Announcing that you will focus on the liberation of the eastern region of Donbas and then casually bomb military targets in western Ukraine. At first glance, this seems quite contradictory of Russia, but appearances are deceiving, as it turns out.
Three explosions sounded on Saturday in a suburb of the city of Lviv in western Ukraine, about 80 kilometers from the border with Poland. They were the result of the impact of Russian missiles that injured at least five, the governor of the region said. The Russian defense ministry said precision missiles had hit military targets: a fuel storage facility and a factory for radar systems used for Ukraine’s anti-aircraft guns and tanks. “The Russian army continues its offensive,” the ministry said.
The air strikes sowed confusion over Russia’s course of war. An officer of the Russian General Staff announced a new phase in the “special operation” on Friday. “The main objectives of the first phase have generally been achieved. The combat potential of the Ukrainian Armed Forces has been significantly reduced. So we can focus our efforts on achieving the most important goal: the liberation of Donbas,” said Major General Sergei Rudskoy.
The developments are anything but contradictory, says military expert Peter Wijninga of the Hague Center for Strategic Studies. “This is a very clever tactic on the part of Russia,” said the former colonel. “With the bombing in western Ukraine, the Russians are forcing Ukrainian air defense units to stay there and not to help elsewhere.”
If Russia controls the entire region, including Mariupol, it could claim victory
The motivation for the ‘turn’ just doesn’t make sense, says Wijninga. Cynical: ,,That’s a chatter story. Now the liberation of Donbas is suddenly the most important goal.” Putin mentioned on 24 February the goal of ‘demilitarizing and denazification’ of Ukraine. “Russia has wasted a lot of energy attacking from four directions and has simply not been successful in attacking cities like Kiev and Mykolaiv,” said the former Air Force officer. “That the Russians dig in there is smart, because they also force the Ukrainian ground forces to stay there.”
Shifting the focus to the Donbas region could well be the prelude to peace negotiations, Wijninga thinks. “If Russia controls the entire region, including Mariupol, it could claim victory.”
The city of Mariupol, which has been besieged and surrounded for weeks, is important because of its port, says the military expert. “If the Russians own that port, they can export coal from the mines in Donbass, something that was not allowed by Ukraine from the two people’s republics. With the port you also control access to the land bridge to Crimea.”
He therefore expects Russian troops to reinforce the two Moscow-recognized republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine via internal lines from Russia. Wijninga: ,,Apparently there are about ten battalions on the way, good for six to eight thousand men. That’s quite a boost. Donbass has the great advantage of being fairly close to the Russian border. Russian air defenses also extend over the region, which would allow Russian ground forces to cooperate with their own air forces. That way Russia can make a lot of profit from it.”
Loss of status
Professor of military operational sciences Frans Osinga sees the ‘turn’ of Russia as an acknowledgment of the military losses and partly as an attempt to prevent Putin’s loss of face and Russia’s loss of status. According to him, there is no question of a radical change of course. “Why reveal your next move to the enemy? This is just another way for the Russians to achieve their goal.”
Putin wants to be able to show success and get out of the sanctions. In the Donbas region, military supply lines are shorter and air superiority is presumably easier to achieve. The troop density is also higher, because the Russians have been fighting Ukrainian units with separatist troops there since 2014. In short: military success is easier to achieve there. If Mariupol and Crimea are connected by the land bridge, Putin can say that ‘the demilitarization has been successful’ and then claim victory and start peace negotiations.”
But that is not the end of the matter, predicts the air force general. Putin will then own all Ukrainian ports except Odessa. “Those ports account for 40 to 50 percent of Ukrainian exports. Then he can say to President Zelensky: I have your economy in my hands and strategically wait until the time is right to realize his idea-fixe: restoring Novorossiya.” That “new Russia” was a colony of the Empire. Russia (1721-1917) and ran from present-day Belarus via Kharkov, Dnipropetrovsk, Nikolaiv and Odessa to Moldova.
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