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Russia ‘forced to merge depleted units from failed advances in Ukraine’, UK says

Western officials believe Moscow’s offensive in eastern Ukraine is going much slower than planned

Andy Gregory
Saturday 30 April 2022 18:45 BST
Two Russian soldiers patrol in the Mariupol drama theatre a month after it was bombed
Two Russian soldiers patrol in the Mariupol drama theatre a month after it was bombed (AFP/Getty Images)

As Vladimir Putin turns his focus to Ukraine’s Donbas region, Russia has “been forced to merge and redeploy depleted and disparate units” already weary from Moscow’s failed offensives near Kyiv, the UK government has claimed.

In an intelligence update on Saturday, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) suggested that the Kremlin was seeking to “rectify” the tactical and logistical issues which have hampered its invasion of Ukraine to date.

Moscow is hoping to achieve this by “geographically concentrating combat power, shortening supply lines and simplifying command and control”, the MoD said.

But it claimed that Mr Putin’s forces “still face considerable challenges” and that “shortcomings in Russian tactical co-ordination remain”.

Many of the units redeployed in Moscow’s eastern offensive are “likely suffering from weakened morale”, while “a lack of unit-level skills and inconsistent air support have left Russia unable to fully leverage its combat mass, even despite localised improvements”, according to the MoD.

The UK’s assessment appears to echo beliefs in Washington that Mr Putin’s forces have made only minor gains in Donbas in the month since Russia announced it would focus its military strength in the eastern region, following a retreat from Ukraine’s north.

As Russian troops try to move north out of the devastated city of Mariupol, in order to advance on Ukrainian forces from the south, their progress has been “slow and uneven and certainly not decisive”, an unnamed US defence official told the Associated Press.

In part because of the tenacity of the Ukrainian resistance, the US believes the Russians are “at least several days behind where they wanted to be”, the official said.

In an operational update on Saturday, Ukraine’s defence ministry claimed 14 Russian offensives had been repelled in Donetsk and Luhansk over the previous 24 hours, with Moscow enjoying “no success” in its attempts to seize control of three target areas in the regions – Lyman, Sievierodonetsk and Popasna.

Luhansk governor Serhiy Gaidai told local broadcasters that, although Russia was shelling all over the region, “they cannot get through our defence”.

However, Russian attacks destroyed two schools and 20 houses in Rubizhne and Popasna, Mr Gaidai said, adding that civilians would continue to be evacuated despite the difficult situation. Two buses sent to evacuate civilians from Popasna were fired on by Russian troops on Friday and there had been no word from the drivers, a local official said.

Russia’s defence ministry claimed that its artillery units had struck 389 Ukrainian targets overnight, including 35 control points and 15 arms and ammunition depots.

In a rare show of emotion during a briefing on Friday, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby appeared to choke up as he denounced the “depravity” of Mr Putin’s invasion, saying: “It’s difficult to look at some of the images and imagine that any well-thinking, serious mature leader would do that.”

Mr Kirby said that while the Pentagon had not seen any signs of major dissent against Mr Putin from his top officials or the Russian elites, “what we have seen is continued indications at lower levels in the army of poor morale, discouragement, [and] lack of unit cohesion”.

“They’ve just now put a bunch more fresh conscripts into the fight” who “tend to have high morale going in” – which is then “shattered” after “first contact with the enemy”, Mr Kirby said.

Meanwhile, some western analysts suggested the Russian assault on Donbas has “already turned into a battle of attrition” and would likely “peter out” in a matter of weeks – or even days.

Mr Putin’s renewed assault “holds out almost no possibility of a major Russian victory and more likely will peter out in the next week or so because of unsustainable losses”, Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at the University of St Andrews, wrote on Twitter.

And Dr Mike Martin, a visiting fellow at King’s College London’s war studies department, suggested that the “Russians have sort of fizzled”, having “pulled all of these mauled units out of Kyiv, and then tried to reconstitute them for combat in the east”.

“The Russians really had one chance – to build these units up – to build up a reserve, and then try to do some bold manoeuvre – and surround the Ukrainians in the east”, but instead appear to be “squandering” this chance, meaning “we will see the battle for Donbas culminate in maybe the next two to four weeks”, Dr Martin tweeted.

“Basically the Russians are gonna run out of troops, and the Ukrainians are going to counterattack,” he said, adding that Moscow’s forces are “so poorly trained and with such poor morale that they are still sticking to main roads”, leaving them susceptible to Ukrainian ambushes and artillery fire.

It came as Russian and western officials, including UK defence secretary Ben Wallace, claimed Mr Putin could soon drop the term “special operation” and declare all-out war on Ukraine.

Seeking “payback” for Moscow’s failures in Kyiv, top army officials are claimed to be imploring Russia’s president to announce the shift during an annual Victory Day parade on 9 May, which would enable Mr Putin to impose martial law, call on Russia’s allies for greater military help, and drum up the mass-mobilisation of its own population.

Additional reporting by Reuters

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