(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.”
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.”