Kyiv, Ukraine – When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, it did so with the aspiration of taking the country in a lightning offensive of just a few days or weeks. Many Western analysts also thought that it would.
However, the conflict turns three months old on Tuesday, and Moscow seemed mired in what is increasingly being seen as a war of attrition, with no end in sight and little success on the battlefield.
There was no quick victory for the powerful forces of Russian President Vladimir Putin, nor a rout of Ukrainian withdrawal that would allow the Kremlin to control most of the country and establish a puppet government.
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RUSSIA WAS NOT EXPECTED WITH STRONG UKRAINIAN RESISTANCE
Instead, Russian troops were stuck on the outskirts of Kyiv and other major cities in the face of a staunch Ukrainian defense.
Russian armored convoys were stalled on long stretches of highway and troops ran out of supplies and gasoline and became easy targets from the air and ground.
After little more than a month of invasion, Russia all but admitted the failure of its swift assault and withdrew troops from around Kyiv to declare the eastern industrial region of Donbas, where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces since 2014, a new priority.
Of course, Russia has seized considerable tracts of territory around the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow annexed eight years ago.
He has also succeeded in cutting off Ukraine’s access to the Sea of Azov and finally securing control of the key port of Mariupol after a siege that prevented some of his troops from fighting elsewhere as they battled persistent Ukrainian forces entrenched in a massive metals compound.
But the offensive in the east also appears to have run out of steam, as Western weapons pour into Ukraine to bolster an outgunned army.
Every day, Russian artillery and warplanes relentlessly pummel Ukrainian positions in Donbas in an attempt to break through the defenses put up during the separatist conflict.
They have made only small gains, clearly reflecting both Russia’s insufficient numbers and Ukrainian resistance.
In a recent incident, the Russians lost hundreds of troops and dozens of combat vehicles in the Luhansk region as they tried to cross a river to build a bridgehead.
“The Russians are still far behind where we think they wanted to be when they started this new effort in the eastern part of the country,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said on Friday, describing the fighting in Donbas as very dynamic. with small towns and villages that change hands every day.
Elsewhere in Ukraine, Russian forces have methodically targeted Western weapons shipments, ammunition, fuel depots, and critical infrastructure with cruise missiles and airstrikes, hoping to undermine Kyiv’s military capabilities and economic potential.
But in their efforts to gain ground, Russian forces have also relentlessly attacked cities and laid siege to some.
In a recent example of the cost of the war, 200 bodies were found in a collapsed building in Mariupol, Ukrainian authorities said Tuesday.
The Kremlin appears to harbor an even more ambitious goal of isolating Ukraine’s Black Sea coast from the Romanian border, something that would also allow Moscow to build a land connection with the breakaway region of Transnistria in Moldova, where Russian troops are stationed.
But Moscow seems to know that this goal is not attainable at the moment, with the limited forces at its disposal.
“I think they are realizing more and more that they can’t do it all, certainly not all at once,” said Justin Crump, a former British tank commander who runs Sibylline, a strategic advisory firm.
Moscow’s losses have forced it to rely increasingly on hastily reassembled units in the Donbas that could only make small gains.
Many in Ukraine and the West thought Putin would pour resources into Donbas to achieve a decisive victory by Victory Day on May 9, when Moscow celebrates defeating Nazi Germany in World War II.
Russia has falsely portrayed the war as a campaign to “de-Nazify” Ukraine, a country with a democratically elected Jewish president who wants closer ties with the West.
Instead of a massive campaign in the east, however, the Kremlin opted for a series of tactical mini-offensives in the region aimed at rapidly gaining ground in an attempt to encircle the Ukrainian forces.
“The Russian leadership urges the military commanders to show at least some progress, and can do nothing but keep sending troops to the slaughter,” said Mykola Sunhurovskyi, a military expert at the Kyiv-based think tank Razumkov Center.
Many in the West expected Putin to declare a broader mobilization to swell the Russian ranks.
But that did not happen, and Russia has continued to rely on limited forces, clearly insufficient against Ukrainian defenses.
A mass mobilization would likely spark widespread discontent in Russia, stoke anti-war sentiment, and carry huge political risks. Authorities have opted for more limited options, such as lifting the current 40-year limit for those who want to join the army.
The lack of resources was exposed last week with the sudden Russian withdrawal from areas around Kharkiv.
Ukraine’s second-largest city had been under attack since the beginning of the war. Some of those troops were redirected to the Donbas, but they were not enough to tip the scales on the battlefield.
“They had to spread out what troops they had around Kharkiv, simply because they’re trying to hold too big a line with too few troops,” said Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
Fighting in the Donbas has increasingly turned into artillery duels “and could go on for quite some time without much movement in the lines,” he said. Success, O’Brien noted, would be for those who “can withstand the barrage.”
Ukraine, for its part, continues to receive Western weapons, including US howitzers and drones, tanks from Poland, and other heavy equipment sent to the front line immediately.
“Ukraine’s plan is simple and obvious: wear down Russian forces as much as possible in the coming months, buy time to receive Western weapons and instruction on how to use them, and then launch a counteroffensive in the southeast,” said Sunhurovskyi, the military expert based in Kyiv.
The slow progress in eastern Ukraine has angered warmongers in Russia, who have warned that Moscow cannot win unless it mobilizes massively and concentrates all its resources on a decisive attack. The Ukrainian authorities, for their part, are gaining more and more confidence in the face of the slow progress of the Russian offensive and growing support from the West.
Although Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy reiterated last week that pushing the Russians back to their pre-invasion positions would be a victory, some of his advisers have voiced more ambitious goals, such as the possibility of retaking Crimea and Donbas.
Russia, for its part, appears to be trying to bleed Ukraine dry with systematic attacks on fuel supplies and infrastructure while fighting military gains in the east.
The Kremlin could also hope that the West will lose interest in the conflict in the face of economic problems and other challenges.
“Their last hope is that we lose all interest in the conflict in Ukraine by the summer,” Crump said. “They calculate that Western audiences will lose interest in the same way they did in Afghanistan last year. Russia believes that time is ticking in its favor.”