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Russia is making incremental gains in east Ukraine, and could potentially conquer the region in the near future.
Ukraine is outgunned in the east, and imploring the West for more weapons.
But experts say Putin is still unlikely to achieve his goal of conquering all of Ukraine, even if he hasn't given up on it.
After a series of major setbacks in the early days of the Ukraine war, Russian forces are slowly but surely making progress in the eastern Donbas region and there are growing concerns in the West that Russia could soon seize it.
Though the Russian military has overwhelmingly shifted its attention to the Donbas since failing to take Kyiv, the Pentagon, Ukrainian government, and top experts are in agreement that Russian President Vladimir Putin has not given up on his bigger goal of conquering Ukraine as a whole.
"Of course they have the idea of occupying the whole country. They demonstrated this in the first weeks of the war. This is their objective," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Tuesday, per CNN.
Still, experts told Insider that they're skeptical Russian forces have the troops and weaponry after suffering heavy losses to mount an effective assault on the Ukrainian capital or country's center — even if the Donbas falls and provides Russia with a potential platform to push westward.
Steven Pifer, the former US ambassador to Ukraine, told Insider that Putin "sees his mission as the recovery of Russian lands" and this suggests that if Russia takes the Donbas then "he might return to that objective — now let's try to go for Kyiv and such." Putin recently compared himself to Peter the Great, suggesting that the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine that he ordered was simply a case of Russia moving to retake lands that have historic ties to Moscow.
"Whether everybody in Moscow shares that ambition is a very different question. But then you also have to ask — does the Russian military have the wherewithal to make that kind of offensive operation? There are a lot of Russian soldiers who are not particularly thrilled that they're fighting in Ukraine," Pifer said, adding, "The Ukrainians are getting battered and may have some morale issues, but I think most Ukrainians still think that this is an existential fight and that if they lose their democracy is gone and their vision of what Ukraine would be as an independent state."
The Pentagon has offered a similar assessment. US Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl on Tuesday said Putin likely still has "designs on a significant portion of Ukraine, if not the whole country," but added, "I do not think the Russians have the capacity to achieve those grandiose objectives."
By the account of one Ukrainian official, 200 to 500 troops have been dying every day for the last week — a loss rate all but unsustainable for a military estimated to have had 250,000 troops prior to the war's outbreak.
Rita Konaev, deputy director of analysis at Georgetown University's Center for Security and Emerging Technology and an expert on the Russian military, told Insider that if Russia seizes the Donbas she does not "foresee a campaign to retake Kyiv again" or "some sort of a resurgence of a total war in the way that we've seen in February."
But she added that "this is contingent that the Russians learn some sort of lessons" out of their past failures in the war so far.
"In the best case scenario for Russia — that they retake the Donbas — I think the conflict freezes along the previous lines. But of course that will also depend on what Ukraine is willing to accept. And right now, despite the increasing urgency and despair that is coming from the frontlines in the Donbas, I'm not completely certain that the political tide has turned against the broader aim of expelling Russian troops from Ukraine altogether," Konaev said.
'The numbers clearly favor the Russians'
The Donbas comprises the provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk. Fighting between Kremlin-backed rebels and Ukrainian forces has been ongoing in the Donbas since 2014, the same year that Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea. When Russia launched a broader, full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February, the pro-Russian separatists already controlled roughly one-third of the Donbas.
Russian forces appear to be on the brink of taking Severodonetsk, an industrial city in the Luhansk region considered crucial to Russia's goal of conquering the Donbas. Zelenskyy has warned that the battle for Severodonetsk, which is now largely controlled by Russian forces, could decide the fate of east Ukraine.
The fighting in east Ukraine is fierce, and Ukrainian forces are estimated to be suffering up to 1,000 casualties per day. Ukraine is imploring the West to send more weapons as the Russian onslaught rages on, underscoring that it's outgunned.
In comments on the fighting in the Donbas, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley on Wednesday said,"I would say the numbers clearly favor the Russians, in terms of artillery."
Milley said Russia's forces outgun and outrange Ukraine's troops, but also emphasized that a Ukrainian defeat in the region wasn't an "inevitability." With Ukrainian forces in a dire position, President Joe Biden announced another $1 billion in military aid to Ukraine on Wednesday, including "additional artillery and coastal defense weapons, as well as ammunition for the artillery and advanced rocket systems that the Ukrainians need to support their defensive operations in the Donbas."
Despite the tough circumstances Ukraine now faces, Pifer cautioned against fatalistic conclusions.
"Where people were swinging too far into 'Ukraine can win' in the first month and a half, maybe people may be swinging a little bit too far into 'Russia is now going to win,'" Pifer said, adding that Russian forces still have to seize "a lot of ground to occupy all of Donbas."
"It's too soon to tell" what will happen, Pifer said, adding that the conflict is "likely to turn into a war of attrition" that some assess could "stretch out into 2023 or 2024."
Read the original article on Business Insider