Russia and Ukraine: what is known about Moscow’s new major offensive in the Donbas region
It was literally a war forewarned.
Russia’s anticipated new major offensive on the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine began Monday with strikes along a front stretching some 300 miles from the southernmost tip to the far north, towards the Kharkiv city.
This Tuesday, there was an intensification of artillery fire. Moscow says it has managed to hit more than 1,000 targets.
This onslaught is the result of a new strategy announced by the government of Vladimir Putin at the end of March, a month after the start of the invasion of Ukraine.
Moscow then declared the end of the first phase of its offensive and announced that it would concentrate its efforts on the “complete liberation” of the Donbas region, implying that it was ending its efforts to conquer kyiv.
After a few weeks of withdrawal and reorganization of the Russian forces, this Monday the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, announced that Moscow had already started the new phase.
“We can now confirm that the Russian troops have started the battle for Donbas, which they have been preparing for a long time. A large part of the Russian army is now dedicated to this offensive“, Said the president in a televised message.
By way of events, the Russian Defense Ministry confirmed the start of this new offensive when it reported on Monday that it had attacked hundreds of military targets in the south and east of Ukraine, near cities such as Zaporizhia, Kramatorsk, Krivói Rog , Odessa and Mykolaiv.
This Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov officially referred to the start of this new stage of the war.
“The operation in eastern Ukraine is aimed, as announced from the beginning, to completely liberate the [autoproclamadas] Donetsk and Luhansk republics. And this operation will continue,” Lavrov said.
“Another stage of this operation begins, and I am sure it will be a very important moment in this entire special operation,” he added.
BBC Mundo tells you what is known about this offensive.
How big is the Russian offensive?
For weeks, Moscow has been massing troops in the Donbas region after giving up its offensive in western Ukraine.
US officials say Russia has 76 battalions in eastern Ukraine, adding 11 in recent days. These groups are normally made up of between 700 and 900 soldiers plus military equipment.
According to Ukrainian estimates, in total there are more than 700,000 Russian troops in the Donbas.
Russian security policy expert Aglaya Snetkov notes that another 22 battalions are believed to be around the devastated southern Ukrainian port city of Mariupol.
If that key city falls, it would allow those forces to move north and join the fight in Donbas, which could be important but not necessarily decisive.
Could Moscow get to use nuclear weapons?
In an interview with Indian television, Lavrov was asked if Russia was considering the use of nuclear weapons.
“Only conventional weapons”answered.
Ukrainian officials have recently warned the West about Moscow’s possible use of tactical nuclear weapons.
At the beginning of the war, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian deterrent forces [que incluyen armas nucleares] get in high alertand some Russian government officials have hinted that the country would be willing to use them under certain circumstances.
A race against time
Analysis by Frank Gardner, BBC Security Correspondent
Some of Ukraine’s best forces are fighting in the east, but they are badly outnumbered.
Russia has up to 76 so-called tactical battalions in Ukraine. These have up to 1,000 troops each and are targeting the east. They have enormous artillery and air attack capabilities.
Ukraine has said that in order to have any chance of defense in this major assault, it needs “heavy equipment, weapons, Starstreak missiles, anti-tank missiles and air defense units.”
Moscow is well aware of this and has started attacking the supply routes where these resources come from: from Poland, Slovakia and other NATO countries.
Resupplying the beleaguered Ukrainian armed forces in time for them to defend themselves against this assault is truly a race against time.
This could end either way, and even if they beat Russia in the next few battles, the danger would still not be removed. I’m afraid this war has more time left.
What has happened on the ground?
BBC correspondent Jonathan Beale reports that the Russian offensive has intensified on Tuesday.
“These Russian artillery attacks have been quite relentless. Clearly, these operations are designed to weaken not only Ukraine’s defenses, but also to weaken the population there. Because, whatever Russia says, it is not only attacking military targets, it is also attacking civilians. We saw it at the Kramatorsk train station earlier this month,” she noted.
Reporting from Dnipro, Beale notes that Moscow forces use these attacks to test Ukrainian defenses in search of a weak point.
“Remember, the Ukrainians are entrenched around this area. They have been fighting pro-Russian separatists for the last eight years. They have dug trenches and have well-defended positions,” he explains.
In this first rush, Russian forces have had at least one significant achievement in gaining control of the town of Kreminnaa city of about 8,000 inhabitants in the Luhansk region.
Local officials have said Ukrainian forces withdrew from the area to regroup after Moscow gained control of the town on Monday and where there were reports of street fighting on Tuesday.
Numerous rocket attacks on the city of Kramatorsk have also been reported.
The pro-Russian separatist groups suffered, for their part, a significant loss with the death of Mikhail Kishchikcommander of one of his battalions in eastern Ukraine.
Known as Misha, the Chechen, Kishchik was killed at the start of the Russian forces’ assault on the Ukrainian army.
Prime Minister of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR), Sergei Kozlov, wrote on social media: “Sad news from the front. An LNR patriot, Lieutenant Colonel Mikhail Kishchik, has died.”
Kozlov added that Kishchik and his comrades were surrounded by Ukrainian forces near Kreminna and claimed that he had “fought to the end”.
Why does the Donbas region matter?
Donbas is a former coal and steel-producing region in Ukraine. This area also includes the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, which stretch from the outskirts of Mariupol in the south to the northern border.
“The key is that they have been identified by the Kremlin as the Russophone parts of Ukraine that are more Russian than Ukrainian,” explains Sam Cranny-Evans of the Royal Untited Services Institute.
But different experts indicate that this it does not imply that the regions are pro-Russian.
Putin has repeatedly made the baseless accusation that Ukraine has carried out genocide in the east.
When the war began, almost two-thirds of the eastern regions were in the hands of Ukraine. The rest was run by Russian proxies, who created small states backed by Moscow during a war that began eight years ago.
Just before the start of the invasion, Putin recognized the two eastern regions as independent from Ukraine.
If Russia were to conquer both regions, the next step would be to annex them as Putin did with the Crimean peninsula in 2014 after a controversial referendum.
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