Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces have launched the second phase of military operations in Ukraine with the focus now on Donbas region that adjoins Russia.
Foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said on Tuesday that the goal now is “the full liberation of the Donetsk and Luhansk republics”, which are two breakaway republics in Eastern Ukraine taken over by separatist forces in 2014. The separatists are backed by Moscow, but the formal recognition by Russia was withheld till just before the Ukraine invasion.
Whether Moscow’s motive in starting the war was to secure the Donbas region for Russian security consideration or to bring about a regime change by replacing President Volodymyr Zelenskyy with a pro-Russian candidate is not clear. But the Ukrainian military was able to halt the Russians in the outskirts of the capital Kyiv. Is it because of the stiff resistance by the Ukrainian army that President Putin had to change track and shift focus to the Donbas region is again speculation? But by all accounts, the Ukrainian military has been unexpectedly resilient and it fought back with determination.
Since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the US and NATO had been gradually building up the Ukrainian military for war against Russia. Arms had flown in quietly and there had been training of forces on the ground. British and American defence advisers left Ukraine just ahead of the invasion when it was clear that Russia was planning a military operation. Today Ukraine is awash with sophisticated military hardware provided by the US and European nations.
President Zelenskyy has said that the battle for Donbas has begun. Russia’s Lavrov on Tuesday spoke specially about full liberation of Donetsk and Luhansk. The idea is to concentrate on the easier task of taking over the two republics that already have substantial numbers of Russian speakers loyal to Moscow. The next stage of the operations could be taking the entire Donbas region from Ukraine. Once these two republics are filled with Russian forces, the army could venture out of these strongholds to gradually bring the entire area under Russian control.
A few weeks ago when Sergei Rudskoy, head of the General Staff's main operations administration, had announced the end of the first phase of operations, he had also said that the Russian forces would now concentrate on the liberation of Donbas.
Ukraine controls around two-third of Donbas territory while Russia controls roughly one-third. The Luhansk and Donetsk republics are both located here. So is the strategic industrial port city of Mariupol, which was the administrative headquarters of Ukraine in Donbas. Russia has once again asked the Ukrainian forces holding out in the Azovstal metallurgical plant in Mariupol to surrender. The strategic city is already more or less under Russian control except in certain pockets. Once Mariupol comes under Russian control, Moscow would have gained a major strategic advantage as it is located between Crimea that Russia took over in 2014 and Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
The Russian military has also taken over the city of Kreminna in the east, according to a Reuters report quoting the regional governor. He said that Ukrainian troops have withdrawn from the city.
Russia’s war in Ukraine seems likely to be a long-drawn affair and Moscow’s push to consolidate the Donbass region will not be as easy as it once appeared to be. NATO will ensure that Ukraine will have whatever it needs to resist a takeover of its eastern region. President Putin has perhaps taken on more than he had bargained when he started his military operations against Ukraine.