As war moves to open terrain in the east, battles could be more difficult for Ukrainians

Ukraine prepares for a new phase of its war against Russia’s invasion as it shifts eastward to terrain that may give the Russians a greater advantage. The wide-open spaces in east Ukraine will make it more difficult for them to conduct guerrilla operations, as they have done in the west and north. They also play into Russia’s capacity to mobilize large tanks and armored vehicles.

But much will depend on whether the Russians can rectify the mistakes they made in the first phase of their invasion, ranging from the failure of supply lines, logistical challenges and poor planning to using insufficient manpower for the size of the area they were attempting to seize, analysts say. Experts say that the Ukrainians not only held the Russian army at bay, but forced their troops to retreat from the northern part of the country. This is a testament to both their fighting abilities and the Russians’ inept performance thus far.

Investigators exhumed 21 of at least 67 bodies suspected to be lying in a mass grave in Bucha, Ukraine April 8. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post, Photo: The Washington Post)

Russian forces have now completely withdrawn from the areas around Kyiv and Chernihiv in the north, where their attempt to launch a sweep into the capital was thwarted by fierce Ukrainian resistance, U.S. officials say. According to Pentagon, these troops are currently being reequipped and replenished, possibly for redeployment in the east.

In one sign that Russia is trying to fix some of the problems it initially encountered, the Russians have appointed a general with extensive experience in Syria and the Donbas to oversee the war effort, marking the first time a single commander has taken control of the entire Ukraine operation, a senior U.S. official said Saturday, speaking on the condition of anonymity. The appointment of Gen. Alexander Dvornikov, the commander of Russia’s southern military district, signals an attempt by Moscow to bring some coherence to what military experts describe as a chaotically executed operation so far that has taken the lives of seven generals.

The new focus of the battle is expected to be the Donbas region, which has been contested since Russia invaded in 2014 and seized a portion of the oblast, or province. Since then, Ukraine has been trying to regain control over the remainder of the region. Some of its most experienced and battle-tough troops have been stationed in the Donbas. The Russians will likely attempt to move southward from Kharkiv and to the north of Donetsk in order to surround the Ukrainian forces in Donbas. This maneuvers would be a testament to Russia’s superiority of tank and armored vehicle numbers. In recent days, Ukrainian military officials said, the Russians have begun pushing south from the town of Izyum toward Slovyansk, with the aim eventually of seizing Kramatorsk, the capital of the Donetsk and site of the missile attack on a train station that killed over 50 people on Friday.

RUSSIA

Belgorod

Valuyki

Kharkiv

LUHANSK

Milove

UKRAINE

Strarobilsk

Izyum

Severodonetsk

Khrestyshche

Slovyansk

Luhansk

Kramatorsk

Separatist-

Horlivka

Dnipro

controlled

Shakhty

Donetsk

area

DONETSK

Zaporizhzhia

Rostov-on-Don

Taganrog

Mariupol

50 MILES

Berdyansk

Melitopol

Yeysk

RUSSIA

Control areas as of April 1

Sources: Institute for the Study of War, AEI’s Critical Threats Project

THE WASHINGTON POST

Russian-held areas as of April 8

Belgorod

RUSSIA

Valuyki

Kharkiv

Milove

UKRAINE

LUHANSK

Millerovo

Izyum

Severodonetsk

Luhansk

Kramatorsk

Separatist-

controlled

area

Donetsk

DONETSK

50 MILES

Mariupol

Melitopol

RUSSIA

Sources: Institute for the Study of War, AEI’s Critical Threats Project

THE WASHINGTON POST

Russian-held areas as of April 8

RUSSIA

Belgorod

Valuyki

Kharkiv

Milove

UKRAINE

LUHANSK

Millerovo

Izyum

Severodonetsk

Luhansk

Kramatorsk

Donetsk

Separatist-

controlled area

DONETSK

Mariupol

RUSSIA

50 MILES

Sources: Institute for the Study of War

THE WASHINGTON POST

The Ukrainians could find themselves confronting a tougher fight in the terrain of the east than they did in the forested north, analysts say. The trees offered cover to lightly-armed soldiers to escape behind Russian lines and fire on tanks and armored cars. They also used anti-tank weapons like the Javelins provided by the United States, which have helped to tilt the war in Ukraine’s favor.

The east battles will be more like the Second World War with large operations and thousands of tanks, armored cars, planes, artillery, etc.” Ukraine’s foreign minister appealed to NATO for new arms. The shifting terrain is the reason why Ukraine demands that NATO nations supply additional and more types of weapons, including tanks, armored cars, and artillery. Officials from the United States say this. The terrain in the south is more difficult than in the north. “It is more open, and lends itself for armor mechanized offensive activities on both sides,” General Mark A. Milley of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told Congress last week. He stated that the Ukrainians require additional artillery and armor. He said that the United States wants NATO allies help them get the equipment they need. The American-made equipment would take months for Ukrainians to master. Fighting in the East will also require that the Ukrainians adopt new tactics than those used to counter the Russian attack around Kyiv.

The Ukrainians were able to fight a guerrilla-style war against advancing columns of Russian armor that were confined to the roads because of mud and trees, contributing to the buildup of vehicles that formed the infamous 40-mile convoy turned traffic jam. Russia will benefit from warmer temperatures, which will allow its armored forces more freedom of movement.

” This time, the Ukrainians need to move in open country so they are easily spotted,” Jack Watling from the Royal United Services Institute (London) said. “They will be in combat battles where both sides see each other, and if they are not in armored vehicles they will be vulnerable.”

The logistical problems that Russia encountered in its initial push into Ukraine should be less of an issue in the east, Watling said, because Russia already occupies part of the Donbas region, which directly borders Russia, making it easier to send supplies directly from Russia. He said that the Russians had taken time to adapt to Ukraine’s resistance to Russian advances. He said that “they know who they’re up against and their supply lines won’t be as long”.

Russia has access to large quantities of mechanized armour, including tanks and armored cars, which gives it an advantage over smaller Ukrainian forces, according to retired Gen. Philip Breedlove. He was a former NATO supreme allies commander. Breedlove who now works with the Middle East Institute said that Russia has artillery systems with longer ranges than Ukrainian guns, which creates difficulties when Ukrainian forces face one another.

“This makes it very difficult on the Ukrainians, and imposes on them a shoot-and move philosophy that is not as imposing on Russia,” he stated.

Ukraine faces a “tough battle” as Russian forces amass in the east of the country, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on April 9 in a news conference. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty/Reuters)

Many observers doubt, however, that Russia’s already-exhausted and depleted forces have the strength to take much more territory from Ukraine any time soon. Russia has mobilized 60,000 reservists and is assembling new battle units to replace those lost over the past few weeks, but it will take time to equip and train them, said Phillips O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at St Andrews University.

Russia committed 75 percent of its combat-ready forces to the initial invasion, and its best troops have already been fighting. He said that they are demoralized, exhausted and depleted from the equipment losses.

Russia might be able gain an edge in certain local areas but “the army they have will not be large enough for them to hold the territory they take,” O’Brien stated. Watling stated that the Russian army is “too small .”

The new environment “isn’t a game changer.” It all depends on the Russians being tactically ready for the challenge .”

The Russians now have a chance to adapt to the fact that Ukraine is likely to fight a hard battle and are expected to change their tactics, according to Mick Ryan, an Australian former general who studied the conflict. However, the Ukrainians are better at adapting than they were in the past and have won this adaptation war,” he stated.

Dalton Bennett in Dnipro, Ukraine, contributed to this report.

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