After the “victory” in Lugansk, what future for Russia?

The Russians, always ruthless in their calculations on the battlefield, have probably made the assessment that no matter how exhausted the Russian troops and logistical systems are, the Ukrainians are probably more exhausted. War is about relative advantages and their exploitation. The Russian high command, pushed by Putin, probably came to the conclusion that despite the high costs for the Russian soldiers who continue the offensive in the east, they can bear these costs more than the Ukrainians.

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And, the majority of Russian forces engaged and bloodied in the east have been proxies and mercenaries. These are of little importance to Putin. But they bought him time to muster the reserve forces of the Russian army for action in the next phase of this campaign.

The Russian army will therefore seek to continue advancing to secure the entire Donetsk region. To do this, they will maintain their approach taken throughout the Eastern campaign; to advance behind their extensive artillery and rocket fire, seek the envelopment and destruction of Ukrainian forces, while continuing their strategic missile strikes across Ukraine to interdict logistical supply lines to Donbass.

But the Russians face challenges elsewhere that will impact that.

The Russians are also under pressure in the south. In Kherson, Ukraine continues to retake territory through a series of continuous counterattacks. This conflict in the south is the most decisive front of this war. Possession of Ukrainian territory in the south allows Russia to strangle Ukraine economically. As such, the Russians cannot allow too much Ukrainian progress here. The challenge in the south is amplified for the Russians by the activities of the Ukrainian resistance. Over the weekend, another Russian train derailed in the south and there was a campaign targeting Russian soldiers and collaborators.

A nurse examines the wounds of Ponomareva Natalia Sergiivna three days after her family’s home was shelled by Russian forces in their frontline village of Vysokopilla in the Kherson region of southern Ukraine.
Credit:Getty

So, in the wake of any Luhansk success, and despite Putin’s orders to continue, Russia may have no choice but to rebalance its forces between east and south. This – and the strong Ukrainian defenses to the east – will influence their desire and ability to seize the entire Donbass region.

The Ukrainian government and military high command also have an East versus South challenge. What military capacity can it invest in the defense of the east, and how much must it deploy in its offensive activities in the south? It is a difficult balancing act both politically and militarily. Demands to defend their entire territory will have a major impact. But so will the level of military, intelligence and economic aid from the West.

While the tactical momentum in eastern Ukraine may be with the Russians, that momentum has been extremely costly in lives and ammunition. It destroyed entire cities and resulted in relatively small amounts of seized territory. And if Western support – and the courage of Western leaders – continues over the next few months, the longer-term outlook still favors Ukraine. And that means that while Australia has so far been the largest non-NATO aid provider to Ukraine, the government will likely have to commit additional military and economic aid in the near future.

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In the short term, however, the eastern Ukrainians face a new Russian assault. It’s likely to be just as brutal as what we’ve seen over the past two months.

But the Ukrainians have shown in this war how effective a defensive strategy can be if it incorporates modern sensors, precision munitions, appropriate levels of reinforcements, flexibility and good leadership. They will need a full measure of all of this in the coming weeks.

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