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Update on Donbas Theatre

Bad news is coming from the Donbas front. The Ukrainian Armed Forces having lost Avdiivka and having abandoned some of the villages in its environs, leaving the western suburbs of Donetsk free of risk from Ukrainian assault, the Russian Armed Forces have redeployed their assets to the north, in the region of Bakhmut. The status quo in Bakhmut for a significant period of time, at least from March 2023 but in fact from rather earlier, was that the city of Bakhmut, although completely destroyed, was essentially controlled by the Russian Armed Forces with the exception of the western suburb of Ivanivske just a couple of kilometres outside the centre which remained peaceful if tense and under Ukrainian control. Now the Russians are pushing west of Bakhmut, and not just as far as Ivanivske. There are reports of fierce fighting in Ivanivske, Bohdanivke (a hamlet just to the north of Ivanivske) and even Chasiv Yar, which is at least half way along the road to Kostyantynivka, the closest city to Bakhmut under Ukrainian control. Chasiv Yar is a smaller town and it may be only a matter of weeks before it falls albeit that the Ukrainians are not likely to let it fall without its being completely levelled, much as happened in Bakhmut.

If Chasiv Yar falls then it is only a matter of time before Kostyantynivka itself falls, which would round out Russian territorial occupation of the Donbas region north of Donetsk. From there a push westwards towards Zaporizhzhia and potentially even Dnipro might be possible, and Ukraine’s much-vaunted counter-offensive last summer around the village of Robotyne, in the Zaporizhzhia Oblast and to the east of Zaporizhzhia, would be put in jeopardy. In other words, dominating control over the Donbas region is now in sight for the Russian Armed Forces and this could be used as a bridgehead for strategic assaults upon other major Ukrainian cities. While Kramatorsk  to the north of Kostyantynivka remains a well-supplied bridgehead in the Donbas due to its reliable railway links with the rest of free Ukraine, the neighbouring city of Sloviansk, briefly occupied by Russian-backed separatists in 2014 and now the hub of operations for the International Legion operating in Ukraine, might come under attack from Bakhmut as the Legion is the persistent subject of rocket and mortar fire. Were the International Legion driven out of Sloviansk, then Kramatorsk might find itself surrounded on three sides by Russian forces and this would surely be the beginning of an assault upon Kramatorsk in which case Ukraine’s principal foothold in the Donbas would become the subject of vicious fighting and Ukraine would effectively have been pushed out of the Donbas altogether.

This is particularly depressing news since shortage of ammunition means that the Ukrainian Armed Forces are not in a position, according to the Chief of the British Army Chief of Staff, to launch a counter-offensive against the Russian occupation until they have developed a strategy to manufacture their own arms and ammunition which are arriving from the West at a currently paltry rate compared to the high levels of munitions production on the part of the Russian Federation. This means that an increased Russian occupation of Donbas territories seems creakingly likely over the coming months at least until say August or September. The consequences of this slow but steady Russian progress in the Donbas are unpredictable elsewhere on the Ukrainian front line, as we cannot now predict to what extent it is necessary for the Ukrainian Armed Forces to redeploy their assets away from elsewhere in theatre to prevent continued Russian encroachment.

For example, it is not currently clear the extent to which the Ukrainian Armed Forces have a build-up of military personnel in the city of Kherson in order to counter the prospect of some 60,000 Russian troops on the south bank of the Dnipro River crossing over and re-occupying Kherson. This prospect might currently seem remote but it is a possible eventuality Ukrainian intelligence analysts are undoubtedly planning for, and it becomes less remote to the extent that troops are drawn away from the Kherson theatre to Donbas. The same is true with a potential renewed Kharkiv offensive on the part of the Russians; Ukrainian troops may be drawn into the Donbas to prevent further Russian encroachment.

In short, although the names of the villages and settlements over which the Russian and Ukrainian Armed Forces are now fighting may sound small and insignificant, they have the potential to change the course of the entire Ukraine war and the fact that these settlements are now up for grabs represents a severe danger for Ukraine’s future prospects of maintaining her front line in its current location. This means that if Ukraine is going to survive through 2024 without significant further territorial losses, she will require substantial further investment from the West and not just in terms of budgetary contributions and supply of munitions (which inevitably seems always too little, too late) but also potentially in terms of manpower support in the sense of boots on the ground in Ukraine. Troop numbers are the most important determining feature in a plain vanilla ground war, which is what the conflict in Ukraine is turning out to be. That is no doubt why French President Macron recently decided to make overtures to the effect that a number of European NATO member states would contribute troops into Ukrainian military theatre irrespective of American intentions.

The news from Donbas is bad; it is much worse than it first appears when one just hears the names of some obscure villages being fought over; it represents a substantial strengthening of the Russian Armed Forces’ positions in Ukrainian theatre; and it makes the imperative for European member states’ military intervention in direct support for the Ukrainian Armed Forces all the stronger.


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