The Donbas and Beyond

The “Battle of the Donbas” has begun.

Thus saith the Ukrainian defense ministry, and Russia agrees: After probing southward toward Izyum, east of Kharkiv, for the last week or so and launching a preparatory artillery barrage in recent days, the Russian army appears to be attacking on a broad front across the region. At this writing, it is too soon to identify a main effort. And, given the scattershot way Russian commanders have approached the war and the battered state of their forces, that may remain a mystery.

If this were the Soviet army of old, these probes and broad-front attacks would serve to uncover or create a crack in Ukrainian defenses through which a powerful and mobile “operational maneuver group” would pour, either seizing decisive terrain or encircling and destroying Ukrainian forces. But even if newly installed Russian commander Gen. Alexandr Dvornikov and his staff remember these ideas, it is unlikely that their forces have the capacity or capability to carry them out.

So what is about to transpire may devolve into a campaign of attrition whose outcome will be determined by two factors: which army suffers the greatest losses and, once exhausted, can reconstitute itself for the next round, which might indeed be decisive. As such, the Donbas fight differs from the defense of Kyiv or even Kharkiv; the armies themselves are the strategic prizes much more than is the terrain.

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