Ukraine devastated and about to lose the eastern part to Russia but the four-month war still on

Despite fierce resistance put up by Ukraine, its eastern parts are all but lost to Russia. But even after four months of the ‘war’, it is not clear if, when and how the war would end

Russian troops in Ukraine
Russian troops in Ukraine

Saurabh Kumar Shahi

Four months after Russia launched its ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, the defences of the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) seem to have collapsed in the eastern Donbas region as was indeed predicted all along.

Some analysts are hoping that Russia would declare victory and announce cessation of hostility, having occupied eastern Ukraine. Western powers would renew pleas for Ukraine to reconcile to the lost territory and move ahead and rebuild the rest of Ukraine, with generous Western aid.

There are Western analysts who question this premise, pointing to recent Russian missile attacks on Ukrainian capital Kyiv, southern Ukraine and a shopping mall. Having devastated much of Ukraine, when and where will Russia stop?

The answer to that may well lie several thousand kilometres south in northern Sri Lanka; in the historical lessons of the Battle of Kilinochchi during the 4th Eelam War. A militia too often mistakes itself for a standing army, resorts to flawed tactics and loses the battle.

The Ukrainian Armed Forces took a hammering in the first 72 hours of the Russian operation and were reduced to a militia conducting partisan actions but not any serious offensive actions. It was pinned down and immobilised in some sectors by the advancing Russians and in others, like Kyiv, by a feint.

It was unable to either mobilise or transfer troops or heavy weaponry in any meaningful numbers. What it was still capable of was holding on to the massively fortified defences that it had constructed and reinforced since 2014, just for this day.

Russian missile attack on a shopping mall
Ukraine devastated and about to lose the eastern part to Russia but the four-month war still on
Ukraine devastated and about to lose the eastern part to Russia but the four-month war still on
Ukraine devastated and about to lose the eastern part to Russia but the four-month war still on

After Russians resorted to the tried and tested tactics of softening the defences through massive, sustained artillery and MRLS barrage before the infantry probed, UAF froze. UAF should have started thinking like a militia especially when they were already acting like one. But they failed. Just like what LTTE did during the Battle of Kilinochchi.

Kilinochchi was LTTE's capital. It did have some prestige attached to it. However, it had little strategic value. Not very different from Severodonetsk and Lysychansk in Ukraine. But LTTE wasted some of its best fighters in face-saving exercises and by the time they withdrew to the strategic Elephant Pass, which was difficult geography for the Sri Lankan Army to negotiate, the LTTE had too few fighters left to defend it.

This is what is now unfolding in Eastern Ukraine as well. The moment Russians broke through Izyum and Popasnaya, the Ukrainians should have abandoned the SverodonetskBakhmut-Avdivika-Vuhledar line. They should have withdrawn their best units and established a proper second line of defence along the Kharkiv-Poltava-KremenchukDniprograd-Mykolayiv-Odessa axis and lived to fight another day.

But no, it kept sending its best troops as cannon fodder inside the forming cauldron and kept getting destroyed in the meat-grinder. It is doing so even as I write this. This will render the second line of defence much more vulnerable and less formidable. I suspect that a general collapse in territories east of Dnieper River shall be in the offing by August end.

Withdrawing reserves from other areas like Kharkiv and throwing them into this cauldron also means that Russian offence there will now see limited resistance. Sources suggest that the Russians are improving their tactical position in Balakliya, Zalman, Dovgalevka and Yavorskoye and have gone from tactical defence to a head-on offensive.

What’s more, after months of attrition, the UAF seems to have lost all of its Soviet Air Defence Systems including BUKs and S-300s. Rather than letting it face a fait accompli, the West seems to be trying to raise the stakes. The US intends to supply medium and long-range missile defence systems to Ukraine along with counter-battery radars and ammunition.

This is an escalation that will not go unanswered. American missile defence systems can be quickly equipped with strike missiles and hence they are not just “defensive weapons.” The reaction came rather fast as Russia has decided to equip Belarus with the Iskander Missile System capable of carrying nuclear weapons. This might deter the Europeans for the time being but since it is not short of unhinged leaders, most notably in the Baltics, the world is always just one step away from a nuclear winter.

Western analysts are once again working themselves up by projecting this American-made air-defence system as the wonder weapon that would turn the tide of war. They had said this for M777 light artillery as well which turned out to be a dud on the real battle condition. Sources close to this correspondent in Moscow have played down its importance. If anything, they insist that they were more afraid of the Soviet systems that the Ukrainians were using because of the high degree of technical knowledge of their effective use that they possessed.

As one analyst put it, “Russia isn't fighting NATO in the skies above Ukraine. It is fighting itself, its engineering turned against it and supplemented by unreachable intelligence-sharing sources. This is why the air force appears too cautious to western observers, but it is unlikely to change. I do not believe this handicap will change the outcome of the war, largely due to Russia's overwhelming advantage in standoff weapons, and of course, in the fighting that matters, artillery.”

This would not be the case with the western systems as Ukrainians wouldn’t have trained enough on those systems to master them. It also does not help that the grammar and the basic engineering of these American systems are completely different from the Soviet ones rendering your prior knowledge to a nought.

While the Western Press has got at least something to get worked up about for the time being, this Wunderwaffe is going to be even more ineffective than the ones from the 1940s as Russians steamroll through the East.

(The writer is an independent analyst. Views are personal)

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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