Vladimir Putin is planning to double or even treble his military forces in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine for a renewed assault, Western officials believe.
But the “massive” losses suffered by Russian forces in their failed attempt to take capital Kyiv, and their apparent inability to tactically adapt to the stiff Ukrainian resistance mean it may be a month or more before Moscow can claim any sort of progress in the area , where pro-Russia separatists have been fighting since 2014.
Western officials said the Russian president wants to be able to declare a victory of some sort by the time of a 9 May parade in Red Square to mark the anniversary of Nazi surrender in the Second World War, but said there was considerable doubt that he would be able to do so.
Some 38 battalion tactical groups of the Russian army deployed to Ukraine – each made up of around 600-900 personnel – are now believed to be out of action after taking significant losses in men and materiel, up from 29 last week.
This leaves Putin with around 90 BTGs which could potentially be deployed in the Donbas, but many of these are currently being moved from positions in the north of the country and will require “quite some time” before they are able to take part in fighting, said one official.
Units transferred from the failed assault on Kyiv have shown themselves to be poorly-led and tactically ineffective, and their morale can be expected to be low if they are sent straight back into the fray.
The annual round of conscription has recently delivered an additional 130,000 young Russian men into the armed forces, but these will need considerable training before being deployed, and Putin has instead been turning to veterans and reservists to bolster his army’s depleted ranks.
One Western official said it was too early to say exactly how many troops Putin intends to throw into his expected attempt to seize the areas around the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, where he has accused Ukraine of unsubstantiated atrocities against the large Russian-speaking minority.
But they said: “I would imagine we are looking at a force which is probably the Russians looking to double or perhaps even treble the amount of force that they bring into that Donbas area.
“But it’s going to take some considerable time to bring themselves up to that sort of number. And even when they bring themselves to that number, there’s a question about how effectively they can bring those forces into the battle.”
It would be “simplistic” to assume that Putin could double or treble his strength in the region by increasing numbers of personnel by that proportion, said the official.
“Actually, it’s about how you can bring the force to bear at the point of decision, which is which is really important. And the Russians have shown themselves to be not very effective in this invasion as to being able to use their numerical advantage effectively, to actually bring about a decisive engagement.”
Western officials said that Putin’s decision to give up his attempt Kyiv and unseat Volodymyr Zelensky’s govenment, and to instead concentrate on more limited objectives in the south and east of Ukraine was indicative of the failure of his campaign so far.
The pullback from Kyiv was “symptomatic of a poorly-led, ill-disciplined and frustrated set of Russian forces who have sustained extremely high casualties and are becoming increasingly difficult to lead and ineffective,” said one. Russian troops also appeared to be becoming “desensitised” in the course of the conflict, and more willing to commit “revolting and barbaric” atrocities against civilians.
It was “absolutely critical” that the Ukrainian government receives economic and military assistance from the free world during the window of opportunity created as Putin reconfigures his forces.
Units pulled out of the Kyiv region will need to be re-equipped and some will have to be merged with other groups or take in fresh personnel to maintain fighting strength, something which will pose a “challenge” to Moscow.
Having gone into Ukraine with the expectation of swift and overwhelming victory, the Russian forces had shown themselves unable to adjust to the fierce resistance they encountered. And they are now committing the same tactical errors in eastern Ukraine as they did in their drive towards the capital, advancing in single-line formations which are vulnerable to attack and difficult to maneuver.
”Regardless of the reinforcing of their forces into the Donbas, it is still unclear how they’re going to overcome some of the morale issues that they will have with their troops,” said one Western official.
“We’ve seen numbers of troops being unwilling to fight and refusing to engage in operations. We know they’ve got problems with the command and control which they are trying to sort out by generating some unity of command.
“When they do start the scale of operations we anticipate in the Donbas they’ll also have large logistic lines open up which will be potentially vulnerable to attack by Ukrainian forces.”