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Decisive battle begins for Ukraine’s Donbas region

A new phase of war has started as Russian forces try to seize the part of eastern Ukraine known as the Donbas. During the night, heavy shelling was reported across the front lines. The battle for Donbas is expected to be even bloodier.

(CN) — Russia’s artillery and warplanes unleashed a furious assault on Ukrainian troops on Tuesday and its ground forces were on the move, signaling the start of what is seen as a decisive battle over Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.

For the past three weeks, Russia has been repositioning, resupplying and amassing its forces with the aim of seizing the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk. At the outset of the invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized the two regions as independent states and vowed to “liberate” them from the government in Kyiv.

“It can now be stated that Russian troops have begun the battle for Donbas, for which they have been preparing for a long time,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a video message near midnight on Monday. “A very large part of the entire Russian army is now focused on this offensive.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov confirmed Tuesday that the next phase had begun.

“Another stage of this operation is beginning and I am sure this will be a very important moment of this entire special operation,” Lavrov said in an interview with the India Today TV channel, Reuters reported.

The Kremlin’s focus on Donbas came after Russian forces retreated from areas around Kyiv, the capital, at the end of a month of intense fighting that left both sides badly damaged. Russia’s withdrawal has been seen as a massive defeat for Putin, who was hoping for a speedy victory that would undermine the West’s ability to punish Russia. Russia described the assault on Kyiv as a feint to keep Ukrainian forces from counterattacking.

Still, many Western military analysts view Russia as the clear loser so far because its invasion has been stopped by Ukrainian resistance, assisted by billions of dollars in Western military support; its economy is reeling from Western sanctions, which amount to economic warfare against Russia; and the NATO alliance has grown stronger since the invasion started on Feb. 24. Finland and Sweden, two neutral nations, are now expected to seek NATO membership by the summer.

In addition, international condemnation is growing as evidence of war crimes and atrocities by Russian troops mounts and Putin faces charges that he has unleashed genocide against Ukraine.

The battle for the Donbas, then, is seen as pivotal to the war’s outcome.

Zelenskyy vowed that Ukraine will win the war and in his speech on Monday night said Russia’s military will find it increasingly hard to replenish its arsenal of missiles, aircraft, helicopters and ships due to Western sanctions cutting off the supply of critical components.

“Today’s strikes at Lviv, at the Dnipropetrovsk region and any other Russian strikes mean only one thing: we, the world and history will take from Russia much more than Russian missiles will take from Ukraine,” Zelenskyy said, referring to missile strikes on Monday. “Every lost life is an argument for Ukrainians and other free nations to perceive Russia exclusively as a threat generation after generation.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks from Kyiv, Ukraine, on Monday, April 18, 2022. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

He said Russia’s new assault is “more thought-out” than what it carried out at the start of the war.

“They are putting pressure, looking for a weak spot in the defense of our state to go there with the main forces,” he said.

“Apparently, Russian generals, accustomed to neglecting any losses, have already killed so many Russian servicemen that even they have to be more careful, as there will be no one left to attack.”

He declared that Russia will be defeated.

“It is only a matter of time when the whole territory of our state will be liberated,” Zelenskyy said. “No matter how many Russian soldiers are driven there, we will fight. We will defend ourselves. We will do it daily.”

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The intense fighting in Donbas is taking place in the towns of Izium, Slavyansk, Rubizhne, Popasna, Zolote, Lysychansk, Severodonetsk and Kramatorsk, among others. There are reports of intense artillery shelling by both sides, street fighting in places and heavy losses. So far, both sides claim they have killed more than 20,000 enemy troops, but it is impossible to verify such claims.

By Tuesday, Ukraine said Russian troops had captured the small city of Kreminna, which Russian sources described as a heavily fortified position in the Luhansk region. Ukrainian forces were reportedly attempting counterattacks.

Russian forces are seeking to encircle Ukrainian troops by advancing from the north and south. Zelenskyy said during an interview with CNN on Sunday that there were about 44,000 Ukrainian troops in Donbas, but the number of soldiers may be much higher.

According to many Western military experts, it remains doubtful that Russia can muster the troops it would need to be successful in its campaign to seize Donbas. It remains possible that Ukrainian forces could counterattack and seize territories now under control of Russia.

“The Russian offensive in the east is unlikely to be dramatically more successful than previous Russian offensives, but Russian forces may be able to wear down Ukrainian defenders or achieve limited gains,” the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington military think tank, said in its latest report late Monday.

The institute said Russia likely had not spent enough time restoring those forces that were badly damaged in the attack on Kyiv and northeastern Ukraine.

“Russian forces withdrawn from around Kyiv and going back to fight in Donbas have, at best, been patched up and filled out with soldiers from other damaged units, and the Russian military has few, if any, cohesive units not previously deployed to Ukraine to funnel into new operations,” the report states.

The institute also said there are “frequent reports of disastrously low Russian morale and continuing logistics challenges.”

“Russian forces may certainly be able to wear down Ukrainian positions in eastern Ukraine through the heavy concentration of firepower and sheer weight of numbers, but likely at a high cost,” its report continues. “A sudden and dramatic Russian offensive success remains highly unlikely, however, and Ukrainian tactical losses would not spell the end of the campaign in eastern Ukraine, much less the war as a whole.”

In the meantime, Russian forces continued to storm the Azovstal steelworks plant in Mariupol to kill and capture the last Ukrainian forces left in the destroyed southeastern port city. Between 2,000 and 4,000 Ukrainian troops are reportedly holed up in the steelworks plant for a last stand. Many of these troops are with the Azov Regiment, a far-right militia of hardcore fighters that was incorporated into Ukraine's national guard.

Russia issued an ultimatum on Sunday for those troops to surrender, but the offer was rebuffed. A similar offer was rejected Tuesday.

Russia reported that more than 100 civilians inside the steelworks were able to leave on Tuesday. Ukraine claimed that thousands of civilians remained inside the plant. Russia accuses Azov fighters of holding civilians hostage, an allegation that Ukraine rejected.

Russia appeared ready to lay siege to the underground network at Azovstal where Ukrainian forces are holding out. A leader of pro-Russian separatists recently even suggested using a chemical weapon to eliminate the holdouts. Ukraine alleged Russia planned to drop massive bombs to raze Azovstal to the ground.

Heavy shelling was also reported in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city located near the Russian border in the northeast. The city has been under siege and bombardment for weeks and the humanitarian situation there is extremely dire.

Putin is certainly aiming to hail a victory in Ukraine for the large celebrations that take place every May 9 for Victory Day, a national holiday to commemorate the surrender of Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union.

The Russian leader may also use the Victory Day occasion to call for a more general mobilization of Russians to fight in Ukraine, which is increasingly being characterized in Russian media as a war between Russia and NATO.

The sinking of the Moskva, Russia’s flagship in its Black Sea Fleet, last Friday was a shock for Russia and since then the rhetoric coming from Moscow has only grown more bellicose.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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