Before invading Ukraine on Feb. 24, Russian forces already controlled about 30 percent of the eastern Ukrainian region known as Donbas. Russia had taken the territory — with help from local separatist forces — as part of a sporadic, often low-grade war with Ukraine that began in 2014.
Today, Russia controls closer to 75 percent of Donbas. Some of the most recent Russian gains have come around Sievierodonetsk.
Together, those two statistics — 30 percent and 75 percent — offer a useful summary of the war.
Yes, the war has gone much worse for Russia than almost anybody expected: Rather than overrunning Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, in mere days, the Russian military had to backtrack and narrow its goals to Donbas, a long-disputed border region. But Russia is nonetheless making progress there. It may yet accomplish the more limited goal of dominating Donbas. And Vladimir Putin is betting that he will prove more patient than Ukraine’s Western allies.
Today’s Times has several notable pieces of Ukraine coverage. Helene Cooper looks at the military mistakes that Russia is repeating, and Carlotta Gall profiles the Ukrainians choosing to stay in their homes in Donbas. Three photographers — Lynsey Addario, Finbarr O’Reilly and Ivor Prickett — have published images and stories from the front lines.
In the Opinion section, President Biden has published an essay explaining that his administration will continue to send weapons to Ukraine but not troops. In the essay, he announces that the U.S. will send longer-range missiles to Ukraine than it previously has.
Alongside those pieces, we’re using today’s newsletter to give you an overview of the war.
A Russian pincer
The big question over the next several weeks — according to our colleague Julian Barnes, who covers U.S. intelligence agencies — will be whether Russia can encircle Ukraine’s forces in Donbas. If Russia can, the Ukrainian troops could be cut off from the rest of the country and suffer heavy losses. Russia might then be in position to take control of nearly all of Donbas.
“Intelligence officials have repeatedly said, both publicly and privately, that this next phase is going to be very important in setting the tenor for the war in the months to come,” Julian said. “It will determine whether we stay in something approximating a stalemate or if one side gets the upper hand.”
In the war’s early weeks, Russia tried to move quickly and capture large sections of territory. Its military proved incapable of doing so, rebuffed by Ukrainian troops, with help from weapons provided by the U.S., E.U. and other allies. In the war’s current phase, Russia has emphasized a strategy from other recent wars, in Syria and Chechnya: using missiles and other heavy artillery to bombard cities and towns and eventually take them over.
As Anton Troianovski, The Times’s Moscow bureau chief, says: “The war has clearly gone on much longer than anyone anticipated, including the Russians. And the Russians after those initial failures have adapted and have gone back to the traditional method of fighting wars.”
The bombardment appears to be causing substantial Ukrainian casualties. On a typical recent day, between 50 and 100 Ukrainian troops were killed, President Volodymyr Zelensky recently estimated. Russia has also managed to capture some economically significant areas, including ports and wheat fields.
Putin has adopted a strategy that Russia has used for much of its history, combining its vast resources with a high tolerance of casualties to make slow wartime gains. In this war, Putin believes that Ukraine’s Western allies become weary of the fight long before he feels much pressure to do so. “He’s betting on the West to get tired and to get distracted,” Anton said.
Still, Putin faces many of the same problems that undermined Russia’s initial invasion, as Helene Cooper’s story explains. Its military has proved to be an inefficient, top-down organization in which field commanders often must wait for high-level orders. Much of Russia’s equipment is out of date, and many of its troops are not well trained. They also did not expect to be part of a full-scale war, and the deaths of thousands of their fellow soldiers have further weakened morale.
“The Russians are attempting to subdue a massive country with a well-organized military that is fighting on its home turf,” Helene said. “That is a very tall order for an army where you have soldiers on the ground with no clue why they are even in Ukraine.”
Barriers to peace
Ultimately, many analysts believe that Russia’s military problems will make it very difficult for Putin to control large parts of Ukraine for months or years. Yet Donbas is where he is most likely to find some success.
“The overall military balance in this war still trends in Ukraine’s favor, given manpower availability and access to extensive Western military support,” Michael Kofman, the director of Russia studies at CNA, a research group, recently wrote. “That will show itself more over time. But the local balance in the Donbas during this phase is a different story.”
The most likely medium-term scenario is that Russia will control a large amount of Donbas and that Putin will patiently and brutally try to expand Russia’s holdings. He — as well as Ukraine and its allies — would then need to decide whether any truce is possible.
“I will not pressure the Ukrainian government — in private or public — to make any territorial concessions,” Biden wrote in his Times essay.
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