Why Putin is redirecting troops to eastern Ukraine

Putin described Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine as a “special military operation.”

Mikhail Klimentyev Afp | Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin is overseeing a change in military strategy in connection with the Kremlin’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine, shifting forces in the east to take control of the Donbass region.

Analysts see the change in Russia’s approach as a tacit acknowledgment of the failure, saying fierce resistance from Ukrainian forces thwarted Putin’s attempt to quickly seize major cities and overthrow the government.

According to analysts, the next stage of the war is likely to lead to a dangerous stalemate, which will exacerbate the already devastating humanitarian crisis, as Russia’s top military command seeks to establish full control over the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.

The Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine on Wednesday called on residents of the eastern regions of Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk to evacuate amid growing fears of imminent attack. “It is necessary now, because then people will be under fire and threatened with death,” – said Irina Verashchuk.

It came less than two weeks after Deputy Chief of Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Sergei Rudsky announced that troops were withdrawing from a nationwide attack. Instead, Rudskaya said the Kremlin’s goal was to focus on the “complete liberation” of Donbass.

“It seems to me that this is the biggest news since the beginning of the war,” Christopher Grenville, head of EMEA and global political research at TS Lombard, told CNBC by telephone. “I thought it at the time, and I haven’t changed my mind … since.”

Grenville said the re-concentration of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine portends “some overly plausible horrors.” He expressed particular concern over Slavyansk and Kramatorsk, two significant cities located in the north of the Donetsk region.

Families stayed in Kramatorsk near the station for several days.

Fadel Senna | Afp | Getty Images

Thousands of people tried to flee the Donbass region, and dozens of families stood in line for several days at the Kramatorsk Central Railway Station, trying to get to safety.

For some, the situation is too familiar.

Ukrainian forces fought Russian-backed separatists in Kramatorsk in 2014, and Granville said the neighboring town of Sloviansk is known to have “totemic significance” for separatists in the Donbas.

According to analysts at the Institute for the Study of War, Russia has not yet transferred the forces withdrawn from the so-called Battle of Kyiv to the Eastern Offensive, but it is assumed that troops are preparing to attack Slavyansk.

“I think from a military point of view, there should be a question of success and morale. Russia, if the soldiers sitting around Kiev are being shot at, what is the target? What are they trying to do?” Said Granville.

“It’s just common sense that a soldier should have a goal, and the natural goal of soldering is to get territory. This is a campaign in the Donbass,” he said. “Soldiers who are at war can see what they are fighting for, they see progress. And I think it goes from the highest levels of the Russian General Staff to the commanders and soldiers on the ground. “

Fork in the road

Jonathan Flint, a military strategist and associate professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, believes Russia can try to achieve its new military goals in two ways.

“One would be for Russia to step back into relative security and use this opportunity to rearm, reorganize and strengthen its forces to better organize and move more competently back to Ukrainian-held territory,” Flint told CNBC.

However, this approach is not without risks, especially given that Ukrainian forces may cross borders to engage with Russia, and a second attempted invasion could fail, as it did in the first case, he said.

“Another option is to gain a foothold in these territories, which will make it almost impossible for them to be captured by Ukrainian forces and returned to Ukrainian control,” Flint said. “Ultimately, this may prove to be a wiser path for Russia, because consolidating the frozen conflict would essentially stop Ukraine from joining the EU or NATO in the future, despite any commitments made during the non-peace talks. ».

Bruno Lete, a senior researcher at the German Marshall Fund’s Security and Defense Division, told CNBC that although Russian troops had lost the battle for Kyiv, the Kremlin’s nearly six-week war was not over.

“Apart from the east, we must also look to the south of Ukraine. Huge areas of the Ukrainian coast east of Crimea are already occupied, ”Lete said. “Obviously, Russia is trying to set up a land bridge between Crimea and Russia. If Mariupol falls, Russia will succeed. “

Heavy fighting and Russian airstrikes continue in Mariupol, British military intelligence said on Wednesday. The move is likely to put pressure on Ukrainian forces in the besieged southeastern city to surrender.

The UK Ministry of Defense has estimated that most of the remaining 160,000 residents of Mariupol do not have access to electricity, communications, medicine, heat and water, highlighting the escalation of the humanitarian crisis there.

Only when one side feels that the pain is unbearable do I expect to see a movement towards peace.

Jonathan Flint

Professor at Case Western Reserve University

Lete said Russia could also consider stepping up attacks on the strategically important port of Odessa on the Black Sea coast to establish a coastal bridge from Crimea to Transnistria, a Moldovan separatist region occupied by Russian troops.

“Ukrainians have the opportunity to defend themselves on land, but much less in the air … Therefore, the first stage of these subsequent battles will be characterized by missile strikes and air strikes by Russia on critical and civilian infrastructure,” he added.

Putin to meet with “moment of truth”

Russia’s retreat from the suburbs of Kiev coincided with an outpouring of international condemnation as world leaders reacted in horror to growing evidence of war crimes.

The Kremlin has denied accusations of shooting civilians and without evidence has accused Ukraine of cynical trickery to denigrate the Russian army.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has accused Russia of genocide in Ukraine, and US President Joe Biden has called for Putin to be tried for war crimes.

Russia has said that the country’s military will now focus its efforts on the “complete liberation” of Ukraine’s Donbass region.

Bulent Kilich Afp | Getty Images

Fabrice Potier, director general of the political advisory company Rasmussen Global, said Russia’s goal seems to be to strengthen the Kremlin’s territorial authority in the eastern Donbass since 2014.

“I think it’s a game of who can last longer and who can convince mostly civilians that the fight is worth the cost,” Pottier told CNBC’s Squawk Box Europe on Tuesday. “I think Zelensky is in a strong position at the moment as long as he gets proper support from the West.”

On the other hand, it is clear that Putin has strong support from inside Russia, Potie said, but it is unknown how long. “I think there will come a moment of truth, [a moment] calculation for the Russian leader in relation to its population. “

Ultimately, TS Lombard Granville said Russia’s offensive was likely to be a war of attrition. “It seems to me that Russia’s position will be more defensive … and this is the formula for a very protracted conflict.”

Flint was also skeptical of a quick breakthrough in peace talks. “Only when one side feels that the pain is unbearable do I wait for peace,” he said.

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