Ukraine is still gripping the city, as Russia seeks to take it by leveling it to nothing. Almost 90 percent of Sievierodonetsk’s buildings, and all of its critical infrastructure, have been destroyed, said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. A few thousand people remain in the city, without access to food, water, electricity, medicine.
“Their tactic is to turn the city into a desert and then take the territory,” said Serhiy Haidai, head of Luhansk’s regional war administration.
Sievierodonetsk represents the current phase of Russia’s war in Ukraine — a grinding, brutal, and unforgiving offensive in the Luhansk and Donestk oblasts (or administrative regions) where Russia seeks to take towns and territory, inch by inch, often relying on indiscriminate shelling and bombing that leaves the region a wasteland. There is no clear end to this campaign.
Weeks after Russia refocused its war in Ukraine toward the Donbas, the Kremlin’s forces are steadily advancing and controlling territory. “If you look at the map, what the Russians are doing in the south and east, they’re consistently making gains across the board,” said Nick Reynolds, research analyst for Land Warfare at RUSI. On Thursday, Zelenskyy said Russia now occupies one-fifth of Ukrainian territory.
These are still revised war aims for Moscow, which initially sought a lightning-quick takeover of Ukraine, and the collapse of the government in Kyiv. Ukraine’s resistance and Russia’s incompetence prevented that outcome, so Russia shifted its campaign to the south and east, where it could regroup and capitalize on the territorial gains the Kremlin achieved since the start of the full-scale invasion.
Russia has learned some lessons from its early failures, and is now concentrating on taking territory, bit by bit, rather than attempting multiple prongs of attack. The Kremlin has deployed its overwhelming fire and artillery power, which has led to mounting Ukrainian casualties.
Zelenskyy has said Ukraine is losing 60 to 100 soldiers each day in the east. “They move little by little, but definitely it brings us a lot of losses in our soldiers, and many wounded and many are killed,” said Volodymyr Omelyan, a former Minister of Infrastructure of Ukraine, who is now a member of the Territorial Defense Forces, currently stationed in southern Ukraine, between Kherson and Mykolaiv. “It’s not that type of story in the beginning of March, when we were simply killing Russians without losses from our side.”
Momentum may tilt toward Russia, but it is not overwhelmingly decisive. This is an unsparing strategy for Russia, which is still facing heavy losses. Ukraine is holding in Donetsk, though Russia is trying to push through. Ukraine has attempted counteroffensives, including around Kherson, in the south, though experts say Ukraine has only had limited success so far. But if that changes, it may stretch Russia if it is forced to respond.
The war is also transforming, as more advanced Western weapons, like the US’s advanced rocket systems, make their way to the Ukrainians on the front lines. All of these arms take time to deliver. There are lags in distribution, in integrating weaponry into battalions, in training soldiers on those weapons. Simon Schlegel, a senior analyst for Ukraine at the International Crisis Group, said we may see more attempts by Ukrainians to use heavier and more sophisticated weapons for counterattacks later this summer. The test will be if that can translate into more Ukrainian victories.
Still, 100 days since Russia launched its full-scale invasion, the situation on the ground in Ukraine is still very fluid. Russia is inching toward its (downgraded) war aim of controlling the Donbas, which would give Russian President Vladimir Putin a potential victory to sell at home. But whether that will be enough for Putin is still a real question. It is unlikely, too, that Ukraine could settle for slicing off its territory, and abandoning the Ukrainians now under Russian control. All of this risks a sustained conflict, as the economic and humanitarian toll mounts.
Russia is gaining territory in the Donbas. Can it hold it?
Incremental progress has been the hallmark of Russia’s offensive in the east, and, over time, those gains have added up. To achieve those, Russia has completely decimated cities. What Russia did in Mariupol, it is doing across the Donbas.
“If you look at what they’re doing now in the Donbas and why they’re taking territory, it’s because they’re going back to the way Russia traditionally fights wars, which is through indiscriminate fires, overwhelming fires, little regard for civilian populations, committing war crimes,” said Dmitri Alperovitch, co-founder and chairman of Silverado Policy Accelerator.
Russia has repeatedly denied allegations of war crimes. When confronted with individual incidents — like an airstrike on a chemical plant in Sievierodonetsk Tuesday that sent huge plumes of nitric acid into the air — pro-Moscow separatist authorities said the explosion occurred on Ukrainian-controlled land.
Omelyan said, from his position in the south, in areas Russia had bombarded or occupied, everything was destroyed. “Right now, it’s kind of the Sahara or a desert, without any glimpse of survivors, almost all buildings are bombed, the bridges are exploded, and the roads are badly damaged.”
Russian heavy artillery is also taking its toll on Ukrainian troops, who are now suffering serious casualties and losses. That has forced Ukrainians to give up some of its positions in the east, and it may bruise the morale of the Ukrainian forces, as some of the euphoria around Ukraine’s early victories fades.
Russia’s strategy also comes with real costs. A Pentagon official told the New York Times that Russia’s “plodding and incremental” pace has worn down the military, and Russia’s overall fighting capacity has diminished by about 20 percent. As in Mariupol, Russia is still expending a lot of firepower and soldiers to take just one city. Russia’s singular focus on making these gains has also left some areas vulnerable, with Ukraine able to challenge control of places like Kharkiv, and to attempt counteroffensives around Kherson.
And it is one thing for Russia to take territory. It is another thing to hold it. “Every new town that they control, they have to then also build a fence there, they have to leave soldiers there to prevent an insurgency and to counter attack,” Schlegel said. “And so every new place that they control also binds forces. Therefore, we cannot be sure whether they can hold this pace after Sievierdonestk.”
Ukrainian civilians in Russian-controlled territory may also mount sustained resistance. In the Russian-held Melitopol, an explosion appeared to target the Russian-installed leader, which the Kremlin blamed on “Ukrainian saboteurs.” The former mayor of Melitopol, Ivan Fedorov, said “the ground will burn” in Melitopol until the Russians leave.
So far, insurgency in Russian-controlled areas has been limited, but it is also very difficult to know what is happening in those areas. Russia’s campaign of devastation has forced tens of thousands of people to flee, and many of those left behind in Russian-controlled areas are often those too vulnerable to evacuate. It may take time, experts said, to rebuild some of these population centers to the point that an insurgency is possible.
If an insurgency does happen, it will become extraordinarily costly for Russian troops and Ukrainian civilians alike. The Kremlin has a well-worn playbook on trying to coerce occupied populations into compliance through forced disappearances, torture, and mass killings. There is strong evidence that Russian forces committed war crimes in Ukraine, as in Bucha. Such atrocities may be happening across the Donbas, too, just obscured because it is happening in places where Russia controls the information flow.
“Russians are either going to keep crawling forward slowly, or they’re going to hold and stabilize, and basically dig in defensively and start purging the local population they control,” said Reynolds. “That’s the trajectory we’re on.”
Asking “how does it end?” for a war that’s not ending
Russia has made progress in the east because it narrowed its campaign. It also outmatches Ukraine militarily with advanced weaponry and heavy artillery.
Yes, Russia has suffered really embarrassing losses. Ukraine has found ways to undermine Russia’s might, and Russia has found ways to undermine itself. According to Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Michael Kofman, Russia has lost approximately “25 percent of its active tank force, over 30 aircraft and more than 10,000 troops.” But Russia still has more of everything, both when it comes to advanced weaponry and equipment, even if they’re coming out of storage.
Ukraine has mounted a stunning and scrappy defense, fending off a full takeover of its territory. But as the war becomes entrenched in the east, Kyiv has lacked effective counteroffensives — that is, not just holding Russia off, but taking back what they’ve lost, either to pre-February 24 invasion boundaries, or beyond that. The question is whether US and Western weapons, especially more advanced systems, might help sway that.
The US has provided billions in security assistance to Ukraine since the start of the war, from the anti-aircraft Javelins to long-range weapons systems like Howitzers. This week, President Joe Biden announced another $700 million in military aid to Ukraine, including four High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, known as HIMARS, which allows forces to launch multiple, precision-guided rockets. Ukraine has been asking for these for a while, and they are the most advanced weapons delivered to date, though the US has limited its range to avoid Ukraine firing into Russian territory. The UK is also requesting to send similar systems.
In general, throughout the war, weapons deliveries from the West have tended to come in waves, and it takes time to deliver arms and artillery, to discreetly transport them amid a Russian offensive, to train Ukrainians on how they’re used, who then need to go back and train the soldiers on the front. (The Pentagon has said it will take about three weeks to train Ukrainian forces on HIMARS.)
It’s also a lot harder to rapidly ramp up Ukrainian capabilities in the middle of an active war, where it’s very difficult to track where things are going and who is getting what and making sure it’s all working effectively. Even in the best of cases, it can take time for these weapons to start having an influence on the battlefield. “I was very happy recently to hear the voice of American music,” Omelyan said of the sound of M777 howitzers, which started to make their way to the front lines in May.
Still, the costs of war are mounting. The humanitarian toll in Ukraine is devastating; more than 6 million people have fled Ukraine, and another 7 million are displaced internally, according to the United Nations. The United Nations has recorded more than 4,000 civilians killed since February 24, but the real figure is almost certainly much higher. The mass graves in Mariupol are just one chilling detail of the destruction Russia has wrought.
Ukraine is also effectively under economic blockade because of the Russian naval presence in the Black Sea. Its economy has basically been slashed in half in 2022, and the government requires economic assistance to stay afloat. “The big question is going to be will the economic aid keep coming,” Alperovitch said. “In some way it’s much easier to bring military aid, rocket systems, artillery, and the like. But writing checks for billions of dollars every month to sustain Ukraine because its economy is crippled by the blockade is a much harder sell to the population that is suffering from its own economic challenges.”
Russia has floated the idea of easing the blockade, and letting Ukrainian grain shipments go through the Black Sea, in exchange for relief from Western sanctions. Ukrainian officials have been skeptical of such a bargain, and it will likely be very difficult for Western governments to make such a deal if Russia is actively still waging war in Ukraine. But that could change as the war drags on, and the economic fallout of the conflict becomes more painful for in the US, Europe, and the rest of the world.
In many ways, this gets to the larger dilemma of finding a solution to end Russia’s war in Ukraine, especially as Moscow becomes more entrenched in the east: how to broker an end to the conflict that somehow avoids giving Putin what he wants. And if Putin gets what he wants, it will likely come at the expense of what Ukraine wants.
Putin had to revise his initial war aim, but the gains Russia has made in the Donbas mean he could define what this “special military operation” has accomplished as a version of a victory. He can tell Russians that he has secured Crimea by effectively creating this land corridor that extends through eastern Ukraine, give or take a few towns or villages. He can say that he has “liberated” the Donbas. He can say that he destroyed Ukraine’s industry and infrastructure to the point that it can never rebuild its military. All of this was likely not worth the costs to Russia, but it is an available out for Putin, if he wants it.
But what of Ukraine? Zelenskyy and Biden (quoting Zelenskky, in a New York Times op-ed) have said this war will end with a diplomatic settlement. Western support is an effort to help tip the outcome in favor of Ukraine. In public, Ukrainian officials have broadly opposed ceding any territory to Russia, and of abandoning Ukrainians in Russian-occupied areas. They believe the public is behind them. “Any politician that would try to bring such a deal with the Russians or whoever has no political future, I believe, and it’s very, very dangerous,” said Sergiy Kyslytsya, the Ukrainian ambassador to the United Nations, at a Washington Post event this week.
“The Ukrainians aren’t going to come to peace on those terms. For the Russians, just because they want to stop and draw new boundaries, they will face sustained conflict,” Reynolds said.
This increases the prospect of a sustained conflict, especially as, right now, neither Russia nor Ukraine has an incentive to give up the fight. “I’m sure that this will end with Ukrainian victory,” Maryan Zablotskyy, a Ukrainian member of parliament, told Vox. “The simple reason is that Russia is on the wrong side, we are on the right side, and have the support from the West. The bigger question is probably: At which cost?”