Moscow declared victory Monday after its forces seized the city of Lysychansk, signaling it will soon push its invasion deeper into Ukraine after capturing what had been Kyiv’s last major stronghold in the Luhansk province.
After a disastrous start to the invasion that began Feb. 24, Russia has dropped its plan of capturing major cities and found more success slowly expanding its hold on regions of eastern Ukraine already controlled before the war by pro-Russian separatist groups. But military analysts say Ukraine’s retreat will allow its battle-hardened forces to form more defensible lines, while Russia may find it hard to pacify the Ukrainian populations in the news areas it controls.
Russian President Vladimir Putin met with his defense minister, Sergei Shoigu in a televised meeting Monday just hours after the last Ukrainian troops made a strategic retreat from Lysychansk in order to re-group in the neighboring Donetsk province. Luhansk and Donetsk together make up the disputed Donbas region, which has become the epicenter of fighting. Russia recognizes the two provinces as independent republics, but Kyiv and most of the world reject those claims.
Mr. Putin indicated Monday that he’s intent on capturing all of Donetsk, having scaled back his initial war aims after Russia’s campaign to capture Kyiv and other major cities in late February and early March ended in failure. Mr. Putin also suggested that his forces will take time to regroup before launching the Donetsk campaign. He said that the military units “that took part in active hostilities and achieved success” in the Luhansk attacks “should rest, increase their combat capabilities.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy framed the withdrawal from Luhansk as a temporary one and said his troops made a strategic choice to set up defensive lines elsewhere.
“If the command of our army withdraws people from certain points of the front where the enemy has the greatest fire superiority, in particular this applies to Lysychansk, it means only one thing: We will return thanks to our tactics, thanks to the increase in the supply of modern weapons,” he said in his nightly video address.
“We will rebuild the walls. We will win back the land,” he added.
Ukrainian forces are getting a steady reinforcement of sophisticated U.S. and allied weaponry to help even the battlefield odds, although officials in Kyiv continue to complain that the aid is too slow in coming.
Russia has sustained significant casualties since launching its invasion in February and some military specialists say the Kremlin is struggling to get fresh troops to the front lines, meaning its massive military manpower advantage isn’t as much of a difference-maker on the battlefield as once thought. Russia still boasts a major edge in the amount of artillery and other weapons it can push to the front.
But the further west it pushes, the more difficulty the Russian military is likely to encounter. Its supply lines will grow longer and could become more vulnerable to Ukrainian artillery or drone strikes. Ukrainian troops also will have learned lessons from Russia’s assault on the Luhansk province, the port city of Mariupol, and other targets over the past four months. Ukraine will surely fortify its positions in Donetsk in preparation for a prolonged Russian artillery barrage.
Indeed, foreign intelligence analysts say the stage has been set for a lengthy, bloody war of attrition in the Donbas.
“Russia’s focus will now almost certainly switch to capturing Donetsk Oblast, a large portion of which remains under the control of Ukrainian forces,” the British Ministry of Defense said in its daily assessment of the war.
“The fight for the Donbas has been grinding and attritional, and this is highly unlikely to change in the coming weeks,” the ministry wrote in its Twitter post.
The coming fight in Donetsk could test the will of both Russian leaders and Russian soldiers. Analysts say Russia secured its victory in Luhansk at tremendous cost and that future battles are likely to lead to even higher casualty rates.
Away from the battlefield, Mr. Putin faces other problems related to his decision to invade, including international sanctions that have caused the economy to contract, a press by European leaders to spend more on defense and less on Russian oil and gas, and a revived and unified NATO that is poised to add longtime neutrals Finland and Sweden as members.
“This has taken 60 days to make very slow progress,” Neil Melvin, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London, told Reuters on Monday. “I think the Russians may declare some kind of victory, but the key war battle is still yet to come.”
Russia’s immediate short-term goal appears to be securing Donetsk, but there are signs that it may move beyond those two provinces.
Andrey Marochko, a spokesperson for the Russia-backed Luhansk People’s Republic militia, said that Ukrainian forces need to be pushed back much farther in order to keep the province out of artillery range.
“In order for the territory to be protected from such attacks, the armed forces of Ukraine must be pushed back [186 miles] from its borders,” Russia’s Vedomosti newspaper reported Monday, quoting Luhansk militia leaders.
Ukrainian troops are preparing for the looming Russian assault. Analysts say it’s not yet clear whether Ukrainian forces will choose to defend every city along Russia’s war path or instead take a more strategic approach that cedes some areas to the invaders while strengthening defenses elsewhere.
“Russian forces will likely next advance on Siversk, though they could launch more significant attacks on [the cities of] Bakhmut or Slovyansk instead or at the same time,” researchers with the Institute for the Study of War wrote late Sunday. “Ukrainian forces will likely continue their fighting withdrawal toward the E40 highway that runs from Slovyansk through Bakhmut toward Debaltseve. It is unclear whether they will choose to defend around Siversk at this time.”
While the fighting has increased significantly since the beginning of the invasion, the Luhansk and Donetsk provinces have been the scenes of conflict for eight years. Pro-Russia separatist forces, strongly backed by the Kremlin, have been battling Ukrainian troops in those regions since 2014, when Russia forcibly annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.
• This article is based in part on wire-service reports.