The battle for the Ukrainian Donets Basin has turned into a proverbial meat grinder. The Russians have a clear artillery advantage, but not enough ground troops to make decisive territorial gains. On the Ukrainian side, the lack of manpower is not the main problem, but the lack of guns and missile launchers needed to repel the Russians.
Casualties among Ukrainians averaged 100-200 men per day, according to the Kyiv government. A multiple of these numbers is injured. Fallen professional soldiers, hardened by nearly a decade of wartime experience, are replaced by young, inexperienced, and barely trained men drawn from the volunteer units created after the Russian invasion.
Less is known about the losses suffered by the Russians, but it is likely that they were also heavy, according to military experts. In intercepted phone conversations, although broadcast by Ukraine and not yet independently verified, Russian soldiers complained about poor conditions in the Donets Basin. One of them specifies that there are only about fifteen soldiers left of his battalion battle group (BTG, the standard combat unit of the Russian army, which normally has seven hundred to eight hundred men). Even specialists, such as engineers, would be sent to the front as cannon fodder.
These weapons, that’s what it’s all about in eastern Ukraine now. “It’s become an artillery war,” Vadym Skibitsk, Ukraine’s deputy military intelligence chief, said earlier this month. The Guardian† This is not in favor of defenders. “Ukraine has one artillery piece for every ten to fifteen Russian artillery pieces.”
Ukrainian soldiers returning from the front also speak of severe ammunition shortages and chaotic leadership. A recent report by Ukrainian and Western intelligence agencies, seen by the British newspaper The Independent, confirms this image. The Russians would have up to 40 times more grenades and missiles to fire than the Ukrainians. They can hardly respond to Russian artillery anyway, as most of their guns can fire up to about 25 kilometers away, while the Russians can shell them from 300 kilometers away.
This imbalance of firepower on the Eastern Front is having “a gravely disheartening effect on Ukrainian troops, as well as a palpable effect; the number of desertions is increasing every week,” the report said.
The battle for Severodonetsk will intensify
The overwhelming artillery force, however, did not make Russia the clear winner in the battle for the Donets Basin. It is also difficult to dislodge well entrenched defenders with artillery fire. At some point, ground troops will need to advance to gain actual territory.
Despite the heavy losses, the lack of personnel is not an acute problem for Ukraine, which estimates that it can mobilize at least a million soldiers if necessary. If the Kremlin wants to counter this with comparable figures, it can no longer avoid a formal declaration of war and a general mobilization in Russia. However, this would not be a popular move with ordinary Russians, and the conscripts it would bring in would not be as motivated as the Ukrainians, who defend their home and hearth.
With the territorial gains, things are not going so well for Moscow at the moment. In recent weeks, fighting in eastern Ukraine has centered on Severodonetsk, the last major city in Lugansk province still (partly) controlled by Ukraine. The remaining defenders entrenched themselves in and around the Azot chemical plant. After Severodonetsk, it will be the turn of the small neighboring town of Lysychansk.
According to Kyiv, Russian forces were given a deadline to take these two cities and reach the border between Lugansk province and Donetsk province on June 26. Satellite images show the Russians gathering additional troops and equipment to do so, weakening their presence elsewhere in Ukraine. The advance towards Sloviansk, a city in Donetsk, suffered. Russian propaganda channels seem to be preparing the public for an uphill battle for this city.
Artillery, artillery, artillery
In southern and southeastern Ukraine, the Russians currently have their hands full to fight off Ukrainian counterattacks. They set up extensive defenses in the provinces of Kherson and Zaporizhzhya. Here too, artillery plays an important role, but in the opposite direction: the Russians use it to keep the Ukrainian attackers at bay, while the Ukrainians need it to crush the Russian defenders before they can really advance. to regain a territory to conquer.
The lack of artillery therefore affects Ukraine both to the east and to the south. Government officials in Kyiv are conveying this message to their Western allies in every possible way. The handful of howitzers and missile launchers Ukraine has received is far from sufficient to reverse the trend.
“We need help, and fast,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told The Economist earlier this month. “Because the cost of any delay is measured in Ukrainian blood.”