Russian officials are learning from their mistakes as they launch a new offensive in eastern Ukraine, senior US officials warn.
The early stages of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine were marked by a series of embarrassing setbacks — which raised questions about Russia’s military capabilities and whether it is equipped to actually win the war. The failures, which have been numerous, surprised military analysts at every turn. Russian forces failed to take Kyiv, and instead floundered outside of the Ukrainian capital for weeks before withdrawing, stalled by a lack of fuel and supplies. Russian troops have been abandoning weapons and vehicles throughout Ukraine as they’ve retreated. Some have outright surrendered. And in the latest humiliation, Ukrainian missiles sank Russia’s Black Sea Fleet flagship, the Moscow.
But after regrouping, Russian forces appear to be better prepared for a ground offensive in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, according to a senior US defense official.
Experts say the logistics problems that plagued Russia outside Kyiv might not hamper the offensive in the Donbas as much. “They’re trying to learn from their mistakes,” the official said on a call Tuesday. “The supply lines will be of shorter length and easier for the Russians to manage.”
Still, there’s no guarantee Russia will win in the east, says Michael Kofman, the research program director in the Russia Studies Program at CNA, a Virginia-based national security research organization.
“It remains to be seen… if the Russian military substantially learned from all the mistakes they made in the first month of the war,” Kofman told The Daily Beast. “You still see them operating without reconnaissance, you still see them driving just along roads, open to ambush, and not integrating supporting fires as well with their advance.”
The Pentagon added that the renewed offensive in the east could play up the Ukrainians’ advantages.
“There’s a real possibility that this could go on for a while because both sides can be fairly dug-in here.”
It’s “an area that the Ukrainians know well. It’s their country, and they’ve been fighting over this area for eight years, so they know the terrain, ”the senior US defense official said.
And Russian forces might not be able to prevail in a long and grueling fight — they’ve already lost a quarter of their soldiers, weapons, and military equipment sent to Ukraine, according to a Department of Defense analysis shared this week.
“Very likely the Russian military will be exhausted after this set of offensives,” Kofman said. “Even if they’re successful in the Donbas, they’re not likely to have the military capacity to continue offensives in Ukraine.”
Meanwhile, the Pentagon is bracing for a protracted stand-off. “There’s a real possibility that this could go on for a while because both sides can be fairly dug-in here,” the senior US official said.
As the fight enters the long game, assistance and equipment will have to keep flowing to sustain the Ukrainians, military analysts told The Daily Beast.
While the Biden administration has been providing aid — just days before the Russian forces began the new offensive in the Donbas, the United States announced an $ 800 million package for Ukraine — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has pressed for more assistance.
Some of the aid package was aimed at helping Ukraine beat back Russia in the east, the Pentagon claimed this week, adding that flights continue to arrive in the region for Ukraine with US aid aboard. The senior defense official also noted that howitzers are arriving in the country, though the US won’t be done training Ukrainians on those artillery systems for another week.
Some parts of the package are slated to run out after just a week: Biden only sent 40,000 artillery rounds, for example, which will dwindle in the coming days.
And although Ukrainian authorities are warning that major fighting is already underway, this might only be the beginning of the offensive in the east, according to a US military analysis — which could pave the way for more sustained military assistance.
“This is a prelude to larger offensive operations,” the senior U.S. defense official said Tuesday.
Ukraine needs both short-term assistance and supply for that longer-term war, Kofman, the CNA researcher, warned.
”Ukraine both needs weapons in the immediate phase and it needs to arm a large mobilized reserve — and it needs to begin developing the capability to sustain the war. Because no matter what happens in the Donbas the war might not be over, ”Kofman said.
Even Congress thinks the Biden administration needs to step up at this crucial moment, while creating a foundation for longer-term aid to Ukraine. Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) urged the administration Wednesday to get moving with more military assistance.
“While Ukraine won the Battle for Kyiv, we must not become complacent,” Portman told The Daily Beast. “Russia’s renewed offensive still represents an existential threat to Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence, and we must move quickly to cut the red tape, synchronize our efforts across the interagency, and provide Ukraine with the tools necessary to win this war.”
Portman and several senators, including Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), and Roger Wicker (R-MS), have been urging Biden in the last week to appoint a Ukraine Security Assistance Coordinator in order to increase the pace at which the administration is sending aid to Ukraine.
The White House did not immediately return a request for comment.
“Our calls for more defensive aid would be far more effective with an American security coordinator for Ukraine in place,” Wicker told The Daily Beast. “We should be surging advanced weaponry into Ukraine — tanks, missiles, Javelins, and more. ”
“As Ukraine holds the line against Putin’s unprovoked invasion, getting military equipment to our partners as quickly as possible is crucial, especially as Russian forces bear down in key regions,” Shaheen, who is working to pass the Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act to speed up aid deliveries, told The Daily Beast.
The administration is expected to announce more assistance to Ukraine soon, Biden suggested Tuesday. And Matt Miller, special adviser to the White House National Security Council, said Tuesday that another, broader assistance package will soon be announced.
Even so, Zelensky appears to be growing increasingly exasperated that aid isn’t coming faster.
“Russia will not stop. Arm us with enough heavy weapons, and we will bring this war to an end sooner rather than later, with a few Ukrainian civilians and soldiers maimed and killed, ”Zelensky said. “Heavy weapons are the tools we need now to protect our civilian population from aerial and artillery bombardment, to preserve our infrastructure and our cities.”