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ON THE ROAD TO KYIV, Ukraine — For weeks Ukraine and its western allies have been waiting for Russia’s promised offensive in the Donbas — an eastern region of the country that borders Russia — in the wake of Moscow’s hasty retreat from around the capital, Kyiv.
Now, that offensive has begun.
With troops concentrated for a major ground assault, airstrikes bombarding cities and Ukraine’s forces steeling for what could be a series of decisive battles, many expect this Russian offensive to be better equipped and organized than the failed first phase of the war.
So why has Russian President Vladimir Putin refocused his military’s efforts on this region of eastern Ukraine, and what should we expect in the days and weeks to come? NBC News takes a look.
From industry to invasion
Simply put, the region is of territorial and ideological significance and making gains there could provide the Kremlin some form of victory after struggling to achieve its initial objectives in the war.
Valeriy Akimenko, a senior research associate at Conflict Studies Research Centre, said that Russia sees the land as valuable and “as historically Russian, ‘gifted’ to Ukraine during the Soviet era.”
“It is also part of the ‘Russian World’ concept Moscow aims to construct,” he added.
The region, almost twice the size of Belgium, is an industrial powerhouse filled with valuable coal and metal deposits and processing centers as well as strategically important ports on the Sea of Azov, which sits between Russia, Crimea and Ukraine.
Since Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, Moscow-backed separatists have battled Ukrainian forces in the Donbas. The conflict lasted eight years and killed an estimated 14,000 people, according to the United Nations, until Russia invaded its neighbor nearly two months ago.
That move followed Putin’s recognition of the independence of two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine, the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Luhansk People’s Republic.” They are named after the two main areas that together make up the Donbas.
“Technically, the aim of the Russian ‘operation’ is to ‘defend Donbas’, one of the narratives promoted [by the Kremlin],” Akimenko said. “Thus, the capture of Donbas would allow Russia to claim success [and] declare ‘victory,’ interim as that might be given Russia’s evidently greater ambitions.”
Putin originally appeared set on deposing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s western-leaning government and re-exerting the Kremlin’s influence over its neighbor with a sweeping military operation.
But with casualties mounting and western sanctions hitting his economy, the so-called “liberation” of Donbas might prove appealing — particularly if it arrives in time for Russia’s annual Victory Day on May 9.
While all eyes have been on Kyiv, Ukrainian forces have long been fighting in defense of eastern Ukraine.
It’s a location where some of the bloodiest battles have occurred over the past eight weeks, from towns near Kharkiv in the north to Mariupol in the south, where Ukrainian forces are desperately battling to maintain a foothold in the crucial port city under siege.
Source: This post first appeared on NBC News