As Russian forces move east, Ukraine digs in against losing Donbas
As the chances fade that Russia will decapitate Ukraine’s government and seize the capital, concerns are growing that Moscow could seek to force Kyiv to give up part of its territory to end the five-week war and eke out some form of victory.
Ukrainian leaders warned of such a possibility this week, saying they will not accept any peace deal that requires ceding land.
But if the Kremlin succeeds in encircling and defeating Ukrainian forces in the eastern Donbas region, the country’s industrial heartland, keeping that territory could become Moscow’s principal demand in negotiations.
“I see the Russian troops regrouping, reorganizing. I think that they will try to surround the Ukrainian forces quite soon — in the Donbas region in particular,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Thursday. “And then having captured one-third of the land in Ukraine, they will want to negotiate from this … very strong position.”
Moscow first announced last week it was shifting its forces to focus on the Donbas, declaring it had accomplished its goals in the first phase of its invasion and would now focus on the “complete liberation” of Donetsk and Luhansk, two provinces in the region.
Western officials, however, suspect the strategy switch-up was due to heavy losses for Moscow’s military, which had hoped to quickly topple Kyiv but did not foresee or plan for fierce Ukrainian fighting, which has been able to fend off a complete Russian takeover for more than a month.
NATO also estimated last week that between 7,000 to 15,000 Russian soldiers had been killed in the fighting so far — including six generals — with up to 40,000 dead, wounded, captured or missing.
Evidence of the new strategy was observed this week, with Ukrainian officials on Thursday reporting heavy shelling of cities in the Donbas and a partial withdrawal of Russians from Kyiv. Almost 700 units of equipment were seen leaving the capital area and headed towards the Belarusian border, according to the Ukraine Media Center.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday issued a stark warning to his citizens — the second such message in 24 hours — saying that in the coming days in Donbas, Mariupol and the direction of Kharkiv “Russian troops are accumulating the potential for strikes. Powerful blows. We will defend ourselves.”
“The situation in the southern direction and in the Donbas remains extremely difficult,” Zelensky said.
Western officials have assessed the moves to be a regrouping of Kremlin forces before their next acts.
President Biden on Thursday said there was evidence that Russian President Putin is “beefing up his troops down in the Donbas area.”
Those assertions were backed up by the Pentagon later in the day, when press secretary John Kirby said the U.S. government does not see any indication Russian troops will be sent back to their country.
“It’s clear the Russians want to reprioritize their operations in the Donbas area, that could be one destination,” Kirby said, noting that roughly 20 percent of the Russian troops arrayed around Kyiv were seen departing.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Russian units are not withdrawing but repositioning.
“Russia is trying to regroup, resupply and reinforce its offensive in the Donbas region,” Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels Thursday. “At the same time, Russia maintains pressure on Kyiv and other cities. We can expect additional offensive actions bringing even more suffering.”
Putin’s apparent plan is not without merit. Much of Ukraine’s military has already been fighting in its eastern region, battling with Russian-backed separatists since 2014.
Should Russian forces be able to effectively cut off those Ukrainian forces, Moscow could try to split the country in two and create “a line of separation between the occupied and unoccupied regions,” much like the division between North and South Korea, according to Ukrainian military intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov.
“[Putin] can’t swallow the entire country,” Budanov said in remarks released by Ukraine’s Defense Ministry on Sunday. He also noted that Russia might “try to pull the occupied territories into a single quasi-state structure and pit it against independent Ukraine.”
A senior U.S. Defense official earlier this week also assessed Russia’s focus on Donbas to be an attempt at boxing in Ukrainian forces to try to “gain negotiating leverage.”
“One of the things that we think they want to do is cut off the Donbas for the sake of cutting off the Ukrainian Armed Forces that are there, pinning them down so they can’t come to the defense of other places,” such as Kyiv and the port city of Mariupol, which continue to be heavily bombed, they told reporters Monday.
But Ukrainian officials have made clear they would not accept such a scenario.
Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S. Oksana Markarova on Sunday affirmed that Kyiv would not be recognizing the Donbas region as an independent state, saying it was not on the table for negotiations with Russia.
And Budanov predicted that should the Russians attempt to split off the Donbas, Ukrainian resistance will switch to “total” guerrilla warfare to stop the Kremlin’s attempt.
For now, the two countries continue with negotiations, the most recent taking place Friday, but there have been no breakthroughs in the talks.
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