Two exhausted armies are battling for eastern Ukraine.

July 13, 2022 | 07.15am

When Vladimir Putin refocused his war in Ukraine on the country’s east three months ago, he did so bruised by the failures of his initial lunge towards Kyiv and desperate for a face-saving success.

The Russian President can consider himself halfway there after a drawn-out and brutal march through Luhansk ended with the conquest of Lysychansk.

However, the struggle has reached a new turning point, and combatants on both sides are preparing for a third round of violence that could swing the scales in their favor.

After three months of warfare in Donbas, Justin Bronk, a senior research fellow for Airpower and Technology at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), described the nature of the conflict as “a very attritional struggle.”

It’s a battle between two armies that have both sustained significant losses and are on the verge of exhaustion.

Putin’s next measure is expected to be a drive into Donetsk, which, if taken, would achieve the Kremlin’s main goal: occupying the whole Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, which has been home to Russian-backed separatist organizations since 2014.

But it’s unknown when and how that happens. Russian ground forces are currently in the midst of an operational halt to “rest, refit, and reconstruct,” according to the US-based think tank Institute for the Study of War (ISW), despite the fact that Russia has continued to conduct intense bombings on numerous fronts in Ukraine.

This could allow the Ukrainian army enough time to organize its defense of the areas of Donetsk that it still controls, particularly the industrial corridor that extends south from the city of Sloviansk. Additionally, there is still a risk of Ukrainian counteroffensives in other parts of the nation, particularly Kherson, a significant city in the south.

When major warfare does start, the next stage might not be the last. However, many believe it will play a significant role in determining the outcome of the war and that it may also determine the destiny of Ukraine’s heartland.

The war’s next flashpoints

Following its course through Luhansk, Russia is likely to enter areas of Donetsk that are under Ukrainian control in an effort to wear down and encircle Ukrainian forces there as well.

This would accomplish Putin’s main goal, which he set forth when he began his invasion in February, when he falsely claimed that those regions are spiritually and culturally Russian and that Russian speakers are being persecuted there, and deliver the symbolically significant Donbas region to Moscow.

But if the schedule and strategies utilized in Luhansk are reproduced in its neighboring territory, another deadly and bitter conflict would be required.

The northern Donetsk cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk will be the scene of “two names that are tragically going to become very recognizable” clashes in the ensuing conflict. Samir Puri, a senior scholar in urban security and hybrid warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), who served as a ceasefire observer in the Donbas between 2014 and 2015, predicted that they will be the next Severodonestk and Mariupol.

They currently sit encircled to the east and south by Russian-controlled territory, and their capture would be a significant victory for the Kremlin. These cities have been set up to become flashpoints in the war for months.

“They [will] probably [attack Sloviansk]. Probably because of this, the incoming hits have increased in frequency “Vadym Liakh, the leader of the city’s military-civilian administration, stated on Wednesday that Ukrainian forces were now containing Russian armies on the Siverskyi Donets river.

“I believe that the enemy will start destroying the infrastructure and the city itself as soon as it is able to conduct assault operations,” Liakh added.

The combat in the area is probably going to be in a similar style to Russia’s incursions into Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, whose collapse put an end to Ukraine’s defense of Luhansk.

Once more, Ukraine’s defense is anticipated to be obstinate.

According to Bergmann, “They want to make this a long and difficult slog for the Russians.” They have fought the Russians for every square inch of land throughout this conflict, and when it is tactically unwise to continue the struggle, they leave but not abruptly.

“You fall back, but as you fall back, you fight.”

However, similar to Luhansk, Russia will want to gain the upper hand and subdue the Ukrainian opposition, which will find it difficult to mount strong offensive. Despite possibly lacking the “availability of infantry and armored forces that are equipped and fresh enough to punch ahead,” Puri predicted that “(Ukraine) will be able to slowly bleed the Russians into Donetsk.”

“They are going through a military transformation to get that offensive capabilities.”

Meanwhile, there may be flare-ups in other areas that compromise Russia’s major goals in Donbas.

Ukraine has just reclaimed Snake Island and had some success with counteroffensives close to Kherson, in southern Ukraine; these operations are now intensifying and pushing Russia into a defensive posture.

In what seemed to be one of the greatest operations within Russian-occupied territory since the war began, the Ukrainian military carried out what it claimed was an attack on a Russian ammunition stockpile in the town of Nova Kakhovka in the Kherson area on Monday night. An American-supplied long-range HIMARS artillery system, according to a Russian official, was used in the Ukrainian strike, which destroyed homes and a fertilizer warehouse.

Using newly delivered Western weapons that have a considerably wider range than its earlier artillery systems, Ukraine has started attacking Russian command posts and ammo dumps located far behind the front lines in Kherson and Donbas.

The Russians are now fortifying their checkpoints “because the partisan movement is escalating in the Kherson region,” Serhii Khlan, an assistant to the head of the Kherson civil military administration, stated on Tuesday. “We have already initiated attacks along virtually the whole front line.” In the city, he continued, Russia is “getting ready for street fights.”

Meanwhile, tank and armored vehicle convoys have been seen traveling through Melitopol on their way to Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, according to a report published last week by the Ukrainian news outlet Ria-Melitopol. Ihor Kolykhaiev, the city’s elected Ukrainian mayor, was detained last week by Russian-appointed authorities in the Kherson region hours before he announced plans for a referendum on joining Russia.

According to Bronk, “the concentration for the Russians is still very much on that little area (in the Donbas), while for the Ukrainians, it appears that they are moving forward and making a breakthrough in Kherson.” In doing so, “Russia would actually be in quite a significant dilemma.”

In the early stages of the invasion, Russia captured and took control of Kherson. It would cut off Russia’s land bridge to Crimea, impede Russian supply routes, and significantly improve morale if the Ukrainians were able to take it back.

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