Are Russia's gains in eastern Ukraine turning the tide of its war?

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Vladimir Putin.
Vladimir Putin. Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock

Russia appears to have significantly scaled back its immediate ambitions in Ukraine, throwing the bulk of its remaining military might at a handful of cities in the eastern Donbas region. And the Russians are making inroads.

Russia's forces are on the outskirts of Lyman, "conducting an intense offensive" to take control of the important rail hub in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine's Defense Ministry said. If they take Lyman, nearby Sloviansk is within shelling range, and the last Ukrainian strongholds in Luhansk Oblast — Lysychansk and Severodonetsk — are a big step closer to being encircled. The situation in Severodonetsk "is serious," Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Haidai said Wednesday. "Our guys are holding on," but "the city is constantly being shelled with every possible weapon in the enemy's possession."

Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, "on almost every front, Russia has underachieved, while Ukraine has overachieved," NPR reports. But are Russia's scorched-earth advances in the Donbas a sign that the tide of war has shifted in its favor?

Ukraine may be in trouble

Russia's recent gains in the Donbas "offer a sobering check on expectations for the near term," writes Michael Kofman, a Russia expert at the Center for a New American Security. The breakthrough at Popsana and nascent encirclement of Lyman threat to cut off Sevorodonetsk and Lysychansk from reinforcements and supply lines, and the fact that Russia is making these advances, "despite a relatively weak military advantage, suggest that Ukrainian forces have suffered significant attrition."

"Russian forces may not be prosecuting offensives with much enthusiasm, but it is equally difficult to expect them to rout or melt away," Kofman adds. "Similarly, the situation within Ukraine's army remains a major unknown, but it is clear the war is taking its toll."

Russia can't keep up this pace

Russia is making progress in Donbas, but it's "paying a steep price for the gains it has made," The Wall Street Journal reports. "The Kremlin is sending units from southern Ukraine to fight in Donbas, according to Ukrainian officials, and losing so many men that continued Ukrainian resistance could eventually force it to shift strategies again," even with its already "scaled back" ambitions. "Three months ago, Russia was widely assumed to have the resources to grind down Ukraine in an extended war," NPR adds. "Now some think the opposite is true."

The Russians "are no more bulletproof than anyone else," said Haidai, the Luhansk governor. "If they do not succeed during this week — by Saturday, Sunday — they will get tired, and the situation will at least stabilize for us."

"War is a test of will and it's a test of logistics," retired U.S. Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the former U.S. Army commander in Europe, tells NPR. "Clearly, the Ukrainians have the stronger will. And my assessment is that the logistical situation for them gets a little bit better every day, while for the Russians, it gets a little bit worse every day."

All of Ukraine is up for grabs

"Russia has not yet solidified its control" over the parts of Ukraine it has captured, but "control over Ukraine remains Russian President Vladimir Putin's goal, and that goal is not going to change," Nataliya Bugayova, a Russia researcher at the Institute for the Study of War, writes in Foreign Policy. "The time is now for Ukraine to expand its counteroffensive," because "a Russian military foothold in the southeast would make any scenario to end this war costlier in lives and resources" and endanger "Ukraine's long-term economic viability."

"What the Russians want" is to "strangle" Odesa and the remainder of Ukraine's Black Sea coastline in a "death by 1,000 cuts scenario," retired Col. Cedric Leighton told CNN. They want to seize the east and south of Ukraine and then "gradually move westward" until "eventually they could potentially control the rest of the country. The goal is still to topple the Ukrainian government, to eliminate the Ukrainian culture," and ultimately "eliminate Ukraine from the map."

"Russia is approaching the limits of the combat-capable manpower it can make available for the war in the short term," having suffered heavy losses and pulled troops "from every possible direction," Bugayova writes. "Once rejuvenated, however, Russian military progress in Ukraine could look very different."

Wars are unpredictable, but it's still better to be Ukraine

Russia is "nibbling one little bit at a time into Ukrainian territory," but "there are lots of Ukrainian forces well dug-in and very battle hardened. These are some of the best troops Ukraine has got," Joe Inwood notes at BBC News. Still, even if "the Russians take this whole oblast" and thus "cut off a large number of Ukrainian forces," he adds, "it won't change the overall dynamic of the war. It would just be another stage in the Russian advance."

"The overall military balance in this war still trends in Ukraine's favor, given manpower availability and access to extensive Western military support," Kofman agrees. "There are rumors that Ukraine is bringing in reinforcements to prevent a larger Russian breakout. Either way, the fight in the Donbas is much less significant for Ukraine than it is for Russia. If it must, Ukraine can trade territory for attrition, then hope to retake it later."

But "it is too early to make predictions on how the battle for the Donbas will go," and more generally "it is difficult to tell where you are in a war," Kofman writes. "Big turning points are easiest to discern in hindsight."

"War is uncertain and you cannot predict the outcome," Australian retired general and military analyst Mick Ryan tells NPR. "I can only go on past performance of the Ukrainians, and their past performance at the political and the military strategic level has been excellent."

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