WASHINGTON — When Russia shifted its military campaign to focus on eastern Ukraine this spring, senior Biden administration officials said the next four to six weeks of fighting would determine the final path of war. .
That time has passed, and officials say the situation is increasingly clear: Russia should end up with more territory, they said, but neither side will take full control of the region as a depleted Russian army faces an adversary armed with increasingly sophisticated weapons. .
While Russia has taken territory in the easternmost region of Lugansk, its progress has been laborious. Meanwhile, the arrival of US long-range artillery systems and Ukrainians trained in their use should help Ukraine in the battles to come, said Chiefs of State Chairman General Mark A. Milley. joint major.
“If they use it correctly, practically, then they will have very, very good effects on the battlefield,” General Milley told reporters accompanying him this month after touring Europe.
Pentagon officials said that meant Russia might not be able to make similar gains to neighboring Donetsk, which together with Luhansk forms the mineral-rich Donbass region. Ukrainian troops have been fighting Russian-backed separatists in the Donbass since 2014, when Moscow annexed Crimea to Ukraine.
After weeks of bloody battles in the east – with up to 200 Ukrainian soldiers killed every day, according to the government’s own estimates, and a similar or higher toll among Russian troops, according to Western estimates – Russia holds little nearly the same amount of territory in Donetsk that the separatists controlled in February before the invasion.
But US officials say they expect Russia to take control of the entire Lugansk region soon. A defense official said he expects the twin towns of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk to fall within days, as Russian forces pounded the area with heavy artillery and ‘dumb bombs’ – unguided munitions which inflict many losses.
According to reports over the weekend, Russian forces had crossed the Ukrainian front line at Toshkivka, a town just outside Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk. Capturing Toshkivka would bring the Russians closer to threatening Ukrainian supply lines to both towns, the last major population centers of Luhansk that did not fall into Russian hands. On Monday, it was unclear which side held Toshkivka.
Russian ground troops advanced slowly, in some cases taking weeks to move one or two miles, US officials said. This could signal a shortage of infantry soldiers or additional caution from Moscow after experiencing supply line problems during its disastrous first weeks of the war.
Several military analysts say Russia is at peak combat effectiveness in the East, as long-range artillery systems promised to Ukraine by NATO nations continue to pour in.
“The price of this battle for us is very high,” he said in an overnight address. “It’s just scary. And we daily draw the attention of our partners to the fact that only a sufficient number of modern artillery for Ukraine will ensure our advantage and finally an end to the Russian torture of Ukrainian Donbass.
Better understand the Russian-Ukrainian war
President Biden on Wednesday announced an additional $1 billion in arms and aid for Ukraine, in a package that includes more long-range artillery, anti-ship missile launchers and shells for howitzers and for the new American rocket system. Overall, the United States has committed about $5.6 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since the February 24 invasion of Russia.
Mr. Zelensky and his aides appealed to the West to provide more sophisticated weaponry than he has already sent. They questioned their allies’ commitment to the Ukrainian cause and insisted that nothing else could stop Russia’s advance, which even by conservative estimates has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of civilians and soldiers.
Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III last week urged Western allies to redouble their military aid to Ukraine, warning that the country “is facing a pivotal moment on the battlefield” in its close fight four months with Russia. Mr. Austin and General Milley met with US allies in Brussels to discuss how to further help Ukraine.
Pentagon officials expect the arrival of longer-range artillery systems to change the battlefield in Donetsk, if not Luhansk.
Frederick B. Hodges, a former top US Army Europe commander who is now at the Center for European Policy Analysis, said the war would likely last several more months. But he predicted that Ukrainian forces – bolstered by heavy artillery from the West – would slow Russia’s advance and begin to reduce its gains by the end of the summer.
“War is a test of willpower, and Ukrainians have superior willpower,” General Hodges said. “I see the Ukrainian logistics situation improving every week while the Russian logistics situation will slowly deteriorate. They have no allies or friends.
The Russian military is designed for short, high-intensity campaigns defined by heavy use of artillery, military analysts have said. It is unprepared for a sustained occupation, nor for the kind of bitter attrition warfare underway in eastern Ukraine that requires replacing battered ground forces.
“This is a critical time for both parties,” said Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at UKTN, a research institute in Arlington, Virginia. “Probably within the next two months, both forces will be exhausted. Ukraine suffers from a shortage of equipment and ammunition. Russia has already lost much of its combat power, and its force is not well suited for a sustained ground war of this magnitude and duration.
Russia will try to continue making territorial gains mile by mile, then likely reinforce its front lines with mines and other defenses against a Ukrainian counterattack, which is expected after the arrival of long-range artillery systems. worn on the battlefield, analysts said.
In recent days, neither force has been able to achieve a major breakthrough into their opponent’s front lines.
Even though the land could change hands, “neither side has the mace to exploit minor gains,” said Christopher M. Dougherty, a former Army ranger and defense analyst at the Center for a New American. Security, in a statement. Posting on Twitter this month. “War now probably becomes a test of endurance.”
As a result, several military analysts said, Moscow and Kyiv will both rush reinforcements to the front lines.
“The resupply race will be critical for both sides,” wrote Col. John B. Barranco of the Marine Corps, Col. Benjamin G. Johnson of the Army, and Lt. Col. Tyson Wetzel of the Army. air in an Atlantic Council analysis. .
“To replace its losses, the Kremlin may have to resort to sending thousands more conscripts,” the officers said, adding that Ukraine will have to maintain its logistical lines and advance ground weapons, including the long-range artillery and aerial drones. systems.
Analysts and former US commanders offered different predictions of how the war might change.
The weaknesses of the Ukrainian army’s position are beginning to appear and are causing concern. While some independent analysts predicted that the Russian advance would be halted at Sievierodonetsk, US government experts are not so sure. Some say they believe Russia’s meteoric advance may continue and the Russians may soon make more progress in areas where Ukrainian counterattacks have been successful.
The tactics used by Russia, according to current and former officials, are having a devastating effect in eastern Ukraine, causing so much destruction that Mr Zelensky said troops were fighting for “ghost towns” where the most civilians fled.
Other analysts predict a back-and-forth that could span months or even years.
“That’s likely to continue, with every trading territory being marginal,” Kofman said. “It’s going to be a dynamic situation. It is unlikely that there will be any major collapses or major surrenders.
Military and intelligence officials said Russia continued to suffer heavy casualties and struggled to recruit soldiers to fill its ranks. Morale is low in the Russian military and problems with poorly maintained equipment persist, according to US officials and analysts.
The fight in the Donbass has become a deadly artillery duel inflicting heavy casualties on both sides.
Commercial satellite imagery of craters in eastern Ukraine suggests that Russian artillery shells often explode on the ground near Ukrainian trenches, not in the air above them. Airburst artillery more effectively kills soldiers in trenches.
Stephen Biddle, a military expert and professor of international relations at Columbia University, said the footage suggested the Russians were using old, poorly maintained munitions.
But ineffective artillery can still be very destructive when used en masse.
“Quantity has a quality of its own,” Dr. Biddle said. “If I was one of the infantry getting pounded in those trenches, I don’t know how much better I would feel knowing that Russian artillery could be even more deadly if it was better maintained and employed.”