The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russian advances in Ukraine’s east mark a tipping point


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For Ukrainians, the news from the front lines is not encouraging. As the 100th day since Russia launched its invasion nears, the tide of battle in Ukraine’s east seems to be pulling in Moscow’s favor. On Monday, Russian troops entered the outskirts of Severodonetsk, one of the last strategically significant cities in the Luhansk region still in Ukrainian control. Should the city fall, it would give Russia and its proxy forces de facto authority over half of Donbas, the country’s coveted eastern industrial heartland.

In a recent interview with a French radio station, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov indicated that the current momentum was part of the Kremlin’s newly focused aim. “Our obvious objective is, of course, to push the Ukrainian army and the Ukrainian battalions out of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions,” he said, amid rising fears among Western officials that Russia intends to annex territory in Donbas and Kherson, a region abutting already annexed Crimea.

The Russian advance has been characterized by the same brutality and relentlessness of previous offensives. Observers report similar tactics to those deployed in the conquest of the port city of Mariupol, with endless days and nights of artillery fire and missile strikes pulverizing urban areas.

“They’re just raining down metal on us,” a Ukrainian soldier wounded in the fighting told my colleagues. Eyewitnesses spoke of the stench of death stalking the streets as early summer temperatures rise.

The Russians “use the same tactics over and over again. They shell for several hours — for three, four, five hours — in a row and then attack,” Luhansk’s regional governor, Serhiy Haidai, told Reuters. “Those who attack die. Then shelling and attack follow again, and so on until they break through somewhere.”

Ukrainian volunteer fighters in the east feel abandoned

The enduring misery of the battlefield underlies a tilting strategic landscape. “The situation in the country’s east marks a shift from an earlier stage of the war, when staunch Ukrainian defenses forced a broad Russian retreat in Kyiv and other areas, increasing confidence among Ukrainians and their Western backers about the prospects of all-out victory over a poorly organized and equipped Russian force,” my colleagues Siobhán O’Grady, Paul Sonne, Max Bearak and Anastacia Galouchka reported.

“Having now regrouped, Russian troops are making incremental but steady progress in their campaign in the east and are regularly employing heavy flamethrowers and long-range artillery that Ukrainian forces lack, leaving Kyiv on the back foot,” they wrote. “Though Ukrainian resistance has made the fight a slog for Russian forces, Moscow is inching closer to encircling Ukraine’s biggest strongholds in Donbas region, while fighting on territory contiguous to Russia with easier supply lines.”

Moscow appears to have learned from its initial blunders. “The recent Russian gains appear at least in part to be the products of past Ukrainian success,” noted Bloomberg News. “By mounting so effective a defense that Russian commanders had to withdraw from around the country’s two largest cities — Kyiv and Kharkiv — Ukraine also drove them to abandon a wildly over-ambitious battle plan that had left their troops thinly spread and too far from logistical lifelines.”

It’s still true that the war has left Russia’s military massively depleted and, in some areas, short on equipment, manpower and morale. But Ukrainian fighters in the east, as my colleague Sudarsan Raghavan reported, are complaining of being outmanned and outgunned. The expansion and consolidation of Russian control in Ukraine’s east marks a new phase in the conflict, one that will test both Western and Ukrainian wartime resilience.

Ukraine suffers on battlefield while pleading for U.S. arms

Ukrainian officials have made their demands loud and clear. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week, members of the Kyiv’s delegation urged for more military aid and heavy weaponry from the United States and Europe. They framed the reasons for their demands in ideological terms: Ukraine’s defense was the defense of all liberal, democratic societies. Russian victory, on the other hand, would mark the victory of might over right, of brute tyranny over the rule of law.

“You don’t need to die for us,” Yulia Klymenko, a Ukrainian member of parliament, told reporters in Davos, from where Today’s WorldView recently returned. “But we are dying for you.”

The Biden administration is set to announce further deliveries of weapons and munitions to Ukraine, which may include advanced long-range rocket systems that would help thwart Russia’s advance in the east. On Monday, President Biden indicated that he did not want to send the type of rocket system whose range could reach deep into Russian territory. The Kremlin cast Biden’s remarks as “rational,” though the Russian line — voiced both by its officials and state media — remains that they are fighting a war against Western proxies in Ukraine.

In Europe, despite a lot of noisy rhetorical unity, there remain pronounced differences in the approach to the conflict. France and Germany, for example, recently urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to engage in direct talks with his Ukrainian counterpart, President Volodymyr Zelensky, over ending the Black Sea blockade that has been so ruinous for the global economy. That appeal was met with derision from politicians in the Baltic states further to the east, who want to deepen Russia’s isolation and deliver Putin a decisive defeat.

Yet, as the campaign in Donbas shows, Russia is not close to any kind of definitive defeat in Ukraine. Politicians in Kyiv and many of their Western backers maintain a maximalist view of how the conflict should end, with Russian capitulation and the return of every inch of territory under Moscow’s control, including the Crimean peninsula.

That view of the war clashes with the growing fears of foreign policy experts over the risks of prolonging it. In Davos, former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger called for immediate negotiations and Ukrainian territorial concessions to avert further crises and global instability.

At a World Economic Forum panel, veteran U.S. foreign policy analyst Graham T. Allison suggested a frozen conflict — with contested borders settled along the lines as they currently are — would be the ideal outcome, staving off the risk of Putin deploying tactical nuclear weapons. “Either there will be facts on the ground that Putin can live with, or he will escalate the level of destruction,” Allison said.

His remarks were attacked by Lawrence Freedman, a venerable British military historian and analyst, who cautioned against setting political conditions for the Ukrainians and suggested that it’s hardly obvious that Putin — who has of yet has been unable to even describe the war in Ukraine as a “war” — would be willing to use nuclear weapons.

“Russia does not face an existential threat,” he said. “Ukraine is facing an existential threat. … The Ukrainians are not going to stop fighting.”