WASHINGTON — As Russia shifted its military campaign to eastern Ukraine this spring, senior Biden administration officials said the next four to six weeks of fighting would determine the final course of the war.
That time has passed, and officials say the picture is becoming clearer: Russia is likely to be given more territory, they said, but neither side will gain full control of the region as an exhausted Russian military faces an adversary armed with increasingly sophisticated weaponry faces .
While Russia has seized territory in the easternmost region of Luhansk, its progress has been slow. Meanwhile, the arrival of American long-range artillery systems and Ukrainians trained in their use should help Ukraine in the battles to come, said Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“If they use it properly and practically, then they will have very, very good effects on the battlefield,” General Milley told reporters traveling home with him after his visit to Europe this month.
Pentagon officials said this means Russia may not be able to match similar gains in neighboring Donetsk, which together with Luhansk forms the mineral-rich Donbass region. Ukrainian troops have been fighting Russian-backed separatists in Donbass since 2014, when Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine.
After weeks of bloody fighting in the east – with up to 200 Ukrainian soldiers killed daily by the government’s own estimates and a similar or greater toll among Russian troops by Western estimates – Russia holds roughly the same area in Donetsk as the separatists held in February before the invasion controlled.
But US officials say they expect Russia to soon take over the entire Luhansk region. A defense official said he expected the twin cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk to fall in days as Russian forces bombarded the area with heavy artillery and “dumb bombs” — unguided munitions that inflict heavy casualties.
According to reports over the weekend, Russian forces had breached the Ukrainian front line in Toshkivka, a town outside of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk. The capture of Toshkivka would bring the Russians closer to the possibility of threatening Ukrainian supply lines to the two cities, the last major population centers in Luhansk not to fall to Russia. On Monday it was unclear which side Toshkivka was on.
Russian ground forces have been advancing slowly, in some cases taking weeks to move a mile or two, US officials said. That could indicate a shortage of infantry or additional caution by Moscow after supply line problems in the disastrous first weeks of the war.
Several military analysts say Russia is at the peak of its fighting power in the east, as long-range artillery systems promised to Ukraine by NATO allies are still instilling. Ukraine is vastly outnumbered, they say, a clear fact acknowledged by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy last week.
“The price of this fight for us is very high,” he said in a late night address. “It’s just scary. And we remind our partners daily that only a sufficient number of modern artillery for Ukraine will ensure our advantage and eventually the end of Russian torture of Ukrainian Donbass.”
Understand the Russia-Ukraine War better
President Biden on Wednesday announced an additional $1 billion in arms and aid to Ukraine in a package that includes more long-range artillery, anti-ship missile launchers and grenades for howitzers and for America’s new missile system. In total, the United States has pledged around $5.6 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since Russia invaded on February 24.
Mr. Zelensky and his aides have appealed to the West to supply more of the sophisticated weapons he has already sent. They have questioned their allies’ commitment to the Ukrainian cause, insisting that nothing else can stem Russia’s advance, which has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of civilians and soldiers, by even conservative estimates.
Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III last week urged Western allies to double their military aid to Ukraine, warning that the country “is facing a pivotal moment on the battlefield” in its nearly four-month struggle with Russia. Mr Austin and Gen Milley met with US allies in Brussels to discuss how to continue helping Ukraine.
Pentagon officials expect that the arrival of longer-range artillery systems will change the battlefield in Donetsk, if not Luhansk.
Jun 21, 2022 9:51 am ET
Frederick B. Hodges, a former commander in chief of the US Army in Europe who is now with the Center for European Policy Analysis, said the war is likely to last for many more months. But he predicted that Ukrainian forces – backed by heavy artillery from the west – would slow Russia’s advance and begin to roll back its gains by late summer.
“War is a test of will, and the Ukrainians have a superior will,” said General Hodges. “I see that the logistical situation in Ukraine is improving every week, while the logistical situation in Russia is slowly deteriorating. You have no allies or friends.”
Russia’s military is built for short, high-intensity campaigns defined by heavy use of artillery, military analysts said. It is unprepared for a prolonged occupation or a grueling war of attrition in eastern Ukraine that will require the replacement of battered ground forces.
“This is a critical time for both sides,” said Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at CNA, a research institute in Arlington, Virginia. “Probably in the next two months both forces will be exhausted. Ukraine has a shortage of equipment and ammunition. Russia has already lost much of its combat capability, and its force is not well suited to sustained ground warfare of this magnitude and duration.”
Russia will seek to continue making territorial gains by the mile and will then likely secure its front lines with mines and other defenses against a Ukrainian counterattack expected after long-range artillery systems arrive on the battlefield, analysts said.
In the last few days, neither of the two forces has been able to make a major breakthrough on the enemy’s front lines.
Even though the terrain could change hands, “neither side has the mass to take advantage of smaller gains,” Christopher M. Dougherty, a former Army Ranger and defense analyst at the Center for a New American Security, said in a Twitter post this month. “The war will probably become a stress test now.”
As a result, several military analysts said both Moscow and Kyiv will send reinforcements to the front lines.
“The race for supplies will be crucial for both sides,” wrote Col. John B. Barranco of the Marine Corps, Col. Benjamin G. Johnson of the Army and Lt. Col. Tyson Wetzel of the Air Force in an Atlantic Council analysis.
“To make up for its losses, the Kremlin may need to send in thousands more conscripts,” the officials said, adding that Ukraine must maintain its logistics lines and advance ground-based weapons, including long-range artillery and unmanned air systems.
Analysts and former US commanders offered differing forecasts of how the war might turn out.
Weaknesses in the Ukrainian military’s position are beginning to show – and are a cause for concern. While some independent analysts have predicted that the Russian advance will be halted at Sievierodonetsk, US government pundits are not so sure. Some say they believe the hard Russian advance may continue and that the Russians may soon make further advances in areas where Ukrainian counterattacks have been successful.
The tactics Russia is using are having a devastating effect in eastern Ukraine, according to current and former officials, wreaking so much destruction that Zelensky said troops are fighting over “dead towns” from which most civilians have fled.
Other analysts are predicting a back-and-forth that could stretch for months or even years.
“This is likely to continue, with each side having trade areas on the fringes,” Mr Kofman said. “It will be a dynamic situation. Significant collapses or major capitulations are unlikely to occur.”
Military and intelligence officials said Russia continued to suffer heavy casualties and was struggling to recruit soldiers to replenish its ranks. Russian military morale is low and problems with poorly maintained equipment persist, US officials and analysts say.
The battle in Donbass has turned into a deadly artillery duel, causing heavy casualties on both sides.
Commercial satellite imagery of craters in eastern Ukraine suggests that Russian artillery shells often detonate on the ground near Ukrainian trenches, rather than in the air above. Airburst artillery kills soldiers in trenches more effectively.
Stephen Biddle, a military expert and professor of international relations at Columbia University, said the images suggested the Russians were using old ammunition that had been poorly maintained.
But inefficient artillery can still be very destructive when used en masse.
“Quantity has a quality all of its own,” said Dr. Biddle. “If I were one of the infantrymen getting crushed in those trenches, I’m not sure how much better I would feel knowing that Russian artillery could be even deadlier if it was better maintained and used. “