The war enters its decisive stage Meduza maps possible scenarios for Russia’s advance on Ukraine’s Donbas
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov have announced that the “second stage of the operation” in Ukraine is underway. Ukrainian officials agree: the war has entered a crucial phase. Still, it’s too early to say that the situation in the Donbas, where both sides are gearing up for a momentous fight, has fundamentally changed. The Russian army and the Russian-backed armed forces of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” hold the initiative, but they haven’t yet taken decisive action. Available data doesn’t provide enough clues to say where exactly they’re likely to attack next. The fact that Russia’s preparation is being drawn out is no surprise — the stakes are too high to act rashly. After all, the move Russian forces make next will likely determine the outcome of the war.
In this article, our editors attempt to assess the military situation in Ukraine based on the available data. This article was originally published in Russian on April 21, 2022. Meduza opposes the war and demands the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine.
In the last few days, nothing that’s occurred in the Donbas has resembled the decisive battle many are predicting. There are still several major obstacles in the way of Russia’s stated goal of a “land bridge to Crimea.” Meanwhile, the Ukrainian army is also building up its forces in the region.
Ukrainian forces in the east of the country currently have a number of advantages. To the north and east, they’re shielded by the Donets River, which serves as a serious barrier to Russian military vehicles and supply convoys. The Russian army has managed to establish a single base of operations, south of the city of Izyum, while the Ukrainian side has several — one in Chuhuiv, one in Lyman, and one in Sievierodonetsk — from which Russia has to worry about a counteroffensive.
To the south, from the Donetsk side, Ukrainian forces have artillery-supported fortifications that they’ve built up against the point of contact with the Donbas “republics” over the course of the last seven years (beginning in 2015, after the end of the eastern Ukrainian war’s first phase). For two months, Russian troops and fighters from the two “republics” have been unable to break through the chain of Ukrainian fortifications.
For the past week, Russian forces appear to have been working to get around these obstacles. For example:
- The transfer of Russian troops who were previously occupied in the offensives on Kyiv and Chernihiv is wrapping up. Airborne units that were previously seen in the west and north of Kyiv have now appeared south of Izyum.
- LNR and DNR (Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics”) forces are trying to break through fortified cities and industrial zones on the outskirts of Donetsk and Lysychansk.
- East of Lysychansk, these same forces, with the help of Russian reserves, have occupied most of the city of Rubizhne. To the south, they’ve taken much of the city of Popasna.
- They’ve begun an operation against the Ukrainian bridgehead on the Siversky Donets River, north of Lyman. It’s possible that Russia’s military leadership wants to start by eliminating this bridgehead in order to ensure the security of its troops to the south of Izyum, and/or to cross the river here in order to then launch an offensive on Slovyansk from the east.
- The majority of DNR forces have heretofore been occupied by the assault on Mariupol; the Russian Navy’s Pacific Fleet was deployed there, too. On April 21, however, President Vladimir Putin ordered the military to stop the assault on Mariupol’s last Ukrainian stronghold, the Azovstal metal works. DNR fighters have already begun relocating.
- DNR forces have ended their offensive on Maryinka, a small town on the western edge of Donetsk. The town now appears to be under complete Ukrainian control.
- Further west, in Velyka Novosilka and Huliaipole, Russian troops launched an offensive on April 19, but failed to break through, according to the Ukrainian Armed Forces' General Staff. Nonetheless, this area, which is free from Ukrainian fortifications and other obstacles (like rivers), may still play a key role in Russia's future offensive.
What will Russia's offensive look like?
Russia has several options. Each one has its pros and cons for the Russian military — and none of them guarantee success.
All of the maps published below are approximations. We don’t have exact information about where Russian and Ukrainian troops are currently deployed or where they might strike.
Scenario 1: Large encirclement
In this scenario, the Russian army strikes from the north (from its bridgehead south of Izyum) through Barvinkove and from the south (from the area around Velyka Novosilka and Huliaipole) in an attempt to surround all of Ukraine’s Donbas troops.
- Pros: Ukraine doesn’t have any major forces built up in these areas. If Russia succeeded, it would be a meaningful step towards their major political goals: taking control of the entire Donetsk and Luhansk territories and defeating a significant portion of the Ukrainian army. Surrounding tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers would give the Kremlin a clear advantage going into negotiations with Kyiv.
- Cons: At the moment, the odds of an operation like this succeeding would be slim to none. In order to carry out such a large-scale plan, not only would Russian troops have to traverse over 120 kilometers (75 miles) while fighting the Ukrainian army, they’d also have to create a reliable rear guard, as Ukraine could launch counterattacks from Kharkiv, Poltava, Dnipro, and Zaporizhzhia on one side and from Slavyansk and Kramatorsk on the other. This isn’t feasible. According to data from the Pentagon, about 90 Russian battalion tactical groups, or about 70,000 to 90,000 soldiers, including the troops currently still occupied in Mariupol, may take part in the operation to take the Donbas — clearly not enough to surround a group of comparable size. This also assumes the transfer of many troops out of Mariupol, which isn’t a given. A Ukrainian flanking maneuver would likely thwart the offensive.
Scenario 2: Dividing the front
In this scenario, Russia launches several consecutive smaller operations with the goal of disrupting Ukraine’s defenses and weakening their army.
- Pros: Russia, having the initiative, could confront Ukrainian troops with superior forces in multiple areas.
- Cons: This approach wouldn’t guarantee a quick victory or any political wins for the Kremlin. On the contrary, it could lead to a war of attrition, possibly giving Ukraine the advantage: the entire country is mobilizing, ensuring reinforcements in manpower for the foreseeable future, and the West continues (albeit slowly) to increase its stream of heavy weapons to Ukraine. Russia, meanwhile, is still technically fighting with a peacetime army.
Scenario 3: Small encirclement
In this scenario, Russia attempts to break through the front with strikes towards the Ukrainian bridgehead south of Izyum (through Slavyansk and Kramatorsk) and from the Donetsk area.
- Pros: In contrast to the first scenario, this approach wouldn’t require Russia to stretch its army so thin. If it succeeded, the Kremlin would find itself much closer to achieving its political goals.
- Cons: Russia’s army would have to pass through Ukrainian fortified areas around Kramatorsk in the north and Donetsk in the south. Success would be far from guaranteed, and failure could result in all of the consequences of the first two approaches combined: the exhaustion of Russian forces and losses from Ukrainian counterattacks on Russia’s flanks.