KYIV: Though Russia can claim a prize with its capture of Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk region, it is far from Moscow’s ambitious early war aims and does not deal Kyiv a decisive military blow.
The Russian assault will now switch its focus to the rest of the Donbas industrial heartland, but Kyiv will find it easier to defend fortified positions in Donetsk region and the battles that will shape the war’s course still lie ahead, military analysts said.
“I think it’s a tactical victory for Russia but at an enormous cost within the context of redefined military goals,” said Neil Melvin, a London-based RUSI think tank analyst.
Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated his troops on Monday for “liberating” Luhansk region, promising medals for heroism and saying that soldiers should get some rest. Three Russian cosmonauts sent a celebratory message from space.
It is a milestone for a war machine that abandoned an assault on Kyiv in the conflict’s early weeks to focus on capturing the Donbas, made up of Luhansk and Donetsk – swathes of which Kyiv still controls.
Russia says it wants to wrest the Donbas from Ukraine on behalf of Moscow-backed separatists in two self-proclaimed people’s republics whose independence it recognised on the eve of the war.
The Battle for the Donbas began around mid-April and it has taken since then for Russia to drive Ukraine from just Luhansk, a large chunk of which was already held by Moscow-backed separatist proxies before the Feb 24 invasion.
“This (the capture of Luhansk) is a redefined objective and a very small objective in a way. And Russia has put its full military force into achieving this goal and still it has taken nearly 60 days,” Melvin said.
Russia’s initial war aims went far beyond the Donbas and capturing Luhansk region, and likely included a change of government or at least altering ex-Soviet Ukraine’s westward orientation, said Rob Lee of the US-based Foreign Policy Research Institute. They also included “de-militarising” Ukraine.
“Clearly Russia had more ambitious aims at the beginning of the war,” he said.
‘IT HURTS A LOT’
Russia has switched its battlefield tactics, using long-range shelling to force Ukrainian forces from positions before sending in ground forces, making slow, grinding progress reminiscent of World War II, analyst say.
“This isn’t a way to build momentum; they’re taking relatively small amount of territory each day and in the context of modern warfare, this is very slow progress. The Russians are burning through their advanced equipment and personnel, so they are paying a price for this,” said Melvin.
Ukraine’s governor of Luhansk region told Reuters its capture after Ukraine withdrew from Lysychansk city was a “painful” loss, but that it had saved soldiers from being completely surrounded and pounded by artillery.
“In terms of the military, it is bad to leave positions, but there is nothing critical. We need to win the war, not the battle for Lysychansk,” Governor Sergiy Gaidai said.
He predicted Donetsk region’s city of Sloviansk and town of Bakhmut would be the targets of Russia’s next offensive. He urged foreign powers to step up heavy weapons supplies, saying the West had “understood too late” the situation in Ukraine.