Russian Ground Forces Advance Cautiously in Donbas Attrition

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 69

Ukrainian soldiers (Source: Sergei Supinsky/AFP)

Russia’s widely anticipated campaign to push Ukrainian military forces out of the administrative borders of the Donbas region (Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts) has not resulted in any effort to mount a major ground offensive. Despite several weeks of apparent preparations, including artillery fires across the 300-mile line of contact, probing in force, reconnaissance-based attacks, increased use of airpower and efforts to reposition and reconstitute battle-damaged units, the Russian Ground Forces have settled into a protracted war of attrition. However, despite Russian units avoiding advances beyond their own artillery ranges, adopting a more cautious approach to operations, recent advances provide some indications as to the priorities for Russian field commanders in the coming weeks: these center—though not exclusively—around gains made in areas such as Popasna (RIA Novosti, May 8).

On May 8, ahead of the annual Victory Day celebrations on May 9, Russian media outlets reported the fall of the town of Popasna, located on the western edge of Luhansk Oblast, which Moscow had illegally recognized as the “independent” Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) on February 21. This reporting initially appeared crafted to coincide with the May 9 efforts to prop up domestic support for the “special military operation” by claiming victories in Donbas. However, as the annual celebration passed without President Vladimir Putin either choosing to formally declare war or announce a general mobilization, these accounts seemed to confirm actual on-the-ground advances by Russian-led forces. The rhetorical disparity in Ukrainian and Russian reporting is illustrative: the former described the fall of Popasna as a “withdrawal,” while the latter cast it as a “liberation” (Izvestia, May 8).

Russian media reports stressed this was a “significant victory” for Russia’s military, while also acknowledging the participation of Russian-led forces in Donbas. The Russian-spun narrative described fierce battles fought in urban areas against the most combat-capable Ukrainian grouping, the 24th Separate Mechanized Brigade, which was forced to capitulate. Ukrainian defense ministry sources said the unit withdrew from Popasna. Moscow-based military expert Captain 1st Rank (ret.) Vasily Dandykin, the deputy editor-in-chief of Voin Rossii (Warrior of Russia), observed, “Popasna is the core city on the so-called Pavlodar arc, where all communications, the supply of ammunition and fuel and lubricants to the Ukrainian group are connected. It is no coincidence that, for weeks, fierce battles were fought for Popasna; they took house after house, liberated each floor. This is a significant victory. This is the main step toward the fact that a large cauldron will be formed, and the most professional and combat-ready grouping of the Armed Forces of Ukraine—the Lviv-based 24th Separate Mechanized Brigade—will be in a condition where it will be forced to capitulate or be destroyed.” Dandykin portrayed this as a victory for the “allied forces” of Russia and the LPR, though he neglected to add the involvement of the Wagner Group private military company (PMC). Wagner mercenaries have been deployed in the theater of operations without previous combat experience, rather than drawing on Syrian veterans (Vzglyad, May 7).

“Over the weekend, the People’s Militia of the LPR managed to achieve serious success,” according Russian military expert Vladislav Shurygin. Ukrainian troops were driven out of the city of Popasna, with fierce fighting over two months. “Whatever the Ukrainian authorities say about a planned withdrawal to pre-prepared defensive positions, it is clear that it will now be much more difficult for them to defend themselves in the field than in a solid urban development. In the Izyum direction, it has already been demonstrated that Russian artillery and the army are able to effectively ‘break into’ such field fortified areas. Popasna was prepared for defense for years, even full-fledged reinforced concrete pillboxes were created there, almost invulnerable to conventional guns,” according to an Izvestia commentary (Izvestia, May 9).

Popasna is strategically important for its location in western Luhansk oblast. Its highways to Artemovsk and Krasnoarmiysk as well as to Lisichansk and Svetlodarsk are vital for Russian forces to control in their wider efforts to gain territory in Donbas. Ukrainian forces defended Popasna since mid-March, forming defense in depth, well dug in with numerous engineering barriers and minefields. With the fall of Popasna, if it can be secured, the Russian Ground Forces are likely to concentrate advances on Lisichansk, and ultimately Severodonetsk. Russian and LPR units would also focus on the large transport hub of Artemovsk, which provides transit links to Slavyansk and Kramatorsk. In recent weeks, Russian airpower and artillery strikes in these areas of Donbas have targeted Ukrainian supplies lines. The fall of Popasna suggests the Russian Ground Forces will further prioritize Artemovsk and Soledar; Russian defense ministry statements indicate an uptick in strikes in these areas (Izvestia, May 9; Izvestia, May 8; Vzglyad, May 7).

Nevertheless, the wider context of such reported Russian advances in Donbas not only add to the need for caution in reaching conclusions but suggest the war is in a process of settling into a lengthy attrition in which major breakthroughs will not be the norm. As the fall of Popasna was reported in both Russian and Ukrainian media—though with quite differing interpretations— Ukraine’s Armed Forces were conducting counter-offensives north and north east of Kharkiv, which has pushed Russian artillery beyond range of the city as well as put additional pressure on supply routes for Russian forces. Equally, efforts by Russian Ground Forces to exploit a pontoon bridge over the Seversky Donets River near Bilohorivka was promptly destroyed by Ukrainian artillery (, May 9).

Since early May, the Russian Ground Forces have advanced to Zarechnoye, Luhansk Oblast, located 30 kilometers west of Kremennaya, 7 km from Liman and 27 km northeast of Slavyansk (CIT Svodka, May 6). Fighting continues in the Russians’ rear, 40 km behind Liman close to Lysychansk and Rubizhne. Russian forces severed the railway from Liman to Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, disrupting supplies reaching Severodonetsk. Fighting has reached the outskirts of Severodonetsk, in the village of Voevodovka, and is ongoing in Rubizhne (UNIAN, May 5–10).

While the battlespace in Donbas is fluid and messy, with limited offensives, counter-offensives and war reporting marked by competing narratives, Russia’s Ground Forces are in no hurry to mount a major offensive or attempt enveloping movements to cut off the defending Ukrainian units. Instead, the Russian strategy appears rooted in a slow, grinding campaign of attrition, elongating the war with a wider secondary objective of degrading Ukraine’s economy. Questions remain as to how long each side can sustain such efforts and what circumstances or changes might trigger conflict escalation.