Ukrainian armed forces in eastern Ukraine, September 2015
Ukrainian armed forces in eastern Ukraine, September 2015

Hot Take: Russian Forces Likely to Focus on Eastern Ukraine This Week, Next Chapter of War ‘Could Prove Even Uglier’

March 20, 2022
Michael Kofman

For a more detailed discussion of the topics touched on here, as well as the repressive apparatus that seems to be taking shape in Russian-occupied portions of Ukraine, listen to the author’s interview with War on the Rocks.

About two weeks ago I suggested that Russian forces have approximately three weeks before their combat effectiveness becomes increasingly exhausted. I think that's generally been right, but we're not quite there yet.

The war has broken down into what could imperfectly be called three fronts, and Russian advances have stalled out along two of them. Around Kyiv Russian forces are trying to consolidate positions, but I don't think they can make an assault on the city. Kyiv is far from encircled. In the southwest there was a fitful advance around Mykolaiv toward Odessa that had little chance of success given the paucity of forces employed. This has been set back by a Ukrainian counteroffensive.

I expect little progress there for either side and more of a shifting front. This means we're not going to see an amphibious landing at Odessa, or a Russian march to Transnistria, anytime soon (if ever)—at least not in this phase of the war. However, Russian advances toward Kryvyi Rih [Zelensky’s hometown—Ed.] do threaten Ukrainian lines of communications west of the river.

The area to watch in the coming week is the Russian attempt to encircle Ukrainian forces in the joint forces operation [in eastern Ukraine]—a slowly progressing pincer movement from the north and south (see Nathan Ruser's map here). This is where Ukrainian forces could be in a precarious position. Since inception, the Russian military effort has lacked focus: too few forces, on too many axes of advance, some competing with each other. I think in the next two weeks they are likely to concentrate on Ukrainian forces in the east and the battle for Mariupol. I suspect unrealistic political aims and timetables have driven an unsound military strategy: Kyiv, Odessa, Donbas, etc. There's a desperation to show progress. Increasingly it looks as though the Russian military is focusing on the Donbas, and maintaining along other fronts.

Depreciating combat effectiveness sets the stage for either a significant operational pause along most fronts or a ceasefire. This does not necessarily imply a political settlement, but a period to reorganize, consolidate and resupply—an end to the first chapter of this war.

I think Moscow is searching for something it can use to declare a victory. Taking the Donbas, and having leverage to attain concessions from Kyiv, is probably what it’s looking to accomplish at this point. This is at best a guess.

Much depends on what Putin knows and thinks about the course of the war, and whether he feels pressured at home. Our impression of the war and the reality on the ground might be quite different from his. It’s not clear he understands what the prospects for Russian success are.

Naturally there is uncertainty about the state of the Russian armed forces along different parts of the battlefield; it’s bound to be uneven, and we know even less about the state of the Ukrainian forces.

The next chapter in this war could prove even uglier as it will likely turn into a war of attrition, with greater bombardment of civilian areas. Here I am more concerned about the future evolution of this conflict, despite the remarkably poor Russian performance thus far.

Generally, I don't see how any military success can add up to something that constitutes a political victory for Moscow. If there is another phase, Russian forces will probably try to compensate for poor performance by inflicting greater destruction.

Worth noting: The Russian military is interpreting “demilitarization” quite literally as a secondary goal in this conflict, going after Ukraine's defense industry and key military infrastructure. It seems they want to substantially degrade Ukraine's military potential.

Has the war entered a stalemate? Yes and no. Russian forces may make slow, incremental advances in the Donbas. I suspect Ukrainian military can hold on most fronts and perhaps even counterattack on others. However, attrition is undoubtedly taking its toll on both sides.

In general, I've tried to be cautious in rendering predictions because I think we don't know if this point in the conflict is near the beginning, the middle or the end of the war. Few things are as contingent and indeterminate.


Michael Kofman

Director, Russia Studies at CNA @KofmanMichael

This article has been adapted from a March 20 Twitter thread by the author. All opinions expressed in the piece are solely those of the author.

Photo courtesy of Ukraine's Defense Ministry. Photographer: Taras Gren