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The fight for eastern Ukraine

The fight for eastern Ukraine

Fierce battles are raging for control of the Donbas region, a key target for Vladimir Putin. Both Russia and Ukraine are claiming successes, but who is really winning?

“Russian and Syrian planes obliterated rebel-held neighborhoods of Aleppo. Civilian rescue workers were among the targets.”

CBS Evening News, 2016

Seven years ago and a thousand miles away from Kyiv, Russian airstrikes helped flatten the Syrian city of Aleppo.

It was the lynchpin of a Moscow offensive that turned the tide of the Syrian civil war in favour of the country’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad.

Hospitals, schools, people queuing for food. No civilian target was off limits.

“One of the strikes was a so-called ‘double tap’, the second bomb exploding just as the rescuers were frantically digging out victims from the first.”

CBS Evening News, 2016

This ruthlessness was spearheaded by a general called Aleksandr Dvornikov, whose tactics went down a storm in the Kremlin. He was awarded a Hero of Russia medal for his success in Syria.

If you’re a regular Sensemaker listener you might recognise his name. 

A few weeks ago we told you about his latest assignment: in early April, Vladimir Putin put Aleksandr Dvornikov in command of Russian forces across Ukraine.

At a time when Russia was meeting tough resistance, his appointment sent two messages to the world. 

One – that Russia was now focused on victory in the East after setbacks elsewhere. Aleksandr Dvornikov has been in charge of the military division that covers Crimea and Donbas since 2016, so he knows the area well.

And two – that Moscow would be willing to wage a brutal campaign in the region to get what it wants.

So what have we seen happen in eastern Ukraine since?

“The ferocity of Russia’s war against Ukraine has intensified, with missiles launched from the ground and from the air pounding Ukrainian positions in the eastern Donbas region.”

CBC News, April 2022

As the war stretches on, Russia’s attacks in the east have grown ever more fierce.

“This footage on social media shows what’s said to be Russian thermobaric weapons raining down on Ukrainian positions in Donetsk, one of the disputed regions of the Donbas that is now the frontline in this war.”

Forces News, May 2022

“Russian forces are bombarding the last remaining strongholds in the eastern part of Ukraine. The mayor of one city in the Donbas region says 1500 people have been killed and 60 per cent of the residential buildings destroyed.”

CBS News, May 2022

But they haven’t translated into decisive success.

Sievierodonetsk, a key strategic city being fought over by Russia and Ukraine, is an indicator of how topsy turvy the war has become.

“Battles are raging in neighbouring Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk, which Russian forces say they control almost completely.”

Euronews, June 2022

It appeared Ukraine was on the verge of losing Sievierodonetsk. But last Sunday it said it had managed to regain half the city. And then a day later the governor of Luhansk, in Donbas, said the situation had worsened again.

If Sievieredonetsk falls, Russia would hold almost all of Luhansk, half of the Donbas region coveted by Vladimir Putin.

But the bigger picture is this – if you look at a map of Russian-held territory in Ukraine today, it doesn’t look all that different from a month ago.

The question of who’s winning in eastern Ukraine is, in part, a matter of perspective. What the Pentagon calls Russia’s “plodding and incremental” pace could also be described as a creeping advance.

Russia has taken Mariupol, an important strategic city linking Crimea and the south. But it has lost Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city.

Moscow is thought to have used up more than 60 per cent of its high-precision weapons. But the Ukrainian president says his forces are being outmatched 20-to-one by Russian artillery.

What we can say is this: Ukraine is not turning out to be a replay of Syria. 

For one thing, the Russian air force does not control the skies over eastern Ukraine.

And crucially the likes of America are sending Ukraine the kind of weaponry that the Syrian rebels could only have dreamt of.

“Today the administration unveiled a new $700 million package of weapons for Ukraine. It includes the most advanced rockets yet to be used in the conflict with Russia.”

PBS NewsHour

What this means is that even if Russia does take a city like Sievieredonetsk, there’s no guarantee that it will keep hold of it. 

Ukraine’s ability to draw on Western arms – and its extraordinary resilience against an enormous Russian army – makes it really difficult to figure out who’s winning in eastern Ukraine. 

Let alone who will win full stop.

A war of attrition lies ahead, which will test Western patience on one side and the morale of Russian troops on the other.

The fact Aleksandr Dvornikov hasn’t been seen in public in weeks has raised eyebrows. But it’s probably a distraction. 

He might yet play a bit part role in a long, long battle for eastern Ukraine – and for the future of the country.

Today’s episode was written and mixed by Xavier Greenwood.