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Russia has three main advantages over Ukraine after launching the second phase of its invasion in the Donbas region – including its heavy armour and artillery being more suited to the terrain, a military expert said today.

Justin Bronk, a research fellow at London‘s Royal United Services Institute, said Ukrainian forces will still have the edge when defending towns and cities, but not in the countryside – especially if attempting counterattacks.

He added that Vladimir Putin’s forces could also have an advantage in local control of the air, with many of Ukraine’s mobile surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems taken down during heavy fighting in the East so far.

The third advantage for Russian forces in Donbas is better coordination and potentially logistics support than over the previous weeks of the war, because they are now concentrated on only a few major areas of advance.

Mr Bronk added that one of the key remaining questions now is whether Russia can successfully concentrate enough of the forces it has assembled in the Donbas against key Ukrainian strongpoints.

In addition, he will be studying whether Ukraine’s forces can be kept supplied with sufficient artillery and anti-tank firepower and ammunition, and whether Russian tactical and operational coordination will improve.

Explaining how the outcome of the Donbas offensive is crucial to the whole war, here is Mr Bronk’s analysis:

The second phase of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine appears to have begun in Donbas, with large scale artillery barrages and air strikes reported by Ukrainian units in multiple important sectors, and initial offensive pushes by Russian Ground Forces units. 

The fighting has been particularly intense around Russia’s northern staging point in Donbas – the town of Izyum – where around 22 of the estimated 76 Russian battalion tactical groups (BTGs) have been concentrated. 

Attacks have also been launched against Ukrainian forces holding the city of Severodonetsk, and against the eastern town of Popasna and in the south Russian forces are continuing their ruthless efforts to destroy the remaining Ukrainian forces defending the Azovstal steel works in the long-besieged city of Mariupol. 

Both Ukrainian and Russian officials have declared that the next critical phase of the war is now underway.

Russia has several major advantages in Donbas which are likely to contribute to its units putting up a far more respectable performance than they did during the disastrous attacks against Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumy and Kharkiv in the north and Mykolaiv in the south west during the first phase of the invasion. 

The first of these is the terrain. Whereas the terrain the north of Ukraine is largely forests, towns and cities, Donbas has far more large open spaces. 

The Ukrainian Army has large numbers of regular, reservist and volunteer light infantry units equipped with shoulder-fired anti-tank missiles and man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS), but has fewer units able to concentrate tanks and heavy artillery. 

By contrast, Russian ground forces have displayed notably poor infantry tactics and suffered from limited and poorly motivated manpower. 

However, Russia still has far more tanks and artillery assets than Ukraine. This has implications for the coming battles in Donbas.

Light infantry with shoulder-fired weapons are ideal for defending forested or urban areas, but in the more open terrain of the Donbas the heavy armour and artillery of Russian forces are more suitable and easier to use effectively. 

A Ukrainian soldier walks past a Russian tank yesterday after recent battles at the village of Moshchun close to Kyiv

A Ukrainian soldier walks past a Russian tank yesterday after recent battles at the village of Moshchun close to Kyiv

A Ukrainian soldier walks past a Russian tank yesterday after recent battles at the village of Moshchun close to Kyiv

Rescuers work at a residential block damaged during the Ukraine-Russia war in the southern port city of Mariupol yesterday

Rescuers work at a residential block damaged during the Ukraine-Russia war in the southern port city of Mariupol yesterday

Rescuers work at a residential block damaged during the Ukraine-Russia war in the southern port city of Mariupol yesterday

Ukrainian forces will still have the edge when defending towns and cities, but will be at a disadvantage in the countryside – especially if attempting counterattacks. 

One variable here is the weather, since heavy rains may make vehicles very hard to use off-road in the deep mud. 

This would threaten to canalise Russian advancing columns and make it harder for Russia to supply the large quantities of fuel, ammunition and spares required to keep large numbers of armoured formations on the move for sustained offensive operations.

The second potential Russian advantage is local control of the air. Despite their success in continuing to contest its airspace over much of the country, Ukraine’s mobile surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems have been steadily attritted during heavy fighting in the East since the start of the invasion. 

The short ranged SA-8 SAM units in particular have suffered significant losses from ambushes and artillery fire due to having to be close to the frontlines to offer protection to Ukrainian troops. 

Russian military vehicles travel on a road in an area controlled by Russian-backed separatist forces near Mariupol on Monday

Russian military vehicles travel on a road in an area controlled by Russian-backed separatist forces near Mariupol on Monday

Russian military vehicles travel on a road in an area controlled by Russian-backed separatist forces near Mariupol on Monday

A view shows buildings damaged during the Ukraine-Russia conflict in the southern port city of Mariupol yesterday

A view shows buildings damaged during the Ukraine-Russia conflict in the southern port city of Mariupol yesterday

A view shows buildings damaged during the Ukraine-Russia conflict in the southern port city of Mariupol yesterday

This has allowed Russian fighters and attack aircraft to operate more freely at high and medium altitudes near the frontlines. 

Furthermore, continued missile strikes against Ukrainian airbases and regular high-altitude fighter patrols on the edge of Russian and Belorussian airspace have eroded the ability of the Ukrainian Air Force to conduct large scale operations in the Donbas or around Mariupol. 

Therefore, it will be more difficult for Ukraine to conduct airstrikes with fast jets or TB2 drones in the Donbas.

However, Russian fighter pilots also suffer from significant limitations which will probably prevent them from inflicting enough damage on Ukrainian Army vehicles and troop positions, despite their local air superiority.  

A man tries to extinguish a fire following a Russian bombardment at a residential neighborhood in Kharkiv yesterday

A man tries to extinguish a fire following a Russian bombardment at a residential neighborhood in Kharkiv yesterday

A man tries to extinguish a fire following a Russian bombardment at a residential neighborhood in Kharkiv yesterday

A local resident walks along a street past burnt out buses during the Ukraine-Russia war in Mariupol yesterday

A local resident walks along a street past burnt out buses during the Ukraine-Russia war in Mariupol yesterday

A local resident walks along a street past burnt out buses during the Ukraine-Russia war in Mariupol yesterday

Their jets do not have access to targeting pods or large numbers of relatively cheap precision-guided bombs and missiles like Western fighters use for close air support.

Their pilots also get relatively few flying hours to train, and do not have access to modern simulators to help make up for this – meaning that they will struggle with the complex task of attacking battlefield targets close to friendly forces. 

To reliably spot battlefield targets and hit them accurately enough with unguided bombs and rockets, Russian jets would have to fly low over enemy forces by day, which will bring them into the effective range of ground-fire and MANPADS like the Igla-S and Stinger which Ukrainian forces have in large numbers.

The third advantage that Russian forces will have in the Donbas compared to in the previous phase of the invasion is better coordination and potentially logistics support.  

Local civilians walk past a tank destroyed in an area controlled by Russian-backed separatist forces in Mariupol yesterday

Local civilians walk past a tank destroyed in an area controlled by Russian-backed separatist forces in Mariupol yesterday

Local civilians walk past a tank destroyed in an area controlled by Russian-backed separatist forces in Mariupol yesterday

Servicemen of the Donetsk People's Republic militia walk past damaged vehicles during heavy fighting in Mariupol yesterday

Servicemen of the Donetsk People's Republic militia walk past damaged vehicles during heavy fighting in Mariupol yesterday

Servicemen of the Donetsk People’s Republic militia walk past damaged vehicles during heavy fighting in Mariupol yesterday

When Russia initially invaded, it spread its forces out over multiple lines of advance in multiple parts of the country and under seemingly different command structures. 

JUSTIN BRONK is a research fellow in airpower and technology at the Royal United Services Institute in London

JUSTIN BRONK is a research fellow in airpower and technology at the Royal United Services Institute in London

JUSTIN BRONK is a research fellow in airpower and technology at the Royal United Services Institute in London

This not only allowed Ukrainian forces to engage them piece by piece, but also greatly worsened the impact of poor Russian logistics support. 

In Donbas, Russian forces are now being controlled by the commander of the Southern Military District and concentrated on only a few major axes of advance. 

Therefore, they are likely to be better coordinated and the remaining Russian logistics capacity can be concentrated more easily where it is needed most.

In the coming days and weeks, the key questions are likely to be:

  • Can Russia successfully concentrate enough of the forces it has assembled in the Donbas against key Ukrainian strongpoints?
  • Can Ukrainian forces be kept supplied with sufficient artillery and anti-tank firepower and ammunition to hold out?
  • Will Russian tactical and operational coordination between tanks, artillery and infantry will be noticeably better than in the first phase?
  • Can Ukrainian counter-offensives around Kherson in the south and east of Kharkiv force Russian forces and supplies to be diverted away from the main effort in the Donbas?

Russia has few usable reserves left without declaring full scale national mobilisation, but Ukraine is still heavily outgunned in the Donbas. The outcome of this offensive will be crucial to the course of the whole war.

Source: DailyMail

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