After three months of full-scale war against Ukraine, in which ground troops invaded from several directions and missiles hit targets across the country, right up to the western border with Poland, the focus of the current phase of the conflict is back on the region where Russia has been fighting Ukraine for the past eight years: Donbas.
Military analyst Michael Kofman wrote on Twitter last week: “The overall military balance in this war still trends in Ukraine’s favour, given manpower availability and access to extensive Western military support … But the local balance in the Donbas during this phase is a different story.”
How fully and how quickly Vladimir Putin attains his objectives in Donbas may dictate how and whether other parts of Ukraine come back into play. The level of losses sustained will also play a role.
Russia has abandoned attempts to encircle all Ukrainian forces in Donbas for the more modest goal of creating “cauldrons” – smaller encirclements cutting Ukrainians off from supplies and reinforcements.
Last week, the focus was on the city of Sievierodonetsk, where local governor Serhiy Haidai said Russia had committed 10,000 soldiers and an extra 2,500 pieces of equipment to attacking the city. There are reports that the Russians already control a hotel on the outskirts of the city, after many days of ruthless bombardments.
If Russia takes Sievierodonetsk, it will control the entire Luhansk region, and can increase its focus on parts of Donetsk it still does not control.
“I don’t think the Russian offensive looks stalled, and while sluggish, there is no good way to predict when it will culminate,” wrote Kofman.
There is no longer any doubt that Russia plans to fully annex parts of Ukraine, as it did with Crimea in 2014. Then, Moscow declined to do the same with the areas it controlled in east Ukraine, preferring instead to prop up separatist administrations there. Now, there is talk of rapid annexation of the parts of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia provinces that Russia took in the first days of the invasion.
Unlike Mariupol, which Russia conquered after bombing it to rubble – and possibly other cities in Donbas that Russia may soon capture – these territories were largely taken with no fighting, so Russia has been able to focus on mopping up dissent and trying to take full control.
The areas have seen an increased crackdown on pro-Ukrainian sentiment, as well as reports that Russia is introducing the rouble and Moscow time zone, announcements that teachers will be retrained in the Russian curriculum, and a series of sinister videos of locals announcing on camera that they had been through “a course of denazification” and no longer support Ukraine.
Formal annexation of this territory could have huge consequences for the prospect of a peace deal. Ukraine will not accept the loss of these areas, but if it launches a counterattack, Russia could claim Ukraine was attacking Russian territory.
Life in the Ukrainian capital feels more normal by the week. The occasional air raid siren and men with guns on the streets are reminders of the war, but cafe terraces are busy, the opera has reopened and the curfew has been pushed back to 11pm. Since the Russians withdrew at the beginning of April, there has been no artillery threat, and no repeat of the booms from the suburbs that characterised the first weeks of the war.
However, Russian-language news outlet Meduza last week quoted Kremlin-linked sources claiming that Putin had not yet given up on Kyiv and may launch another assault once the battle for Donbas is over.
As with Kyiv, the Russians attempted to storm the country’s second city in the early days of the war and, as in the capital, they faced unexpectedly strong resistance, were stalled on the outskirts and then pushed back into positions surrounding the city.
In recent weeks, Ukrainian forces have pushed the Russians back further but, unlike with Kyiv, the invaders are still within striking distance of the city. Last Thursday, areas within the city limits were shelled for the first time in two weeks and nine civilians died, according to local authorities.
Military commanders say there is no sign of a new advance on Kharkiv, but the Russians are digging firmly into the positions they still hold, with no plans to retreat all the way to the border as they did elsewhere.
“They are planning something,” said one commander based outside the city last week.
“We may only find out what it is when it happens.”