Russia shifts Ukraine war focus east as Putin searches for victory

KHARKIV, Ukraine — Soldiers waved away traffic, emerging from trenches dug in the side of a multi-story apartment building, and telling motorists to turn back. Firefighters arrived shortly after and rolled out hoses to tackle a growing blaze that was started by an artillery shell that hit a nearby apartment complex.

More than 30 days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there’s little chance that Russian troops will soon be able to capture Kharkiv, a city of 1.4 million people about 30 miles from the Russian border. But every day, howitzer shells, rockets and guided missiles fall in his neighborhood. Parts of the city are now unrecognizable. Many people have fled or are living underground.

This systematic destruction brings little military gain but is part of a broader strategy to seize the east of the country, analysts and US military officials say.

The devastation of Kharkiv is a prime example of Russia’s shift in strategy as it turns its attention to Ukraine’s Donbass region, a stretch of land to the east about the size of New Hampshire. It encompasses two breakaway enclaves southeast of Kharkiv, where Russian-backed separatists have been battling Ukrainian government forces for eight years. A significant number of Ukrainian forces are still entrenched there.

After Russia failed to secure a quick victory or capture Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, Russia has resorted to large population centers such as Kharkiv to the north and Mariupol to the south to ensure Ukrainian resources, manpower and public services are kept aside of the front lines where the Russians want to conquer territory.

“They’re trying to tie down Ukrainian forces so they can focus on the northern and southern parts of the east of the country,” said Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at CNA, a research institute in Arlington, Virginia.

It is a crucial goal for Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. Control of the Donbass would effectively sever a piece of eastern Ukraine, and the Russian leader could sell it to his country as a victory — perhaps by May 9, Russia’s Victory Day, when the country honors its triumph over Germany in World War II.

At the same time, Mr Putin has also involved aides in peace talks, which could serve as a sort of backup option should Russia miss a decisive battlefield victory. A peace deal that includes significant Ukrainian concessions could give Mr Putin an opportunity to declare that Russia’s mission has been accomplished even if its forces failed to overthrow the government of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine.

Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city and once home to a lively social scene, is practically a ghost town. At 8 p.m., the blinds are lowered and a citywide blackout continues until sunrise. Stars are easy to see in the night sky.

Some neighborhoods are untouched by shelling, while others are completely decimated. Apartments in the hardest-hit areas have been burned out, cars overturned, wires cut and splinters fouling seemingly every square foot of some thoroughfares, easily popping car tires.

The fire diverts resources that could otherwise be used in combat. Soldiers must dig trenches around the city and wait for a ground attack that will probably never come. The police are rushing through the city, attracting people and arresting those suspected of being Russian saboteurs. The city’s fire department sees an average of 10 to 20 calls a day, often just for damage from the shelling, and is often forced to use their own water tankers due to the extensive damage to hydrants.

Russia’s initial attempts to fully seize Ukraine failed almost as soon as they began, a result that surprised many analysts. The conventional thinking was that Ukraine would be outmatched with the much smaller and less equipped military and that the Russians would end up fighting an insurgency rather than a standing military.

The opposite turned out to be true. While Russian forces have retreated around Kyiv, Ukrainian forces have been gaining ground in the north-east and south of the country. The southern city of Mariupol is encircled and besieged by Russian troops for weeks, but not taken. Another southern coastal town, Mykolaiv, is also not a target of Russian attacks. Dueling artillery battles have become the norm as infantry troops dig in on either side.

But for the most part, though Russia was plagued by low morale, logistical problems, and casualties, its units did not surrender en masse or flee.

Russia’s failure boiled down to one thing, analysts said: doing too much at once.

“Eventually it became clear that their initial campaign was a totally impractical military strategy,” Mr. Kofman said. “They competed along the axes of progress, essentially moving in opposite directions. There was no way they would succeed.”

In a way, Russia’s repositioning created a pause in the war. With the first phase over and the second phase just beginning, both sides try to prepare for the other’s next step.

“To attempt an attack in Donbass, the Russians need access to all the forces they have pinned down around Kyiv,” Mr Kofman said, a conclusion shared by military officials in Washington.

By shifting forces east, Moscow has limited pressure on its forces; The occupied separatist regions and the heavily mined front lines there provide a natural foothold for future Russian advances. Separatist forces there have also provided willing replacement troops, which helped Russia make headway earlier in the war.

But even with modest Russian gains around the Donbass and the redeployment of forces from Kyiv, it remains unclear whether Russia has enough forces to complete its strategy of encircling Ukrainian forces entrenched in the Donbass, conquering the region and completing a occupied land bridge Crimea, which was seized in 2014.

The number of Russian casualties in the war remains unknown, although Western intelligence services put the number at around 10,000 dead and 30,000 wounded. The losses of armored vehicles – vital pieces of equipment necessary for any type of offensive in this type of war – number in the hundreds, according to military research groups.

What remains even more murky is the current state of Ukraine’s armed forces.

The Ukrainian government has severely restricted information on its casualty count, and most news organizations have virtually no access to its front-line forces. But what is clear is that Ukrainian units are engaged in a protracted battle, and on the other hand they will receive advanced weapons, air support, heavy artillery and a determined enemy. The question remains: how long do they last?

Near Izium, a town of about 45,000 about 75 miles southeast of Kharkiv, Russian forces suffered fewer casualties than Ukrainian fighters, according to a US military official, allowing Russian troops to consolidate their front lines. Despite the city’s strategic importance, Ukrainian forces were unable to withstand the attack.

“The Ukrainian military has lost a significant amount of equipment and will require a significant amount of ammunition for its artillery units,” Mr. Kofman said. “The Ukrainian government has also mobilized a significant part of its reserves; They just don’t have enough gear for them.”

Although western-supplied weapons such as the Javelin anti-tank missile have received much attention, the war in Ukraine has also been heavily focused on indirect fire: mortars, howitzers and rockets. So far, the Russian strategy has been to help with heavy shelling to take territory, then build fortifications and defend it until their victims are no longer to be held.

This strategy also worked for the Ukrainians. This was evident in Trostianets, a city in north-eastern Ukraine that was retaken from the Russians a few days ago. The tide of the battle turned, local residents said, when Ukrainian forces successfully shelled and destroyed the Russian artillery emplacement in one of the city’s squares.

Analysts say this momentum will continue in Donbass, a less populated area compared to western Ukraine with small towns, miles of road networks and mostly flat fields.

“Ukrainian forces have had a lot of success where Russian forces were really degraded and had to retreat because of their losses,” Mr. Kofman said. “But there are still great battles ahead.”

Natalia Yermak contributed reports from Kharkiv, Ukraine, and Anton Troianovski from Istanbul.

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