Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 500, 20 April 2022

Ukraine: The battle for Donbas
Rishma Banerjee

In the news
On 18 April president Zelenskyy referred to the renewed efforts on Ukraine’s east, especially in Donbas, recognizing the "Battle of Donbas.” He reassured that even in the face of a severe attack, Ukraine will keep fighting and defending. He also spoke about the ground reality and said: "very large part of the entire Russian army is now focused on this offensive."

On 18 April, Ukraine's secretary of National Security, Oleksiy Danilov, said: "This morning, along almost the entire front line of the [eastern] Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv regions, the occupiers attempted to break through our defence.”

On 16 April Russian forces in Mariupol issued a surrender-or-die ultimatum to be adhered to by 17 April. This is because they have been closing in on Ukraine’s troops to establish control of the strategically important port city. The following day, Ukraine’s prime minister Denys Shmyhal said that troops in Mariupol were fighting despite the ultimatum.

On 25 March, the head of the Russian General Staff’s Main Operational Directorate, Sergei Rudskoi said that the main objectives of the first stage of their ‘operation’ have been accomplished. A  Reuters report, quoted him: “The combat potential of the Armed Forces of Ukraine has been considerably reduced, which…makes it possible to focus our core efforts on achieving the main goal, the liberation of Donbas.”

Issues at large
First, the significance of Donbas. The region is an industrial one in the eastern Ukraine including areas of Luhansk, Makiivka, Horlivka, Kramatorsk, Sloviansk, Alchevsk, Sievierodonetsk, and Lysychansk. It includes the Donetsk People's Republic and the Luhansk People's Republic, which are controlled by Russia-backed separatist groups. The area has the most-dense Russian-speaking population, and anti-Ukraine sentiments are observed to be the strongest. Before Russia’s invasion, two-thirds of the region was controlled by Ukraine, while the rest was Russian-held territory. The geographic and demographic link makes the region significant for Russia.

Second, situating Donbas in a historical context. Following the revolution in 2014, Russia took control of this region and annexed Crimea. The self-proclaimed republics conducted a referendum which Ukraine considered illegal. Thereafter, they signed the Minsk Agreement I and the Minsk Agreement II in quick succession to facilitate a ceasefire to prevent further escalation. Historically, the region was pro-Russia for a long time, and concentrating its offensive in this region might assist them, in uniting better forces.

Third, Russia’s interest in Donbas. The region is an old coal and steel-producing area. The ethnic makeup of the majority in this region also compliments Russia’s plans. There are also talks of connecting the Donbas region, with the already annexed Crimea with a land bridge, which will provide a better scope for trade and connectivity for Russia. The most positive outcome from the Russian point of view is possibly the annexation of this area with all its industrial potential, into the mainland of Russia.

Fourth, Ukraine’s strategy for Donbas. Kyiv has recently drafted up to 20,000 troops to the eastern part of the country, and President Zelensky continues to ask the West for supplies of air-defense systems, anti-tank missiles, and ammunition, to be able to survive a war of attrition. 

Fifth, Russia’s tactical shift. On 6 April, the Russian forces started to withdraw from Kyiv, the capital, after having failed to capture President Zelensky’s bastion in the North of the country. Almost simultaneously the Russian war effort saw a rise in intensity in the eastern part of the country, concentrating on the Donbas. But the sinking of Russia’s Moskva, has escalated violence. Additionally, Russian aggression has also been reported in Lviv, to the west of Ukraine. The intensity of the conflict, till now, seems to be centered in the east.

In perspective
First, the shift to Donbas. Russia’s approach in Ukraine can be viewed from two perspectives. Russia started the war on several fronts including the eastern region and around Kyiv. Their primary target could have been Kyiv. But when it started failing, their shift to the east could have been a tactic to divert their opponent’s resources and attention by escalating and consolidating the offensive on another front. In this case, Ukraine’s defense of Kyiv prompted the Russian forces to concentrate on the Donbas region. However, another angle to this can be if it was Putin’s strategy to control the east slowly. He may have ensured this by carrying on a battle at Kyiv, This engaged a significant portion of Ukraine’s defence systems. 

Finally, the tipping point. The battle of Donbas is significant; from a Russian perspective, establishing control in this region is imperative to ensure the public faith in the war. From a Ukrainian perspective, it is a war of attrition and has been successful. With the retreat of the troops from the north, they have been able to put down Russia’s spirit by posing a military challenge and making it expensive. The ‘Battle of Donbas’ will be a milestone regarding the future of the war.

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