The bluntest assessment of how the Russian military offensive in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region is going came from someone in a very good position to know.
"The general conclusion, unfortunately, is bleak,” said Igor Girkin, a notorious Russian military commander and former intelligence officer who played an instrumental role when war first erupted in the Donbas in 2014.
“In the best-case scenario, the enemy will be slowly ‘pushed out’ of the Donbas with large losses (for both sides, of course) across many weeks and possibly many months,” he wrote in a post on his Telegram channel on April 28. “Overall, the enemy is defending competently, fiercely, it controls the situation and its troops.”
Two weeks earlier, a well-known Russian special forces veteran had an even harsher assessment, addressing Russian President Vladimir Putin directly in a video: “Vladimir Vladimirovich: are we fighting a war or are we just masturbating?”
After suffering significant setbacks in the earliest weeks of the invasion of Ukraine, failing to seize Kyiv or other major cities, and incurring major casualties, Russian commanders and political leaders have recalibrated, shifting nearly all military units eastward for an offensive in the Donbas.
Parts of two Donbas provinces -- Donetsk and Luhansk -- have been under the control of Russia-backed separatists since 2014, and Putin declared Russia was recognizing them as independent days before he launched the invasion on February 24.
On April 18, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said that a new Russian offensive had begun. A day later, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow’s goal was the “full liberation” of the two provinces.
So how is it going? By all accounts, slower than anticipated. Why? That’s a more complicated question.
“It’s not so clear that the offensive has faltered, that it’s not going to deliver results,” said Konrad Muzyka, a defense analyst and director of the Polish-based Rochan Consulting.
“My sources in Ukraine are very much concerned about Russian capabilities around Izyum,” he said, referring to a strategically located city in eastern Ukraine and adding that “it’s way too early to say” the Donbas offensive has faltered.
Overall, the Russian military’s failures have surprised many experts, who had predicted its larger and better equipped armed forces would quickly seize major objectives, like Kyiv and port cities such as Mariupol.
Instead, Ukraine’s dogged defenders have inflicted unusually high casualties on Russian troops, as well as taking a severe toll on Russian weapons and equipment -- a fact due in large part to the massive supplies of weaponry being shipped from the West.
Russia has not released casualty figures since March 25, when it said that 1,351 of its soldiers had been killed. Western estimates, however, put Russian losses at well over 15,000, and Ukrainian authorities claim the Russian toll exceeds 20,000. Both of those figures surpass the toll among Soviet troops during the nearly 10-year war in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
“Russia is struggling with their pace of operations, it’s obvious, they have large losses, their tactics have proven unsuccessful, they’re facing a more determined defense,” said Kostas Tigkos, an expert on the Russian military at Janes Group in London. “It wasn’t that they wanted this to be a slow movement in the Donbas.”
Failing Or Merely Slow-Going?
The way the Americans and the British tell it, the offensive is progressing, albeit very slowly.
“We would assess that Russian forces are making slow and uneven and, frankly, we would describe it as incremental progress in the Donbas,” one U.S. defense official said on April 29. “There's a lot of, still, back-and-forth in the Donbas in terms of territory gained and/or lost by, frankly, both sides. So not a huge difference in the picture on the ground in the Donbas.”
“Anemic” is how another senior U.S. defense official described the offensive on May 2.
“Russia still faces considerable challenges. It has been forced to merge and redeploy depleted and disparate units from the failed advances in northeast Ukraine,” the British Defense Ministry said on May 2. “Many of these units are likely suffering from weakened morale.”
Western officials for weeks have pointed to morale and discipline problems as being a major contributing factor to the underperformance of Russia’s military. That is also believed to be a factor in the unusual number of generals being sent to frontline positions, and then exposed to Ukrainian attack.
The lull in fighting north of Kyiv was closely watched by observers, as Russian forces withdrew and began to reposition to the east as part of a new priority ordered by Putin. Putin also appointed a single commander, Army General Aleksandr Dvornikov, to take overall charge of the offensive, something that was absent earlier on.
Since then, however, Russian troops have made only limited gains. For example, around Izyum, reports show that Ukrainian forces have retaken other territory in the Kharkiv region, though it’s unclear whether it was merely due to Russian troops withdrawing. Other intelligence reports have suggested that Russian commanders were seeking a “pincer movement” from the south and the north, to try and encircle Ukrainian forces in the Donbas.
That hasn’t happened. Not yet, anyway.
“They’re not committing everything at once,” Muzyka said. “It makes me think they are trying to do a piecemeal attack, not wage any substantial operations with these [units] but rather using them one-by-one.”
So is the offensive faltering or merely slow-going?
Johan Norberg, a senior military analyst at the Swedish Defense Research Agency, a government-funded research organization, said those two terms weren’t mutually exclusive.
“The vast majority of Russian power has been consumed by now -- after two months, they’ve taken a pretty heavy beating in terms of fatalities, and they’ve lost lots of equipment,” Norberg told RFE/RL. “They have very little choice but to do it more slowly and methodically.”
“They aren’t dragging out this for fun,” he said.
The question of how the offensive is going opened further this weekend with the visit of Russia’s highest military officer, General Valery Gerasimov, to the frontline town of Izyum, just northwest of the Donbas.
Analysts say it is highly unusual for a senior commander or general to be in a contested frontline position in just about any war; it’s even more unusual given that at least seven Russian generals have been confirmed killed during the Ukraine war.
Oleksiy Arestovych, a top Zelenskiy adviser, said several senior Russian officers were killed on April 30, when Ukrainian forces used rockets and artillery to hit a command post near Izyum, and there were possibly scores of casualties.
Ukrainian forces also asserted that they had repelled a Russian attack there.
Gerasimov, who is chairman of Russia’s joint chiefs of staff, was also reportedly present at the post on April 30, though he had left prior to the Ukrainian barrage. Arsen Avakov, a former Ukrainian Interior Minister, asserted that Gerasimov had been slightly wounded by shrapnel.
“Gerasimov may have been trying to establish why the Russian offensive has largely stalled out on the Izyum axis and whether it is worth continuing to invest in strengthening their offensive grouping in that area instead of switching” forces toward Donetsk, the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said in a May 1 report.
Gerasimov’s visit may be less indicative of problems with leadership and discipline, Norberg said, than simply of Gerasimov not trusting overly rosy reports from frontline commanders, and wanting to see what was happening with his own eyes.
“You want to see for yourself, you want to smell the war, that’s a very much a military instinct,” he said. “I think it’s more like he wants to see what it’s like.”
Take Your Best Shot
In the Donbas, Russian commanders are “gluing together” units, some heavily damaged, from the previous fronts near Kyiv, said Michael Kofman, a military analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses in Arlington, Virginia.
“Their odds of success in my view [in the Donbas] are very indeterminate, very contingent,” Kofman said in a podcast on the War On The Rocks website.
Kofman suggested another reason why Russian commanders were moving more slowly and methodically.
“They want basically to take their [best] shot at this, because the truth is after this offensive, the Russian military is a spent force when it comes to their potential for future offensives,” he said. “However this offensive plays out…they do not have the capacity for another major offensive in Ukraine.”
As for larger systemic issues, Norberg said Russia was nearing a major inflection point in the war: A decision on whether to commit more soldiers to the fight, which could entail declaring general mobilization.
“It’s the fog of war and all, but I think there are fewer soldiers in the Russian armed forces than we knew,” Norberg said. “If the pre-war figures were true, if you had more [soldiers], you would add them now.
“But the Russians have not, they don’t have the force to make a decisive move against the Ukrainians,” he said. “Russia doesn’t have the conventional force to make a major move.”
To bring in a major new influx of soldiers, experts said, would potentially require Putin declaring all-out war on Ukraine, possibly framing the fight as one against NATO, and general mobilization -- a major escalation.
“There can be no larger movement of troops, or fresh troops in the next week or two, given simply the available troops on the ground,” Tigkos told RFE/RL. “It is unlikely there will be an intensification of operations, simply because there are not enough troops to cover that entire front.”