Why attrition will be a critical factor in the battle for Donbas

Two months into the war in Ukraine, Russia is still struggling to achieve its goals. Its attempts to take or even surround Kyiv and Odessa have failed. Now it is refocusing its efforts on encircling Ukrainian forces around the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. But mounting attrition is threatening its ability to achieve even this secondary aim. As the war enters its next stage, who has the upper hand?

One of the surprising aspects of this war has been the extent to which Russia’s strategy exacerbated the weaknesses of its armed forces while failing to maximise their strengths. Russia chose to pursue too many objectives from too many axes of advance. That worsened its logistics problems and meant that Russia could not mass sufficient combat power to achieve many of its initial objectives, including the encirclement of the Ukrainian capital. Had Russia chosen to focus its efforts on Ukrainian forces in Donbas at the outset, the war could well have gone differently.

Russia’s new focus on south-eastern Ukraine ought to play to its strengths and ameliorate some of these problems. The terrain in Donbas, with fewer large urban areas, is better suited to an offensive, allowing Russia’s army to make better use of its advantages in armour and artillery. Its reported decision to appoint Alexander Dvornikov, an army general, as the overall commander of the operation should improve co-ordination and fix problems with unity of command. The likely impending seizure of Mariupol will also free up additional forces.

But is it all too late for Russia? Ultimately, that will depend on which side is more affected by attrition. Relatively little is known about the scale of Ukrainian losses. What is clear is that Russia has lost a large amount of equipment, including helicopters and tanks. Of the six battalions in the Russian 4th Tank Division’s two tank regiments, two battalions’ worth of T-80U tanks have been destroyed or captured (more than 62 in total).

Russian personnel losses are an even greater problem. A NATO official put the figure as high as 40,000 killed, wounded and captured a month ago. Russia’s initial invasion force of approximately 125 battalion tactical groups (BTGs) added up to fewer than 100,000 troops in total. Importantly, not all of those were combat forces. That figure includes those responsible for air defence, electronic warfare and other support functions.

Compared with the armies of many NATO members, Russian ground forces have a higher ratio of artillery and other supporting arms to what are known as manoeuvre units, such as tank and motorised rifle units. Manoeuvre units, as well as elite spetsnaz (special forces) and airborne forces, will be vital to a new offensive in Donbas. But these are precisely the ones which have borne the brunt of Russian casualties. Russia’s lack of light infantry has been a clear weakness, and there are indications that many Russian BTGs invaded Ukraine at only partial strength.

Now there is little left in reserve. Russia committed 75% of its permanent-readiness BTGs—those staffed with professional soldiers and officers—to the invasion. That already stretched its forces thinly, with a sizeable share of units deployed from all five of its military districts, as well as national guard troops and even conscripts.

That Russia has chosen to send more units, possibly more than ten BTGs, since the war began from critical garrisons such as Kaliningrad, Tajikistan and the breakaway region of South Ossetia in Georgia underscores the extent of its problems. The Russian military is already ill prepared to handle another crisis—like the unrest in Kazakhstan in January—as long as the majority of its permanent-readiness ground units and rapid reaction forces are committed to Ukraine. Unless it mobilises conscripts—which would possibly require reframing the “special military operation” as a war—Russia will struggle to generate additional ground forces.

What does this mean for the forthcoming battles in Donbas? An attacking force typically seeks a three-to-one numerical advantage over the defender, if not more. That degree of superiority is now probably beyond Russia, except at the tactical level in some locations. It will probably try to compensate for this lack of manpower in manoeuvre units with air strikes and artillery. Russia may also rely more heavily on less well-trained militia forces from Donetsk and Luhansk. But this isn’t a recipe for a rapid breakthrough, and the Ukrainian military has demonstrated it is capable, creative and well led. More likely, any Russian advances will be slow and costly.

Russia faces other problems, too. Its objectives are obvious, robbing it of the element of surprise. That means Ukraine has the opportunity to disrupt those plans, and can seize the initiative. That could include disrupting Russian supply lines, possibly by destroying bridges and roads and forcing Russian units to drive through muddy fields, or attacks and raids on the flanks of Russian forces around Kherson and Kharkiv—or even additional raids in Russian territory, such as the helicopter strike on the oil depot in Belgorod on April 1st. Kyiv has an incentive to prevent Russia from dictating the terms of the war by allowing it to become focused in the Donbas region.

Ukraine’s advantage is that it enjoys what are called interior lines, allowing it to move forces and supplies over its own territory more quickly than Russia can. It has also mobilised its territorial defence units, which have now gained combat experience. Russia, meanwhile, having failed to degrade Ukraine’s air defences or eliminate its air force, is still struggling to interdict Ukrainian reinforcements and supplies—a task that was crucial to Azerbaijan’s successful ground offensive in its war in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020. Indeed, the threat posed by Ukrainian air defences is limiting the effectiveness of Russian air strikes in the Donbas region, by forcing Russian helicopters to fire their rockets at longer ranges with less accuracy.

As long as Ukraine can prevent Russia from encircling a large share of its forces, Russian tactical or operational successes will probably fail to add up to strategic gains. Ukraine can afford to trade space for time, pulling back to more defensible terrain, or even cities, if necessary. If Ukraine loses territory but can nevertheless inflict greater losses on Russia than it sustains,this could be considered a success. Russia, after all, needs sufficient forces not only to conduct an offensive, but also to hold ground and rotate units off the frontlines for recovery. Continued attrition could make this unsustainable.

As long as the war continues, there will be some domestic support for it in Russia. But once it eventually ends, Russian citizens will weigh its costs and benefits, and many will question whether expanding Russian control over south-eastern Ukraine was worth the heavy military losses and international isolation. The approval ratings of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, will suffer. Therefore as long as Mr Putin believes his armed forces have a chance of advancing, thus improving Russia’s hand in diplomatic negotiations, he has an incentive to continue this war. However, the extent of the Russian ground forces’ manpower problems coupled with high attrition suggests Russia’s offensive in the Donbas is likely to achieve only partial success.

Rob Lee is a military analyst and a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia programme.

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