War Stories

Why the Battle for Donbas Could Be Another Debacle for Russia

Tired troops. Muddy terrain. Well-armed Ukrainians. The war’s new stage may be a challenge for Putin’s forces.

A woman and her dog walk past a destroyed Russian tank
Outside the central train station in Trostyanets, Ukraine, that was used as a Russian base on March 30. Chris McGrath/Getty Images

After suffering a string of setbacks in its invasion of Ukraine, beating a retreat from its attempt to capture Kyiv, and losing as many as 20,000 soldiers in the process, the Russian military is now shifting gears to a less ambitious goal of grabbing and occupying Ukraine’s eastern region of Donbas.

The key questions are whether, eight weeks into this war, the Russians have learned any lessons from their disastrous first phase and whether the terrain of the new campaign—open fields just across their own border—will give them an advantage in the fight.

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Either way, this next stage of the conflict is likely to be even bloodier than the first—a long war of attrition, including tank-on-tank battles, the likes of which haven’t been fought in Europe since World War II. This week, both sides were still preparing for the onslaughts, firing artillery shells at each other’s positions, hoping to wear down their stamina and morale before the grueling part of the fighting begins.

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For weeks now, Russian tank battalions have been lining up all across the 300-mile border with Ukraine, with the goal—once the fighting begins in full force—of breaking through the defenses, then enveloping the Ukrainian soldiers from all sides.

This tactic works both ways: The Ukrainians will try to punch a hole in the offensive line, then envelop the Russian soldiers—and, at the same time, cut off Russian supply lines. (Helpfully, Russia’s supply lines in the East are dependent on rail tracks, which Ukrainians have been adept at blowing up.)

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The stakes are larger than Donbas, a region rich in coal and industry, with about 6 percent of Ukraine’s population. The Russians are continuing to step up the pressure all over Ukraine, bombing and shelling civilian and military targets in Kyiv, Lviv, and other cities to the west, as well as blockading Mariupol in the southeast. If Putin wins in Donbas, he might revive his scuttled ambitions to take over the rest of the country or at least to topple President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv.

If Putin finds himself on the verge of losing in Donbas, however, he might set off chemical or tactical nuclear weapons in a brash stab at shocking Zelensky and the Western allies into stopping the war before all hell breaks loose. (Russian military doctrine refers to this ploy as “escalate to de-escalate.”) This is the main reason President Joe Biden and some of the European leaders refrain from pushing Putin still harder or intervening in the war directly.

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So it is a vital question to ask, even now, which side enters the war’s new phase with the better chance of winning. Sheer geography favors the Russians in some respects. The open terrain will allow Ukrainian soldiers fewer hiding places from which to ambush Russian tank columns, as they did outside of Kyiv.

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The region’s proximity to Russia will also mean shorter supply lines—which Ukrainians easily disrupted during those earlier battles, leaving Russian soldiers short of food, fuel, and ammunition. Russia enjoys the advantage of an invader’s initiative, as well. Russian soldiers who fought in the earlier battles are being redeployed to Donbas, thus firming up the numerical edge that Russia already held in troops and firepower.

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However, these advantages may not prove decisive.

Biden and some European leaders are rushing not only more anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles but also “heavy weapons”—tanks, armored fighting vehicles, artillery, helicopters, many of which will arrive within days—to Ukrainian units. During the war’s first phase, these leaders had stopped short of sending these deadlier, more mobile, and longer-range weapons, concerned that Russian President Vladimir Putin would view them as provocative escalations of NATO’s involvement in the war and therefore might respond by firing chemical or nuclear weapons.

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But, worried by Russia’s military reinforcements and its continued bombing of Ukrainian civilians, Biden and the others have relaxed their standards of acceptable risk and are doing more to improve the Ukrainian army’s ability not only to mount guerrilla-type attacks on Russian forces but also to wage conventional warfare.

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There is one other factor that should make Russian commanders pessimistic: Their troops are exhausted. This is why the offensive in Donbas is not yet fully underway. Many of the Russian battalions—some redeployed from their failed campaigns in northern and western Ukraine, some newly mobilized from distant bases inside Russia—lost too many troops, tanks, and other weapons to fight as coherent combat units, and it will take a few weeks, if not much longer, to fill in the gaps.

Michael Kofman, a military expert at CNA, whose analyses of the war have proved more prescient than most, tweeted on Wednesday, “Overall I think the Russian military has dramatically reduced combat effectiveness given [the] high level of losses. … They’ve scraped together what was left … to get some reinforcements. It can’t make up for losses.”

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One of Russia’s seemingly clear advantages, the open terrain, may prove a bit of a drawback as well. The ground is muddy, which might force the Russian tanks to move in columns on the roads, where they would be vulnerable to anti-tank missiles and drones, or to stay in the fields but get bogged down.

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A retired U.S. Army four-star general, who asked that he not be identified, told me in an email that these facts, along with the Russians’ wide-ranging ineptitude so far, “should give us pause as to whether they achieve substantial breakthroughs” against Ukraine’s defenses. At the same time, he continued, “the Ukrainians need to stop the Russians repeatedly.” Even if the Russians don’t manage to break through and envelop Ukraine’s defenses, they might still “push forward across the front lines.”

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If this forecast is accurate, the war may settle into a long, bloody slugfest, to be decided not by which side achieves some grand strategic victory but rather by which side simply stays standing a little bit longer.

The possibility of a sustained stalemate has one positive side: It could compel both sides to come to the negotiating table.

Some Russian officials have rationalized their military’s retreat from Kyiv by saying Putin’s real goal all along was to take the Donbas region. Donbas is where the war began—and where Russia and Ukraine have been fighting since 2014 in a conflict that has killed more than 14,000 people, including 500 Russians.

Until this past February, the war pitted separatist militias, aided by Russian arms and special forces, against Ukrainian troops, who at the time were supported but only meagerly supplied by the West. Just before the invasion, Putin formally recognized the two districts of Donbas—Donetsk and Luhansk—as independent “people’s republics.” He publicly justified the invasion as a necessary step to protect Russian speakers in those republics from Ukrainian “genocide.” He and his aides barely mentioned the invasion in other parts of Ukraine, until the heavy Russian casualties—numbering up to 20,000 by some estimates—could no longer be hidden even by the censored state-run media.

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Not long after this earlier war got underway, the troops on both sides formed a line of demarcation, with pro-Russia separatists controlling the eastern half of the region and Ukrainian troops controlling the western half. (This roughly corresponded to the areas populated by ethnic Russians and by Ukrainians, respectively.) These lines have barely budged in the eight years since. In 2015, both sides signed the Minsk agreements, which called for a cease-fire and a vaguely worded formula for settling the fate of Donbas, but the accords were never implemented. Still, in the weeks leading up to Putin’s February invasion, U.S. and Russian officials mentioned reviving the Minsk agreements as a possible way out.

If this war ever does end, the peace accord will have to deal with Donbas in some way.  The outcome of the battle for Donbas, if there ever is a clear outcome, may pave the way to an accord or make it still harder to achieve.

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