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Why Putin is refocusing his troops in eastern Ukraine

Putin described Russia’s unprovoked attack in Ukraine as a “special military operation”.

Mikhail Klimentiev | AFP | Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin is overseeing a change in military strategy in the face of the unprovoked Kremlin attack in Ukraine, repositioning forces in the east of the country in a bid to take control of the Donbass region.

Analysts see Russia’s change in approach as a tacit acknowledgment of failure, saying fierce resistance by Ukrainian forces thwarted Putin’s bid to quickly capture major cities and overthrow the government.

Analysts say the next phase of the war will likely lead to a dangerous stalemate, exacerbating an already devastating humanitarian crisis as senior Russian military commanders seek to establish full control over the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.

On Wednesday, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister urged residents of the eastern regions of Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk to evacuate as fears of an imminent attack grew. “It is necessary now, because then people will be under fire and threatened with death,” said Iryna Vereshchuk.

It comes less than two weeks after Sergei Rudskoy, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, announced that forces were moving away from a nationwide attack. Instead, Rudskoy said the Kremlin’s goal was to focus its efforts on the “complete liberation” of the Donbass region.

“It seems to me like this is the biggest news since the war started,” Christopher Granville, managing director of EMEA and global policy research at TS Lombard, told CNBC by phone. “I thought so at the time, and I haven’t changed my mind…since.”

Granville said the reconcentration of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine portends “all too plausible horrors.” He cited particular concern for Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, two major cities located in northern Donetsk Oblast.

Families were seen queuing for days outside Kramatorsk station.

Fadel Séné | AFP | Getty Images

Thousands of people tried to flee the Donbas region, and dozens of families lined up for days at Kramatorsk Central Station trying to get to safety.

For some, the situation is all too familiar.

Ukrainian forces fought Russian-backed separatists in Kramatorsk in 2014, and Granville said the nearby city of Sloviansk was known to have “totemic significance” for Donbass separatists.

Russia has yet to commit forces withdrawn from the so-called “Battle of kyiv” to an eastern offensive, according to analysts at the Institute for the Study of Warfare, but troops are believed to prepare for an attack on Sloviansk.

“I think from a military point of view there has to be a question of success and morale. Russia, having soldiers sitting around kyiv getting shot at, what’s the point? What are they trying to do ?” Granville said.

“It’s just common sense that the soldier should have a goal, and the natural goal of soldering is to get territory. This is the campaign in Donbass,” he continued. “Soldiers who are fighting can see why they are fighting, they can see progress. And I think that goes from the upper levels of the Russian general staff down to commanders and men in the field.”

A fork in the road

Jonathan Flint, a military strategist and assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, believes there are two paths for Russia to attempt to achieve its new military goals.

“One would be for Russia to withdraw in relative safety and use this opportunity to rearm, reorganize and build up its forces for a better organized and more capable advance into Ukrainian-held territory,” Flint told CNBC.

This approach is not without risks, however, especially since Ukrainian forces could cross borders to engage with Russia and a second attempt at invasion could fail as it did in the first place. did he declare.

“The other option would be to entrench in these areas, making it virtually impossible for them to be recaptured by Ukrainian forces and returned to Ukrainian control,” Flint said. “This may ultimately prove to be the wisest course for Russia, because by solidifying a frozen conflict, it would essentially prevent Ukraine from joining the EU or NATO in the future despite any commitments made not to do so. do during the peace negotiations.”

Bruno Lete, senior security and defense researcher at the German Marshall Fund, told CNBC that while Russian forces lost the battle for kyiv, the Kremlin’s nearly six-week war was not yet over.

“Beyond the east, we also have to look at southern Ukraine. Already large areas of Ukraine’s coast east of Crimea are occupied,” Lete said. “It is clear that Russia is trying to establish a land bridge between Crimea and Russia. If Mariupol falls, Russia will have succeeded.”

Heavy fighting and Russian airstrikes are continuing in Mariupol, British military intelligence reported on Wednesday, in a bid to pressure Ukrainian forces in the beleaguered southeastern city to surrender.

The UK Ministry of Defense has estimated that most of Mariupol’s remaining 160,000 residents have no access to light, communications, medicine, heat or water, underscoring the worsening crisis humanitarianism in this country.

It is only when one side feels the pain is intolerable that I expect to see movement toward peace.

Jonathan Flint

Professor at Case Western Reserve University

Lete said Russia could also consider stepping up attacks on the strategically important port hub of Odessa on the Black Sea coast to establish a coastal bridge from Crimea to Transnistria – a breakaway Moldovan-occupied region. Russian forces.

“The Ukrainians have the ability to defend themselves on the ground, but much less in the air…Therefore, the first stage of these next battles will be characterized by Russia’s conduct of missile attacks and airstrikes on critical and civil infrastructure,” he added.

Putin is about to face “a moment of truth”

Russia’s withdrawal from the suburbs of Kyiv coincided with a wave of international condemnation as world leaders reacted in horror to mounting evidence of war crimes.

The Kremlin has denied allegations of civilian executions and, without evidence, accused Ukraine of navigating a cynical scheme to denigrate the Russian military.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has accused Russia of committing genocide in Ukraine, while US President Joe Biden has called for Putin to be tried for war crimes.

Russia has said the country’s military will now focus its efforts on the “complete liberation” of Ukraine’s Donbass region.

Bulent Kilic | AFP | Getty Images

Fabrice Pothier, CEO of political consultancy Rasmussen Global, said Russia’s goal appeared to be to consolidate the territorial hold the Kremlin had had in eastern Donbass since 2014.

“I think it’s a game of who can last longer and who can basically convince the civilian population that the fight is worth it,” Pothier told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Europe” on Tuesday. “I think at the moment Zelenskyy is on solid ground as long as he gets the right kind of support from the West.”

Putin, on the other hand, is considered to have strong support from within Russia, Pothier said, but for how long is uncertain. “I think there’s going to be a moment of truth, [a moment] to matter to the Russian leader vis-à-vis his people.”

Ultimately, TS Lombard’s Granville said Russia’s offensive was likely to become a war of attrition. “It seems to me that the Russian position will become more defensive…and that’s a formula for a very protracted conflict.”

Flint, too, was skeptical of an imminent breakthrough in the peace talks. “It is only when one side feels the pain is intolerable that I expect to see movement towards peace,” he said.


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