After a string of tactical defeats, the Russian army is making some headway in its campaign to capture the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, site of the war’s deadliest fighting. Its troops have taken nearly all of the region’s northern district, known as Luhansk, and all but surrounded the town of Severodonetsk. Meanwhile, Ukrainian troops are exhausted, with 100 to 200 dying daily. While this is true of Russian troops as well, the Ukrainians are running out of ammo.
This is happening now, nearly four months after the invasion began, because, for the first time, the Russians are fighting the sort of war for which they were trained—a brutal form of combat that emphasizes smashing the enemy with bombs, missiles, artillery, and other tools of heavy firepower. As Michael Kofman, director of Russia studies at CNA, a Virginia-based research group put it, wars of attrition have always been the Russian military’s specialty, and now that they’re fighting one, they have an advantage.
Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine started out a disaster in large part because the Russian army had never done anything like it—an ambitious offensive along three axes (from the north, east, and south), involving air, sea, and ground forces, with the goal of toppling Kyiv quickly and installing a new leader more pliant with Moscow’s policies.
It went wrong for three reasons. First, Ukrainians fought back more valiantly than anticipated. Second, they did so with much more Western assistance than anyone expected in terms of arms, intelligence, and political as well as economic support. Third, and most relevant in this context, the plan exposed and exacerbated the Russian military’s most chronic weaknesses.
Putin’s army had little experience executing simultaneous, executing simultaneous operations involving multiple branches of the armed forces, yet his campaign depended on coordinated thrusts. The military was always terrible at logistics, yet the invasion would require sustaining and defending very long supply lines. Its junior officers were also not taught how to take the initiative, so if things went wrong, they would not know how to adjust. (This is one reason 12 Russian generals have been killed in this war; they were rushed to the front to take command and, once there, became bright flashing targets.)
And so the offensive broke down. The Ukrainians ambushed Russia’s caravans of armored vehicles and cut off their supply lines, leaving Russian forces without food, fuel, ammunition, or effective leadership.
Could the Russians have changed tactics, and emphasized artillery fire, back when they were trying to grab Kyiv? No. First, most of the fighting was at close range; artillery could have killed as many Russians as Ukrainians—probably more, since the Russians tended to be out in the open. Second, artillery rockets have a range of dozens of miles, not hundreds or thousands; the Russians would have had to haul them into deep Ukraine—and they too would have been cut off or confiscated along with the food, fuel, and ammo. The Russian battle plan, early on, only accentuated their weak points and didn’t allow room for their strong points.
However, as the Russians retreated from the area around Kyiv (at least for now) and moved eastward, the dynamics shifted in their favor. A war over Donbas had been going on for eight years. Lines of demarcation had long been drawn between the western half of Donbas, dominated by the Ukrainian army, and the eastern half, dominated by Russian-backed separatist militias. In the past month or so, Russian troops—some redeployed from elsewhere in Ukraine, some called up from bases inside Russia—have reinforced the separatist positions. Because they were much closer to Russian territory, the supply lines were much shorter and thus less vulnerable to disruption. Finally, much of the terrain is flat, making it harder for Ukrainians to hide and engage in ambush tactics
Both sides’ troops have long been dug in to fortified positions. Maneuver tactics are hard because the spring rains have made the fields muddy. So, the dug-in troops are ripe targets for bombs, missiles, and artillery shells. The Russians have the advantage here, as they have more bombs and shells, and their artillery rockets have longer range; the rockets can be launched from positions too far away for Ukrainian rockets to hit back.
President Biden recently decided to send Ukraine longer-range rockets, to even the playing field. But it will take a while for the new weapons to arrive on the frontlines (Lviv, in western Ukraine, is about 800 miles from Donbas). Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is complaining that Biden is sending too few rockets too slowly, but they are arriving in greater number—and more quickly—than the Ukrainians are able to absorb them in their ranks and get trained in how to use them.
In this sort of trench warfare, the hope is to punch a hole in the enemy’s line, move into the vacuum, then encircle the defenders from all sides. This hasn’t yet quite happened. But the Russians, with their advantage, have pushed the Ukrainians back, thus moving the line steadily forward and capturing more Ukrainian territory.
This doesn’t mean that Putin is winning the war, any more than the earlier pummeling of Russian troops meant that Zelensky was winning (though some tried to argue that it did). As the longer-range Western weapons make their way to the front line, the Ukrainians could win back some of the land they’ve lost or forced the Russians to retreat elsewhere. In any case, neither side is making swift breakthroughs in this war; neither side has enough troops to do so.
But let’s say Russia keeps up its steady pace of gaining ground. Beyond strictly military considerations, what will it have won? Whole cities in Ukraine, especially in Donbas, once the country’s industrial center, are reduced to rubble. Zelensky recently pronounced Lysychansk, once a thriving town of 100,000 people, to be a “dead city.” Who will pay for the rebuilding, especially if the region, much less the whole of Ukraine, winds up under Moscow’s rule?
There is another factor. Back in late February, just after Putin invaded, many assumed that Kyiv would fall but that a new puppet regime would be unable to rule because Ukrainian soldiers and citizen resistance brigades would mount an insurgency—that, at best, Putin would be stuck in Ukraine fighting off rebels for years. Some predicted that, just as the Soviet Union fell in part because of its failure in Afghanistan, Putin’s Russia would fall because of its failure in Ukraine.
The surprise was that the Ukrainian army held off the Russian invaders. They may continue to do so, for some time. But even if the Russian army prevails on the battlefield, how will Moscow’s minions govern Ukraine? Except for Donbas and Crimea, Ukrainians have long been hostile to Russia’s rule—and after the incessant bombing and shelling, this hostility has intensified. Even in much of eastern Ukraine, the affection or tolerance of Moscow has greatly subsided.
Meanwhile, the war is likely to slog on for as long as the weapons keep coming. Far from modifying their rhetoric, to allow for negotiation, the two sides have intensified their harshness. Putin—who once said he invaded in order to halt the eastward expansion of NATO, or to stop Ukraine’s mythical “genocide” in Donbas, or to “de-Nazify” the government in Kyiv—now likens himself to Peter the Great on a holy mission to recapture lost territory of the Russian empire. Zelensky, who not long ago took a stab at compromise by saying he didn’t have to join NATO after all, now pledges not to surrender a kilometer of Ukrainian territory.
Both sides insist they must win. For the moment, they’re both losing.