Russian forces are edging closer to seizing the last pocket of resistance in Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk region, with battles raging in Syveryodonetsk and near its sister city, Lysychansk.
The Russian gains have been costly, analysts say, with high casualties and equipment losses, leading British defense intelligence to predict that Moscow’s momentum will slow over the next few months.
Kyiv, meanwhile, continues to urge for greater and quicker shipments of Western arms and ammunition as Ukrainian forces also sustain big losses and deplete their stockpiles of munitions in the intense fighting in the Donbas.
Despite the predictions of lost momentum, the war seems far from over. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on June 20 that the war could last years, an assessment echoed by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
In a 73-minute speech at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, Russian President Vladimir Putin said on June 17 that Moscow would not back down from its current goal to take the eastern Donbas region away from Ukraine. The defiant message to the West came as many analysts believe the Russian president is hoping that Western attention and support for Ukraine will fade and falter over time, allowing the Kremlin a chance to grind out a victory from its costly invasion.
To find out more, RFE/RL spoke with Margarita Konaev, a fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology.
RFE/RL: I want to start with timelines. It looks like we’re in something of a middle phase at the moment and all sides are saying to prepare for what is likely to be a very long war. Where do you see this war progressing and what’s your sense of the time frame that people should have in mind?
Margarita Konaev: Timelines are a good question. One thing that we’ve learned pretty early on [in this war] is that it’s essentially impossible to predict what comes next. That’s been true since the beginning.
Many observers have been surprised by many of the turns that have [occurred], and this war certainly did not pan out as many predicted at the beginning. But it does look that since about March or April there hasn’t been any real significant operational or, let alone, strategic changes. So it’s hard to even assess whether we’re in the middle stage [of the war] or whether we’re in the beginning of the middle, or towards the end of the middle.
In terms of how this will conclude, I’ve been saying for a long time that the conclusion of this war — if and when it comes — will be a political decision. Obviously, military factors are going to play a significant role, but at the end of the day it’s a question of political commitment and political compromise one way or another — and that’s something that is up to Putin and Ukraine.
RFE/RL: The fight in the Donbas is progressing as we see tough battles in Syveryodonetsk and Lysychansk, where Russia is making gains. What’s your sense of what’s unfolding on the battlefield and can Russia sustain this momentum?
Konaev: Sustainment is the name of the game right now, and it’s the side that is able to grind it out for the longer haul that is going to have leverage from whatever territorial or operational gains they make for some sort of a diplomatic settlement or a cease-fire.
Much of the day-to-day fighting has been concentrated more in the Luhansk part of the Donbas and that’s where we’ve seen Russia make those gains. How this is going to unfold is hard to tell, [but] it seems that Russia has improved some logistical elements and has made changes to its leadership, although it doesn’t seem to have made significant changes to [its] command and control.
But whatever they’re doing now is working better than what they failed to accomplish at the beginning. But again, there’s been a major redefinition of goals, and with the war concentrated on the east, they have a number of variables working for them. But it’s all still up for grabs, and it’s going to be a hard and very long fight.
RFE/RL: In the last few weeks, we’ve seen multiple Ukrainian officials come out and say that in order to sustain their fight, they need more weapons and munitions. We’ve also seen Ukrainian military intelligence say that it’s their assessment that the Russians have enough ammunition and equipment to keep fighting this war for at least another year. With that in mind, should we expect a similar pace to the combat that we’ve been seeing or could things slow down or accelerate given uncertainty over stockpiles?
Konaev: I think the fighting is going to continue throughout the summer just because the weather abides.
We might see slowing down later in the fall and perhaps towards the winter, and at least for right now, the West is committed to supplying Ukraine. The heavy weapons that have been already committed are on their way or are arriving, and it doesn’t seem that Ukraine is willing to stop fighting, and Russia is clearly continuing to advance and does have the artillery advantage and munitions that it needs to keep going. So, with all that in mind, I’m not under the impression that the war is going to come to a halt [soon].
It’s difficult to keep up with the day-to-day progression of the war because it’s been so incremental and many of the gains either side has made have been reversed back and forth. The territory that is gained by Russia today could be lost next week, and it’s a very different fight from what we’ve seen in the beginning that felt much more fast-paced.
How it progresses is also going to be a question of international attention, which has already been shifting elsewhere due to domestic developments, such as rising oil and gas prices and inflation. So, all of these variables are inevitably going to affect the trajectory of this war, which on one hand is an interstate war between two countries, but on the other hand is also an international war.
RFE/RL: What about the fighting in the south, especially around Kherson, where we see the Ukrainians carrying out counterattacks? Can they retake some of these areas in the south as Russia is focused on the Donbas?
Konaev: We have seen Russia’s lack of ability to conduct amphibious operations and to resupply and land its forces using the Black Sea because of the Ukrainian positioning there and their ability to use the weapons they’ve been getting from the West quite effectively.
Although I’m a bit hesitant to say that the Ukrainians will be able to effectively retake Kherson. On the one hand, Russia doesn’t actually fully control any of the territory across the south in an irrefutable way. There is also the issue of how Russia makes gains, which is that it essentially destroys the residential areas and most of the cities themselves to a point that a lot of them are depopulated. Kherson was largely spared, but we have seen this in Mariupol and it’s what we’re seeing now in Syevyerodonetsk.
So if Ukrainian forces try to retake Kherson, we’re probably going to see the fighting intensify by taking a city back because any sort of offensive operation against a city is extremely violent and also extremely costly. So it would be a big commitment on the Ukrainian side to try to take a city that Russia is committed to holding.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.