A new phase of the Ukraine war is shaping up in the eastern part of the country, where Russian troops are aiming to overcome early setbacks and pummel Ukrainian forces in a long-distance ground battle.
But succeeding with its new war goals will be no simple task for a Russian military that has lost some 15,000 personnel since its February 24 invasion, according to an estimate British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace gave on April 25.
While far larger than the Ukrainians, the Russian forces are seen by Western and Ukrainian officials as demoralized and increasingly depleted following Moscow’s failed attempt at a quick victory after it invaded. In addition to mounting casualty figures, Russia has already deployed large parts of its military arsenal, including some of its most modern equipment, and has fired vast amounts of its rockets, artillery shells, and missiles.
As Western countries continue to gain momentum sending more and better equipment to Ukraine, questions about the depth of Russia’s military stockpiles as well as the preparedness and skills of its soldiers hang over the Kremlin’s war effort as the conflict enters its ninth week.
To find out more about the battles ahead, RFE/RL spoke with Margarita Konaev, a fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology.
RFE/RL: Russian officials have stated that one of the goals of the second phase of the war is to establish full control over the Donbas and southern Ukraine as well as to create a land corridor that connects Crimea all the way over to Transdniester, the pro-Russian breakaway region of Moldova. How do you interpret that and how realistic a goal does this seem for the Russian military at this point?
Margarita Konaev: Everyone following the war has observed that the Russian military’s goals have had to be adjusted given the realities on the ground and, to an extent, these most recent statements reflect some of those realities that we're seeing in the Donbas right now. [They] already control a lot of the territory [in the south]. So restating those goals gives them more attainable possibilities of what they can achieve in the foreseeable future.
At the same time, I think that statement about blocking Ukrainian access to the sea, controlling all of southern Ukraine, and then perpetuating that land bridge to the area in Moldova that is controlled by Russian forces [is] alarming. I would read it not as something that they're necessarily going to be trying to achieve in this round of fighting and this phase of the war, but something that they're positioning for as an option that they could pursue in the future.
Right now, from [their] force availability [and] from their logistical capabilities, they're simply not in a position to pursue even these types of significant military goals because of how hard the Russian military has been hit and how well the war has turned out for them [so far].
RFE/RL: As a new phase of war is ramping up, there is a lot of focus right now on Ukraine being supplied from the West. But what kind of supplies and forces does Russia have that it hasn’t used yet and how does that measure up to the Ukrainian side?
Konaev: We've been paying a lot of attention to what Ukraine needs [and] to what Russia has been lacking or how [it] has been failing tactically, but we’ve focused less on what Russia has in reserve.
One area that they have not been using effectively -- and questions remain about whether they're able to [in the future] -- is airpower. We have not seen significant involvement of Russian airpower in this war and when they are hitting targets, they're doing it very briefly and then returning quickly back to safer Russian-controlled [areas]. More extensive involvement of Russian airpower could shift the balance a little more towards [Russia].
For Russia, a very important question is going to be manpower [and] to what extent they want to continue committing more and more of their own troops to this fight, especially at the [high] level of personnel losses that they've suffered. At a certain point, you have to start asking how you can justify those sorts of losses.
[Also] where they're going to be bringing those personnel from [is] a huge question. That's why we're hearing reports about mercenaries from the Vagner Group [and] even recruitment of some Syrian forces that they're allegedly bringing into [Ukraine]. [Although] I haven't really seen any real evidence to indicate that the numbers [of mercenaries] are as high as some reports suggest…it's not impossible that they will increasingly [have to] draw on some of those sources to augment their manpower [shortages].
RFE/RL: Russia recently claimed that it has captured control of Mariupol and in towns and cities across the south we are seeing Russian forces trying to set up local pro-Russian governments. In Kherson, there is even talk about holding a referendum to declare a “Kherson People’s Republic” to create another Moscow-backed entity carved from Ukraine. What do you make of these tactics being used on the ground by Russian forces as they take control of areas?
Konaev: From the early stages of the war, one of the biggest questions that's been asked is how is Russia planning to occupy Ukraine or Ukrainian areas that are clearly [not] interested in any sort of Russian rule?
We know that in the east and in parts of the south there are larger pockets of Russian speaking populations, but even among them, any sort of welcome to Russian incursions has really not been to a [level that Russia] expected at the beginning [of the war]. That is why they increasingly have to rely on violence, suppression, and the destruction of those areas rather than trying to persuade or [gain] some local support. It's a tactic that they inevitably have to use if they want to retain any sort of sway or control in that region.
But I personally don't anticipate any sort of perpetuated military occupation in the south [of Ukraine] that you would see in a place like Palestine or even any sort of removal of opponent forces that we saw during the surge in Iraq. It's going to be a very different type of relationship that they're going to try to establish with the local population there. And again, they're mostly relying on the destruction of those areas so [they can] then declare victory and be able to say that they've accomplished their goals there.
RFE/RL: Given the brutal tactics we’ve seen during the war and then attacks like those in Bucha, what kind of a relationship is even possible for Russian forces with Ukrainians on the ground if there were to be a referendum?
Konaev: Any sort of referendum, I think it's important to clarify, is absolutely illegitimate and illegal because this is an illegal war. [Such] a referendum [would be] against international law to begin with and whatever [is] declared there should [be seen] with great skepticism.
Unfortunately, in any sort of conflict, you do have local actors that seek to benefit from the chaos. In this conflict, there have definitely been fewer [examples of this] because you have seen real unity among the Ukrainians, but what Russia is going to try to do is empower some of those [who are willing to collaborate] on the ground or even bring in people from the outside, [such as from Russia or the separatist-controlled parts of Ukraine].
Another thing to watch is population displacement and an effort to remove some of the local population that is more pro-Ukrainian. [Russian forces] could maybe resettle some people from other areas of Ukraine or even parts of Russia to give the perception of legitimacy, but right now, at this point in the war, I think legitimacy is quite low on the list of what Russia is trying to portray and accomplish.
It's something that it can claim and argue to its own population that's already been fed a lot of lies, but it's unlikely that in Ukraine or the West that there's going to be a lot of buy in [or] legitimizing of their efforts in the south or in the east, let alone throughout the rest of the country.
RFE/RL: You mentioned earlier that this next stage of fighting is going to be very artillery focused, but if you had to pick one element of this next phase of the war to pay attention to, what would it be?
Konaev: I think that our expectation of the length of this war needs to be moderated. [My assessment] is that this is going to be more protracted than decisive -- just because of the balance of forces and the political [component] that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin simply cannot afford a loss.
And on the other side, Ukraine is very reluctant to settle, let alone retreat when it's in a relatively good position to continue the fight. My advice is to not expect a decisive [battle] but to expect this protracted stalemate and to keep paying close attention to the humanitarian costs of this war because the price of reconstruction is going to surpass the price of military support that [the West] is providing now -- and that [Western governments] should keep providing -- but also paying close attention to the humanitarian needs and to the postconflict needs that Ukraine is going to require.