On February 21, the 30-member Russian Security Council agreed, in response to calls from the leaders of the two “people’s republics” created by pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions of eastern Ukraine in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea by Russia, to recognize the independence and sovereignty of the two entities.
President Vladimir Putin signed decrees formally recognizing them as well as treaties of “friendship, cooperation and mutual assistance” with the two, and then ordered the deployment of additional troops to the pseudo-states to reinforce the forces there. Russian troops. Three days later, Putin announced a “special military operation” in eastern Ukraine to protect people who “have faced humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kyiv regime”.
The “Special Military Operation” was, in effect, a multi-pronged invasion of Ukraine from Belarus to the north, Crimea to the south and adjacent Russian territory to the east and northeast of Ukraine, accompanied by intensive artillery and missile attacks on many towns across the country. . The invasion initially focused not only on eastern Ukraine, but also on the Kyiv region, the territory between Kyiv and Kharkiv, and southern Ukraine adjacent to Crimea. But at the end of March, after the failure of the attack in the Kyiv region in the face of strong resistance, Russia moved the center of the “special military operation” to eastern Ukraine and proclaimed as its objective principal the “liberation” of the Donbass.
After the “special military operation” focused on the Donbass, one of the most important targets was the city of Severodonetsk, with a pre-war population of 100,000 in the Luhansk region. After a prolonged attack on this town, in late June the Ukrainian forces withdrew and the Russians turned their attention to Lysychansk, another town of about 100,000 just to the west. In early July, Ukrainian forces withdrew from this town. At this time, having taken almost all of the Luhansk region, Russia focused on the substantial part of the Donetsk region that was still held by Ukrainian forces. In particular, he focused on two cities – Kramatorsk, which had a population of about 160,000 before the war, and, 16 km to the north, Sloviansk, a city of about 110,000. However, more than two months later, these two cities as well as a significant part of the Donetsk region are still in the hands of Ukrainian forces, despite the announcement almost six months ago that the “special military operation” would now concentrate on the “liberation” of the Donbass.
Russia’s effort to “liberate” Donbass has stalled largely because a significant portion of its forces are engaged in fighting with Ukrainian forces elsewhere, notably in the Kharkiv region in the north- eastern Ukraine, just west of Donbass, and in the Kherson region of southern Ukraine near the Black Sea. After Russia failed to take Kyiv at the start of the war, its forces nevertheless took a substantial part of the territory in the Kharkiv region. Earlier this month, Ukraine launched an offensive to reclaim this region. Ukrainian forces quickly recaptured a significant portion of the territory, including the towns of Kupyansk and Izyum near the Donbass, which, although small in size, are important road and rail hubs. Ukrainian forces would retake the entire Kharkiv region except for a small slice of territory east of the Oskil River. The Russian Defense Ministry announced that its forces in the Kharkiv region were “regrouping” in the Donbass – a euphemism for a hasty retreat. Having taken Izyum, the Ukrainian forces are now heading towards Lyman and, having secured their control of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, may attempt to retake Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, which they lost in June and July.
While Russian forces that were, until recently, in the Kharkiv region are “regrouping” in Donbass, other Russian troops in eastern Ukraine have been transferred to southern Ukraine, where Ukraine launched an offensive to retake the Kherson region. This summer, Russia took control of the city of Kherson, which had a pre-war population of nearly 300,000, and a significant part of the Kherson region on the Black Sea in southern Ukraine and began pushing west towards Mykolaiv. Ukrainian forces thwarted Russian westward movement by destroying several bridges over the Dnipro River that Russian forces were using to supply troops west of the river. And when Russian forces installed portable pontoon bridges to replace damaged or destroyed bridges, Ukrainian forces also destroyed them. Ukrainian forces have also launched a major offensive aimed at recapturing the city and region of Kherson. This offensive continues and the Russians have been forced to bring in additional troops from eastern Ukraine, which of course reduces the resources they have to complete the so-called “liberation” of Donbass.
Over the past few weeks, Ukraine has taken over almost all of the Kharkiv region, halted Russia’s advance towards Mykolaiv and recaptured territory in the Kherson region, and halted any further advances in Donbass. But the war is not over. Indeed, there is still no end in sight; When asked recently at a press conference whether, in light of the Ukrainian offensive, it was necessary to adjust the plan for the “special military operation”, Putin replied: “No, the plan will not be adjusted. … The main goal is to liberate the entire territory of Donbass. This work continues despite attempts by the Ukrainian army to launch a counter-offensive. We are not stopping our offensive operations in the Donbass itself. They continue. They continue at a slow pace, but steadily and gradually the Russian army is taking more and more new territory. … The main task remains the same and it is running. And so the war continues.
David R. Cameron is a Yale Professor of Political Science and Director of the Yale Program in European Union Studies.