”

Even if the nine battalion tactical groups fighting in Mariupol are released following Putin’s optimistic declaration of victory, their exhaustion will mean they will not be able to push north, to Zaporizhzhya, or west, to Mykolaiv and possibly Odesa, any time soon. 

And that’s just the combat troops.

Ukrainian servicemen
Ukrainian servicemen hold their positions to wait for the attack of Russian troops near the small city of Horlivka of the Donetsk area CREDIT: STR/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock/Shutterstock

The logistic lines, stretched and harried from the flanks by Ukrainian raiding parties, are in no shape to open an axis west as well as push into the Donbas.

Maybe the latest comments from Moscow about wanting to take all of southern Ukraine were a deception, designed to keep Ukrainian reinforcements fixed around what remains of Ukraine’s coast – rather than redeploy to kill Russians in Kherson, Izyum and Donetsk

For Russia to have any aspiration to control the south of the country it must first overcome the many shortcomingsit displayed in the march on Kyiv in the early weeks of the war.

In particular, the prospect of an amphibious landing to threaten Odesa is fanciful, especially given the loss last week of the warship Moskva, which would have provided essential defence against air attack.

The greater the stated war aims, the bigger the chances of failure unless Putin’s forces can operate as a coherent force, including with air cover.

A Western official said, in the renewed offensive in the Donbas, Russian forces were continuing to operate in long convoys on single roads, making themselves vulnerable to Ukrainian attacks.  

Moscow’s troops had shown “some improvement”, the official said, but were “not a force transformed” and were starting to show limitations in the supply of precision weapons. 

Any forces recovered from operations in the north of the country “are largely being fed in piecemeal into this fight rather than being held back”.

“We still see the Russian air force restricted to operating over its own troops. It is still very, very concerned about Ukrainian air defence capability.”

Ukrainian forces have shown themselves adept at launching raids deep behind Russian lines, destroying targets vital to Moscow’s war effort. That will stymy any plans Russia has to push west.

Could the bridge to Crimea be next? The 2014 annexation of Crimea was hugely popular in Russia, where many viewed the “return” of the Black Sea peninsula as righting a historic wrong.

But after the 2014 annexation, Western sanctions were immediately levied on all transitions with the peninsula. Russian state coffers were forced to pick up the bill. 

Shipping goods from the Russian mainland, by plane or ferry, became extremely expensive.

Moscow had to build a bridge. In fact, it built two, side by side for almost 12 miles, at a cost of £2.7 billion.

Combined, the bridges restrict entry to the Sea of Azov, the north-east portion of the Black Sea. Ukrainian ports located therein are no longer accessible to big ships.

The Kerch Bridge, as the structure is also known, has great symbolic value, but as a means of supplying Crimea after the 2014 annexation, it is more than just a vanity project. 

Kerch Strait Bridge, aslo known as Crimean Bridge, in Kerch, Crimea, Ukraine
The Kerch Strait Bridge, also known as Crimean Bridge, in Kerch, Crimea, UkraineCREDIT: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images Europe

So why hasn’t Ukraine destroyed it?

Ben Barry, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said: “Given the importance of Crimea both to Russian combat forces and as a logistic base, it is well protected by surface to air missiles.”

Russia built up its forces in Crimea considerably from 2014 onwards, Mr Barry said, adding Crimea was a “key node in their air defence network”.

As such, the bridge would be a tough target to attack.

“You’d need a couple of 1,000-pound laser-guided bombs to make sure you inflicted sufficient damage,” Mr Barry said. Such weapons may be in short supply in Kyiv’s arsenal.

It may also be the case that with Crimean airspace well protected by radars and surface-to-air missiles, and other targets elsewhere demanding attention, the bridge is simply not a priority for Ukraine.

With thousands of Russian troops deployed in Crimea alongside some of its state-of-the-art weaponry, including the latest defence systems, Mr Barry said it would be a “high-risk bombing operation” for the limited number of assets available to the Ukrainian air force.

He suggested there may be another reason why the bridge is still standing.

“Politically, it might symbolise that Ukraine is not going to contest Crimea when it comes to peace negotiations. 

“They might accept Crimea as a fait accompli.”

5 comments

  1. Great! Another optimistic article.
    But for this to be reality, Ukraine’s Black Sea coast from Mykolayiv to Odessa to Romania must be fortified massively and Kherson must be retaken.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. “Given the importance of Crimea both to Russian combat forces and as a logistic base, it is well protected by surface to air missiles.”

    So was the Moskva, and we all know what happened to that.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I think Ukraine lost more soldiers than the state media is telling us. That despite all the weapons flowing in the enemy still keeps advancing is proof of that.

      Liked by 3 people

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