Officials said Russian airstrikes against Ukrainian cities aimed to cut supplies reaching the eastern frontline, as fighting in the Donbas region intensified
Russia may have learned its lessons from the military defeats it suffered in the initial stages of its war in Ukraine, experts say, but pressure to make a hasty victory in the Donbas could scupper its renewed offensive to capture the region.
Peter Caddick-Adams, a military historian and director of the Defense and Global Security Institute think tank, told i that after almost two months of war both sides now understand the way the other operates in combat.
“The Russians are not stupid, they know the way the Ukrainians fight, they know what to look for,” he said.
Russian and Ukrainian officials announced the second phase of the war began on Tuesday, when Moscow’s forces launched artillery and air bombardments along the frontline stretching from the Izyum in the east to Mykolaiv in the south.
The UK Ministry of Defense (MoD) said on Wednesday that Russian forces continued to build up troops along Ukraine’s eastern border as fighting in the Donbas – which include the Luhansk and Donetsk regions – intensified.
The MoD added that Russian air activity in the north of the country remained low but that there is still a risk of precision strikes against “priority targets” across Ukraine.
Attacks against cities show Russia is attempting to disrupt the movement of Ukrainian troops and weaponry to the eastern frontline, the MoD suggested.
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said in its latest assessment of the conflict that there were “relatively few” ground offensives and that Russia has not had enough time to withdraw ready forces from near Kyiv for a new assault in the east.
The general staff of the armed forces of Ukraine said on Wednesday morning that one of the attacks in the Donbas resulted in 130 wounded Russian soldiers ending up in hospital.
Russian forces appear to be encircling Ukrainian troops at the top of the eastern frontline that holds as much as 40 per cent of Kyiv’s fighters in the region, according to Bloomberg.
The ISW said: “Even if the Russians did complete such an encirclement and trapped a large concentration of Ukrainian forces inside one or more pockets, the Ukrainian defenders would likely be able to hold out for a considerable period and might well be able to break out .”
The ISW added: “The tempo of Russian operations continues to suggest that (Russian) President Vladimir Putin is demanding a hasty offensive to achieve his stated objectives, possibly by “Victory Day” on 9 May.
“The haste and partial preparation of the Russian attack will likely undermine its effectiveness and may compromise its success.”
Dr Caddick-Adams said Victory Day is an important event in Russia that sees big military parades descending the streets of Moscow.
He said Mr Putin needed to show his people that it was all worthwhile, adding that there will be “huge pressure on the generals to throw everything in” over the next few weeks to deliver that, suggesting such a move “might work against them ”.
While Russian forces suffered humiliating defeats in the initial stages of the invasion, the new phase could see improved conditions that would work to their advantage.
Dr Caddick-Adams pointed to the open, flat terrain in the Donbas region where Ukrainians fighters will have little cover to hide and ambush advancing Russian forces.
Improved weather could also spell trouble for Ukrainian drones which have been vital for spotting Russian artillery and to launch weapons from.
“Once the weather starts to get better and the skies are clearer, there are fewer places for drones to hide,” Dr Caddick-Adams said.
“The terrain is more open, there are less of those single roads surrounded by tress that we saw north of Ukraine.”
The Donbas is a largely Russian-speaking industrial heartland in the country’s east, where Moscow-backed separatist hold swathes of the region and have been fighting Ukrainian forces since 2014.
While Russian sentiment is stronger in the east than elsewhere in the country, Dr Caddick-Adams said it varies from one village to the next.
“When push comes to shove a lot of people in the Donbas are not pro-Russian, especially now when the issue is being forced on them,” he said.
But he added that Russia has been pouring military resources and money into the region which has been ravaged by eight years of warfare, and that “there a people who would look to Moscow rather than Kyiv”.