For once, the acts match the statements of Russian officials. On March 29, a representative of the Russian Ministry of Defense indicated that Russian troops would drastically reduce [leur] military activity in the directions of kyiv and Chernihiv ». In the aftermath, the Minister of Defense, Sergei Choïgou, had described the “liberation of Donbass” of objective ” main ” of “special military operation”.
On Sunday, the Ukrainian general staff confirmed that the Russian army had carried out a general retreat towards Belarus. Ukraine is said to have already regained control of 400 kilometers along its northern border. The stranglehold around kyiv, Chernihiv and Konotop has disappeared. The Chernobyl plant itself would also be returned to Ukrainian control. On the Russian side, the complete withdrawal is however not confirmed and caution remains in order in the absence of visual evidence.
If it is a defeat, compared to the ambition to take kyiv, there are no tangible elements allowing to affirm that the Russian army suffered a rout or fled in the precipitation. In regaining ground, the Ukrainian troops neither encircled nor cut off the retreat of enemy units. Only defective or destroyed military equipment fell into their hands, abandoned because their recovery was incompatible with a withdrawal within the deadlines set by the Russian general staff.
The threat that has weighed on the Ukrainian capital for five weeks has – at least temporarily – been lifted. And with it, the Kremlin’s political goal of forcing regime change – the so-called “denazification” from Ukraine.
“The struggle for Donbass will be the decisive battle”
The concentration of military efforts towards the Donbass theater reconnects with the initial objective declared by Russian President Vladimir Putin at the start of the year, which was to put an end to the “genocide of the inhabitants of Donbass”. The conflict enters a third, less ambitious phase, consisting in taking control of the entire territory of the administrative regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. The first phase, which lasted five days, was a five-axis lightning offensive, carried out by special forces and light infantry, with a particular effort on kyiv. The second, during the whole month of March, was aimed at taking large cities with columns of armor and massive bombardments.
“The Battle of Donbass will undoubtedly be the decisive battle of this campaign”, estimates the pro-Russian military expert Boris Rojine on his Telegram channel. He predicts that Ukrainian forces will be pinched there along the Barvenkovo-Pokrovsk axis, isolating Sloviansk, Kramatorsk, Bakhmut, Lyssychansk and Sievierodonetsk from the rest of Ukraine. According to his calculations, the Russian numerical superiority in this theater is significant: twice as many soldiers (between 250,000 and 270,000), three times as many armored vehicles (2,000), five to ten times as many aircraft (300 planes and as many helicopters). For Moscow to be able to achieve this objective, it would be necessary to complete the seizure of Mariupol in April and to give up the offensives on the southern front in order to stick to a defense of the conquered positions.
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