The Russia’s great battle for Donbas has started. After two months of war, Russia is launching a new offensive in Ukraine to seize the full control of pro-Russian Donetsk and Lugansk regions. A change of course after the withdrawal of troops from kyiv that, according to the experts consulted by DatosRTVE, shows the failure of Putin’s initial plan and marks a decisive point in the future of the war.
With Mariúpol devastated, Russia seems determined to forcibly end a conflict that has been open since 2014 through a region rich in coal mines and in which there is speculation with possible gas reserves. For this reason, beyond the “liberation” discourse that has been put forward by the Kremlin to justify the invasion, the experts consider that both the achievement of a land corridor with the annexed Crimea how the conversion of the Sea of Azov into an inland sea would satisfy Moscow’s interests at this stage of the conflict.
Ukraine resists, but Russia advances in Donbas
Intelligence agencies had been warning for weeks of a large movement of Russian troops from different parts of Ukraine to Donbasuntil kyiv and Moscow confirmed it earlier this week in a message broadcast to the Ukrainian people and an interview by the Russian Foreign Minister on the television network IndiaToday.
This is the next phase of a military campaign that began on February 24 with the Russian invasion of Ukrainian territory. After an escalation of tension in the days before the start of the war, the evolution of the conflict in Donbas has been characterized by a progressive reduction of clashes on the ground and a increased ranged attacksaccording to data collected by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED).
“It seems that [el ejército ruso] classical artillery preparation has begun” prior to the launch of ground unit operationsexplains in light of these data the retired military officer and co-director of the Institute for Studies on Conflicts and Humanitarian Action (IECAH), Jesús A. Núñez.
This strategy, which is corroborated by British intelligence and the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), is seen in the recent bombings of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, where London detects “high levels of air activity”. According to the ACLED registry, one in ten Russian attacks in the region has been done with unmanned drones.
In the last weeks, “Ukraine resists, but Russia advances“, summarizes Núñez. In addition to giving up attacking the Azovstal plant in Mariúpol, Russia has taken over some suburbs around Severodonetsk and has taken the cities of Rubizhane and Popasna. However, the fighting continuesand the Kremlin aspires to continue extending its control in the south, with the intention of improving its communication with the pro-Russian region of Transnistria.
Moscow exhibits its “success” in Mariupol
With the order not to storm the Azovstal steelworks, where some 2,000 Ukrainian defenders were entrenched, Putin gave Mariúpol for taken this Thursday. But, as the above maps show, the Russian advance in this locality has been slow. Over the last 60 days, Moscow forces have devastated the port town, perpetrated indiscriminate attacks on the civilian population and laid waste to its industrial muscle.
But “take the city” does not imply that they have eliminated any trace of resistance. “Behind the conventional combat comes the combat of insurgents or guerrillas, and that will continue to complicate life for the Russian troops in that city,” explains the co-director of the IECAH, Jesús A. Núñez.
For their part, both the UK Ministry of Defense and the ISW believe that Moscow has lowered its ambitions in Mariupol with the intention of exhibiting “significant successes” ahead of the celebration of Victory Day, on May 9. This, they add, may condition the “speed and strength” of the operations in the coming days.
The announcement of the capture of Mariúpol comes after the Failed hit-and-run operation to bring down the kyiv government. A turn that, for Núñez, reveals the “failure of Vladimir Putin’s initial plan.” But, at the same time, it keeps the government of Volodímir Zelenski on the ropes with the accumulation of troops on the eastern border of Ukraine.
Russia is now focused on a “minimum objective”, which does seem capable of achieving and in which it deposits economic and cultural interests, explains the IECAH military expert.
The importance of Donbas: mining basin and industrial heart
Crossed from north to south by the Donets River, the main tributary of the Don Basin, Donbas is a region rich in natural resources, mainly coal. According to 2013 data, of the 83 million tons of coal extracted in Ukraine that year, 45% corresponded to the Donbas region. In addition to heating the inhabitants of the area for decades, this mineral served to promote the industrialization of its cities since the beginning of the 18th century.
Both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union (USSR) considered it one of its most important industrial regions. After a brief period of independence without international recognition, the Donetsk-Krivoy Rog Soviet Socialist Republic – whose capital was briefly located in Kharkiv – was integrated into the Ukrainian Soviet Republic in 1919 and, later, into the USSR.
Already in the 1920s, Soviet propaganda considered Donbas “the heart of Russia”, which feeds the industry of much of the country. Nevertheless, this region also succumbed to the Holodomor famine after the imposition of collectivization of the land by the Stalin government in the early 1930s. A disaster that caused a sharp decline in the population in the region, which the USSR repopulated with people transferred from other parts of Russia.
This was also repeated after the Second World War and laid the foundations for what experts define as the “Russification” of Donbas. According to the latest available census, 39% of the population of Lugansk and 38% of the inhabitants of Donetsk are of Russian origincompared to 6% in the kyiv region.
This geographical difference between the east and the west is accentuated even more if the linguistic composition of the country is observed. While three out of ten Ukrainians say that Russian is their mother tongue, more than 70% of Luhansk residents and three-quarters of Donetsk residents are Russian-speakersaccording to data collected by the State Statistics Committee of Ukraine in 2001.
Russian influence in the region reaches into 21st century politics. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Donbas suffered a serious economic crisis. Many companies that managed to overcome it lost much of their income and operated thanks to state aid.
This breeding ground allowed the so-called “Donbas clan” to be forged. In the early 2000s, a group of oligarchs took control of the economic and political activity of the region. The most prominent member of it was Viktor Yanukovych, who ruled Donetsk between 1997 and 2004 and presided over all of Ukraine from 2010 to 2014, when the Euromaidan riots that started the conflict in the area forced his dismissal.
“Maintain your power status [en el tablero mundial] it is an existential question for the government of Russia,” explains Ruth Deyermond, Senior Lecturer in Post-Soviet Security at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.
In this ambition, his “ability to dominate the post-Soviet scenario is fundamental”, commented the expert at a seminar on the causes and consequences of the war in Ukraine organized by The Democracy Forum. Nevertheless, Putin seems to have failed in his attempt to redraw the strategic map of Europe.
Moscow is now focusing its speech on “destroy ukrainian identity and the threat posed by its approach to the West,” adds Deyermond. A strategy that, for the ex-military officer and conflict expert Jesús A. Núñez, is also failing.
That is why, Nuñez sentences, the one in Donbas is “a decisive battle” for the future of the war in Ukraineto the extent that, “depending on what happens in the next few days, may the war be shortened or lengthened“If Russia achieves its objectives, it could be forced to some kind of cessation of hostilities to present something similar to a victory, but if that does not happen, Moscow has even more tricks that can lead to even more tragic situations,” he warns.